Helen Andrews’ “Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster”: A Review
When the editor of this publication forwarded me an advanced copy of Helen Andrews’ book Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster, it promised a means to better articulate how my mother and father’s generation had betrayed mine, and I was naturally eager to parse its pages in order to extract some arguments which I might later deploy over the dinner table.
The book, however, does not offer the broad denunciations of the Boomer generation that I had hoped for, and which might have permitted me to fashion them to my own ends. Andrews has instead dedicated her book to describing the lives of a series of idiosyncratic Boomers — Steve Jobs, Camilia Paglia and Al Sharpton amongst them — whose effect on the world, she writes, has been “tragically and often ironically contrary to their intentions.” Her model is explicitly based on that of her predecessor, Lytton Strachey, whose book Eminent Victorians, like Boomers, attempts to denounce the character of an entire generation by holding up to light the very ugliest of its specimens.
Superficially, Andrews’ book may be read as a series of biographies of unlikeable people, born in a certain period, whose exceptional lives have contributed in a uniquely disastrous way to the world. But as emblematic of the Boomer generation as these individuals may be, they are not typical of it.
This presented me with an immediate difficulty. The book’s microscopic focus on a handful of individuals, many of whom I had never heard of, and all of whom are American, could hardly provide fruitful ammunition to criticise those other, unremarkable English Boomers which surrounded me, and whose inconsequential lives can only be said to be similar to those mentioned in Andrews’ book in that they began in the same decade. I couldn’t well accuse my mother of inventing the Smartphone or of botching her humanitarian efforts in Russia. Nor could I, in all good conscience, criticise her for perverting any sort of civil rights movement for African Americans.
Generously interpreted, we might say that each of the individuals criticised in this book represents a Boomer archetype, one which we will readily recognise in those Boomers that we know, irrespective of their actual effect on the world or their nationality. The top-down humanitarian efforts of Jeffrey Sachs, for example, is typical of that near-universal Boomer sympathy toward interfering in another country’s affairs while inevitably making them worse.
But we might question if this, or any of the other tendencies represented in the book, are unique to the Boomer generation at all. Self-important and meddlesome humanitarianism was already a target of Dickens’ satire when he wrote Mrs. Jellyby, whose philanthropy in Africa comes at the expense of the care of her own children, into Bleak House. And in 1932, the awareness of modern Western ideas being thrust upon faraway populations loomed large enough in the popular consciousness for it to be parodied by Waugh in Black Mischief, where a campaign promoting birth control in faraway Azania is enthusiastically misinterpreted by the natives as advertising instead a new juju magic that promises virility and fecundity.
Nothing will come of nothing, and the entirety of civilizational decline cannot be heaped entirely upon the flabby flanks of the Boomer. There is, however, something of the Camille Paglia biography which seems applicable to their collective responsibility, and that is the deliberate erasure of the distinction between high and low culture.
Though she would have been a great scholar in any decade, writes Andrews, Paglia’s insistence that pop icons like Madonna are as worthy of study as Milton has left an indelible and regrettable dent in both academia and the wider cultural sphere. Anyone who has been subjected to a modern humanitarian education can testify to this unfortunate change of focus, in which the elevation of low culture, and deliberate withholding of any definition of high culture, is directed by professors who seem unaware that they are depriving their students of a complete education. The cleverness of this inversion, amusing enough to the educated Boomer, is lost on succeeding generations because, without that base education which the Boomers take for granted, they lack the ability and the critical faculties necessary to appreciate what is being turned upon its head.
But Paglia, too, has her precedents, largely French, malodorous and paedophilic, and one can hardly blame the final torchbearer of cultural decline for the whole thing just because she happens to be the last one holding the thing. Does Modernism, with its flattening of perspective, and drunk Irish cuckolds speaking in verse, not share some responsibility for entangling the vulgar and the refined?
Andrews’ criticisms of the individuals in her book do demonstrate an astuteness in identifying exactly what has gone wrong; she does not simply focus on the economic disaster which the Boomer generation has caused, but also the social and moral decline which they have brought about. She is, broadly speaking, ‘one of us’. Her difficulty in convincing me of her subjects’ abject villainy, perhaps, is that she is not nasty enough with her subjects, and her criticisms frequently paint her subjects as themselves victims forces which, though they may have contributed in some part to them, now continue apace with a momentum of their own. When writing of Paglia, she draws particular attention to the irony of her being a woman who, though drawn to homosexuals for their “fierce independence of mind, their whiplash tongues, and their scorn for bourgeois decorum,” ends up finding her romantic, Wildean view degenerate into a shameless and often repulsive sexual liberty which culminates in the death of two of her personal friends to AIDS.
The slight and regretful ideological u-turn which Paglia has taken in recent years is comparable to that taken by fellow British Boomer John Cleese, a critical biography of whom would have been most welcome in Andrews’ book. Cleese, who enjoyed a fairly traditional, upper-middle-class upbringing, has dedicated his career to subverting the very same traditional British society which both molded him and projected him into the limelight. He has been enormously popular, in part because the British middle and upper class tend to enjoy that small moral relief which they experience through laughing at themselves. Christianity, nationalism and class have all come under Cleese’s satirical gaze while he continued to enjoy the fruits of the middle-class existence that he so tenaciously and profitably chipped away at. Now, like so many Boomers, he finds himself in the crumbling ruins of that same soppy-stern society, wishing that it would return, if only partially, and has begun a late-life declaration of war against political correctness, multiculturalism and the ‘loony left’ for which he is partly responsible. The father against the son, the son against the father, etcetera.
But what does any of this mean to the average Boomer? The majority are simply men and women who, when the opportunity was presented to them, became rich, landed, and filled their detached suburban houses with gauche little ornaments and ungrateful little children. They did not deliberately chip away at the institutions which gave them more opportunities than any preceding generation. Neither did they “buckle down to carrying on the great Western tradition” as Andrews suggests that they should have, though it is difficult to see, as I look to my parents, how a plumber from Essex or a housewife from Surrey could have done so. They were, like the rest of us, subject to cultural tides, dictated by historical precedents and spurred on by a handful of the influential individuals, some of whom are described in the pages of this book.
The challenge which Andrews proposes for the average millennial generation is to be somehow different from their parents while wielding even less cultural capital than they did. I have little doubt that, were the average millennial in a position to do so, he would do precisely the same as his parents. “It’s always the people who hate the idea of turning into their parents who end up doing so,” writes Andrews. And we would do, were it not for the impossibility of our finding gainful employment and property. We have, at least, inherited some of the scrupulousness of our parents — and when they die, we will inherit, too, that suburban house with its gauche little ornaments.