Boomer Individualism

fdbad82 2/12/20 4:42 PM #1913

In the late 2000s, Obama was still in office. I was a student, doing a project for a politics class, where I was making a documentary on politics in my home state, where I had to interview several local political figures, including LGBT activists, state senators, civil servants, and even members of an nascent Tea Party movement. What struck me is that regardless of political stance (center left to right), to a person, every time I would bring up the idea of even mild liberal or social democratic reforms, they would respond with dismissal, followed by a rant about how the young people needed to wake up and realize that “the only thing wrong with [the system] is that politicians sometimes fail to live up to it’s ideal“. After I asked one democrat what I thought was a fairly anodyne question, he responded with a very long and angry rant about the black panthers, the Soviet Union, and how all young radicals eventually grow up and realize that our system is the best. From people like David Horowitz, to Randall Roth, to Peter Hitchens, there has been a whole small cottage industry of baby boomers who were, or claim to have been socialists in their youth, and therefore claim to have special intellectual authority on why socialism is wrong(tm).

Most of these people have rather dubious socialist credentials. For example, Roth’s experience with communism, in his own words:

I started reading about communism, and I liked what I read. I liked the idea of people contributing according to their ability and consuming according to their need. I also liked the thought of selfless leaders working for the greater good…After college I entered the Society of Jesus (also known as the Jesuits), having a few months earlier gotten what some people refer to as a “calling.” But after a year living under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, my Jesuit superiors and I agreed that my calling had been a wrong number. Poverty and chastity had been easy for me, but obedience was impossible. Two years later, I met an attractive young woman on a city bus, Susie Worm. We got married a few months later—and although it was the best thing that ever happened to me, it didn’t change the way I looked at myself and my world. That happened when our first child was born. Everything changed. It was if I had been blind and then, suddenly, I could see. Many people can probably tell a similar story. One of my favorites comes from the indomitable Gladys Brandt, who, before co-authoring the “Broken Trust” essay had served as principal of Kamehameha Schools and chairperson of the UH Board of Regents. Gladys told me that all the way through school, she had been a “brat,” appreciating nothing and feeling responsibility to no one. But then a day came when she was a student teacher and the regular teacher failed to show up. Gladys stepped to the front of the room. As she turned around and looked at the students, she said she almost fell to her knees when she saw all those innocent little eyes looking squarely at her, trusting her totally. Gladys resolved then and there never again to be so unworthy. My brush with communism, a year in the Jesuits, and just watching what was going on elsewhere in the world made me appreciate Winston Churchill’s observation that democracy is the worst form of government … except for all the others.

So, he became a communist because he read some communist literature, and stopped because he flunked out of seminary and then had a kid? Notice how he relates this to the anecdote about his friend being a ‘brat’ who became a responsible adult when she had to teach a class. Roth seems to be implying that abandoning left wing views is part of the process of maturing into an adult. While this may seem like a bizzare non sequitur to most younger readers, it is actually a very typical ‘boomer’ experience with leftism. Baby boomers grew up in a culturally conservative, leave-it-to-beaver, pleasantville/stepford wives 1950s society that also was heavily steeped in anti communist cold war paranoia. As a generation, Boomers rebelled against this in various ways like growing their hair, listening to rock and roll, taking drugs, and becoming “leftists”. For the vast majority of them, embrace of radical politics was never about serious intellectual critique of capitalism nor was it about their economic precarity. Baby Boomers grew up in a post-WW2 society where college tuition was $700 a semester, a degree virtually guaranteed a job in management, and an 18 year old could walk out of high school and into a trade or unionized factory job with a wage that paid for a whole house and family, as well as having a defined pension.

David Brooks is yet another one of those people. Recently, he wrote a piece in the New York Times entitled, “I Was Once a Socialist. Then I Saw How It Worked: Two cheers for capitalism, now and forever.” All the familiar tropes of right wing boomer ‘both-side-ism’ are there: Mind numbing prose about how leftism is for youthful idealists, combined with some second hand regurgitations of Hayek in addition to the standard anti-socialist pablum.

Many people wonder how the generation that dropped acid at Woodstock in 1968 could end up becoming the ‘me generation’ 10 or so years later – becoming yuppies, moving to the suburbs, buying SUVs, voting for Ronald Reagan, and eventually implementing 30+ years of neoliberalism. In truth, there was no major change in their mentality at all. And that is because the baby boomer ideology isn’t liberalism or leftism – and it isn’t conservatism or libertarianism either. The true ideology of the baby boomer generation is what I like to call boomer individualism.

Boomer Individualism

Jewish intellectual Bernard Reisman once wrote:

The core value of the Boomers is individualism. They have been identified as the “me generation.” Underlying their individualistic orientation in the assumption that society has afforded too much power to collectivities such as the family, community, and religion. The perception of the Boomers is that these collectivities inhibit and repress the individual. Their objective has been to diminish the power of the collectivity and thereby assure more autonomy for the individual… One of the by-products of hyper-individualism is the diminution of the basic capacity of society and its collectivities, the family, community and religion, to influence the lives of people, either in the sense of support or restraints.

This is a fairly concise and accurate description of boomer individualism, but Reisman actually doesn’t go far enough. As a religious intellectual, Reisman is concerned with baby boomer’s relative lack of adherence to the authority of traditional institutions like the family, community, and religion. However, I would argue that boomer individualism also applies equally to other institutions like trade unions, government, and the welfare state. Right wing libertarianism and today’s crop of neoliberal boomer democrats come from the same root ideology. A selfish, disingenuous, performative leftism born of base desires for sex, drugs and rock and roll, a rebelliousness against parental and societal restrictions in youth, dovetails perfectly into an adult rebelliousness against financial and governmental regulations and the social strictures of great society era probity with regards to greed.
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