The Big Boomer Theory

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By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is
Tuesday, January 24, 2006


In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy

By Leonard Steinhorn

St. Martin's. 318 pp. $24.95

Himself a baby boomer, born in 1957, Leonard Steinhorn has absolutely no doubt about it: His generation is the greatest generation in the whole history of generations, an even greater generation than -- are you ready for this? -- the Greatest Generation. If you thought the generation that won World War II, starred in "Victory at Sea" and made Tom Brokaw even richer is the Greatest Generation, think again:

"Historians looking back will probably say that Baby Boomers turned Greatest Generation morality on its head. Whereas the Greatest Generation imposed its morality on private behavior and personal relationships, the Baby Boom projected its morality onto our social behavior and public relationships. Whereas the Greatest Generation viewed sexual and other personal behavior as a moral or religious issue, the Baby Boom sees it as an individual choice and a private personal issue. Whereas the Greatest Generation accepted racial bigotry, sex discrimination, cultural conformity, and environmental degradation as unchanging realities, the Baby Boom deems them unconscionable realities that need to be changed."

All of which is why, in a nutshell, "this generation's accomplishments eclipse what came before it, and why the Baby Boom must be recognized as the Greater Generation." Thus argues Steinhorn, who professes communications at American University and whose "keen insights and experience," according to the university's Web site, "keep him in demand as a consultant and commentator on political communications and American culture." Very much a gentleman of the left, Steinhorn has labored on behalf of People for the American Way and other like-minded organizations and is the founder of Right Wing Watch newsletter.

Say it for Steinhorn: He puts his money where his mouth is. America today, he insists, is under the sway of a "new liberal norm" characterized by "the principles of diversity, feminism, and Baby Boom individualism." The "political center of gravity," he says, "has clearly moved toward Boomer liberalism in the last generation, and even conservatives now frame their agenda in a Sixties context. Women's rights, diversity, consumer rights, environmental protection, civil rights, gay rights, religious diversity, personal freedom -- all except the most paleo of conservatives at least give lip service to these Boomer era norms, and those who don't pay a price for it."

There is a measure of truth to this. Although American voters have twice sent to Washington one of the most rigidly and reflexively conservative administrations in the country's history, they also embrace (or give lip service to) many of the "Boomer norms" that Steinhorn lists above. As has been noted by many talking heads and scribbling pens, there is a disconnect in this country between personal and social behavior on the one hand -- what Steinhorn calls "a 'plateau' of liberalism or egalitarianism that characterizes our social norms today" -- and political behavior on the other.

What this reveals, depending on one's disposition and biases, is either a country narrowly but deeply divided -- the conventional wisdom of the red and blue states -- or a country in the process of transition, a country whose politics have yet to catch up with its social and moral evolution. Obviously the latter is what Steinhorn thinks, and perhaps he is right, but the past, the present and the future are all considerably more complex and ambiguous than he would have us believe.

To begin with, there is the problem of generalizing about generations. It is true that many (though certainly not all) people born in the same country during the same period will have certain shared experiences. In the case of the boomers, Steinhorn correctly cites the civil rights movement and the violent resistance it aroused, the war in Vietnam, the rise of environmentalism, the women's movement and many others. It is also true, though, that not everyone reacts to those experiences in the same way. The generation that gave us Flower Power and Haight-Ashbury also gave us George W. Bush (born in 1946), Samuel Alito (1950), John G. Roberts Jr. (1955) and most members of the Bush Cabinet.

Perhaps most people who were in college during the 1960s and '70s share the boomer views that Steinhorn ascribes to them, but it is far from certain. He conveniently underplays the bitter divisions within the country over Vietnam, in which many people of boomer age vociferously opposed the antiwar movement.

Steinhorn takes great pleasure in debunking the Greatest Generation myth, and in fact there is much to debunk. "Nowadays we celebrate Greatest Generation Americans for their many virtues," he writes, "but we do so with a dash of willful self-deception, for when they came back from defending freedom and equality and individual rights and human dignity abroad, they readily accepted and even promoted assaults on those ideals here at home -- segregation, discrimination, inequality, blanket conformity and uniformity, suppression of dissent, devaluing people because they were different."

Yes . . . but. One of the many troubles with generalizing about generations is that there are always exceptions to disprove the ostensible rule. It is true that many white Americans retreated into lily-white suburbs after the war and resisted social change, but it is no less true that the initial steps toward change were mostly taken by men and women of the World War II generation: John F. Kennedy, Rosa Parks, Lyndon B. Johnson and James Farmer are only the beginning of a very long list. Some of them were slow and reluctant to press for change, but press they did, and in so doing they laid the groundwork for others younger than they.

Yet another complication: Many of the leaders and foot soldiers of change in the 1960s and '70s were neither of the Greatest Generation nor of the boomers, but of the so-called Silent Generation, people too young to fight in World War II, too old to be in college during the '60s. These include Martin Luther King Jr. (born in 1929), Julian Bond (1940), Andrew Young (1932), Allard Lowenstein (1929) and Gloria Steinem (1934) -- just the beginning of another very long list. The sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington -- these pivotal events in large measure were conceived and carried out by members of the in-between generation upon which few spotlights have been focused.

This is not to deride Steinhorn's claims on behalf of the boomers but to emphasize that these matters do not lend themselves to easy oversimplifications, of which "The Greater Generation" has a good deal too many. It is absolutely true that ours is a more tolerant and open society than it was at the end of World War II, and the boomers get much credit for that. But they scarcely get it all, and they scarcely have a monopoly on the many virtues Steinhorn ascribes to them. Like every other group of people lumped together by journalists and pop academics as a "generation," they are heterogeneous and resistant to stereotype. No "generation" is greater or greatest; it's just another bunch of people muddling through, trying to make the best of it, winning some and losing some.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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