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Wednesday, July 04, 2012


For nearly seven years now, I have been using this space to develop the generational theories of the late Bill Strauss and Neil Howe as they relate to our current history. Perhaps the most important single post I made in all that time appeared exactly two years ago, on July 5, 2010, when I first argued that our current crisis, to begin with, had started in 2001, not 2007; that George W. Bush had been the transformative President of our era; and that we would not experience another New Deal or a significant rebirth of civic virtue. The outcome of our crisis, in short, would be similar to, albeit many times less violent than, that of the Civil War and Reconstruction. A year ago I updated that post on July 9.

Meanwhile I have been intermittently addressing a related, and even deeper issue regarding the role of the Boom generation in all this. Left-wing Boomers--a description of many of my friends--are still inordinately proud of the personal liberation brought about by the 1960s, especially as it has affected women and gays. (Some would also take credit for progress among black Americans, but as I have pointed out many times, the key steps in that process occurred before Boomers took over.) Certainly the social changes of the last four decades promoted greater emotional freedom, which I support, and greater opportunities for members of those groups, provided that they belong to the middle class. But what none of my friends want to admit is that there might be some connection between that emphasis on personal freedom in the social and sexual spheres and the untrammeled economic freedom, the relentless pursuit of profit, which, under Boomer leadership, has replaced a thriving industrial economy with an empire of finance capital that constantly looks for new ways to employ as few people--and especially as few Americans--as possible. That is, really, characteristic of Boomers--one aspect of their individualism is the belief, shared by almost all of them, that he or she personally represents the best of our generation.

When I encounter a new idea, I never waste any energy worrying about who is going to like it and who isn't. I was so stunned, and so excited, when I first began reading Generations in, I think 1995, that for several nights I had trouble sleeping. Ever since then I have been spreading the gospel, inspiring some people--especially younger ones--while making many of my elders and contemporaries scratch their heads. (I am often surprised by the negative reaction of those over 70 because it is the generational dynamic, I am sure, that has destroyed the values and the world in which they grew up.) But the theory has never come close to becoming mainstream. Today is a special day, because some one did independently get the fundamental point that I in particular have been arguing--on the op-ed page on the New York Times. Kurt Andersen doesn't seem to have read Strauss and Howe, but--he got it. And in recognition, I'm going to quote his op-ed in full.

The Downside of Liberty

THIS spring I was on a panel at the Woodstock Writers Festival. An audience member asked a question: Why had the revolution dreamed up in the late 1960s mostly been won on the social and cultural fronts — women’s rights, gay rights, black president, ecology, sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll — but lost in the economic realm, with old-school free-market ideas gaining traction all the time?

There was a long pause. People shrugged and sighed. I had an epiphany, which I offered, bumming out everybody in the room.

What has happened politically, economically, culturally and socially since the sea change of the late ’60s isn’t contradictory or incongruous. It’s all of a piece. For hippies and bohemians as for businesspeople and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won.

From the beginning, the American idea embodied a tension between radical individualism and the demands of the commonweal. The document we’re celebrating today says in its second line that axiomatic human rights include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — individualism in a nutshell. But the Declaration’s author was not a greed-is-good guy: “Self-love,” Jefferson wrote to a friend 38 years after the Declaration, “is no part of morality. Indeed it is exactly its counterpart. It is the sole antagonist of virtue leading us constantly by our propensities to self-gratification in violation of our moral duties to others.”

Periodically Americans have gone overboard indulging our propensities to self-gratification — during the 1840s, during the Gilded Age, and again in the Roaring Twenties. Yet each time, thanks to economic crises and reassertions of moral disapproval, a rough equilibrium between individualism and the civic good was restored.

Consider America during the two decades after World War II. Stereotypically but also in fact, the conformist pressures of bourgeois social norms were powerful. To dress or speak or live life in unorthodox, extravagantly individualist ways required real gumption. Yet just as beatniks were rare and freakish, so were proudly money-mad Ayn Randian millionaires. My conservative Republican father thought marginal income tax rates of 91 percent were unfairly high, but he and his friends never dreamed of suggesting they be reduced below, say, 50 percent. Sex outside marriage was shameful, beards and divorce were outrĂ© — but so were boasting of one’s wealth and blaming unfortunates for their hard luck. When I was growing up in Omaha, rich people who could afford to build palatial houses did not and wouldn’t dream of paying themselves 200 or 400 times what they paid their employees. Greed as well as homosexuality was a love that dared not speak its name.

But then came the late 1960s, and over the next two decades American individualism was fully unleashed. A kind of tacit grand bargain was forged between the counterculture and the establishment, between the forever-young and the moneyed.

Going forward, the youthful masses of every age would be permitted as never before to indulge their self-expressive and hedonistic impulses. But capitalists in return would be unshackled as well, free to indulge their own animal spirits with fewer and fewer fetters in the forms of regulation, taxes or social opprobrium.

“Do your own thing” is not so different than “every man for himself.” If it feels good, do it, whether that means smoking weed and watching porn and never wearing a necktie, retiring at 50 with a six-figure public pension and refusing modest gun regulation, or moving your factories overseas and letting commercial banks become financial speculators. The self-absorbed “Me” Decade, having expanded during the ’80s and ’90s from personal life to encompass the political economy, will soon be the “Me” Half-Century.

People on the political right have blamed the late ’60s for what they loathe about contemporary life — anything-goes sexuality, cultural coarseness, multiculturalism. And people on the left buy into that, seeing only the ’60s legacies of freedom that they define as progress. But what the left and right respectively love and hate are mostly flip sides of the same libertarian coin minted around 1967. Thanks to the ’60s, we are all shamelessly selfish.

In that letter from 1814, Jefferson wrote that our tendencies toward selfishness where liberty and our pursuit of happiness lead us require “correctives which are supplied by education” and by “the moralist, the preacher, and legislator.”

On this Independence Day, I’m doing my small preacherly bit.

The reference to Jefferson is apt, because he belonged to the Republican generation, the Hero generation most parallel to the GIs who did so much to create the world of the 1950s and 1960s, and whose values are still very apparent in films like Twelve Angry Men, Good Night and Good Luck, and even in the Hal Holbrooke character Lou in Wall Street. Six years after the letter Andersen quotes, Jefferson in the wake of the controversy over the Missouri Compromise lamented that the work of his generation was evidently going to be cast away by impetuous youth. That drama has been replayed in our own time.

Kurt Andersen is finding this morning, I feel sure, that very few of his contemporaries want to see this on the op-ed page of the New York Times. (He's a Boomer, by the way, born in 1954.) But he is right, and if serious history can revive in the next 30 years or so, the questions that he and I have raised will provide the raw material for some remarkable new books and approaches and, perhaps, change the way that new generations view the past.


Bozon said...


Great post. I used the same article on my blog.

Yet, for me, it has not been about cyclical generational issues really, at all,

but about the end (the last 60 years) of the lost Civil War of the West, what Bobbitt had called the Long War, what Fukuyama had called the end of history,

a rivalry of the West now won by the East over the West.

All the best,

Unknown said...

Both this post, and the Kurt Anderson speech quoted are excellent.

My first thought was to wonder if we could crack down on the antisocial economic behavior (mainly by the capitalists), and retain the more laissez fair attitude towards unconventional sexual and social behavior. Far fewer people get hurt from people who violate sexual and social norms than from hamfisted efforts to enforce those norms. So my first thought if we could change the exploitative bathwater but keep the humanistic baby.

However, I am thinking in terms of having lived my adult life (I was born in 1970) where one social institution after another has been captured by the exploiters, and social norms shaped by mass media cynically used for propaganda, so I automatically assume that a return to communitarian norms would strengthen the hands of the exploiters. In fact, in a more thoroughly communitarian environment there are ground to believe that in practice individual cases of "deviance" would be met by local institutions with compassion, though local institutions would vary much more than now in their response, and there would be room for unconventional social behavior provided it was practiced discretely.

Bruce Wilder said...

I am torn between being hyper-critical of, and being supportive of your thesis.

The decline of social affiliation needs and associated sense of political solidarity among groups has progressed since WWII to an extent I would have doubted were possible. That has had, as a by-product, a reduction in the organized violence against, and economic exploitation of, social groups by social groups.

Much of what was celebrated as heroism in my parents' generation was defiance of the very conformity that demanded that women work only as nurses and teachers and secretaries, or that blacks accept daily humiliations, or that homosexuals live in fear of scandal.

Social affiliation (a technical-sounding social psychology term for the opposite of narcissistic selfishness) and the political solidarity it supported had its dark side. The "heroism" of the Hero Generation did, necessarily, require that they were pretty rotten to one another, much of the time; they were working from a really ugly baseline -- I wouldn't want to lose sight of that.

And, I hesitate to confirm, that being routinely decent toward one another somehow "necessarily" requires licensing the rapacious looting by a plutocracy, which we now witness.

The curious thing, to me, is the absence of a collective willingness to fight back against the worst of the very rich, not that the very rich are selfish and irresponsible. It is easier to arouse resentment among the growing precariat, against the few, say, teachers and policemen, who have slightly better economic security as a legacy of public sector unions, than against those, who conspicuously seek to dominate and exploit, and advance schemes of economic predation. Obama, a hero to many of our generation (b 1954) and younger, on the left at least, cannot seem to bring himself to prosecute a bankster, or aid a victim of foreclosure. What's that about?

One critically important link between "selfishness" and the increasingly thorough domination of the masses by the worst sort of sociopathic elite, I have found in the BBC documentary series, Century of the Self, by Adam Curtis. Highly recommended.

Bozon said...

I should perhaps ad a footnote.

In my view, both Bobbitt and Fukuyama were each utterly misguided in his analysis.

Many virtues and insights sprinkled throughout each,

but big picture, each utterly misguided.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

I was away from the internet for two weeks on vacation rural northern Germany on the North Sea coastal area and just read your last four posts which are much appreciated.

I think the moral compass of the individual is defined through personal experience which, as in Generational theory goes in waves (wave particle theory of light being similar,i.e. I am an idividual but part of a wave phenomenon). This could apply to the largely unused but still posted nudist portion of the beaches in the rural seaside town where I vacationed or when I went to the small town supermarket 10 km away from my vacation rental and saw a single dark skinned foreigner in the store (from india?) and could not help thinking that their presence goes unnoticed (tolerated?) due to the standardization /abundance of the supermarket, i.e. our modern superwealth compared to earlier times. If an small town bakery has local wares and knows everyone by name such anonymity is impossible.

I am reading to my son from Hawthorne's 1850 masterpiece The Scarlet Letter set in ca. 1650 New England. 1850 in generational cycle were similar to 2010(1850+160=2010) and the left wing criticsm of repressive and hypocritical moral measures placed in another era is no different than modern Hollywood criticsm of 1950s type repression. This represssion was misunderstood by Hawhtorne (and Hollywood) perhaps as holding a society together is critical after an economic crisis and war and societal norms are set to assure survival of the individual and the group as a whole. One can imagine a centralized European state for example coming inot place due to the debt criss (would be unneccessary without the parallel existence of USA/ Russia/ China as competitive superpowers).

Perhaps as in academic sciences, where they say that new ideas are not adopted, but opponents die out (tectonic plates theory, etc.) common moral cause will win only when its opponents are sufficiently in decline. Otherwise it would seem that this moderation would happen only through a true crisis war of sorts where one side wins or when the abundance of industrial society is gone through Peak oil and climate change making tolerance of super wealth and/or moral deviation from norms bad for the common good.

I am glad to see that your ideas are seeping though however as when one finally recognizes the problem (total greed and total sexual freedom as two sides of the same coin, i.e. total freedom of the individual against the societal norms and leading in the end to societal destruction) only then can one handle the disease. We all have our demons, sex, power, greed and some choose one or the other as preferable to our temperament and then perhaps even move somewehere where we can live our fantasy freely (gay in Frisco, money hungry to Wall Street, moralists to Kansas,etc.) but in the end we have come to a common denominator due to a common living space and legal and political and cultural framework.

publion said...

I had come across that same Op-Ed and worked out my own thoughts on my site, Chez Odysseus.

Good intentions and good outcomes and consequences are three different types of critter and not easily hitched together in a troika (three horse team).

Creating workable and sustainable reform is an art form of the highest order and not best left to revolutionary simplicities and excitements.

Misty said...

For what it's worth, my thoughts run along the same line as those of Bruce Wilder. You are not alone, Mr. Wilder. Haha

Misty said...

Oops-- sorry for the multiple attempts to post a comment. I forgot that it needed to be approved before appearing on my page. I just thought I was having troubles with the "captcha." Please accept my apologies and no need to post this or the multiples publicly, of course.

publion said...

A few thoughts come to me in re Galacticsurfer’s gravid comments.

The moral compass/wave theory connection is, I think, a valid one. But only as one element of the dynamics affecting the moral-compass. One might, for instance, enter a set of Prime Coordinates into the guidance-computer (yes, a Star Trek image here) so as not to have ship’s course deranged by assorted ‘waves’ encountered on the voyage.

Thus, e.g. anchoring oneself in the Christian (not to be confused with the specifically American Fundamentalist variant – although it too is an option) Framework would provide a consistent set of ‘pole star’ coordinates which would exercise a stabilizing force against the vortex of assorted currents and waves that the individual/ship might encounter.

Beginning in the period 1966-1972 the federal government committed its authority and purse to the interests of effecting multiple sequential ‘revolutions’. That plan was profoundly influenced by both a) the Gramscian strategy for undermining status-quo ‘hegemonic’ culture and b) a deeply inapt equating of the federal government’s terraforming of Southern culture and society (not just legitimately eradicating the formal skein of Jim Crow laws woven by the Southern States) with the follow-on Identity-revolutions’ agendas that were to be imposed on the entire American culture.

Thus the government was drawn into the (revolutionary) task of essentially speeding-up the historical process of ‘dying-out’ that G-surfer mentions: rather than wait for a (perhaps Generational) replacement of the prior moral Order through the process of natural attrition, the federal government and the Democratic Party (two distinct entities, formally) embraced the revolutionary gameplan of imposing the changes.

publion said...

(Continuing my thoughts from my immediately prior comment)

Which was lubricated by the demonization of the old moral Order as ‘repressive, oppressive, dominant, hegemonic, macho, patriarchal, industrial’ and so forth; thus ‘Archie Bunker’ was created as the symbol and ‘All in the Family’ was the Correct Memo as to how and why the project should work.

G-surfer nicely notes that Hawthorne too – despite his many strengths – presumes that an ‘old moral Order’ a) serves primarily a repressive function and b) is primarily dishonest and fake because it is driven merely by ‘hypocrisy’.

Whereas I would say that a) an established moral Order functions vitally as a keel to balance the otherwise destabilizing motive power of the sails (i.e. the forces for change) and that b) the Ideal serves genuinely as a ‘kanon’ (Greek: guideline) toward which it is (realistically) assumed that one is always progressing though never fully achieving. This is far more complex a reality than can be encompassed by a reductionist demonizing of the old moral Order as merely repressive and hypocritical (although such propagandistic reduction of the older Order is of course precisely demanded by revolutionary praxis).

I concur with G-surfer’s “common living space”. It is for this reason that I continuously support ‘ship’ imagery in describing society and culture: we are in a very real sense committed to a common life (and in a Larger sense a common purpose) aboard the ‘Vessel’ of our national polity and culture.

The American Experiment’s radical gamble is to balance the profound core tension between the members of American culture and society being the ‘crew’ (thus dedicated to maintaining and sustaining their Vessel) and yet simultaneously ‘free’ to pursue their individual visions.

The ingenuity of the Framers was to make the Citizenry not merely ‘passengers’ and not merely ‘crew’ but also – ultimately – the ‘command staff’ as well. The Framers achieved this by making The People the ultimate source of the polity’s Sovereign Authority.

This remarkable dynamic is not most aptly expressed in the image of a Naval vessel or even an ocean-liner. Instead, I would use the image of a yacht leased with its captain and crew by a party of persons: that party – paying for the leased time as per the terms of the lease contract – are ultimately responsible for there being any voyage at all, yet in the day to day operations of the vessel, the actual captain and command-staff have the authority to operate the vessel.

This is a deeply nuanced image but I think it best captures the dynamics underlying the Framing Vision.

Unknown said...

i ask you , do you believe government should enact more regulations ? that it should grow bigger into an even larger business than it is now?
i read what you have to say and i hear contradictions and prejudices without your having first hand knowledge.
when you do a book review , review the book for the facts not for a reason to look down upon a group you have little real knowledge of. your blog , like many others , sounds like a reason for you to be able to show how "smart" you are...a self-serving instrument of little real facts.