Anthony Esolen on the End of Politics
When the children grow up and leave home...

Sunday Night Journal — November 5, 2006

Wingless Chickens: Judging the Baby Boomers

Upon sitting down to write about this topic, I realized that it’s either too big or too small for a few hundred words. You could easily write a book tracing the roots of contemporary moral confusion back for quite some distance—to the early 20th century with no difficulty at all, easily to the 19th century, and from there just as easily to the Enlightenment, perhaps all the way back, as Richard Weaver insisted, to a medieval philosophical-theological error. Anyone even glancingly familiar with Catholic interpretations of history will have met this view. For a current example, see the October issue of Crisis where Benjamin Wiker discusses Locke’s influence on the slow rot of the concept of marriage. You could meticulously document the connections and evolutions of ideas which resulted in a lot of college kids forty years ago doing and saying a lot of really stupid and destructive things.

Or you could just observe, briefly, as I did when in the comments section when this subject came up a couple of weeks ago, that the social and political upheavals of the ‘60s and ‘70s didn’t simply spring up overnight like mushrooms, and moreover that the baby boomers were more followers than leaders in those upheavals, at least if you use the official definition of that generation as including those born between 1946 and 1960.

Since this is not a book, I’ll content myself with noting some specific illustrations of those last two points, which really are one point: that the Great Revolution of the 1960s was simply the most visible moment of a development which had been in progress for some time. I need to note first, and then ignore, the fact that most baby boomers did not participate in the revolution. To some degree it’s still reasonable to lump them in as part of it, because they were certainly affected by it and tended to drift along in its general direction, with even those who weren’t consciously sympathetic to it sharing some of its underlying attitudes, notably a sense that life was more a matter of enjoying oneself than of doing one’s duty. Few were those who consciously and openly challenged it.

An apparently widely held view of history divides it into three phases: first, Ancient Times—everything from the Big Bang until World War II. Almost everybody was an idiot then. Here and there a few interesting things happened, such as Galileo’s tweaking of the Church, the separation of church and state, and the invention of socialism, but for the most part all was waste and void: inquisitions, crusades, slavery, the oppression of women, the repression of sexual pleasure. World War II was more or less the beginning of Modern Times, but it was really only a prelude to the 1950s.

Although this period was technically part of Modern Times, it was dominated by the same sort of people who had been doing all the inquisitions and crusades and such, and they were devoted to perpetuating or restoring those evils. A particularly oppressive aspect of the 1950s was that it had no colors: everything was black, white, or gray. Then in 1960 John F. Kennedy was elected President. Colors appeared. Political and sexual liberation erupted. The baby boomers began to look around them and to discover that not everything they saw met with their approval. Driven by their unprecedented intelligence and idealism, they set out to build a world of perfect freedom, with emphasis on the principle that no sexual impulse should be denied or have permanent consequences. All the period since then has been a titanic struggle between those who cherish this liberation and those who Want to Turn Back the Clock.

This is not, actually, the way it happened. Nor is the converse accurate: that all was well until roughly 1960—men went out to work, women took care of the home and the children, most people were reasonably well-behaved sexually, the Mass was in Latin and reverent, until one day a sexual mania erupted which has yet to run its course. It’s time I explained those chickens in my title. They come from one of Flannery O’Connor’s letters:

[I]t is easy to see that the moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population, like the wings have been bred off certain chickens to produce more white meat on them. This is a generation of wingless chickens, which I suppose is what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead.

This was written in 1955, and I suppose I could rest my case here. But let me mention a few more items, narrowing the concept of the revolution (and of O’Connor’s observation) to the sexual revolution—it really encompassed more than that, but that was (and is) the non-negotiable core.

One: a week or two ago I was in the library and had a yen to read a nice shallow page-turner. I picked up From Russia With Love. I think I had read one of Ian Fleming’s books many years ago but didn’t much remember it. From Russia was published in 1955 and I was surprised at just how saturated with sexual titillation it is. It never gets very explicit, but the atmosphere and attitudes are entirely libertine.

Two: the first issue of Playboy magazine appeared in 1953.

Three: the Kinsey Report, which might be called the Great Permission for the sexual revolution, appeared in 1948 (the year I was born).

Four: the contraceptive pill, which was the great enabler of the revolution, came to market in 1961 when the first boomers had just entered high school.

Five: Elvis et. al.

In fact the principles of the modern sexual revolution were explicitly articulated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, most often under the name of “free love,” as the pet project of a small number of intellectuals and social revolutionaries (H.G. Wells, Margaret Sanger, et.al.). The revolution took a while to work its way into society at large, partly because of natural and sensible resistance, and partly because for real success it required contraception and abortion, both of which had technological and legal problems. It began to reach the middle class in the 1920s (when Coming of Age in Samoa was a best-seller), was pushed into the background by the Depression and the War, began to flower in the 1950s, and bloomed riotously in the mid-‘60s when a perfect combination of factors came together: cheap, effective, accessible contraceptive technology, a level of prosperity hardly imagined by most societies, a large number of young people born into comfort and entering sexual maturity, a new low point in the steady attenuation of religious belief. And so forth.

So what, in the end, was the responsibility of the baby boomers? We were not the prime movers of the Great Revolution; we only happened to catch the crest of the wave. In the end, I think it can be said that we were essentially passive and essentially negative: we did not generally strive for much at our personal expense, but rather, simply by being what we were and hanging around, institutionalized the changes, or, more precisely, allowed the more determined among us to institutionalize them. And we were negative, in the sense that T.S. Eliot said that liberalism is essentially negative, in that its fundamental impulse is toward the elimination of restraints and limits rather than toward construction. The imagined new world was not so much an actual new thing as the elimination of the old.

Let me add, if only to avoid the charge of Manicheanism, that I do think there was a positive side to at least some of the social changes of the past forty years, even outside of the end of racial segregation, which almost no one would decry. But that’s another topic. If we weren’t directly responsible for as much as harm as some say, it is also true that the claims of our great accomplishments for the good are highly exaggerated at best. Somebody named Steinhorn has published a book called The Greater Generation which makes the claim that the baby boomers are pretty much the most wonderful people ever. That’s according to advertisements and reviews; I wouldn’t want to read the book, and the words of the author and the publisher seem to constitute a level of self-conviction that makes doing so unnecessary.

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