Life & Liberty: Talkin' 'Bout My G-Generation


Twenty years ago. 1968. Lyndon Johnson resided in the White House. Earl Warren presided over the U.S. Supreme Court. Dean Rusk ran the State Department. Students were demonstrating on the nation's campuses, police were rioting in the streets of Chicago. We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us Against by Nicholas von Hoffman held a spot on the bestseller list, as did Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night and Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. A series of articles in The Nation by a San Francisco Bay area historian named Theodore Roszak was creating quite a stir in the intellectual world. It would create an even bigger stir a year later when it reappeared, greatly expanded, as a book, under the title The Making of a Counter Culture.

What fiction were people reading? John Updike's Couples, Lawrence Durrell's Tunc, Donald Barthelme's Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, James Gould Cozzens's Morning Noon and Night. Thornton Wilder was the winner of that year's National Book Award for fiction. On campus, where paperbacks were more in demand (and readers were much more numerous), it was mostly (though certainly not entirely) books of a few years and, in one or two cases, a few decades before that were turning heads and shaping attitudes: Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf, and the works of Ayn Rand, Alan Watts, and Timothy Leary (whose most sensational book yet, The Politics of Ecstasy, had only just been published).

The same kids were listening to Dylan, the Doors, and the Dead, as well as to the Beatles (whose "Lady Madonna" and "Hey Jude" were among the year's biggest hits) and Simon and Garfunkel. Moviegoers were flocking to see Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand, The Lion in Winter with Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. All the rage on TV were "Bonanza" and a new CBS offering, an investigative news program called "60 Minutes."

More than half a million Americans were in Vietnam fighting a war that increasingly seemed both interminable and unwinnable. More than 500 of them were coming back in boxes every month. Ronald Reagan was governor of California. Jimmy Carter would soon be governor of Georgia. Garry Trudeau was still at Yale. The most popular and controversial of the political cartoonists who roamed the comics pages rather than the editorial pages back then was a man named Al Capp, whose strip related the doings of a genial hillbilly called "Li'l Abner."

The question is, have things really changed since then? Nicholas von Hoffman is still with us—a fixture on the nation's op-ed pages. Tom Wolfe is still writing bestsellers. So are Joseph Heller and Robert A. Heinlein and Kurt Vonnegut. Ronald Reagan still holds high political office. Dylan, the Doors, and the Dead are still selling records, as are the Beatles and Paul Simon. Barbra Streisand still draws at the box office. "60 Minutes" still draws on TV. "Star Trek," which was a prime time network TV series in 1968, is one of the champions of the box office in 1988.

Garry Trudeau has replaced Al Capp, of course; Mike Doonesbury has taken over from Li'l Abner. Lucas, Spielberg & Co. have transformed the film industry. But even on the surface, on the level of what names figure importantly in politics and popular culture, more has stayed the same since 1968 than has undergone any important change. And if you look beneath the surface of things, if you look into the values and beliefs that determine the fundamental character of both politics and popular culture, you'll find that, for all practical purposes, we're still in 1968.

The sum of such values and beliefs is sometimes called the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. Taste in ideas, politicians, the arts, and entertainment constitutes a kind of public display of whatever that spirit is—whatever general attitude toward the human condition prevails. When large numbers of individuals express enthusiasm for a particular film or TV series or novel or musical work, you can expect to find certain of the fundamental values of that society reinforced, defended, and generally upheld by that work.

Or, to put it another way, the writers who gain the widest fame and favor with the public in any given period are the writers who do the best job of reflecting back to that public whatever are its own major preoccupations—the ideas, the dreams, the notions of what things in life are the most and least important, most and least worthy of a person's attention and concern. The same may be said of the journalists, advertising men, and filmmakers who attain the greatest popularity in any given period. We can learn something about the underlying philosophy of an era even from those products of the era that seem to contain no ideas or "meaning" in the usual sense—from trends in architecture and interior design, for example, and from trends in musical taste.

And, as I have pointed out, the trends in politics and popular culture that we see around us today are substantially the same as the ones we saw around us in 1968. Many of the same politicians, artists, and entertainers who were hogging attention 20 years ago are still hogging attention today. And newcomers to the political and cultural spotlight are sharing that spotlight because their work is of the same general type—expresses the same general belief system, the same general sense of values—as the work of the oldtimers. The meddlesome, war-mongering, lavishly spendthrift administration of Lyndon Johnson has given way to the meddlesome, war-mongering, lavishly spendthrift administration of Ronald Reagan. (The biggest difference between the two is that where Johnson financed his spending by inflating the currency directly, Reagan has financed his by borrowing.)

To understand why this cultural and political continuity is so striking, reflect on the contrast between popular culture in 1948 and 1968. It's a dramatic contrast. The Truman administration has given way to the Johnson administration. The understated realism of Ernest Hemingway, Carson McCullers, and John O'Hara has given way to the satiric, romantic, and surrealistic fantasy of Vonnegut, Tolkien, and Barthelme. Stan Kenton and Jimmy Dorsey have given way to Dylan, the Doors, and the Dead. The conformist, team-playing young adults of the '40s have become the mystified, alienated parents of the '60s, unable either to comprehend or to tolerate the styles and folkways of their adolescent offspring.

No such "generation gap," as it used to be called, exists for the parents and kids of 1988—at least, to nothing like the same extent. There is always a gap between generations, of course; that is an inescapable part of the human condition. But the young people of today more commonly agree than disagree with their parents about music, fiction, TV, movies, and the like. The rock stars of the '60s, for example, enjoy a status with the young people of the '80s that the big bands of the '40s never enjoyed with the young people of the '60s.

Why have we had such continuity and stability in our popular culture over the past 20 years? Partly because the same people who determined the character of popular culture in the '60s are still determining it today. The members of the baby boom generation, the 75 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, have constituted the largest single segment of the U.S. population ever since the 1950s. During that decade, when the baby boomers were infants, toddlers, and gradeschoolers, the baby food and baby furniture and diaper and toy and schoolbuilding and teacher certification industries boomed—only to slump as the largest human generation in Western history passed them by on its way into adolescence.

During the '60s, when the baby boomers were in high school and college, they created a new youth culture that has since become the basis for the dominant culture in our society. It was the baby boomers who made the '70s the "Me Decade" through their devotion to self-realization and self-fulfillment. It was the baby boomers who made the early '80s the era of the Yuppie. Because the baby boom was both preceded and followed by smaller generations, it is a permanent, moving bulge in the population—a bulge that makes each successive decade of American life its own; expressive, through sheer weigh of numbers, of the values and beliefs of this generation rather than any other.

Similarly, the politics of 1988 is being made by the same people who were responsible for the politics of 1968—the parents and grandparents of the baby boomers. Politics in modern America is always dominated by the spirit of the older, property-owning generations, for these are the people who vote most actively. If a large enough proportion of the older generations participates in elections, it can assert its values over those of the younger generation, even when the younger generation is much larger in sheer numbers.

Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan are expressions of the values and beliefs of those Americans now in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. The values and beliefs of the baby boom generation are likely to come into full domination of American political life by the late 1990s, and at that time we are likely to see a rather different sort of president in the White House—different, that is, from Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, or any of the current leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties.

Why? Because the essential element in the culture of the baby boom generation is a tolerant, even welcoming attitude toward diversity and eclecticism, a tendency to favor individuality of style and to applaud the willingness to differ from the majority, the usual, the norm. This is the generation, after all, whose fundamental attitude toward the human condition has been summarized—and accurately—as an injunction to "do your own thing." This is a generation that considers it both natural and desirable for a gathering of people to be a gathering of many diverse styles, a generation uncomfortable with uniformity and the idea that it is in some way wrong to deviate from whatever happens to be the dominant style of one's time.

This attitude is, at root, an individualistic attitude. It is even, in a broad sense, an implicitly libertarian attitude—for the only way each individual can enjoy the freedom to do his own thing is if society as a whole is freed from coercion.

It is no accident that Ayn Rand was one of the most popular authors of the past two decades, or that the past two decades have seen the rise of a number of prominent libertarian journalists, including at least two syndicated columnists and a number of opinion editors and writers. It is no accident that the modern libertarian intellectual and political movement was born with two nearly simultaneous events—the official split between Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden in 1968 and, less than a year later, the mass resignation of the Libertarian Caucus from Young Americans for Freedom, the conservative student organization. Nor is it an accident that the movement has experienced steady and rapid growth in both size and public visibility in the years since.

It is no accident that the authors and musicians who have won and held public favor over the past 20 years have been the most individual, the most experimental, and the most eclectic in their fields. Rock music itself, the characteristic music of our era, is a hybrid form, the product of an eclectic borrowing and mixing of elements from two types of music that were kept strictly, even fiercely, segregated within living memory—white country music and urban black music.

The films of the past two decades have certainly persuaded the conservatives that Hollywood is firmly committed to the ideology of "do your own thing"—and not without reason, either. TV, by contrast, is no more committed to individualism today than it ever was. But what has been the result of that failure by network TV to keep up with the times and the changing cultural values of its audience? Network TV has seen serious erosion of its audience, as the members of the baby boom generation have made cable TV, VCRs, and satellite technology into booming industries by seeking ways to circumvent those networks and get both a greater variety of video programming and increased individual control over what is viewed—and when. The do-your-own-thing generation has demanded, in effect—and the market has supplied—a means whereby every individual can more easily do his own thing when it comes to video entertainment and information.

We are still riding a wave of individualism that we caught 20 years ago. Don't be discouraged by the so-called "rise" of the New Right (it makes so much noise in an effort to convince you that it's bigger than it really is) and by the likes of Ronald Reagan and Ed Meese—they're the last, doddering specimens of what has been; they aren't the future, they're the past. The trends are in our direction, not in theirs. The future is ours.

Contributing Editor Jeff Riggenbach is a regular guest columnist for USA Today.