A few days ago, a friend at a dinner party posed a question to the crowded table: “Be honest,” he said. “Have any of you ever felt real generational animosity?”
It didn’t take much thought to respond in the negative. All of us — Millennials, Zoomers, and a baby without the faculty of speech — struggled to name serious resentments toward another generation. Sure, we had our minor squabbles. I said Zoomer slang was annoying. Others admitted that they find Generation X’s self-deprecation grating. And, of course, we all piled various abuses on the Boomers.
Boomer criticism is an American pastime. That should come as no surprise. Boomers demanded flattery in their youth. It’s only fair that they should receive insult in their old age. The more canny members of the generation know that the two, if they are not the same thing, at least produce the same result: everyone remains focused on them. Better just to laugh off the whole subject.
And that’s what Helen Andrews, senior editor at the American Conservative, does in Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster. The book, whose title suggests a scathing critique of the generation, is in reality a romp around the foibles of six prominent Boomers still caught up in their generation’s post–World War II optimism. Andrews, although she readily admits to a reputation of being “mean,” writes her subjects as jokes, leaving the straight-faced criticism to others.
In a section on Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, for instance, Andrews supplements a discussion of the activist judge’s jurisprudence with jabs at Sotomayor’s bullying narcissism. Three days after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband died, Andrews recalls, Sotomayor performed a salsa dance in front of the other members of the court. She compelled Ginsburg to join her, whispering that it is what her husband would have wanted. The affair left the rest of the court “uncomfortable.”
Such incidents are typical because Sotomayor is the high court’s resident loudmouth. She holds records for causing the most interruptions during case arguments. She regularly references her personal life in dissents, a tic that has earned her colleagues’ censure. She ham-handedly denounces her critics as racists.
Andrews casts Sotomayor as an archetypical Boomer — someone so persuaded by the rightness of her personal experiences that she imposes them on everyone else. Often, that strategy backfires comically. Anyone who follows the self-aggrandizing justice can’t help but chuckle.
Andrews also dishes out smirking disdain to her other five Boomers: Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin, Jeffrey Sachs, Camille Paglia, and Al Sharpton. Jobs, Sorkin, and Sachs earn scorn for their naive idealism as innovator, entertainer, and economist, respectively. Paglia and Sharpton come under fire for mainstreaming self-destructive ideologies, namely sexual libertinism and race politics. Some of Andrews’ blows land. Others glance. But they are all amusing.
And amusement, I think, is the driving point behind this exercise. Andrews writes in her introduction that she derived the structure and tone of Boomers from Eminent Victorians, a 1918 series of biographical essays by the English critic Lytton Strachey. In that book, written as World War I wrecked Europe, Strachey shredded four heroes of the past generation with his acerbic wit.
“The Victorians could survive being proven wrong. They could not survive being made to look ridiculous,” Andrews writes in praise of Strachey.
The same could be said of the Boomers. Except in this case, being wrong is synonymous with looking ridiculous. That’s what happens in highly aestheticized societies. Andrews, of course, isn’t the first person to realize this. A whole wave of writers before her made careers turning and re-turning this very trick: Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and even Boomer icon John Updike (albeit in a perverse way) spent decades knocking down the generation’s posers. As long as the Boomers live, these jokes play well.
Still, I felt like something was missing. Boomers beats up on the Age of Aquarius, but leaves the Greatest Generation largely unscathed. That’s unfair. The parents deserve some blame, too, for the Boomers’ sins. After all, only the generation that accepted the sale of K-rations in the freezer aisle as normal and leapt at the chance to live in neighborhoods built of glorified Nissen huts could create such monstrous children. The Boomers were spoiled by their parents’ post-war, pre-pill idealism. But that’s likely a story for another time.
It’s hard to restrict blame for social ills to one generation. A criticism of the Greatest Generation inevitably opens criticism to the Boomers’ children, the disaffected Millennials. And to their grandchildren, the smartphone-addled Zoomers. And on and on to every other generation, until they’re all tied to the fate of the Boomers.
At the end of time, they’ll all stand judgment on Boomsday. And who knows, maybe God himself will riff on an old saying of Montaigne — every generation is as ridiculous as it is risible.