Defending a Boomer Legacy?

March 12, 2006 | By Frederick R. Lynch

In “The Greater Generation,” American University professor Leonard Steinhorn defends the Baby Boom’s liberal cultural legacy from conservative critics such as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and George Will. Such missions are welcome but difficult.

Mr. Steinhorn paints Boomerism as socially liberal. But the cultural geist of the generation born between 1946 and 1962 is full of complexities, contradictions, changes, and darker downsides. Youthful anti-establishment Boomers grew into middle-aged yuppies who adjusted all-too-well to capitalism, privatization of public programs, and rising inequalities.

Boomers are as polarized as other groups on how to reduce various inequalities through redistributive “social justice.” Al Gore and George W. Bush are two Boomers symbolizing divided Boomer bases. Mr. Steinhorn’s interpretation generally represents Gore’s blue-state boomers (especially those who are highly educated, urbane, upper-middle class) rather than working and middle class Bush boomers in red-state heartlands.

Mr. Steinhorn starts off very well by puncturing conservative mythology of a post-World War II golden era presided over by a “Greatest Generation” whose ungrateful children grew up to be self-indulgent, hedonistic Baby Boomers.

He credits the Greatest Generation for enduring the Great Depression and fighting for freedom overseas; but he faults them for accommodating domestic racism, sexism and homophobia. The campaign for liberty and equality on the home front was taken up by the Baby Boomers. “There was a reason why Boomers expressed so much outrage in the Sixties-because there was so much to elicit outrage.”

After the tumultuous Sixties, the revolution moved more quietly via a “silent war not in the trenches but in the office, the neighborhood, the courtroom, the nonprofit and the home.” By 2000, victory of Boomer culture was so total that it’s become taken for granted-relaxed vulnerability inviting rollback efforts by cultural conservatives.

In his best chapters on “Boomer DNA,” “Do Your Own Thing” and “Power Corrupts” Mr. Steinhorn emphasizes Boomers’ libertarianism and their famous irreverence and skepticism: “this is a generation that accepts nothing at face value.” Many Boomers learned to “question authority” and spot hypocrisy early on by reading the sly and seditious Mad Magazine.

But the more formative confrontations arose from civil rights struggles, Vietnam and Watergate. Boomers fought to close the gap between ideals and more tawdry realities. They learned to “beware the motives, reassurances and excuses of those in power.” Boomers actively built and participated in technological revolutions; but they were suspicious of technology’s tendency to enhance bureaucratic controls.

Boomers flocked to the environmental movement. The oft-cited slogan “never trust anyone over 30” signaled that boomers recognized the accelerating pace of change. They questioned the Greatest Generation’s presumption that the past was a guide to the future.

Mr. Steinhorn spotlights Boomers’ mistrust of hierarchy and scorn for back-room machine politics. They valued “individualism over traditionalism, spirituality over religiosity, free choice over blind loyalty, diversity over uniformity.” But the two-edged nature of Boomer liberalism is largely absent in his chapters praising “family diversity,” and egalitarian reforms in the workplace and the university. But he ignores the downsides: rising divorce rates, more single parents, and proliferating work-family tensions; a fog of fear and inhibition generated by campus speech codes, news media “stylebooks;” and confusing thickets of employment law on harassment and “hostile environment.”

Religion was another key institutional battleground. Boomers rebelled against tradition, patriarchy, and obedience. They wrote their own wedding vows and large numbers left established religion altogether. Yet Mr. Steinhorn only hints at how boomer liberalism morphed into a powerful and dogmatic secular religion.

Political correctness became the repressive, dark side of the Boomer revolution.

Mr. Steinhorn thinks its a bum rap, a lightweight fad with a few “excesses.”

“Political correctness” was originally a Stalinist-era command to contour facts to fit ideology. The term was playfully revived by the student left in the 1970s. But by 1991, Newsweek’s famous “Thought Police” cover story reported that the rising boomer establishment was following a typical revolutionary cycle culminating in a radical “reign of terror and virtue.”

The 1960s vilification of policy scholars like Daniel Patrick Moynihan (who published prescient warnings on disintegrating inner city black families) and James Coleman (who found that busing for school desegregation was ineffective) set up PC taboos that for three decades suppressed research or discussionsthat “blamed the victim” or reflected negatively on “oppressed groups.”

Career killing topics included: single-parent families, daycare, divorce, latch-key kids, welfare fraud and abuse, unsafe and/or promiscuous sexual behavior, affirmative action/diversity, inner-city pathologies (gangs, crime, and addiction), illegal immigration, and, of course, racial and gender differences. Indeed, Harvard President Lawrence Summers’ public musing on gender-based differences in math and science aptitudes a year ago was decisive in producing his recent resignation.

Some of Mr. Steinhorn’s rhetoric provides insight into today’s “campus climate.”

Example: “What seems to rile the critics of academia is a lot like what angered the old southern whites who accused the civil rights movement of agitating blacks.” Not surprisingly, political edges are sharpest in a chapter on “All American Diversity.”

With limited evidence, Mr. Steinhorn asserts that the irreverent, individualistic Boomers he describes elsewhere happily converted to diversity groupthink. If they did not, of course, they invited unflattering imagery. “Today diversity proponents represent the mainstream and the stridency is usually found in the deep recesses of conservative media where angry talk show hosts complain that our shining city on a hill is being contaminated by demanding minorities.”

Again, this sort of labeling illustrates why rank-and-file Boomers appeared acquiescent towards mandatory sensitivity training, diversity bonuses for managers, militant multiculturalism, and quota-style hiring and student admissions. But this sort of forced, top-down diversity illustrates elite-masses cultural splits within Boomer ranks (and the wider society) that Mr. Steinhorn ignores.

Privately, millions of Boomers remain irreverent and subversive, listening to talk radio and laughing at the politically-incorrect lampoons of “South Park.” Polling data demonstrates that Boomers-and most other Americans-champion individual merit and individual responsibility; they believe in the original civil rights mission of equality of opportunity, but reject ethnic preferences in higher education and the workplace.

Boomers also “voted with their feet” on diversity problems, fleeing urban public schools, moving into hundreds of gated communities, and propelling “diversity flight”—Brookings demographer Bill Frey’s term for massive migrations of whites (and some blacks) out of regions with large numbers of Third World immigrants. Mr. Steinhorn touches upon three previous works on Boomers that offer more complex views. Landon Y. Jones’ classic “Great Expectations” soberly assesses the forces shaping Boomer culture and the long-range consequences of “family diversity.” Paul Light’s much overlooked “Baby Boomers” finds a strong Boomer attraction to social Darwinism and privatization of public problems. And William Strauss and Neil Howe‘s “Generations” presciently warned that Boomers were idealistic “New Puritans,” who might zealously force their views on the nation and the world.

Absent from Mr. Steinhorn’s analyses is Michael Gross’ wonderful “My Generation,” a collective biography mapping the lives of 19 leading-edge boomers most of whom, Mr. Gross acknowledged, were different from the conservative and conventional Boomer majority. Diane Macunovich’s “Birth Quake” is a rigorous economic analysis concluding that boomer culture, feminism and family changes were largely shaped by fierce labor market competition.

Mr. Steinhorn’s book could have been a welcome antidote to anti-Boomer talk radio tirades. But, confirming an old maxim, he studied his enemies so carefully that he became too much like them.