I have been awfully hard on my own generation over these last few years here, and I do not regret anything I have said. Boomers, I think, have had a very bad influence on academia, business, and politics, because of their self-centeredness, their emotionalism, and above all, their conviction that nothing that happened before 1968 could be very important. That, however, is only part of the story. In other ways, Boomers (building on the achievements of the Silent generation have changed life for the better. Nowhere is that truer than with respect to emotional and mental health, and how we see families, relationships, and individual needs. Fifty years ago about one million people were institutionalized in mental hospitals. Men and women who could not adjust to society--or to their families--were routinely judged to be defective. Therapy, which was not generally available, was mostly Freudian, blaming everyone's neuroses on their own self-destructive impulses. When a few courageous therapists began to introduce the idea that people might become distressed because of things that had actually happened to them, they met tremendous resistance.
Today that is different in much, although not all, of our society. We recognize alcoholism, domestic violence, and other addictive behaviors as symptoms, and we have more sensitivity to the problems of the spouses and children of those who suffer from them. Even though in my opinion our treatment of those addicted to illegal drugs is wasteful and scandalous, a lot of help is available--much of it, for instance in twelve step groups, at no charge--to anyone who wants it. We all know what a dysfunctional family is and most of us sympathize with the children that has to cope with one. An enormous literature is available for individuals to try to understand how they got where they are.
Unfortunately, the help is still rarely used by those who need it most--those with the most money, power and influence. Although many of them (or their families) may seek therapy, it is most unlikely to wean them from the drug they depend on--success. It's an inescapable fact of history, in my opinion, that many if not most of those who rise to the top--especially in politics--are desperately trying to fill up some inner emptiness by bolstering their sense of their own importance. I honestly don't think that a group of men like the neoconservatives who led us into the Iraq war could so easily wreak havoc in the lives of millions of people about whom they know nothing if they had any real sense of their inner needs. As the brilliant Swiss psychoanalyst Alice Miller argued decades ago, such people are playing out their inner conflicts on the world stage, and the rest of us have to pay for it. Who can believe that Richard Nixon's obsession with toughness, Lyndon Johnson's hubristic desire to end poverty in the US and raise up Southeast Asia, and George Bush's belief that he can liberate people all over the world do not have profound emotional roots?
The Republican party that has ruled us for the last seven years is led by a former alcoholic who apparently never went through a twelve-step program or had any significant therapy. Fundamentalist Christians can also be (and in some places are) described as religious addicts who use their beliefs to deny their own inner traumas. (Think about Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, or Ted Haggard if you don't believe me.) Worst of all, the main governing technique of the Republicans--"staying on message--"has become a compulsive form of denial. Freedom, Orwell wrote in 1984, means the freedom to say that two plus two equals four. But every major important Republican candidate feels compelled to insist that the Iraq war was necessary and is now going well, that tax cuts always raise revenues, and that we don't need any more health insurance--surely answers of 3, 5, and 6 to Orwell's question? All these statements are so obviously false that their endless repetition has to have serious consequences both for the candidates themselves and for the whole society. All this has happened before--Republicans from 1930 to 1940 never stopped arguing that the nation didn't need much government intervention to get out of the Depression, for instance, and southern Democrats in the 1950s insisted that "we don't have any trouble with our Negroes"--but it is sad to see it return again with such force.
I am not sure, in short, that we can separate the personal from the political when it comes to dealing with reality. I fear that political stability, sane government policies, and effective performance by our institutions (performance that inspires real confidence) may be necessary for the advances in individual emotional life to continue. I would hate to think that believers in reality might become something of a cult at best, and a hounded minority like Soviet dissidents at worst. I am such a believer in truth myself that I must think that any candidate of either party with the courage to "talk sense to the American people," as Adlai Stevenson put it, would draw considerable support; but they all seem so surrounded by consultants that this is not very likely to happen. The steady disintegration of our political life over the last forty years has been one of the great frustrations of my adult life, but it may be that we shall have to focus upon our own personal reality for the remainder of our lives in order to preserve the best of what has been achieved during that period. Art, literature, and even individual courage, after all, have often thrived even in difficult political times. During the 1980s and early 1990s I taught a course on the first half of the twentieth century with the help of Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, Alice Miller, and John LeCarre--and I think I may be spending more time with those books again in the near future. Despite what our parents told us, the struggle for genuine human survival, it seems, never ends. The Boom generation has now seen to that, but in so doing it has given us and the younger generations an opportunity to leave something valuable behind, in one way or another--if only by continuing to exist, as Orwell put it, that two and two still make four.