In Defence Of The Boomers

The counter-culture of the Sixties seems to attract more and more opprobrium as time goes on; “boomer” has become, like “liberal” in the US, one of the insults against which no defence is possible. Our parents were forever telling us that we lacked discipline, sour old men on the street were forever telling us that we should be made to join the Army and scrub latrines; and now journalists are forever telling us that we are self-absorbed and narcissistic. To which I would reply, “If you think we’re bad, you should see where we came from.” Our parents complained that we placed our own concerns first; well, they placed their own façades first – and last, and all the time. One of my contemporaries was as a youngster told to her face, “I don’t care two hoots whether or not you’re happy, as long as the neighbours think you are.” Our parents preached against our self-indulgence in sensual pleasures; well then, what of their self-indulgence in social climbing, gossip, playacting and backbiting?

We Boomers actually listen to criticism of our own undoubted vices, for example from our children, which all by itself creates a watershed between us and our own parents; for they themselves brooked no criticism and would never dream of listening to their social or chronological inferiors. For the “Greatest Generation” had Won The War, which meant that they were infallible for their rest of their lives, and omniscient on subjects about which they knew absolutely nothing.

These days, we explain “difficult” children and adults in terms of biochemical imbalances and neural mis-wiring. A generation ago, however, everything was explained in terms of errors in childrearing, from which it followed that it was all the fault of Boomer parents. The Boomers, therefore, were perhaps the first generation – at any rate en masse and not merely in metropolitan and bohemian circles – who routinely admitted that they themselves might have messed up. Boomers at least have the grace to agonise over how they have brought up their children. Pre-boomer parents were rarely seen to agonise, for they had been issued with either Good Children, upon which they were to be congratulated, or innately Bad Children, over which they were to be commiserated with. Theirs was a third paradigm, based on neither neurochemical faults nor mis-parenting, but on Character. And whose fault was it that a person grew up with a bad Character? Entirely his own. Bad Character was regarded as causeless except by some mysterious innate depravity that had nothing to do with the parents – the child, so to speak, pulled itself down by its own bootstraps.

They tell us that the Boomer generation are narcissists, but they never tell us what causes a person to be a narcissist. In fact one of the best ways to acquire Narcissistic Personality Disorder is to have narcissistic parents. But it is much more fun to engage in the Unmoved Mover fallacy and start the chain of causality with the Boomers themselves, who alone of all human generations are held entirely responsible for their own vices.

The Boomers have been heavily criticised for their sex and drugs. These things are, however, the normal human pastimes in any age, for those who can afford it; there is a reason for the English expression, “drunk as a lord”. In the good old days, the aristocracy was drinking a bottle or two of brandy a day, and bed-hopping in their country houses; meanwhile the working classes were sozzled on gin and getting quickies against the wall (or, in the case of rural labourers, on scrumpy and in the haystacks). There have, it is true, been periods in which the middle classes specialised in sobriety and chastity, at least where other people could see them; the complaints against the Boomers might thus be translated into an accusation of class betrayal. That is, the Boomers were acting not like their parents’ class but like their social betters and/or worsers.

If, however, there was ever a time when the middle classes had an identity defiantly opposed to the upper classes, the generation immediately preceding the Boomers was not it. They may have been sober and chaste, but they were also deferential suck-ups to the aristocracy, the nineteenth century’s middle-class self-confidence having been replaced by the twentieth-century middle-class terror of organised labour. The self-denying generation of the Boomers’ parents, so puritanical about sex and drugs, were at the same time frantic social climbers. Perhaps their children, even while reacting angrily against “keeping up with the Joneses”, had also been infected by the virus of emulation, except that what they chose to emulate was the self-indulgence of the traditionally drug-addled nobility.

It is surely a cultural constant that young adults are more enthusiastic, passionate and zealous than their elders; we all know that the teenager’s world-weariness is but a pose to deaden the pain of her own unruly emotions. In what cause that zeal is exercised, however, varies very widely. In some generations it is monasticism, asceticism and mysticism, in other generations social reform or armed revolution. In the present youngsters, alas, it is fashion. In one period, we have youngsters who talked of little else than the class struggle against capitalism and imperialism; in another, we have youngsters who talk of little else but shopping and accessorising, and the ruthless game of who is “cool” and who is “just so last week”. There will always be individuals who swim against the current, of course, and perhaps the majority in any epoch lead less fanatical and more balanced lives; but it is the ones who move in lockstep who create, or reflect, the spirit of the age.

It is unlikely that teenagers manufacture their causes out of thin air, their zeal is rather tapped and channelled by what is already on offer, what ideological products are shelved at eye-level in the supermarket of life. Which brings us to the question of whether our ruling classes have deliberately applied their very considerable resources to making sure that the energy and commitment of youth is now poured into lucrative trivia, so as to avert the horrible prospect of a new generation discovering some kind of idealistic project such as saving the planet, helping the poor or treating their elders as they deserve.

We should not, therefore, forget what the counter-culture was against, or neglect to admire its quixotic quest to create a new kind of human being. The revolt against “materialism”, against façade, against power, against violence, against oppression, against greed, against snobbery, against superficiality, against waste and environmental despoliation, against the whole human agenda of ruthless competition for resources and status, has happened before – as when Francis of Assisi dropped out, to the horror of his merchant parents – but nevertheless fails to happen in every generation.

The man who has not yet risen high enough to understand the question has no business criticising the wrong answers.

Posted on August 1, 2011 at 11:31 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink

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