When The Boomers Sold Out

When The Boomers Sold Out

Following on from my last piece about Gen X’s low-profile status when juxtaposed against Boomers and Millenials, I thought it was worth revisiting the murky subject of generational struggle. This time however, I will be focusing on the generation that just won’t die off: The Boomers.

These illustrious, seemingly all-powerful beings were born roughly between the early 40s and early 60s and came into their own at a time of great economic improvement and opportunity, greater music, and massive cultural change (i.e. the ’60s). Indeed, the popular picture that’s been painted of this era is one of revolutionary zeal, free spiritedness, and tremendous progress on Civil Rights; a time of renewed hope for mankind, following the bleakness of the Silent Generation. Of course, theirs was not a time without struggle as Vietnam and race riots dominated the news in the late ’60s while the ’70s saw staggering oil inflation, a decline in respect for politics (following Nixon), and the continuation of the Cold War. By the time of the 1980s however, the Boomers had found a sure footing in America as the dominant electorate and net of cultural values. And… that’s where things changed.

Now, it goes without saying that an entire generation cannot “sell out”; at least not in terms of its populace. With that self-evident notion hovering above us however, let’s consider how the radiant plumage of the ’60s got withered away and replaced with the shoulder pads, dodgy hair-dos, and new right or neoliberal values of the ’80s. Gone were the days of the “Hippie Revolution”; it was in with the “Commercial Revolution”, the “Reagan Revolution”, and a new mentality for an a generation graduating into their mid life.

What happened?

We’ve already touched on the struggles of the ’70s, if not the psychological and cultural repercussions they bore. Most people’s idealism will at some point be compromised by the practicalities of adult life when children, careers, and other factors come into the equation. The teens and young adults of the late ’60s simply grew up at some point. They were jaded, with that said, by the experiences of their time. While 1967 boasted the so-called “Summer of Love”, 1968 brought the “Summer of Hate” with revolutionary spirits leading to protests and then quashed protests. The loveable druggies of the Hippie era became, in part by reality (but also by the Media and politicians) the junkies of the following decade. Lyndon Johnson’s progressive agenda was torn asunder when Vietnam clouded his resume, not to mention the rise of Nixon (who hated Hippies and started the War on Drugs). With the sullen decline of this spirit in the ’70s (the decade of “Malaise”), it was no wonder why many Boomers were ready for a fresh start with the ’80s.

Ronald Reagan was able to sell that “fresh start” for many. Whilst his administration pushed America on a right-wing trajectory (it’s largely followed since) that would actually (in years to come) negatively affect the majority of Americans, he was able to sell it with a winning smile and the profile of a true leader. Enough Americans believed things were improving (having faced the “tough love” years of the Carter Administration) and voted him back in in 1984 as well as his successor, George H.W. Bush in 1988. The Democrats, in meek response, basically followed the New Right to the centre, whereby they could get a New Democrat-type politician into power with Bill Clinton in 1992 and so on… Politics aside, the point is that Boomers, having taken the largest share of the electorate by the 1980s were the ones to benefit from the initial economic upturn. Thus, even a mantra like “Greed is Good” (meant as a warning from Oliver Stone in 1987’s Wall Street) came to exhibit a twisted kind of wisdom for its age.

Ronald Reagan, keeping it real

Bruce Gibney, author of A Generation of Sociopaths has been particularly critical of this turn of events. Speaking in an interview with Vox at the time of the book’s release, he said:

“Starting with Reagan, we saw this national ethos which was basically the inverse of JFK’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ This gets flipped on its head in a massive push for privatised gain and socialised risk for big banks and financial institutions. This has really been the dominant bomber economic theory, and it’s poisoned what’s left of our public institutions.”

The “Trickle-Down” economic model has been something of a “greatest hits” piece for the GOP since the 1980s. It would be foolish to state however that Boomers knew what they were in for with such changes. Even the politicians of the time, bent on conservative policies, couldn’t have known. With that said, that particular decade did set a damaging tone for what was to follow. The future of subsequent generation’s retirement funds, college loans, mortgages, and more were determined by what was set out then. At least in the 1970s, when there were economic struggles, there was some measure of co-ordination between Republicans and Democrats to balance out the extremes of either side that have increasingly flourished since. In many ways, it was a time of more liberal economic and political thinking.

The ’80s saw the rise of modern commercialism and a quasi-sanitised media too. Malls replaced high streets and new kinds of products lined the window faces of the shops built within. Movies of the ’70s, built on morally ambivalent antiheroes and dark realities faded from popularity as likeable heroes again took the screen. “Just Say No” and other family-friendly values and slogans helped push cheesy sitcoms to the fore. CDs saw the introduction of “Parental Advisory” stickers with censorship prevailing in the MTV era. Language and content were closely monitored on TV. It was a different kind of political correctness, to what we’re used to today, buoyed mostly by the New Right with puritanical leanings. All that is not to say great art wasn’t born out of that decade because it was but it was certainly symptomatic of a new way of refining the cultural values of the time.

American culture naturally moved on from the ’80s, with some persuasion from Gen X and subsequently Millenials in the following decades but by the mid-late ’90s, Boomers had effectively seized the reigns of power, which they still have tremendous persuasion over.

It is a harsh indictment, yes, and perhaps one a millennial, such as myself should be careful about castigating. As aforementioned, it’s generally the case that people will have different concerns in their 20s to what they have in their 40s. And the latter group, having moved up the career ladder, will have more money and more likely to grow conservative. People in their 20s want to see change. People in their latter years, less so. Plus, we’re not the first generation to think we know better or are “with it”. As Holly Scott put it in The Washington Post, of this generational divide:

“Young radicals believed they were ushering in a new America, and those over 30 were hopelessly out of touch and not to be trusted. Today’s youths have ‘Ok, boomer’. The youths of the 1960s had a different taunt: Mr. Jones, derived from the Arron saint of the youths, Bob Dylan, who sang, ‘ something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?'”

Perhaps, like the Boomers, we are destined to meet a dead end, to hit a brick wall? Perhaps each generation is bound to retrace the same, familiar patterns if within a different context? And perhaps still, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “every generation needs a new revolution”.

Statues: Heritage and Hate

Statues: Heritage and Hate

As someone who studied History to an MA level, I often find myself dismayed and a little disappointed at the trivial and reductive nature by which certain historical figures and events are popularly surmised. This includes the Clinton and Nixon legacies being arraigned around scandals, the morality of the Atomic Bomb drop, and the retrospective reassessment of leaders such as Churchill.

So let’s make something clear as quickly as possible. I do not admire people like Churchill and in his case, think revisionism as related to his treatment of India is in dire need of being taught more expansively at school-level. It is true to call a man a monster on one end and an inspiring leader on another however. For generations, he was held as a key figure of inspiration for Britons, primarily for the speeches he gave during their darkest hour. That should not be disregarded as we move forward in tackling our understanding of history. In fact, I think it’s even important that the pendulum of scholarly and popular opinion swings the other way, so that we might arrive at a more reasoned disposition.

In this particular scenario, I think I’m against statues of Churchill being taken down and that is with full knowledge of him being a dick. While his legacy will continue to darken as we adopt more liberal viewpoints, his importance within his period will never change. Indeed, most statues commemorate leading figures who were at one stage beloved or felt representative of an ideology or cause within a specific framework. For that reason, I felt for quite a long time, that history should be kept on the long finger, examined but without emotional plea or reckoning from a modern viewpoint. Naturally, I’ve learned it’s not that simple.

First of all, it’s rather easy and insensitive for another white man to dismiss concerns over historical monuments and statue for the sake of preserving heritage and culture. In the US, Black people’s lives are affected by a deeply ingrained, systemic racism that branches out to government, employment, and pretty much everything, including statues. Seeing the likes of Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee memorialised is a sickening kind of reminder that while, yes, the Confederates lost the Civil War, they’re very much still the boss. I can try and do my best to be an ally but being frank and realistic, I can never fully appreciate how difficult that must be to face.

So why keep Confederate statues up then? Well, you could argue history comprises the good and the bad, that both interweave in the fabric of American culture but the legacy of the Civil War and slavery is still pertinent to today. So, maybe certain statues should be removed. Let’s face it, people are unlikely to forget these historical figures and if what they stood for is largely discredited or maligned, then what exactly are we holding them up for. Churchill, at least, fought against the totalitarianism of a greater racism in Nazism. Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, led the defected states in an effort to defend slavery. He was an important figure, yes, but one, only the very ill-nerved would try to defend.

What about Christopher Columbus then? Here’s a figure more removed from the current climate of racism and division but whose lasting imprint on American history is just as deadly, if not more so, in the eyes of Native Americans. Several statues of his have been targeted in recent weeks, including a decapitation in Boston (as the above picture). These instances have given me more pause for thought because they raise the question of just how far back we can go in our quest for reappraising history. I’ve no interest in defending his character, of course, but to cast judgment on the imperialist and colonist mindset of 15th century figures just strikes me as bizarre. Should we target everyone from the past who committed unspeakable atrocities or put aside our distaste at some point? I do not mean to be glib on this but to what extent can we remove our emotions from the past?

Again, history is complicated and the “greats”, even more so. A statue of Thomas Jefferson was toppled in Portland, Oregon recently; a founding father, who owned nearly 200 slaves, had relationships with several but who was also one of the most notable opponents of slavery in his time, calling it a “moral blot” that was the greatest threat to America. How can we reconcile such hypocrisy? You could argue that slavery was central to the American economic system but even then, you’d then have to face the fact that that system thrived because Black people were dehumanised so whites could justify their fortitude. Unfortunately, even the noblest of historical figures (like Lincoln) held views we’d be deeply offended by today.

Context is key in our appreciation for the past. We should not judge harshly but we should not ignore clear violations of human rights, atrocities, and their lasting legacies, especially when they’re still so prescient today. In this sense, I think there’s reasonable doubt for both sides on the argument of whether statues should be kept or removed. The question which then arises is who gets to decide and when petitions are ignored or not given proper evaluation (as felt with the Cecil Rhodes statue), can we not expect others to take a stand?

I’m fully willing to accept my viewpoint on this is at best limited but when history is devalued to base analyses, I think it’s important to take a step back and think. Maybe there are better ways to memorialise our leaders or reflect on past events. In Berlin, they’ve done this with the Holocaust memorial and other centres which acknowledge their darkest chapter without trying to erase or sweep over it. Maybe that’s better or maybe we do need to take on each statue with a specific lens as to what it represented, what it represents now, and will, in the future.