Every generation of Americans is perversely nostalgic about its formative years. The Greatest Generation is so romantic about the tragedies and victories of World War II that you’d think every last one of them stormed the beaches at Normandy, then returned to kiss a pretty lady in Times Square on V-J Day. Generation X, on the other hand, tends to forgo reminiscences of the fall of the Berlin Wall or the horrors of 9/11 for wistful ruminations on Freakies cereal, the superiority of the original Star Wars action figures or that time Scott Baio played a stoner on “ABC Afterschool Special.”
But boomers clearly take the prize in the nostalgia sweepstakes. Perhaps the most self-mythologizing generation of all, those feisty postwar babies have demonstrated a singular talent for foisting their remembrances on the rest of us, like a neighbor freshly returned from a painstakingly documented African safari.
Just wait, though: The next few years should be even worse. We’re approaching the 50th anniversaries of all the events of the late 1960s. For the remainder of the decade, we can expect a brand-new wave of melodramatic retrospectives, each designed to remind us of a magical time when boomer heads were packed full of idealistic notions and covered in lustrous, free-flowing hair. But just as what goes up must come down, what frolics in the mud of Woodstock must eventually sulk in the fluorescent chill of the cardiology office. Somehow, as boomers age, their commitment to dragging that dusty ’60s archival reel out of the basement yet again seems to grow exponentially.
While griping about boomer nostalgia has become a somewhat common art, the cultural impact of that nostalgia transcends mere annoyance. Through sheer repetition and force of will, boomers have so thoroughly indoctrinated us into their worldview that we all now reflexively frame most current affairs through the lens of another generation’s formative experiences. Every war is compared to the Vietnam War (forget that there’s no draft anymore); every plea for peace dredges up 50-year-old songs and slogans; every music festival is filtered through hazy memories of Woodstock’s incomparable magic (that is, when Woodstock itself isn’t being outright reenacted); and every civil rights protest is held up to those legendary marches on Washington and Selma of half a century ago.
How could it be any different? Boomers have been ruminating on the lasting impact and eternal reverberations of their glory days ever since their glory days ended. When Maureen Dowd closes her eyes, she “can easily flash back to a time when it was cool to call people in uniform ‘pigs’ and ‘baby killers.’ ” James Wolcott says that for kids his age, the death of John F. Kennedy “was like losing a father, a father who had all our motley fates in his hands.” (For the kids who’d already lost their fathers, it was presumably like losing a father all over again.) Pre-boomer (but prominent boomer mouthpiece) Tom Brokaw knew, when covering Bobby Kennedy’s campaign right before he was murdered, that he “had been in the presence of greatness.” Joe Klein calls Bobby Kennedy’s speech after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. “the substance and music of politics in its grandest form and highest purpose — to heal, to educate, to lead. Sadly, his speech also marked the end of an era.”
Of course, pretty much everything that ever happened to boomers when they were younger marked the end of an era. Culturally, boomers shut down the club, then set it on fire, then blew it up, then boarded the last train leaving the station, and nothing that’s happened since can possibly measure up.
Just a glance at the countless ceremonies and op-eds and books commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in 2013 foreshadows the oncoming deluge of egocentric reveries on the something-or-other to end all something-or-others. “I still remember the day the whole world changed!” boomers will tell us, revisiting an incident that embodied the loss of innocence for the youths of the white middle class; presumably the poor or brown-skinned children lost their innocence in some harsher and far less symbolic way. There’s never much focus on the soul-sucking realities of boomer life for girls or minorities or poor kids with names that are hard to pronounce. It might be refreshing to see footage of a black family saying something like: “We didn’t pay much attention to Woodstock, honestly. We were too worried that our church would get bombed by the Klan.”
Likewise, instead of hearing, in maximally melodramatic terms, how the crises of the ’60s changed American culture forever, it could be instructive for some first-person witness to marvel at how swiftly the American public returned to its vise-like embrace of the status quo after the smoke cleared. We’ve seen footage and photos of every major event from 1960 to 1969: Jackie Kennedy waving in her pink pillbox hat; Lyndon Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One; MLK speaking to crowds in Washington; corpses of women and children lying in a ditch after the My Lai massacre. But those narratives usually leave out the stubborn determination of comfortable Americans to resist lasting social change. Because of the Mobius strip of iconic ’60s images that’s been playing in our heads since many of us were children — each image ending with a glorious, redesigned social order — it’s perhaps jarring for boomers to admit just how little has changed or that many of them gave up the good fight a long time ago. Yet here we are: The wealth gap between the rich and the poor is wider than ever, the gender pay gap persists, benefits and support for working mothers are paltry to nonexistent, and many of our cities and towns remain functionally segregated.
The nation has faced heartbreak on an unimaginable scale since the ’60s. The ’70s served up an oil crisis and the seizure of hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Iran. The ’80s and ’90s saw a crack cocaine epidemic, more embassy bombings, riots in Los Angeles, New York and Washington. The horrors of 9/11 unfolded on live TV as the nation watched, paralyzed and stunned. The atrocities of the Iraq invasion and the ongoing war in Afghanistan have kicked up the specter of a nightmarish return to terrain we thought we put behind us permanently when the Vietnam War ended in 1975. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina brought with it the reminder that we still suffer from the same deeply ingrained racism the civil rights movement fought to eradicate. And over the past two years, Black Lives Matter activists have jolted the country awake, tirelessly reminding us that America is still an unsafe place for black people, demonstrated in part by the nearly 30 unarmed African Americans killed by police so far in 2015.
The past decade has offered up dozens of groundbreaking historical moments, from the election of the first black U.S. president to the collapse of the world economy, incited by unchecked Wall Street banks. An enormous wave of social turmoil has knocked Americans off our feet in the past two years alone, with new evidence of racial injustice unfolding before our eyes almost every other day. Yet our pundits continue to frame our experiences as a pale shadow of the ’60s — not as righteous, not as dignified, not as real, not as serious. Instead of unpacking our adjectives in support of the revolutionary acts we’re witnessing right now, we save the most grandiose and breathtaking pronouncements for decades-old events.
If the past few years are going to reverberate into the future — as boomers claim the tumult of the ’60s has — then we need to stop thinking of these events as echoes of some far more authentic revolution immortalized by the Beatles decades ago. We’ve fallen into the habit of putting the past on a pedestal while scrolling past the change taking place around us, greeting the latest global-warming figures with the same inattention we give pizza rat and “27 Tweets About Donald Trump That’ll Actually Make You Laugh.” Maybe it’s time to take a page from the boomer playbook and apply the Ken Burns effect — that slow zoom into archived photos with “Break on Through” by the Doors playing in the background — to the revolution happening right under our noses. As black children are assaulted and killed on our streets and in our schools, as Syrian migrants drown in the Aegean Sea, as U.S. drones patrol foreign lands, as our planet heats up and spirals into chaos, we should treat the injustice and violence of modern times with even more solemnity than that with which we regard the milestones of half a century ago. And we should find a way to borrow some of the boomers’ intensity and grandiosity in daring to take the high stakes of our current moment seriously.
Looking back is important and instructive. But nostalgia can also be a way of pretending that our work is already done. As King told the crowds in Washington in 1963, “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. . . . Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
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