“The three most formative thinkers of the darker moments of the modern era are Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche. In one way or another, most baby boomers were fed a steady diet of heightened awareness of human exploitation, oppression, and illusion, coupled with the insight that the received world of common opinion and tradition was a chimera. Suspicion of progress and optimism, and dread of a world breaking down, became de rigueur. After all, most… baby boomers were highly receptive to the radicalism of their teachers and the books they thought important…. our culture was lost to the homogenizing influence of Hollywood, public policy was massively influence by the power structure, marginal peoples were oppressed… consumers were passive dupes of subliminal advertising and the corporate manufacture of false needs…
“…. Baby boomers were a generation with a deep desire for commitment, yet, ironically, many were persuaded that all bonds were distorting and colonizing, and that they should commit to nothing permanently. While a corrective to platitudinous boosterism of the status quo, this teaching was also highly corrosive to civic trust, partisan loyalty, or pride of inheritance. Indeed, the image of a human being it vaunted was that of a drifter: Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur who is a detached street voyeur, Claude Levi-Strauss’s bricoleur who deconstructs and sifts ideas, compounding them at will, Jean-Paul Sartre’s skier who leaves no tracks. There is neither commitment nor investment required by such lives, which surf above life, where traditional pieties give way to chic cynicism and disassociation. It allowed baby boomers the sophomoric mien of being against “the System” without having to commit to a specific alternative.”Peter C. Emberley, Divine Hunger, Canadians on Spiritual Walkabout. (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd,, 2002), pp. 36-7.
Being of the Boomer Generation (first cohort), so deftly described by Professor Emberley in our lengthy opening citation, it is the one I am most familiar with. He evokes the ethos of the late fifties and the sixties very well. While most of us did not consciously adopt Baudelaire’s or Levi-Strauss’s posture towards society and life (few of us having actually read these authors), many of us practised it, having been seduced by its illusion of “freedom”. Having no obligation to commitment meant “free love”, “tripping out”, “being cool” rather than having to grow up and take responsibility. There were plenty of more accessible models of these postures (e.g., The Beatles, Timothy Leary, etc.) than these rather esoteric, heady ones.
Emberley gives a short list of books which signified this whole cultural shift, particularly in the Canadian universities. Here a few of the better known ones, at least to Canadians (his list gives only Canadian authors of that era): Marshall Macluhan’s seminal and ground-breaking Understanding Media (to which I would add Macluhan’s other, more accessible offering, The Medium is the Message), John Porter’s The Vertical Mosaic, and Pierre Vallière’s White Niggers of America. Many non-Canadian titles were as widely read in Canada as in the U.S. I am sure that some readers of this blog could offer their own list, but here a few more that come to my mind: Thomas Harris’s I’m OK, You’re OK, Harvey Cox’s The Secular City, Leonard Cohen’s (another Canadian) Beautiful Losers, John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, John Robinson’s Honest to God, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, Neil Sheehan, et al.’s The Pentagon Papers,Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,etc.
In that age, everything was up for questioning and the sense of crisis and radical change in values and old patterns pervaded every domain of life, at least in the West. Music, drug shortcuts to temporary nirvana, fashion, moral values, ethics, the sexual revolution accompanied by easily accessible and usable birth control, government turmoil, the threat of nuclear annihilation, brutal war (Vietnam) waged in full Technicolor on TV, and civic disorder and violence seemed to confirm the diagnosis of the end of the old world and the desperate need for a new way of doing things at every level. A few paragraphs cannot capture or convey the “feel” of that time, any more than they can that of any other generation and its time.
Emberley goes on to describe the enormous letdown that ensued when the dreams of “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius” disintegrated in disillusionment in the ‘70s. Having questioned everything and come up mostly empty and short of any real solution to what so obviously seemed a need to fundamentally change the way power, economics, and society work, by the ‘80s boomers “had a paradoxical relationship to the workplace. Many boomers achieved a level of success and affluence which… bordered on the obscene. Both their real spending power and the senior positions of influence with which they were already flush in their forties represented a new apex of worldly success.” (ibid.) Thus, the boomers who had eschewed commitment in their libidinous and “sophomoric” youth stood it all on its head by insisting on and getting posh pension and benefit plans in addition to fat salaries and wages. If they had to now “work with the man” and even “be the man”, they would redefine what this looked like and negotiate their own terms.
In the name of freedom and equality for all, the 60s activist impulse was diverted from idealism to cynicism in a scramble for “a fair piece of the pie”. Luxury items and lifestyle took the place of failed ideals. “Bliss out” was replaced by “drown out” the pain and the repressed gloom with stuff and games and substances. Depression became the new epidemic, and Prozac (or cocaine) the new drug of choice. The quest for personal freedom to enjoy life and not “be screwed by the system” or “ground down by the Establishment” had to be diverted into “making the system work for you”. You could now use that old evil of money to capture life on your own terms with whatever amusements and pleasures took the place of the old ideals of “universal love, brother-and-sisterhood, peace, and freedom”. However, the old inequities and class divisions had not really gone away and the rich got progressively richer and the poor fell farther and farther behind – which is where we find ourselves now.
The boomers had largely abandoned the old, inherited paths to salvation through tradition, established ways, adherence to religious custom, respect for class and appropriate expectations for one’s inherited position, marriage and family, financial reward for hard work and integrity, and “doing one’s duty”. Now it became all about personal expectations and agenda. The old paths to “salvation” out of chaos, failure, and disorder had been replaced by finding one’s own way to meaning. Salvation was in whatever you chose as your personal path to “self-actualization”.
As Emberley points out, some reverted to “that old-time religion” as they aged, but moved to more energetic and active forms of it in Evangelicalism and Charismaticism, or perhaps into soft forms of oriental faiths, especially Buddhism and Yoga—which are still very popular. In fact, recent data on religious affiliation and practice in the US suggest that, next to “no religious affiliation”, Buddhism is the fastest growing faith preference in North America. Many serious scientists have been quietly turning in that direction as well in order to seek inner peace and meaning as they deal with the semi-mystical and elusive realities of Chaos Theory and the Quantum Universe.
“Personal peace and affluence”, as Francis Schaeffer diagnosed the age even as it unfolded, was the boomer road to salvation, the way of escape from despair and hopelessness. Every society which exists and has ever existed either lives by a path to meaning which has already been established and generally accepted , or, if that established path has collapsed or been radically uprooted, sets out to find another one. When such upheavals occur, the times are troubled and great turmoil ensues.
The Boomers sowed the wind when, as the Chicago 1 album put it, it sought to “Tear the system down, tear it down to the ground”. Lamentably, as they forsook their old idealism, they went over to the hedonistic side of their “cultural revolution”. Now, forty years later, what they seem to be leaving to their Gen-X children and the Millennials resembles a cultural wasteland filled with a whirlwind of violence and expectations of impending apocalypse. The planetary environment is in severe distress and the socio-politico-economic infrastructure is strained to breaking point and quite unsustainable for much longer. Yet the boomers still control and refuse to relinquish their self-serving stranglehold on the levers of power in the corporate, social, and political institutions which dictate most of what life will be like for the 99.5% of the rest of humanity who support the elitist paradigm.
For the Millennials and Gen-Xers who will soon be and already are moving into the positions of executive power (as in Canada where our two-term Prime Minister is a Gen-Xer), they have the opportunity to learn from the Boomer debacle. Rather than being irresponsibly seduced by false promises of some sort of hairy-fairy Aquarian Utopia built on romantic dream-castles, they see quite well and more practically that the old ways are disintegrating, and have been for decades. What is also clear is that their parents have done very poorly at managing the foundations as they have pursued a completely unsustainable paradigm of luxury retirement built on unceasing GDP growth .
The big question is where the upcoming movers and shakers of the world will turn to for their answers. What will be their salvation strategy to preserve enough of Planet Earth to continue as a living, thriving “Garden of Eden” in a universe that seems to have produced only one of its kind? At the very least, it seems that they can hardly do worse than their immediate forebears.