A poem from the Summer 2021 issue of Modern Age
The Poison Generation
I first came across Helen Andrews’s marvelous writing when she did an article for the Russell Kirk Center on James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates. In writing about the angry Baldwin and the enraged Coates, Andrews traced the arc of the racial rodomontade that’s helped define the last half century.
Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster picks up on some of the same themes as her Kirk Center essay, but does more. In Boomers, Andrews draws on the example of Lytton Strachey’s 1918 Eminent Victorians, which tried to define the end of the Victorian era. Like the Victorians, baby boomers (sarcastically dubbed the “Eminent Aquarians” by the Wall Street Journal’s Barton Swaim) punch above their historical weight.
Based on their demographic clout, consumerist innovations, and preening self-regard, the eminent Aquarians have had an enormous and enduring if often inauspicious impact on American life. The boomers brought with them the mass consumption of both television and drugs. The popularization of TV, itself a vastly engaging but not terribly dangerous drug, diminished both folk culture and high culture. Far more dangerous was the glamorization of first marijuana and then cocaine, the latter described by the New York Times as the “champagne of drugs.” The upshot of a boomer penchant for legal pharmaceuticals, too, was that one in five American women became dependent on antidepressants while constraining their kids with Ritalin.
“The baby boomers,” Andrews writes early in the book, “have been responsible for the most dramatic sundering of Western civilization since the Protestant Reformation.” She’s right, but oddly she never mentions the kind of drug—psychedelics—that enabled and, in a sense, even authorized the break. For three hundred years, American civilization had been based on an admixture of reason, revelation, and empirical evidence. But with the rise of writers like Aldous Huxley, Terry Southern, and Timothy Leary, the boomers discovered an alternative, drug-ridden road to “truth.”
The six figures Andrews has chosen to examine within these pages include Steve Jobs, the creator of Apple personal computers; the writer and producer of quintessentially boomer dramas Aaron Sorkin; the economic policy guru, or rather con man, Jeffrey Sachs; and the literary proponent of pornography Camille Paglia. Those are the successful portraits. Less worthy are her portraits of the racial hustler Al Sharpton and the Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Steve Jobs created the personal computer, but Jobs’s generation was the first to be defined by what they consumed as opposed to what they produced. Jobs, explains Andrews, melded the personality of the hippie with that of the corporate shark, a duality that has endured. He produced Apple machines in America, but his heir as leader of the company, Tim Cook, offshored the industry to Communist China, which has used its technological leadership both to compete with the United States and to create the most “advanced” police state in human history.
Jeffrey Sachs failed his way to celebrity. His “shock therapy” reduced the economic output of post-Soviet Russia by half! But Sachs’s trick of personally getting rich off incompetence left a bitter anti-American taste in Putin’s Russia, with lasting consequences.
Aaron Sorkin is best known for creating the TV drama The West Wing (1999–2006), loosely based on the Clinton White House. Sorkin’s strikingly appealing characters created an image of the Clinton White House that ignored both the Lewinsky affair and Communist China’s warm welcome at the White House.
Camille Paglia—the proponent of pornography who is the University Professor of the Humanities and Media Studies at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts—drew upon the Nietzschean transvaluation of values. She saw few problems that couldn’t be solved by an enhanced emphasis on lust. But while she took her place as a supporter of a sexualized daily life, America men, drawn into the swamp of pornography, experienced a striking decline in both fertility and marriage.
Andrews’s portraits of Sharpton and Sotomayor are far less successful. Sotomayor, like Sharpton hailing from New York City, was the first ethnically Puerto Rican Supreme Court justice. “The boomers’ preoccupation with oppression, identity and grievances” notes Andrews, “would create many bullies, because it turns out that thinking of yourself as a victim can make you heedless of the ways your actions victimize others.” The Yale-educated Sotomayer was just such a character. She made her mark not through her judicial reasoning but by threatening her colleagues with accusations of racial/ethnic insensitivity.
Sharpton, who made it a point never to apologize for inflaming racial tensions, is presented as a transformational rather than transactional figure. This misses the mark. Andrews tries too hard to say something new about Sharpton, and in the course of things she misses the sordid sweep of his career, beginning with the Tawana Brawley hoax, in which a black woman falsely accused four white men of raping her. Sharpton did well by doing things dishonestly, albeit with a preacher’s flair, and rose to media stardom through his promotion of racially charged accusations. Had Andrews been more familiar with the specifics of Sharpton’s career, she would have noted as well his repeated use of anti-Semitic tropes to provoke violence.
Sharpton’s most reliable income source came to be billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg, who put Sharpton on his payroll in order to defeat Mark Green’s bid for mayor and then to solidify his hold over NYC politics. Sharpton provided Bloomberg with protection against accusations of racism, even as Bloomberg’s “stop and frisk” policing policies were widely subjected to such claims.
Before the boomers came along, according to Andrews, America was wealthy, democratic, generally unified, and upbeat while making progress on achieving racial fairness. “Now, we are a divided nation of lonely, indebted, TV-and-pornography-addled depressives, so brainwashed by self-serving boomer propaganda that we can barely comprehend the enormity of what has been done to us.” Perhaps worst of all, she concludes, “the boomers themselves don’t understand what they’ve done—they still think of themselves as heroes.”
Fred Siegel is a contributing editor of City Journal.
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