Thanks to a book by former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw (very nicely satirized by Harry Shearer on Le Show: Book Bag: Tom Brokaw’s newest Greatest Generation works), we’ve been stuck with the term “Greatest Generation” for the past several years.

A few weeks back, Angry Overeducated Catholic (The Lamest Generation) accused Boomers of being narcissistic. Sure, no argument there. All you have to do is watch the once mighty Dennis Hopper laid low doing “Gimme Some Lovin'”-soundtracked commercials for Ameriprise Financial that scratch Boomer narcissism’s back just… that… little… bit… lower—right THERE!!!—down to see what I mean. I’d note, though, there seems to be at least some evidence that narcissism has only grown worse subsequently. Whether this is something inherent to human nature or a not-so-nice part of our culture I am not entirely sure. My hunch is that as our society has become wealthier and more egalitarian—generally good trends if you ask me—personality aspects for which spoiled rich kids have been notorious from time out of mind have descended lower and lower into our class structure. (It’s also important not to mythologize the past. People have always been rotten, venal self-centered jerks: read the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Holy Bible or Homer for millenia-old examples, if you need them. Altruism, generosity and humility are virtuous because they are rare.) A fuller examination of these points will have to wait for another day, however.

Do not misunderstand me. I deeply respect the sacrifice of the people who fought World War II, but crediting victory to one generation is downright silly. Leaders like FDR, Truman, Ike, Patton, McArthur, and Nimitz, just to name a few, were not GGers. The forgotten field-grade officers (majors, colonels and lieutenant commanders) and senior NCOs (the gunnies, master sergeants and CPOs) responsible for turning a bunch of green kids into a fighting force of extraordinary magnitude able to stand up to and eventually kick the stuffing out of the Wehrmacht (with help, of course) and the Imperial Japanese Navy in a few short years were not GGers. It may have a “common man” appeal to believe leadership means little, but that is a naive over-reaction to the great man school of history. Leadership matters. A lot.

Still, the GG deserves praise for rising to the challenge of WWII, so let’s give it to them, and then turn to other parts of the GG’s postwar record, which should infuriate both conservatives and liberals in some mixture:

    (1) Who was in charge during the Vietnam War? Whatever your opinion of the Vietnam War is (good idea badly executed or a stupid, immoral act from day 1), you have to agree the management of it left much to be desired. Boomers were young adults or children, not the decision makers, but somehow they get the blame for it.
    (2) Who was in charge when Great Society programs were built, i.e., when welfare as we knew it was built?
    (3) Who presided over stagflation of the ’70s and the “Me Decade” of the ’80s? These eras did a lot to undermine the (idealized) 1950s modern liberals and conservatives like so much (admittedly for different reasons).
    (4) Who presided over a giant shifting of priorities from the young to the old over the course of that time, leading to the giant gaping hole of “unfunded entitlement programs”? Again, conservatives love to hate organizations like the AARP… but who are the members?
    (5) Who presided over the development of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) and later “Flexible Response,” holding the whole world hostage?
    (6) Who squandered America’s lead in technology and science, allowing our public school system to fall to third-world levels in many places?
    (7) Who left the inner cities to rot into squalid nests of grinding poverty and lead the building of Soviet-style high rises to replace what had been functioning neighborhoods?

Of course, they also presided over the end of the Cold War, which turned out pretty well. That just makes my point: things are a mixed bag with any generation. Characterizing an entire generation in a nutshell is doomed to failure. I’ve read stuff written by people like Strauss and Howe and went “yeah!” However, it’s the hollow, empty-calorie Twinkie-and-a-Coke-for-breakfast kind of “yeah” that comes with reading a horoscope: sufficiently vague to allow the reader to wrap his or her own interpretation into it no matter what it says. At least Strauss and Howe didn’t use the term “Greatest” (theirs is the GI Generation) and don’t get into hagiography like Mr. Brokaw. Pandering is pandering and we can do without Tom Brokaw’s belated generational reach-aro^H^H^H hagiography. Maybe he feels bad about giving his old man a hard time when he was a teenager? Or perhaps he feels he needs to share the narcissistic love his generation is known for, since I’m not really sure, based on the GGers I know, anyway, they believe the hype?

Advertisements