The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way and It Wasn’t My Fault and I’ll Never Do It Again, by P. J. O’Rourke (Atlantic Monthly, 263 pp., $25)
If you are suffering death by a thousand tweets from the garrulous ubiquity of the “social media,” you can blame it on the Baby Boomers, or, as charter member P. J. O’Rourke calls them, “exploding children.” Born between 1946 and 1964, they are the largest generational cohort America has ever had, products of the longest period of prosperity we have ever seen. Celebrated as the hope of the future for whom nothing was too good, they believed it and developed a dark side. “Children want to be adults,” says O’Rourke, “but we wanted to be older, greater children.” They got their wish when they were encouraged to be what earlier generations of children were not supposed to be: heard.
O’Rourke, one of the earliest Boomers, separates the cohort into four academic classes. He and his fellow Seniors experienced some aspects of pre–World War II life. Home was “a shining suburb on a hill” with one telephone and dead-end streets that had not yet been upmarketed as cul-de-sacs, but education standards were beginning their downward spiral as a post-war crop of progressive teachers eliminated copying exercises and taught reading with flashcards. “It is no accident that SpellCheck is a product of the Baby Boom,” he notes, “and it is no accident that we misspelled ‘spell check.’”
The Junior class are those born in the early 1950s, who took most to heart the motto coined by the Seniors: “I have to be me.” They became groupies, teenyboppers, and barefoot hippies who descended on Haight–Ashbury to become individuals with all the other barefoot hippies.
The Sophomore class, born in the late 1950s, had the least amount of rebelling to do. By the time they reached adolescence the Baby Boomer ethos had permeated society. Sex and drugs were so last year that many Sophomores could forget they were supposed to be rebelling and buckle down in college, while some even went for an M.B.A. and became Young Urban Professionals — the Yuppies of the 1980s.
It’s the Freshman Boomers that O’Rourke has it in for, because they are nothing but talk. Born in the early 1960s, they did not witness anything “monumental” from an adult point of reference. The monumental civil-rights movement, the monumental Kennedy and King assassinations, the monumental struggle over the military draft, were all inchoate childhood memories and subjects they studied in high-school history class. Studying anything monumental in class, says O’Rourke, turns it into “an unvisited Grant’s Tomb of the mind.” Freshman Boomers frequently don’t even seem like Boomers, but there is no mistaking them. “The tip-off is the blather, the jabber, the prattle, the natter, the gab, gas, yak, yab, baloney, blarney, bunkum, the jaw-slinging, tongue-wagging, gum-beating, chin music that is the Baby Boomer gift to the world. Stephen Colbert is a freshman. So is Ann Coulter. So are Jon Stewart, Sarah Palin, Conan O’Brien, and Larry the Cable Guy. . . . Even our T-shirts can’t shut up.”
And neither can 52-year-old Barack Obama, writes O’Rourke:
The freshman Baby Boomer is born into a sea of hooey and swims about comfortably therein unaware that other environs of discourse exist. For all we know, while the Reverend Jeremiah Wright fulminated and swore, the future president was fiddling with his BlackBerry blabbing to Rahm Emanuel. It is the Baby Boomer way. . . . What unifies the Baby Boom is the way we talked everybody into letting us get away with it.
But talk is not cheap, O’Rourke warns: “Whenever anything happens anywhere, somebody over fifty signs the bill for it.” They get what they pay for, because “we have the enormous power of bulls**t.”
The striking thing about this entertaining and informative book is how often it disappoints. O’Rourke seems to know it, to judge by his response to the charge that Boomers carry things to extremes. “In fact, we’re a generation that carries things as far as we want to, until we get tired of carrying them, then we drop them on the rest of you.” He starts, and then stops, a comparison of the Boomer era with the 19th-century Romantic movement, deciding that the Romantics did not have a big enough cohort waiting in the wings “to make it stick.” Then he combines Lord Byron’s “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” image with his fight for Greek liberty to create a poet-patriot ideal; but Byron’s incestuous relations with his half-sister give O’Rourke pause, so he puts it aside with the curious observation that “medical science has cured the club foot.” He could actually have found some interesting parallels between the Boomers and the Romantics, especially if he had brought in the logorrheic Jean-Jacques Rousseau; this would have made Boomers seem less of an anomaly.
Making sex funny is the pinnacle of wit, and O’Rourke has proved himself in this art many times before; but testosterone measured in cohorts is an overdose. The F-word is only to be expected nowadays, but O’Rourke also uses the MF-word as blithely as the customers in Detroit’s Hardcore Pawn reality-TV show. But worst of all, incredible really, is his parody of New Testament verses: “So faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is a b***j*b.”
He also commits stylistic faults that I don’t remember from his previous books, e.g., overuse of parentheses: “We’re as proud as our parents of knowing right from wrong (and think our knowledge is superior).” He combines this fault with a frantic section of overwriting that sounds like an analogyesistic hemorrhage of the metaphor gland: “In the California King–sized bed of the ego, on the four-hundred-thread-count sheets of pleasure, we like the honest embrace of vice better than the sanctimonious pillow talk of virtue. (Although we’re quick enough to jump out of the sack, lock vice in the en suite bath, slap on some lip service, run a brush through our sophistry, and wrap ourselves in floor-length false piety if one of our kids shows up without warning.)” Would you believe he follows this with yet another parenthetical sentence, this one indented and standing alone? Here it is:
“(And let’s not confuse personal honesty with anything we do at work or on the Internet.)”
Finally, he commits the favorite fallacy of the lazy, the ad hominem attack, e.g., Ayn Rand was “a loony old bitch.” I could hear Cyrano’s “Oh, sir, what you could have said.”
All that aside, the best parts of this book are O’Rourke at his best, his glass always reassuringly half-empty: Jaws is the movie that destroyed cinema. Now that “felony indictment” has become a sports statistic, does anyone still think that football builds character? Philistine parents do the best job of building a child’s self-esteem because their unwavering response to modern art is “My kid could paint that.” Boomers care about education. Proof? Their parents let the PTA alone but Boomers picket it, sue it, and post anonymous abusive tweets.
Except for that, though, they wouldn’t hurt a fly, because they were so coddled and protected that they want to make everyone wear hockey helmets to play checkers. Their safety hysteria, especially when combined with their vanity, makes Boomers the most unthreatening people the world has ever known. They will never become suicide bombers, he attests, because strapping on explosive vests would make them look fat. History is full of bad things that Boomers would not dream of doing. They would never have become barbarian hordes either, because galloping across the Mongol steppes triggered all their existing allergies and added a new one, to horse dander. They could not have “lived off the fat of the land” because they were trying to cut down on fats in their diets. As for pillaging, how could they carry the pillage away without wheelie bags?
No. They won’t hurt us. They’ll just talk us to death, as they are already doing.
– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.