I’ve long disliked efforts to invest huge significance in generational stereotypes — Greatest Generation, Generation X, Millennials, etc. It’s not that there’s no merit to any of it; people who lived through Vietnam or WWII or the civil-rights movement, generally speaking, are going to have their attitudes shaped in ways that people who didn’t live through such things will not. But even there, responses to important events are divergent, and any attempt to lump everyone into a single pile has to be an oversimplification. Did everyone who lived through 9/11 respond the same way? We like to talk about the self-sufficiency of the Greatest Generation, but they were in many ways the most government-coddled cohort of the 20th — and now 21st — century.
The simple fact is there’s often much more cultural and ideological diversity within each generation than there is between them. LBJ, JFK, Ramsey Clark, Timothy Leary, Strom Thurmond, Bob Dole, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, et al. were all members of the same generation, more or less. You know who else were members of that “Greatest Generation”? Countless draft dodgers, murderers, rapists, laggards, buffoons, and layabouts — along with scientists, philanthropists, priests, artists, writers etc. Any attempt to plunk them all under a single explanatory umbrella is going to leave a lot out. Moreover, the idea that you deserve respect — or scorn — because of the accomplishments or sins of other people who happened to have been born at roughly the same time as you is a kind of magical thinking masquerading as “analysis.” That’s why I’ve long called such stuff secular astrology. If you stormed the beaches at Normandy, you get my respect and gratitude. If you were in jail on D-Day on charges of aggravated mopery, you don’t deserve any additional respect simply because of your age. Any argument to the contrary is making the case for stolen valor.
Compounding the problem is the fact that Americans tend to talk in generational terms — and the political class is almost obsessed with such labels — so it’s very difficult to avoid falling into this kind of shorthand from time to time. When someone says “Baby Boomer” they tend to mean a certain subset of that generation. Today when people talk about Millennials, I often suspect they mean mostly white, upscale, college graduates.
Which brings me to Kathleen Parker’s bizarrely snarky attack on Bill Kristol today in the Washington Post. Kristol wrote a short piece on how “three boomer presidents are enough.” He took some of the shortcuts in making his case, speaking in broadbrush terms about the greatest generation and the Baby Boomers. But it’s all clearly an argument for new blood in the White House.
This seems to have hurt Kathleen Parker’s feelings, prompting her to write of Kristol’s “self-loathing” attack on Baby Boomers:
One can understand why the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol would try to nullify Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy, but smearing all baby boomers in the process seems a stretch of veracity in the service of a blank page.
In the June 1 issue of the conservative magazine he co-founded, Kristol writes that we’ve had enough already with boomer presidents. They’re all a bunch of losers, he says in so many words, causing exactly no one to lose sleep.
I don’t usually single out other commentators, but I’m making an exception — not because I’m a woman, or a boomer, or a Hillary Clinton supporter (though Kristol makes me want to be one), but because despite being wrong about most everything, he remains an influential voice in politics.
Ah, she’s doing it out of a sense of duty to speak truth to power. Got it.
Parker goes on with any number of psycho-babbly potshots and easy point-scoring. Kristol opened himself up to some of it by lapsing into the shorthand of generational stereotyping. But I am at a loss as to why anyone would get so bent out of shape about the badmouthing of their generation (Go ahead and dump all over Generation X, I won’t care one bit). One sees this all the time with young people who’ve come to invest vast amounts of their self-esteem in their age. But it’s kind of sad to see in Baby Boomers.
Parker closes with:
Perhaps Kristol was exorcising some of his own demons with this column — resolving long-simmering issues resulting from having been an indulged, Ivy League boomer who didn’t serve in the military and whose accomplishments are in the vein of commenting on the actions of others.
It’s not clear to me that Kristol is the one with the long-simmering issues here.