sábado, 23 de mayo de 2009

Baby Boomers vs ‘The Greatest Generation’

Here's another piece from several years back that I would love to see become the basis of a documentary... kind of a Ken-Russell-meets-the-Yes-Men, done by Chris Guest and Eugene Levy. There is a lot here that could be explicated using humor, and it might make for a cultural healing, if only we would let the ideas do their work.

Not long ago, a national magazine published an article called ‘The Worst Generation,’ contrasting the Baby-boomer generation of Americans (born between the end of World War II and the early 60s) with ‘The Greatest Generation’ (those who fought in World War II). The article set out to cast ‘Boomers’ into the shadow formed by their parents, attempting to show the quality of the latter group and the inferiority of the former. I read that article with interest – possibly self-interest, having had the random luck of being born between the two arbitrary year markers set out to start a description of a huge segment of the population.

Unlike many of my fellow ‘Boomers,’ I was raised by my grandparents, and so came to a fuller perspective on life, a perspective which might even be said is akin to that of the ‘Greatest Generation.’ Along with that perspective, there came some reasoning power, some thought-strength which alerts me when the entire thesis of an argument is flawed.

Comparisons of groups of people are ticklish affairs. Even studies of large groups of disparate types of people can be hazardous to your thinking. False premises abound for the unwary. The first is that any group might be homogeneous. Boomers, whose birth-range covers 18 years, can’t possibly represent a single generation in education, cultural and social perspective, general emotional maturity, intent, or knowledge. It is also an absurdity to assume that any subgroup of Boomers (grouped by other demographic factors than age) would be alike in many areas, because the rapidly-changing dynamics of the times preclude that one group of people can have the same outlook and focus as a group born so long previous.

Another false premise is that any segment of Boomers, grouped by a closer age-range, could represent an homogeneous group. I went to school with Young Republicans, while I was a radical who opposed the Vietnam War on moral grounds. But I didn’t hide in the Ivy Tower – I came from a Navy family and would have gladly served my country in a legitimate war that wasn’t a sham, both politically and morally. In fact, it angered me that my military career was curtailed by our country’s egregious foreign policies, which only deteriorated as time went on until we find ourselves (under-equipped) in Iraq with no ‘exit strategy.’

Not every Boomer dropped acid, spurned lipstick, or burned a draft card wrapped in a bra. To assume otherwise is the logical fault of painting an entire group with the same brush. I grew up with echoes of World War II ringing in my ears, shooting capguns at ‘japs’ and ‘nazis’ before I even knew the meaning of those words (having learned a not-so-subtle racism from the much-lauded ‘Greatest Generation’). A kid born in 1960 was an altogether different creature from my friends and myself, and the gap would become more pronounced as time went on. That kid, or one born in 1964, would always know JFK as some kind of hero on a big coin, and was just three years old during the Summer of Love, never even contemplating actually having sex until the Sixties were long over.

The cultural drift many decry is the result of many things: the growth of corporations and the spread of patents (both dating from the late Renaissance), the threat of annihilation, the experimentation with the economy – not to mention advertising, the true locust-cloud of our time. It is actually thought itself which has changed: attitudes toward life and other humans, and the manner in which each person faces the life bestowed. As time has compressed, the number of things in the world has increased, and our institutions and ethics have had an effortful and unsuccessful time keeping up with those changes.

A twenty-year generational grouping was probably perfect back when time – and events – moved at a more leisurely pace. But with the coming of the 20th century, things changed. Long is the list the events which sped those changes: telegraph, telephone, electric lighting, indoor plumbing, medical and other technical advances like airplanes, war tanks, and automobiles. Perhaps it was fair to call a ten-year grouping a ‘generation’ in the Roaring Twenties, but it cannot be to do so now. And to call an 18-year grouping a ‘generation’ is silly beyond belief. I frankly wonder that so many otherwise intelligent people fall for that faulty logic.

I also wonder why people continue to insist on unfavorably comparing the ‘Boomers’ with ‘The Greatest Generation’ – and vice-versa. Is it some sort of age-old father/son competition? Persons who do so are buying into a profound conceptual folly, taking potshots at a crowd which must include at least some of their heroes as well.

Actually, ‘potshots at a crowd’ is almost the perfect metaphor for the entire Boomer situation – and for any argument that idealises one generation at the expense of another. That afternoon at Kent State was the mirror held up to our times: one group of kids (Boomers) shooting into another group of unarmed kids (Boomers). Who put those guns in the kids’ hands? Who trained them to shoot and to follow orders? Who gave the fatal orders? It is unlikely that Boomers could have done any but the last item, and improbable that they did even that. Those green young National Guardsmen were schooled and molded by members of the ‘Greatest Generation.’

And the mirror doesn’t lie: everything my ‘generation’ learned, we learned from our fathers - and mothers. We learned, we absorbed, we synthesized and extended. Yet Boomers have been described as self-centered and self-aggrandising. Self-centered? For many, the Fifties was a self-centered bath of personal comforts, prepared by those celebrating their survival of the ‘Great Depression’ and the War. Self-aggrandising? Isn’t aggrandisement of self the subtle heart of the incipient racism and classism of previous generations (extending back, in America’s case, to ‘the founding fathers’)?

Each generation takes what it can take from the pool and gives what it will give – right, wrong or indifferent. It isn’t so much about ‘us and them’ as about ‘all of us and these changing exigencies of our lives.’ There are good and bad elements in every ‘generation,’ and I hope that we do not teach purblindness to the generations with whose future thought processes we have been trusted. It is the responsibility and duty of our teachers to teach openly and fairly, withholding personal bias in favor of seeking all the facts, to guide young minds to think for themselves – rather than to accept the party line or the rantings of embittered politicos who may happen to be their professors. Only by keeping our universities free, by not trying to control content, can we hope to have future generations which will be better than we are, more able to cope with changes, more suited to the future which they will inherit.

But the whole argument about ‘Boomers vs The Greatest Generation’ is one big exercise in cheap generalities, careless thought and sloppy argument. No wonder the larger fraction of the American public can’t think clearly, fed as they are on disingenuous pap, propaganda disguised as opinion, outright lies by their ‘leaders’ (whether cultural or political). Of course, that is what the public wants, after all - to be led and cosseted, and told what to think and do. The media continues to present them with a collection of half-baked sentiments masquerading as thoughts and ideas. But I shudder to realise that our colleges and universities harbor professors indulging in carelessness, in the shoddy building of thesis and argument, resulting in enormous waste of creative power.

But there is a third false premise in the pitting of one generation against another, a mistake made in almost every anti-war movie ever produced: the demonisation of one side. How can the audience really feel the waste and tragedy of war when that emotion is pushed aside by a stronger visceral reaction, one engendered by a discernible villain to hate? By casting one ‘generation’ against another, we miss the entire point: all generations have their noble few, their plodding many, their great and silent apathetic masses. They all possess within them individuals who are greedy, as well as the guileless, the cynical, and the idealistic.

We are all of us human, all marked with the same tendencies and needs and wants. These traits are part of the human psyche. Victorian women in New York suffered lead poisoning from the white makeup they slathered on themselves in an attempt to ‘stay in fashion.’ Others bound their waists so tightly that they irreparably damaged their viscera. Can we really believe that every woman of our grandmothers’ (or great-grandmothers’) generation would have spurned breast augmentation or liposuction – had it been safe, inexpensive, and available to them?

It is true that recent generations were generally ‘given everything,’ where most previous generations grew up in harsher conditions. Boomers were presented with opportunities at every turn, and had them thrust on us by the world at large and by our parents, who were admittedly affected by previous privations that could not be ignored. Some kids were spoiled by their parents, while other parents took the absurd tack of emulating their kids, which often made them look ridiculous indeed.

The simple fact is that Boomers just became much more visible than any previous generation, as the spread of television and the globalisation of our culture thrust us into people’s living rooms every night on sitcoms, on the news, in movies and in magazines and newspapers. As a group, we became the center of attention, and don’t think some of us didn’t deliberately play to it for all it was worth. But that situation too serves to distort the facts. It made us seem more important than we actually were, a point readily made if one looks at one item generally taken to be an immanently ‘Boomer’ phenomenon – marijuana. An overview of the recent history of marijuana reveals immediately that the Boomers as a ‘group’ still haven’t got the political clout to legalise the damn stuff after almost 50 years of effort. If the thesis of ‘generational homogeneity’ were even close to true, we’d all be buying packages of ‘Blue Boo’ or ‘Gentle Gauge’ or ‘Happy Herb’ or ‘420’ cigarets at the corner store, paying a hefty use tax to the government. But we’re not – what’s that about?

Like most of American life, it’s probably all about issues, and the truth is that there is no single ‘American public’ viewing (or deciding) the issues. There are only a collection of ‘publics,’ overlapping, sharing interests in a broader or narrower fashion – but no one group can even begin to embody the contradictions of the ‘American’ mind. Notions of homogeneity are nonsense – and even dangerous when included in ‘discussions’ in national magazines or on TV.

Some of us were fighting against the Vietnam action long before it threatened us – like ’64 or ’65, when we were still in public schools, not yet shaving, unaware of the true reality of that awful threat. Without their kids providing a conscience – for whatever reason – most Americans might have shrugged off the atrocities in Southeast Asia as ‘the cost of doing business,’ just as they are today shrugging off the war in Iraq as ‘a necessary part of bringing democracy to the Middle East’ (and oil to the world).

Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll weren’t invented by my ‘generation,’ though many of us often acted like they were. And there were a lot of fortysomethings crashing – and throwing – parties in the 60s and 70s. And yes, many Boomers did embrace Reagan’s rapacity (don’t forget that $3 trillion debt) – but they don’t represent the entirety of the ‘generation.’ And when we hear George W’s lectures on social responsibility, we have to remember that he personally has never shown any sort of fiscal responsibility and seeks to turn the entire country into Republicans through a variety of ‘parlor tricks.’

Of course, large parts of the ‘American public’ [not just Boomers] have said about Clinton, “How dare he behave like one of us!” Americans have a long and cherished history of pulling down their heroes for showing that they are human. The ‘straight press’ has only sniffed the wind and adjusted course to become the pillory of American society that the tabloid press had once been. We – all generations of Americans raised puritans in our schools, irrespective of religious affiliation – want our heroes perfect, impeccable, safe. In other words, dead. Anyone elevated to hero status has to die or fall, or America just won’t be happy.

Some wag called this new crop of little altruists ‘Letterman’s kids,’ ‘ironic but not cynical.’ Boy, does that miss more than one mark. Most of these kids wouldn’t know real irony if it bit them in the ass, and cynicism is endemic, though not the film-noir type with which we are familiar. It is ironic too that some think of Letterman as some paragon of social attitude, that man described elsewhere as “a 52-year old…stogie sucker … workaholic perfectionist whose scabrous self-loathing and growling hostility are unmatched on network TV.” Quite a choice for an ‘ironic but not cynical’ role model. Letterman’s faux-courteous but mocking attitude has infected a lot of young people, especially males, who think that mocking something is the same as understanding it, or improving it. None of Letterman's humor does anything to point toward improvement – it is puerile, smug, and extremely self-satisfied. He would do well to practice humility, since he does have so much to be humble about, sitting on the sidelines and jeering at others while offering no true perspective, no solutions, no answers.

It is truly ironic that the corporate models of late 20th-century America and the personal ethic of ‘captains of industry’ were all visited on us by the Harvard MBA Class of 1949. Gordon Gecko was only the natural extension of a philosophy that has been building for more than 150 years – at least since Vanderbilt sent William Walker and his small army of mercenaries to ‘pacify’ Nicaragua in 1847.

The logical extension of that little escapade in 19th-century ‘nation building’ – the School of the Americas – was not started by Boomers, any more than were the HUAC hearings, the Tuskegee Experiment, or other heinous offerings of previous generations. But to lay blame on an entire group is wrong – and false. Invective against anyone not interested ‘in the lasting result of the creative process,’ or against anyone for ‘trampling on the rights of others,’ might be leveled against any segment of any generation at any time in our history.

We’ve heard about the Civil Rights Movement continuing ‘without strong support’ from Boomers on college campuses. Oh, really? I was there, and stand witness to the fact that the college crowd was just about the only strong support in numbers that the movement had from ‘white America.’ Without a whole segment of one ‘generation’ behind it, the Movement might have missed the watchful eye of the Gatekeepers in the media [the Greatest Generation and the one previous] – and failed to gain needed political momentum in the white establishment.

And who gave us that generational group the sobriquet ‘hippie’? Life Magazine, run and managed by our parents and grandparents. The previous generation has been defining us since it taught us to walk. In our schools, the previous generation taught us how to define ourselves – and in its own language, not ours.

And this is a crucial point – every generation down through history has fought this battle with its predecessor. Every generation has looked back and said “No,” only to look forward a few years later and said, “Oh, no.”

Somewhere in a cave is a pictograph that translates “Screw Og, my axe is better,” next to one that says, “Mog is grounded til saber-tooth season.”

For every argument pulled up to bolster a biased argument, there are countless others to support not only the opposing argument, but a true and objective picture of the times and of the sad, colorful, varied, sometimes noble, hopeful people who struggled through them.

David Hakim is an assistant director, producer, and publicity expert who developed campaigns for every major Hollywood studio and handled publicity for the Motion Picture Academy. Find him in the Reel Directory online: www.reeldirectory.com.

All material copyright 2008 David Hakim and may not be duplicated - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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