The baby boomers are a popular target, but Helen Andrews goes after them in her debut book for unpopular reasons. The successes that everyone else grants the boomers, she considers failures. Racial progress? That’s stolen valor from Dr. King’s generation. Boomers threw so much money at the race problem that it became too lucrative to solve. Women’s liberation? Only for the “atypical woman.” On the whole, boomer feminism left women worse off, she insists, “taking the choice that was making most of them happy”—homemaking—“and removing it from the set of options.” The mass entry of women into higher education? If you can call that an education, Andrews retorts. Sexual liberation? Mere cover to “make women more sexually available to men.” The poor boomers couldn’t even get leftism right. “If a left-wing party is no longer the party of the working class, what good is it?” she asks. “What left is it?”
In short, Boomers is outrageous fun. While social-justice warriors topple statues of the past, Andrews is after the popular idols of our day. A senior editor at the American Conservative, Andrews is known best as an essayist, and for my money there is nobody better at her trade. Call her approach “revisionism from the right.” She relitigates the arguments we all thought were settled and routs the side that history deemed victorious. This entails championing Anthony Comstock and the Society for the Suppression of Vice, defending Rhodesia and Robert Moses, illuminating the virtues of cigarettes and anti-suffragettes, supporting the patronage system over the promotion of merit, and arguing for the spirit of noblesse oblige over the professionalization of reform. She seems to have read everything, or certainly enough to know that if the right is ever going to piece together a usable map of the past, it will have to confront the boomers. Their generational story, of successive moral and political emancipations from a benighted past, exerts too much cultural power. It stands in our way.
Boomers is no thought experiment; it has characters. The book is structured around six essays, each of which begins as a portrait of a prominent baby boomer: Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin, Jeffrey Sachs, Camille Paglia, Al Sharpton, and Sonia Sotomayor. From those six starting points, Andrews roams like a free safety. Each essay disputes recent progress and substitutes a story of decline and fall. But is the baby-boomer generation, born between 1945 and 1964, truly responsible for what has gone wrong?
The essay on Sonia Sotomayor devotes much of its analysis to the decisions of the Warren Court (1953–69). Justice Earl Warren “changed America more than any single human being in the second half of the twentieth century,” Andrews writes. One problem: Warren was born in 1891—not a boomer.
The most developed example in the essay, which successfully demonstrates how institutions fold before bullies who know how best to play the victim, is the 1963 school-prayer case. Here, “a pudgy self-involved Communist”—atheist plaintiff Madalyn Murray—“almost single-handedly eliminated a practice older than the country whose Constitution she so brazenly manipulated.” This had an “enervating effect,” because “no religion on earth can sustain itself without being passed along to children,” she writes. “Teach someone a language when he is young, and when he grows up, he can learn another. Teach him no language and he will be a wolf boy forever.” Blame Murray, born in 1919, if you like, but don’t blame the wolf boys.
The boomers did, however, take up the school-prayer method of social change: precedent-setting cases planned by nonprofit public-interest lawyers. Common-law doctrine hadn’t previously allowed third parties to subsidize litigation for their own ends, but that’s what public-interest law is, Andrews explains: “By the time the gay rights movement hit its stride at the turn of the century, no one any longer thought it odd that such far-reaching social changes should be accomplished through highly choreographed plaintiff selection and organized harassment of shop owners.”
How does Boomers apportion responsibility? “The Warren Court opened the door to unlimited judicial activism, but it took a younger, bolder generation to shed the self-imposed limits on arbitrary power that the pre-boomer generations still felt.” In other words, the boomers walked through an open door.
That’s also the story in the whirlwind of an essay centered on Camille Paglia, the “sex-positive, gender-bending, pornography lauding, prostitute worshipping” scholar-celebrity. Paglia, the author of “Madonna—Finally, a Real Feminist,” is the perfect choice to show how boomer hopes of sexual liberation and cultural enrichment became a cruel joke. By removing restraints, pushing boundaries, and lionizing the low, the boomers degraded sexual relations, culture, and education.
But when it’s time to explain how restraints on indecency were removed, Andrews turns to lawyer Charles Rembar, born in 1915. Usually cast as a free-speech hero, Rembar vindicated Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1959, when the oldest boomer was 14, with a brilliant and cynical argument: No matter the obscenity, “the government could not suppress a book if it had merit as literature.” It’s cynical because who, after all, is fit to assess artistic merit? The experts. “That effectively canceled almost all censorship at a stroke,” Andrews writes, “for even in 1966,” when Rembar finished off the remains of U.S. decency law, “there was no work of art so repellent that it could not find a defender in some English department somewhere.”
Andrews is persuasive that our present state of affairs—the sustained education of the young on seriously disturbed pornography—is not a necessary consequence of freedom or Wi-Fi. Nor does the First Amendment require the state to pretend to be unable to distinguish Brazzers from Balzac. Pornography wouldn’t be so easy to access were it not for destruction of the decency-law regime. But boomers didn’t do that. And as Andrews herself explains, once it got started, “the onrushing debauch had a momentum of its own.” The Pill, mentioned only once in Boomers, certainly did its part to pull the rug out from under traditional sexual morality. Would anything have changed had Camille Paglia never emerged as a fiery social critic in 1990 and instead remained obscure?
The book’s best essay, only ostensibly on Al Sharpton, is riveting, fresh, and unconventional on race relations, where we’ve come to expect the stalest orthodoxies. Andrews’s first key example is the failure of Martin Luther King’s 1966–67 Chicago Freedom Movement. King, not a boomer, couldn’t rally the support to open Chicago’s ethnically exclusive neighborhoods. While he wanted to transform the city, local black leaders and many residents seemed to prefer Mayor Richard J. Daley’s transactional machine politics: Supply the votes and you’ll be taken care of. “For the average black citizen of Chicago,” Andrews writes, “Daley’s method of politics simply had more to offer.”
This cold splash of political realism is shocking but salutary, even if Andrews’s prior description of squalid conditions in black neighborhoods leads one to question how well Daley was serving them. Her analysis forces us to ask who delivers the goods, not who’s on the side of the angels.
Andrews also brings realism to the subject of affirmative action. “By the standards of equality under law,” it is self-evidently an outrage. “But by the standards of human history, it is tediously ordinary.” Tammany Hall balanced its ticket with one Irishman, one Italian, and one Jew, and it had nothing to do with justice or the benefits of diversity. “Groups compete for resources, and keeping the peace between them requires monitoring how resources are apportioned.”
Andrews isn’t offended that liberal principles are violated, only that our prudishness about it makes matters worse than they have to be. It turns out we really do need an honest conversation about race. Because the country pretends to have transcended race-based patronage, our spoils system is controlled not through the democratic process but through lawsuits, bureaucratic maneuvers, and fringe activist pressure. From government payrolls to affirmative-action slots and diversity-training contracts, the patronage only metastasizes. “Boss Tweed would have been appalled at the inefficiency,” Andrews writes. “He would also have been appalled at the sanctimony.” But he would have recognized the purpose: sustaining the Democratic coalition. America’s race problem survives, Boomers argues, “because the people invested in it gain too much from it to let it go away. It is the most tawdry, boring thing in the world: group favoritism. It’s patronage.”
Blithe civil-rights idealism leaves the backroom deal-making to unsavory characters. Jesse Jackson, who led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s “Operation Breadbasket” in Chicago, picked up the ball where MLK dropped it. Jackson, born in 1941, used picketing, boycotts, and gang intimidation to coerce local businesses to meet his quotas of black employees. A few decades earlier, Andrews writes, this would all have been an illegal “conspiracy against a lawful business by a third party seeking to impose its political preferences.” In the absence of that legal barrier, Jackson would graduate to shaking down big corporations with the threat of antidiscrimination lawsuits.
Where does Al Sharpton, the boomer, come in? He later adopted the same tactics as Jackson, Andrews explains. If you’re trying to indict the boomers, this is a problem. But the point is more important. To get his way, Jackson originally had to rally black consumers to his boycotts. But soon popular support became superfluous; he needed convince only the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Why bother organizing a boycott when persuading a regulator to threaten a business deal can get you what you want in half the time?” Andrews asks, and there’s no good answer. “Jesse Jackson’s career—indeed, the whole civil rights movement after 1970—has been dedicated to circumventing that democratic system.”
One of her best examples is court-mandated busing. To discuss its failures, however, Andrews reaches back to 1954 and the District of Columbia’s school integration. The results of the experiment, including playground violence and disruption of classroom education to accommodate unprepared students, were so bad that many white families fled the D.C. public schools, lastingly defeating integration. Boomers suggests that activists should have compromised with opponents and passed slow-and-steady school integration through the legislatures. But it’s unlikely this was available in 1954. What if the courts were the only option?
The book is stronger in rejecting the ascription of busing’s failure and white flight only to racism—whites’ “self-generated fears” of black neighbors, per Ta-Nehisi Coates. Take Mattapan, a Jewish neighborhood of Boston. After an influx of black residents, many subsidized by the city and an urban-renewal banking consortium, Andrews writes, the community was struck by 30 robberies a week. Acid was thrown in the local rabbi’s face. The Jewish community shrank from 10,000 in 1968 to 2,500 in 1972 not because it was racist, but because it was under attack. Nor was this the only community destroyed; great American cities became unsafe and declined for decades.
Why don’t boomers recall these lessons? For one, much of the white flight occurred while they were still in short pants. “Preserving the boomers’ liberalism on race was, in many cases, precisely why their parents had fled to the suburbs,” Andrews writes. Civil-rights marchers Bernie and Roz Ebstein were not determined to leave their changing Chicago neighborhood until their kids began expressing racial resentments. “‘You believe this stuff about integration,’ their eldest told them, ‘but we’re living it.’” After a black student pulled a knife on their son, the Ebsteins moved to a safer area, “where little David and Steven would no longer have their liberal opinions beaten out of them.”
Maybe Irving Kristol’s definition of a neoconservative, “a liberal who has been mugged by reality,” should be read more literally. Safe in the suburbs, there were few muggings and fewer reality checks. Andrews considers it “a mark of white flight’s success that so many boomers are willing to believe Ta-Nehisi Coates’s lies about it.”
In the essay on the development economist Jeffrey Sachs, Andrews discusses America’s engagement with weaker countries. She presents the pre-boomer push for decolonization as disastrous, empowering appalling tyrants who turned their countries into Cold War kindling. Subsequent generations are held responsible mostly for their refusal to learn from the mistake.
Andrews would rather we accept American empire and do a better job of it. Because Americans can’t fess up to empire, she explains, we waste time and money “laundering our imperialism through international organizations” and NGOs, which make our efforts more corrupt and less effective. That’s typical boomer idealism, Andrews wants to say. Boomers close their eyes to the difficult reality, but this doesn’t make it go away. It just makes them stumble around like drunks. The point is a good one, and its implications are more than transgressive enough to entice.
Boomers is a bracing, ambitious book, and we could use more like it. Its argument would be more effective, however, if it were framed in terms of America’s national character rather than the boomers’ generational character. It is notable, for instance, how often the problems Boomers identifies have to do with the overbearing influence of lawyers—a phenomenon recognized in America even before it won independence.
The book’s own examples suggest that, more often than not, baby boomers followed the national trend, walking down the path their antecedents had paved. Andrews’s talk of a “boomer revolution,” of a magnitude she can compare only to the Protestant Reformation, doesn’t fit the evidence adduced. From Earl Warren to Sonia Sotomayor, Charles Rembar to Camille Paglia, and Jesse Jackson to Al Sharpton, there’s more continuity than rupture.
Andrews pierces many myths, helping us see that baby boomers have not solved as many problems, or closed as many doors, as they think they have. Yet Boomers falls for the generation’s biggest myth of all: its own outsize importance.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.