I’m not watching Ken Burns’ WWII documentary this week. Not because I don’t find the story or the telling interesting. I’m not watching because it requires that I spend time sitting in front of a TV set, something I do rarely and for only limited periods. With all the publicity in print and on-line, however, I cannot escape the series documentary and the generation it depicts. And that gets me to thinking about generational achievements. My parents’ and, of course, my own generation’s accomplishments.
My parents were part of The Greatest Generation, the men and women who won World War II. This generation also reconstructed Europe and Japan after the war, created economic prosperity that was widely (if not equally) shared and laid the base for the incredible growth in knowledge during the post war years. Many of the returning veterans took advantage of generous GI Bill educational benefits to create a mass-based middle class and widely shared economic prosperity that was widely share. That’s a lot to be proud of. In later years and in power, this same generation also institutionalized the military-industrial complex, ruthlessly intervened in the affairs of other nations and pursued American economic self-interest in a way that only a hegemonic power could. I maintain that much of The Greatest Generation’s accomplishment was the result of good fortune (a land mass not subject to attack, the destruction of competing industry during the war, vast military spending during and after the war) but good fortune alone would not have achieved anything without effort. My parents’ generation rose to the occasion.
The Greatest Generation also procreated prolifically and gave birth to my generation, the Baby Boomers. We are the generation that cannot be ignored. From the burgeoning nurseries in the 50's to the impending collapse of Social Security, we Boomers seem to have overwhelmed everything we encountered and have always: attracted more than our share of attention. We were the new generation, the first to grow up in economic security (many of us, especially the white ones) in an era of expanding knowledge and opportunity. Our future was assured, or so everyone seemed to think.
Like the hover cars that were the fantasy future of our childhood, reality hasn’t turned out quite as hoped. Oh sure, many of us have done well personally and opportunities exist for many who were previously excluded from participating in civic and economic life. But the world has not changed for the better on our watch. The idea that my generation would create a world free of war, tyranny and exploitation seems not only naive but laughable in light of our record of continued war, tyranny and exploitation. I am especially appalled that a generation scarred by Vietnam could not only recreate that same horrible mistake but also do so in a way that harms the nation and the world so catastrophically at a time when America faces problems that require international cooperation and effort.
Make no mistake about it, modern America is the product of my generation. Our national ascendency began in 1989 when Dan Quayle became the first Boomer to reach national office. Four years later, Bill Clinton became the first Boomer president, followed by GW Bush, another Boomer. Even before Quayle, Boomers and near Boomers (John Kerry, Dick Cheney) had were active in and held significant positions all levels of government and industry. The United States of America in 2007 is pretty much our achievement.
Which leaves me little confidence that anyone will ever call the Baby Boomers a “great generation”. America in 2007 is weak economically and intellectually, unable too compete in a changing world economy. America’s geographic and economic advantages have disappeared or are no longer relevant. We are vulnerable to competition with the entire world for jobs, energy, industry and technology. America is supreme only in military power–no one can defeat us in battle–yet we face an array of challenges where military power is irrelevant and counter-productive. The problems of sustainable economic growth, global warming, distribution of wealth and resources, health care, an aging infrastructure and growing national debt are all issues that will affect future generations. Government under Boomers has done little or nothing to address them. Instead, America under its second Boomer president acts as if we can still buy off most of the world and bully the rest.
In 1968 Jefferson Airplane caricatured the Greatest Generation at the height of national power in “Crown of Creation”.
You are the Crown of Creation.
You are the Crown of Creation.
And you've got no place to go.
Soon you'll attain the stability you strive for
In the only way that it's granted.
In a place among the fossils of our time.
A year later the Airplane sang:
One generation got old.
One generation got soul.
This generation got no destination to hold.
Yet looking back at my generation’s rise to economic and political power, we’ve held on to the ideas that we so roundly scoffed in our heady youth. America in the first decade of 21st century is no less militaristic than under Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Economic justice and equal opportunity are still rare in this nation. We talk as much or even more about protecting our environment nowadays even as we destroy habitat and force climate change through an ever more consumptive lifestyle built on privilege, advantage and exploitation. The dreams of the 60's, when we planned to change the world, long ago faded into the reality of greed and self-interest.
Maybe it’s not too late to change. Historically, Boomers can expect to hold significant power for another decade or so. I would hate to be remembered as the generation that let America slip away. I see few (*) in my generation who offer much hope that the Boomers will escape that fate.
(*) Okay. Maybe Russ Feingold.