Baby Boomers should stop subjecting the rest of us to their solipsism
Two American anniversaries: the one you’ve heard about and the one that matters
As you have likely noticed yesterday was the 50th assassination of John F. Kennedy. He is still a subject of massive fascination and a sizable industry. The most obvious aspect of this is the continuing obsession with the imagined conspiracy that killed him but it’s far from being the only one. For example, an article in the New Republic accused the up market Vanity Fair of having “an absurd preoccupation with the Kennedys” and noted that:
Since Michelle Obama became first lady, Jackie has merited more attention—20 mentions to Michelle’s 19. Since August 2008, when John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, searching for “Kennedy” in VF in Nexis yields twice as many results as searching for “Palin.” The “politics” section of VanityFair.com has a header for “The Kennedys”—an entire digital section devoted to political figures who are, save a few, no longer alive. Surely readers looking for political coverage would rather find, oh, say, a tab marked, “Presidential election 2012”?
When the American public are polled about who they think the greatest president is JFK is invariably near the top and a recent poll named him as the most popular president of the past sixty years. This stands in contrast to surveys of scholars who tend to give JFK a rather more middling rating.
The focus on the 50th anniversary of the JFK anniversary is all the more striking given that Tuesday was the 150th anniversary of a milestone in the presidency of the man who usually tops those scholar lists. On the 19th November 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. This was probably the most important speech ever in American history and followed the decisive battle of the Civil War. Yet somehow this was overshadowed by the death of a mediocre president who happened to be rather handsome. I would suggest that this disparity can be explained by the fact that JFK was a figure from the Sixties, a period with an outsize role in our collective imagination.
Our obsession with the Sixties manifests itself in many ways. There is, for example, the adulation that attaches itself to Mad Men or the latest 1000 pages of Robert Caro’s oil tanker length biography of LBJ. We could also observe that while Vietnam remains a cultural touchstone, the war in Korea is largely forgotten. Or we could point to the massive followings still enjoyed by the Rolling Stones, the Who or Bob Dylan.
It seems to me that what has happened is that now Baby Boomers – now firmly ensconced at the top of the media and cultural institutions – have been treating the events that were especially interesting and formative for them as being so for the world in general. And in the process they have managed to convince many of the rest of us that the Sixties were particularly significant.
Was the Sixties all that?
Stepping back and looking at the 20th century as a whole, the Sixties don’t seem that seminal.
If we look at the arena of politics and international relations, then important things did happen in the boomers formative years: the revolution in Cuba, the 1968 uprisings and Vietnam. However, these seem less significant than say the Depression, World War II, the beginning of the Cold War, the consolidation of postwar European democracy, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of China.
In terms of economics, the Sixties looks like a time of stasis between the emergence of Keynesian social democracy and it’s displacement by deregulation and deindustrialisation that began with the OPEC crisis in 1973.
And while it might have been a time of cultural tumult, it was intellectually arid. As Tony Judt observes in his masterful history of Postwar Europe, the Sixties was almost wholly devoid of great thinkers or movements. It produced no Durkheim, no Einstein nor a Wittgenstein.
Even in the changes in sexual politics were not as dramatic as often imagined. Phillip Larkin said that “Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three …..between the end of the “Chatterley” ban and the Beatles’ first LP.” However, an alternative narrative would be that the boomers rebelled against the sexual mores of their parents by embracing those of their grandparents.
What WAS unique about the Sixties was the boomers sense of their own importance. To again quote Judt:
Moments of great cultural significance are often appreciated only in retrospect. The Sixties were different: the transcendent importance contemporaries attached to their own own times – was one of the special features of the age. A significant part of the Sixties was spent in the words of The Who: ‘talking about My Generation’
I can’t be alone in thinking that it’s time for the generations that came before and after the boomers to tell them to see beyond their own formative years: if they can’t see that Gettysburg 1863 was more significant than Dallas 1963, they really need to learn to get some perspective.