Baby bust

>> Monday, December 12, 2011

One of the most unsettling moments of 2008 campaign came when Barack Obama told an interviewer, "I come from a new generation of Americans; I don't want to fight the battles of the '60s." What an oddly cavalier thing to say. Obama's presidential campaign, in fact, most of his career, would not have been possible without the battles of the '60s. I wasn't sure what was worse, that he believed what he said, that he thought we'd reached some kind of post-racial, post-ideological promised land, that we’d won the battles of the '60s? Or that he didn't, but he thought it was a politically winning message, putting all that muss and fuss behind us. I have to think it's the latter. He's a smart man.

Obama's comments about the '60s shouldn't have been surprising. He’d already gone on in the same vein in his second book, "The Audacity of Hope." There he confided that "in the back and forth between [Bill] Clinton and [Newt] Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation--a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago--played out on the national stage."

The vicious GOP crusade against Clinton had been like an old college feud? Gingrich had proposed putting the children of welfare recipients in orphanages, and blamed Democrats for Susan Smith drowning her little boys. He personally wrote the GOP playbook for demonizing Democrats, advising other Republicans to call them "sick," "corrupt," "destructive," "traitors" and about 50 other words for depravity. And Obama likened his differences with Clinton to the rumbling of rival frat boys? Obama did nod to "the victories that the 60s brought about" in the book, but he also blamed the Clinton-Gingrich gridlock on a case of "arrested development" among Americans raised in postwar affluence. So maybe there’s some kind of karma in the unlikely but growing possibility that the president himself will have to face Gingrich head to head in 2012. It’s becoming clear we’re still fighting "the battles of the '60s."
-Joan Walsh, "When Obama underestimated Newt",
Salon, December 11th, 2011

I wasn't impressed with Obama's analysis at the time. It was hard to know if he was just posturing for electoral purposes but it sounded to me like it could be a harbinger of things to come--an unwillingness to come to terms with the very real faultlines in American politics.
Digby, "Newtie in Nixonland",
Hullabaloo, December 11th, 2011

A funny thing about President Obama, I think, is his age: he was born in August, 1961, so he's almost exactly halfway between my parents' ages and my age; too young to be a Boomer like them and too young, really, to comfortably be a Gen Xer like myself. But in a lot of ways, his attitudes do seem, at times at least, to track more closely to an Xer's than to a Boomer's; at any rate, he's young enough to be my older brother and no way he could be my dad.1

I mention this because when I read Walsh's piece over the weekend, I just sort of assumed she was old. Sorry. Not old, I mean, my parents aren't that old or anything. (Why do I suddenly foresee irate calls from the 'rents this week?) But I figured Walsh, who I really do love, just didn't grok it because she was a Boomer and hung up on her own generation the same way so many Boomers are--sorry to paint with a broad brush and hastily generalize and so on, I know it's terrible of me, etc., but there it is and if that's going to be a showstopper for you, maybe you should go ahead and stop reading because that's kind of what this piece is about. Anyway, that's the conclusion I leapt to, but I shouldn't have, because then I looked it up on Wikipedia and Ms. Walsh is only three years older than the President, which seems like it shouldn't make a difference but maybe it does. Then I read the Digby piece today, and--well, I have no idea how old Digby is, to be honest.

All of this probably sounds overly personal, I realize. Somebody is probably already asking themselves, "Why does it matter how old Joan Walsh, or Digby, or Barack Obama, or Eric VanNewkirk (whoever the hell he thinks he is) are?" Age might be a suspect class, like gender or ethnicity or orientation.

But the thing is, I understood exactly what the President was saying in the quotes Walsh cited, I immediately got it and agreed with it, and I didn't find it distressing so much as I found it perceptive and agreeable. And I suspect--I don't know, maybe I'm way-off-base--but I suspect I'm not the only person in my generational cohort who read or heard those lines from the President and nodded their heads, not because of some kind of post-partisan fantasy but because, really, we are just so disappointed in and burned-out on our parents' generation.

There, I said it. Goodness knows, I'm not saying, necessarily, that we're disappointed in our parents, specifically; I love mine to death. (Oh gods, I think the phone might already be ringing.) But the Boomers as a generation--to the extent that there can be anything like collective guilt for being a collective letdown.... When I put it like that, of course, it sounds silly and irrational, and maybe it is silly and irrational. And yet.

There's a certain irony in the fact that the sense of fatigue with the Boomers was summed up as well as anybody could do it by a Baby Boomer in 1976; a disillusioned, defeated-sounding Jackson Browne asked his listeners to "say a prayer for the pretender, who started out so young and strong only to surrender." The generation that was in college during the late '60s, fighting those battles Walsh alluded to, aged out of the draft while the Vietnam war wound down, and what did most of them do except cut their hair, get straight jobs and, when the economy went to shit in the late '70s, vote for Ronald Reagan? I know that's harsh and plenty of people really did keep a flame guttering in the candle holder, but it's hard not to feel "the changes [they] waited for love to bring", to paraphrase Browne, were less than "fitful dreams of some greater awakening".

It's only a matter of time until one generation starts replacing preceding generations in places that matter. They inherit the political positions and boardroom offices, and you judge them against the people they replaced. And when the political Boomers began filling Congress in the late '80s and early '90s, it was hard not to see them quickly turning out to be a letdown. I should probably go back and clarify something, which is that we all know, perhaps contra Browne, that not every Boomer was a longhaired hippie peacenik, that some of the guys who started taking the reins in those late/post-Reagan years weren't any more hypocritical or sold-out than they had been when they were in the Young Republicans. But it was hard not to see any of these people as anything but a letdown as compared to some of their elders; I mean that whether you agreed or disagreed with Bob Dole or Ted Kennedy, whether you even liked either of those guys, there was something historic, for want of a better word, stuck to their like. You could hate everything Bob Dole stood for and think he was a sanctimonious prick, and he was still a guy who lost the use of his arm defeating Hitler. Kennedy was a little younger and avoided being deployed to Korea while he was in the army, but you might still dislike his politics and personal foibles while seeing him as a last vestige of Camelot for all the good and bad that might entail. But as for the guys coming into power behind them: it just seems sort of obvious to me that there was something entitled and unprincipled about so many of them, I don't think it's just me.

So I think a lot of us saw what the President describes, yes: that the fight between Clinton and the House Republicans looked just like a bunch of Young Republicans alumni who had supported Nixon way back in the day trying to even the score by bringing down a kind of smarmy sellout of the sort Jackson Browne had described. Joan Walsh tries to dismiss that with the rhetorical, "The vicious GOP crusade against Clinton had been like an old college feud?" Well, yeah, yeah it was. And again, with, "And Obama likened his differences with Clinton to the rumbling of rival frat boys?" Well, no: not like frat boys, but like a bunch of Young Repubs and Federalist Society members who really don't care about the issues or the country nearly as much as they care about their team "winning". It's not that they don't have an ideology as such, they do; it's that the ideology really ultimately takes a back seat to an Untouchables-approach of "they send one of yours to the hospital, we send one of theirs to the morgue", and of course the guy the Democrats had hospitalized was Richard Milhous Nixon so Clinton was the one the Republicans decided to bag and bury, addressing a grudge these punks had held since they were eighteen.

President Obama seems to get that, I get that, I suspect a lot of people in my generation get that. And to comment on it, I think, wasn't so much an expression of some kind of post-partisan naïveté so much as a sort of STFUA that a lot of us wish would register with Boomer Republicans like Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist and, to a lesser extent, with Boomer Democrats like the Clintons. We get that some of you are angry because dirty smelly hippies got laid more often than you did and your guy Nixon got treated like the schmuck he was instead of getting a pass like the Kennedys always seemed to get. We get that some of you are smug because you went to a couple of concerts and then the Vietnam War ended without your draft number getting pulled, and it was almost like one of those had something to do with the other, so I guess you ended the war, didn't you? We get that when the smoke cleared and your deferments and National Guard stints and sham postings ended, you all went and got nice jobs and haircuts and put away your Indian jewelry and ran political campaigns for your parents and your parents' friends and were mentored by these guys who, really, had actually done something with their lives other than go to college, smoke pot, and get jobs after graduation, and now you feel groomed, you feel entitled, you feel like the sons and natural heirs, the inevitable end product of the system that produced you and now you have some personal issues to resolve, scores to settle, scales to balance, you have agendas and contracts that are really just window dressing for trying to buttress your personal inadequacies and lack of accomplishing anything more than winning a popularity contest in your district, your state, your nation.

We get it. Now STFUA.

Walsh points at the poisonousness of Newt Gingrich's '90s rhetoric as if it were evidence that this was something more than a college grudge being played out while the whole country was held hostage to it. Actually, Gingrich's rhetoric--e.g. blaming Susan Smith's murders on Democrats--was sophomoric; it was also the kind of nonsense trash-talk you'd expect from someone who doesn't know what he's talking about and really doesn't care what he's talking about so long as it sounds like it might obscurely score points on the other team. The truth is that while such language was undeniably a nadir of discourse, it could only really be described as "vile" if you took it infinitely more seriously than such facially-ludicrous statements could possibly be taken. The rhetoric of Gingrich and other House Republicans against the Clintons in the '90s was too idiotic to justify taking offense over, possessing all the intellectual coherence and perspicacity of Bluto's rallying speech in Animal House (albeit with none of John Belushi's charm; but, really, how much of Republican political grandstanding of the past several decades is even better summed up in Otter's follow-through to Bluto's rant: "I think this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part and we're just the guys to do it"?). It was always the kind of inane rhetoric you heard in college from campus conservatives who didn't really know what the hell they were talking about, but that didn't matter so much as whether they won races.

I really think, unfortunately, that what the President thought when he took office was that he didn't have a dog in the fight, so maybe the chowderheads wouldn't still be pursuing their stupid vendettas against their old college rivals. I can't really fault him for that: he's a reasonable man, and it would be unreasonable and asinine for somebody to transfer their old grudges--which were really pretty stupid things to be hung up on at this point, anyway--to the new meat. There's a battle between Republicans who are around Newt Gingrich's age and the left that nobody younger or older than a Baby Boomer ought to have even the least bit of interest in (assuming, arguendo, a Boomer ought to care, which is frankly a dubious and pathetic proposition). I would call this a cultural battle, except that tends to confuse it with legitimate cultural battles such as the proper role (if any) of religion in politics, how to handle class differences, and acceptance of differing others; legitimate battles that are parallel to and sometimes intertwined with a more personal battle between people who were in school together forty years ago and still feel a personal contempt for one another that is rooted not just in ideologies and lifestyles but in ancient tribal affiliations that may well transcend ideology; Clinton, after all, repudiated much of the left's ambitions, goals and past successes in order to score "wins" for his party, while Newt Gingrich is a huckster and hypocrite who has bounced from position to position not because of a personal evolution (it's no sin to change one's mind; it may even be virtuous) but solely to score "wins" for his party; "wins" being defined to these people as Congressional districts won, Senate seats held, offices filled, money raised. It would be nicer not to care about those old animosities and rivalries, not in a "post-partisan" way but in the sense of thinking one's own ideology is a good path for the country but being willing to have a meeting of the minds with another ideology and perhaps one side might be swayed or a compromise forged; the Vietnam War ended when I was three (Obama was fourteen) and hippies are an endangered species to be raised in captivity, I don't think I care all that much about the campus cliques of 1968 and it doesn't sound like the President does either. I'm tired and I'd like a jobs bill and bank regulation, but I guess that's too much to ask for.

But it hasn't worked out that way, of course. This is a problem with the Boomer generation, that not too many of them have proven worthy of inheriting their parents' mantles but all of these are nonetheless too young to step out of everyone else's way any time soon. I suppose I should add that I have no idea whether GenX is particularly worthy of anything, either (I think we're pretty good at sarcasm and feigned indifference, for whatever that could be worth), and I'm not about to add some dubious complaint along the lines of having been denied some imaginary opportunity to step in because of our elders' refusal to gracefully withdraw. (Besides which, the truth is that no generation ever has the sense to gracefully withdraw, not even the Greatest.) I just would say that at least some of us would be prepared to deal with the kernels of the issues arising from of the social and economic transformations of the last several decades without much interest in the chaff. I think some of us would be ready to say our elders had a shot at doing well and ended up not-so-young and not-so-strong, who ended up, one might say, striving to be "happy idiots".

So I get what the President was saying, but Joan Walsh doesn't and Digby doesn't, and I have to wonder: do a few years make such a big difference as that? Or are these writers being willfully obtuse to make a different point? Or have they gotten so wound up in the nonsensical Dodgsonian realm American politics have devolved into that they can't see what an eye-blistering mess it's become. (An aside about the previous descriptor: Lewis Carroll's works are typified by absurdity and a love for math, and how could that be any better as a description for a political system in which madmen say ridiculous things in a surreal environment in which the overarching motives are increasingly decontextualized numbers: how many seats have we won (it doesn't matter who's sitting in them, the letter following the name we don't care about is sufficient)? how much money have we raised (and it doesn't matter where we got it from or what they want for it)?)

Digby concludes that it's good news that the President might be debating Newt Gingrich, if Gingrich wins his party's primary. Walsh isn't so sure because, really, Gingrich shouldn't be allowed into the debates at all because he's a big fat lying liar. I'm going to see Walsh on that one and raise with the fact that Gingrich, more than many others in his party, is emblematic of the political culture the President derided as (I'll paraphrase) a collegiate pissing contest. In that regard, Gingrich is a political Boomer relic, a ghost of the '90s and it really would be great if we could just attribute his reemergence to a blot of mustard (I'm afraid, however, he is indeed rattling the chains he forged in life at us, all Marleylike and incontestable in his presence). The really bad news is that whether Gingrich is nominated or not, and whether he wins or not, he is too old to be put up with any more and too young to retire, and we shall have years of suffering ahead of us.

We shan't be moving past the sixties at all.

1Digby claims Obama as a Boomer like herself, and I will give her this: the Census Bureau agrees with her. The problem is that by at least two definitions of the generational cohort--Landon Jones, who coined the term, and that of Strauss and Howe (see previous link)--Obama was born a year after the boom ended in 1960 (the President was born in August, 1961); indeed, the President would perhaps more aptly be described as a member of Generation Jones if that term had any currency at all.

Generation X, meanwhile, has sometimes been defined as beginning in 1961.

On the one hand, this is possibly a sign of Obama's charisma even to people who maybe are a little frustrated with his job performance as President: we're fighting over including him in our respective cohorts, Digby and I both trying to say he belongs to ourselves. On the other hand, what this is really demonstrating is just how wiggly generational labels can really be; the President may be a Baby Boomer insofar as an arbitrary bright line might be drawn at the end of 1964 by the Census Bureau, but it still seems a bit ludicrous to say that he was more impacted by John Kennedy's assassination (a milestone event in most Boomers' lives) right after he turned two years old than he was by Star Wars (a milestone event in most members of my generation's lives; and yes, I realize there may be something pathetic in comparing a seminal national tragedy to a seminal pop film) when he was fifteen (Star Wars was released in May 1977; the President would turn 16 three months later).

So much for easy labels.


Anonymous,  Monday, December 12, 2011 at 9:47:00 PM EST  

I can't speak for everyone in my demographic, but I do know this...

Like Obama, I was also born in 1961. I was born a little later in the year - I just turned 50 a couple of weeks ago. But we're in the same general "generation".

That generation is most definitely NOT the Boomer generation. The people of my age group (and myself, and I assume, Obama) have almost nothing in common with the Boomers. We showed up too late to the party; culturally and economically, things were nowhere near the same for us as they were for people born even five years earlier.

Douglas Coupland's book "Generation X", which popularized the term (although it had been around prior to then) was actually about my, and Obama's, demographic - people born in the very late fifties and early sixties, who are clearly not Boomers but who keep getting lumped in with them. A sort of inconvenient in-between demographic that doesn't fit neatly into the broader generational divisions.

Anonymous,  Tuesday, December 13, 2011 at 10:02:00 AM EST  

While somewhat and necessarily muffled by the paper bag I'm wearing to conceal my Boomer/Bust self, I'm here to say "well done!"
My generation did largely settle on a one act play with no resolution scene and has drug it round the circuit so long we can all repeat it verbatim.
My generation is not President Obama's whether the folks you cite want to co-opt him or not and whether some arbitrary designation tries to stuff him in beside me or not.
The assumptions you are poking with a stick here need to be poked, maybe even whapped.
Jose Ortega y Gasset's notions of what constitutes a generation ( and the tensions between co-existing generations) is a more useful model for figuring out where a person really lives generationally. Mr Obama does not live in my generation.
I do wish he would drop the Centrists he's surrounded by but perhaps we Boomer/Busters need to drop them first. So far we have refused to ease the disconnect our own cockamamie notions has foisted on us all.
Don't know about your folks calling you- I wouldn't call my son were this his essay. Matter of fact, I screen my calls against the day he calls and demands I account for the particular messes of my generation.

Steve Buchheit Tuesday, December 13, 2011 at 11:12:00 PM EST  

Oh, Eric, don't you know you Mother know what you're typing on your blog while you're typing it. They're so disappointed. Just saying.

I think it should be a part of the political agreements we have with each other that the major political arguments we have had in the past are null and moot points when the music we listened to at the time we were making the arguments is rescored as muzak.

Pangolin Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 3:14:00 AM EST  

We shan't be moving past the sixties at all.

I thought we were still fighting the idiots that think the South should have won the Civil War.

Gen X will be cursed as the first generation that had really solid information proving that Climate Change was a real threat: and then did nothing.

Actually, as an X-er by any standard I'm pretty sure we suck. Life has gotten progressively worse since the day I was able to vote.

Nick from the O.C.,  Thursday, December 15, 2011 at 12:36:00 PM EST  

Nice post. I say that while disagreeing with your premise and your points.

Obama, like me, is a Boomer. We're just at the end of the tail, is all. We're three or five or six standard deviations away from the Boomer mean. Sucks to be us, but that's what we are.

And having lived through the nineties, and having voted Republican in 1994, I must say I feel somewhat qualified to disagree with your analogy to disappointed Young Republicans trying to get back at Clinton for the fall of Nixon. Clinton was a lying liar from Day 1 (just ask Elizabeth Gracen) and he lied to everybody throughout his Presidency. The thing was, he was so flipping good at it that nobody could ever prove him to be the liar he was. It took a dirty dress and a "friend" with a tape recorder to finally get the evidence needed to show him in his true colors.

And then the Republicans squandered their relative moral advantage by those inane impeachment hearings. Sorkin was right and censure was the appropriate response. But I digress...

You ascribe to the Elephant vs. Donkey battle a motivation that I don't see. I don't think they need a motivation other than one group is in power and has the motorcades, while the other group is out of power and will do pretty much anything to get back into power.

President Obama may trivialize the battle, but he's a pretty good strategist (as his pre-Presidential political history shows). I think he gets it, whether or not he chooses to admit same during an interview.

But as I said, nice post. Prompted me to comment, which I never have done here before.

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