Sunday, October 14, 2007

Rivers in Egypt

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.


Anonymous said...

Could you post the syllabus for the class you mentioned--or at least the full reading list? Sounds fascinating....

HoosierDaddy said...

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.)

It must be so much easier when you can dismiss everyone who disagrees with you as a mental defective. Once a Boomer, always a Boomer.

Nur-al-Cubicle said...

This post sounds positively Galilean. Only instead of "Eppur si muove" we believers in reality utter "Eppur la realtà c'è".

Slightly off topic, a 70+ year old acquaintance of mine, reminscing about her childhood in Martinsburg WV, mentioned that her grandfather (a Transcendal?) was very wealthy yet had chosen the ministry as his profession. With any free time on Saturday he'd go only to look at Cadillacs...but staunchly refused to buy one. You wouldn't see a boomer do that today, would you?

Anonymous said...

I think Boomers attract an unjustified level of opprobium.

When I was 18, the level of unemployment amongst 18 year olds (and new college graduates) was as high as any time since the 1930s.

Yahh sure it was stupid to vote for Ronald Reagan and his voodoo economics and his denial of AIDS until it was almost too late. But in the context of the time, lots of Americans, and not just ones born after 1945, voted for him.

OK so I am a late Boomer. But the early Boomers had something known as a 'Draft Number' that determined whether they would go to Vietnam, to die or be severely maimed.

This notion of the 'selfish Boomers' as opposed to the 'Greatest Generation' entirely ignores the fact, for example, that the GG did nothing about racism and segregation. And it was Boomers who ended the Cold War.

Bush is a Boomer. But so is Al Gore. JFK was no Boomer, but Bill Clinton had a responsible personal life compared to JFK. JFK was boffing mistresses as his child lay dying.

Each generation plays the cards it is dealt with. The Greatest Generation were no saints, and neither are our children.

I share your concerns about the fate of American Democracy, but it's not just, or primarily a Boomer problem.

thomas said...

I question whether the electorate is looking for someone to 'talk sense to the American public'... Surely if that were the case someone like Mike Gravel would have a much better chance and candidates like Obama (whose message of hope is hardly 'sense') and Hilary who fits your emotional void paradigm like a glove would only be periphery candidates.

Sensible politicians are already around but its up to the public to support them in the face of others.

John Rose said...

I wholeheartedly agree with the spirit of your post. However, I think you have a misconception of what "twelve step" programs really accomplish. The entire reason they're free is because they are Christian indoctrination programs, pulling people who are already sadly disconnected from the root causes of their psychological problems farther away from reality. The main thrust of twelve-step programs is that 1. You are powerless to solve your problem. and 2. Only God (my particular concept of God, who will speak through me) can solve your problems.

Addicts are certainly a lot better-off than they were fifty years ago. An entire field of "Addiction medicine" has been developed to cure people. Twelve-step programs, however, are a twisted way of curing people.

serial catowner said...

It seems entirely possible that, just as events can foster or delay the onset of mental illness, so events may also affect the course of a nation. It doesn't need to be all cohortial angst.

In 1965 my boomer cohorts looked to the older people around us- men and women who had been blackballed by the McCarthy era, ministers and church elders and social activists, and, of course, Justice William O Douglas, the Warren Court, and a Justice Office starting to enforce the Civil Rights Act.

As the years past, our economic lives were largely shaped by the huge investments in the Interstates and air travel, to name just two of the investment choices made by the Greatest Generation.

The longer this discussion goes on the more impressed I am by the fact that when people say 'Boomer', it means exactly what they want it to mean at that moment, which can change dramatically even in a single paragraph.

Well, let me ask this question- was Dr. Pepper the first time a popular song included the lines "will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?"

Sounds pretty cross-generational for such radical music.