Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster Sentinel, pp.256, $27.00
Helen Andrews just is not mean enough. She originally set out, in this enjoyable and often moving set of essays, to emulate Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians and deflate the great balloon of 1960s self-righteousness by puncturing some of its tenderer parts. But—and this is to her credit—she lacks Strachey’s hissing, feline spite. Strachey is of course highly enjoyable if you have any malice in you, and I certainly do. Yet his achievement in undermining Victorian rectitude was a bad thing. After nearly a century of Bloomsbury ideas about culture, morals, and religion dominating our lives, many of us might seriously consider asking the Victorians back to clean up the mess we made. Imagine Victorian morals armed with twenty-first-century innovation and science. I can hardly wait. But Helen Andrews genuinely loves justice too much to barbecue her victims until they actually scream, and so her book succeeds in a way she perhaps did not intend.
While not quite impaling (among others) Steve Jobs, Camille Paglia, Al Sharpton, and Sonia Sotomayor, she deals brief, eviscerating sideswipes at the ideas and follies that brought such people into being and sustain them now. For this reviewer, a partially reformed 1960s bohemian, Bolshevik, and general scapegrace, these sideswipes were pure joy, the sort that make me cry out with recognition, or pound the arm of my chair. I say “partially reformed” because the things once inside me that the 1960s broke remain forever broken. I cannot be what I would have been if this had not happened, and I am not at all sure I would want to be. My main use to civilization, as a resister and critic of these things, comes from knowing who and what is now my enemy, in a way that very few conservatives do. It is a skill I largely retain, which is why I think that “Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll” is a much clearer statement of the revolutionary program than “Workers of all Lands, Unite!”
So I saw repeated flashes in this volume of another book I very much hope Andrews will write, a lament for the great loss we have all suffered and which cannot possibly be repaired until we admit it, if then. Such a book will be so sad that it will make the sound of bagpipes played after a funeral on a windy hillside sound cheerful. But it has to come from someone at the beginning of life, not from some gnarled survivor of the lost world before the revolutions. Her opening chapter, a general segment on Boomers rather than on any individual, is the best part. Here is perhaps the most poignant passage in the book:
As a woman, if I had been born in another century, my schooling might well have stopped at age twelve. On the other hand, in this age I attended some of the best schools in the world until I was twenty-one and still didn’t receive an education those benighted eras would have considered standard. Is this necessarily an improvement?
I will return to this, as so much flows from it. But I should also mention the brief, brilliantly perceptive reflections on mind-altering drugs, legal and illegal, which have become so central to the world the Boomers made. The great unexamined scandal of antidepressant prescriptions is in fact part of their revolution—which is why any attack upon it, however powerful, well informed and well argued, dies in silence. The person to whom the writer proposes such an attack is very likely to be a drug user himself, or to be closely related to one. So is the potential reader. “One in six of all Americans is on some kind of psychiatric medication: this would not have been possible without the boomer era’s broader embrace of mind-altering drugs.”
And then there is her simple and clear understanding of the betrayal of rational, reforming feminism by the zealots who have seized that banner. “Boomers promised that employment was the only way for women to be fulfilled and independent, when any socialist could have told them that there is no one more dependent than a wage worker . . . the net effect of boomer feminism has been to restrict the choices of typical women, taking the choice that was making most of them happy and removing it from the set of options.” What a non-surprise that Betty Friedan turns out to have been a communist fellow-traveler. It was in the communist world that today’s socioeconomic hell—the hideous love-child of Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher—was pioneered. The Soviets had the compulsory two-earner household, with its children condemned to government nurture and raised to love the Party above their parents. They had its weak parents and state-dependent adults, and its incessant divorce, all leading to an eviscerated and futile caricature of marriage, to the point where marriage was drained of all meaning and power. They just did not have the post-1990 combination that almost nobody saw coming: the endless electronic consumerism, through which we may try to buy back our lost happiness and freedom in the form of pleasure and drugged stupor. If they had managed that, the U.S.S.R. would still be there, as Mao’s China is. Marxism really is not the enemy of consumerism. When it realized it needed to care more about the mind and morality than about money, it rejuvenated itself and made the future its own again. That was what the 1960s were really about. Capitalism, understanding this, has made its peace with the revolution. Having grasped that it can flourish in the absence of freedom and Christianity, it also now understands that it has no need or wish to keep its proletarians poor. On the contrary, they need to be affluent or indebted enough to purchase its products.
Andrews cannily observes another often overlooked convulsion in thought: “The most glaring objective consequence of the boomers’ embrace of mass culture has been the death of both folk culture and high culture. Earlier generations felt obliged to graduate from the good-time music of their youth to opera and classical, upon reaching a certain age. Not the boomers.” I had never seen anyone make this point before. Yet it was exactly my decision to graduate in this way that opened a tiny gap between me and my contemporaries, which has widened over fifty years into an immense gulf. I am glad to have even a poor and sketchy knowledge of a part of the musical classics, but I think what I gave up is even more important than what I gained. For in abandoning it I learned how not to conform, and how not to care when found out. And I also ceased to hear that incessant pied piper, with his false promises of untold joys to come if I would just follow the others.
This brings us back to the destruction of formal education, the acquisition of defined knowledge based upon authority. I was caught in the middle of this change and am cursed and blessed with a constant painful knowledge of what I have lost. But those who came very soon after me do not even have that. They live unaware of it, in a fog of unknowing. It was this incredibly rapid removal of all landmarks, signposts, objective measures and maps which left us where we are now, lost boys and girls trying to invent our own ideas of the good, condemned to repeat every stupid mistake in human history, which really defines our age. Yet in the world of the boomers, the uneducated think they are educated. As Kingsley Amis long ago pointed out, we are at a party where the wine tastes like kerosene, the canapés are stale, the music is badly played on inferior instruments, the conversation is lumpish and dull, the clothes ill-fitting—but nobody cares because nobody has experienced anything different or knows that it could be any better.
Yet the targets which Andrews has chosen do not really back up the powerful case she makes at the outset. She plainly admires Camille Paglia far too much, for instance, to do to her what Strachey did to Cardinal Manning. Even more alarming, she reveals a soft spot for Al Sharpton and the lost joys of Tammany. No doubt there is a case to be made for this sort of politics, but it is not a case that conservatives should be making in the limited time and space we have left to us. I have some other specific complaints. She is plain wrong about the sectarian problem in Ireland, which still seethes and splutters and has not been solved but only bought off by weak concessions to gangsters. Her attack on Jeffrey Sachs and the undoubted catastrophe of idealistic post-colonial intervention is entertaining and clever. But America’s self-righteous hostility to the European empires, especially Britain’s, long predates the boomer era. (She also says that “no one ever quotes” George Santayana’s warning that it would be a “black day for the human race” when “scientific blackguards, conspirators, churls and fanatics” supplanted the British Empire. May I point her to page ninety-two of my book The Abolition of Britain, where I do that very thing?) And I think it is odd for her to say that the “fundamental attitude of the counterculture was, and is very Protestant,” apparently because membership of the Roman Catholic Church is uniquely able to provide the experience of identifying with some continuously existing institution from the past. Most of my early (Protestant) life was spent in or around continuously existing institutions from the past.
But these are quibbles. My main difficulty with this book is that the hors d’oeuvres are better than the main course. Any proper discussion of the cultural and moral disaster of our age cannot really concentrate on that age and those who grew out of it. That is just a tour of the ruins, without an explanation of why they are ruins. It needs to look a little further down, into the minds of those who inherited an ordered, free civilization and chose to throw it away. This is the mystery and tragedy of our time, and until we can solve it, it will go on forever, and perhaps be repeated in civilizations to come.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday. This review was originally published in the Septuagesima 2021 issue of The Lamp magazine.