TCS Daily


Hostages to the Boomer Narrative

By Douglas Kern - December 1, 2004 12:00 AM

We agreed on everything except one small point: he was certain that all Republicans were racist.

His certainty illustrates everything that is broken between red and blue America. And the certainty of his death demonstrates how that brokenness will be repaired.

My co-worker was a black Baby Boomer, who grew to manhood in the heyday of the civil rights movement. His opinions on crime, welfare, divorce, homosexuality, religion, and foreign policy would put him on the conservative wing of the Republican Party. But, as a young man in the sixties, he became convinced that all Republicans were racists. No amount of argument or counter-examples could persuade him to the contrary.

He didn't take Republicanism personally. He had many Republicans friends -- including some of the local party leaders. But Republicans were racists. Perhaps they didn't mean to be. But they were. All of them. Without exception.

My friend is a pillar of the community, a force for justice, and a great man. He is also a cantor for a story that ceased to be true decades ago, if it was ever true at all. His children will surely be Republicans. They will inherit his conservative outlook and principles, shorn of resentment and historical baggage. But my friend's convictions will never change. They will last as long as he does.

But he won't last forever. In forty or so years, he will die, and his broken narrative of the world will die with him.

The most intractable problems spring from fundamental differences in human nature. But the most fundamental aspect of human nature is mortality. We will all die, and the worst of our more useless disagreements will die with us. Death is a uniter, not a divider.

I first detected the artificial quality of America's divisions during the first Gulf War, when grey-haired remnants from the '60s protested the war with a vocabulary and style indistinguishable from the protests of the Vietnam War. At the time, their behavior puzzled me. The Gulf War was obviously unlike the Vietnam War in nearly all important respects. Reasonable people might be opposed to both wars for different reasons, but why would anyone think that the conflicts were similar?

The similarity was not in the conflicts, but in the perceptions of the protestors. They treated the Gulf War like Vietnam because Vietnam was the only context in which they could understand any war.

Not everyone indulged in such mental laziness; some thinkers detected the relevant differences, and changed their positions accordingly. But stories are hard things to change. And while anyone can change, most people don't.

We are all cursed to carry the debris of the stories we composed as young adults. Every generation falls prey to the habit of applying old mental habits to new problems. But our society is particularly afflicted in this regard, because our dominant generation -- the Baby Boomers -- influences our culture to a degree unmatched in our history. By comparison to all previous generations of Americans, the Baby Boomers are 1) innumerable, 2) stupendously wealthy, 3) well-educated, 4) possessed of ample free time, and 5) destined to live to be 150, thanks to good nutrition and modern medicine.

Thus, we are held hostage to the Baby Boomer narrative. From the mid-60s to the present, the defining Baby Boomer conflict has remained the same: Uptight God-Fearing Pleasure-Eschewing Squares vs. Pleasure-Seeking Free-Loving Individualist Beautiful People. Now Generations X and Y find themselves acting out this one-act play -- but the costumes don't fit, the roles are all miscast, and the dialogue is decades out of date.

The curtain needs to fall.

You don't like the Vietnam example? I can cite plenty of others. Conservative Catholics, who stubbornly pull the Democratic lever out of a vestigial sense of ethnic solidarity rather than rational political belief; black Baptists, who do the same; their affluent WASP counterparts who still mistakenly think that the Republican party is the party of the rich; abortion rights fanatics, still convinced that America is one Supreme Court vote away from the shari'a; "feminists," whose inchoate bitterness grows right alongside their wealth, education, and corporate clout -- all of these poor deluded souls are fighting yesterday's wars, and the venom and rancor of their positions spring from their fear that they will somehow lose the battles they fought as young adults. Something about the tang of cultural victory -- and the horror of cultural loss -- renders certain opinions impervious to reasoned debate.

The anger of cultural conflicts tends not to pass down through the generations. In college I noticed that the really vicious hatred towards our ROTC chapter came from the faculty. By contrast, the students were fairly supportive of the ROTC program and its cadets. Even the aggressively left-wing students could express support for the individual participants -- a courtesy denied my father, who could not wear his ROTC uniform in the '60s for fear of assault. Similarly, old-school feminist leaders lament that contemporary women don't share their radical contempt towards families and bourgeois heterosexual relationships. My generation isn't uniquely tolerant; its hot-button issues generate as much madness as those of any generation -- but Generation X has no particular stake in the dreary cultural malfunctions of the '60s.

The division between Red and Blue America is rooted in real cultural differences, but its antagonism is rooted in the unresolved battles of the '60s. And the antagonists are losing their fight to the Grim Reaper every day.

We wring our hands about the gaping differences that separate Red America and Blue America, but those particular differences will go away -- because these particular people will go away. One side or the other in the culture wars will out-argue, out-breed, or out-live the other, and the problems of 2004 America will seem as quaint and faintly ludicrous as a Watergate-era op-ed. We will find our own irrational battles to fight; we will burn our own skewed outlooks of the world into our neural pathways. And those unreasonable attachments will surely annoy and bewilder our children just as much as the Baby Boomer hang-ups annoy us. But they will be our hang-ups, our battles to win or lose -- not the kabuki theater of Smart Beautiful Elites vs. Dumb Jesus-Cuddling Goobers that has hypnotized the MSM in one form or another for thirty-five years.

Which means, of course, that in thirty years some punk kid will lament the folly of his friend, old decrepit Kern -- a fine fellow, really, except for his deranged attachment to that horrible goofy idea that was so popular back in 2004. And no doubt I'll dismiss his clever musings as the babbling of an ill-educated child. We all have our place in the circle of intellectual life. Death is the grease that keeps the circle moving smoothly.

The author is a lawyer and TCS contributor.


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