Civil Liberties

Year of the Rat


Somehow it seems appropriate that

members of the baby-boom

generation would finally make

peace with their parents the

same year that Dr. Spock cashed

his last royalty check.

As leading-edge boomers enter

their 50s en masse and resign

themselves to the arduous task

of clipping Depends coupons,

they have largely forgotten the

words to their one-time anthem,

"The Times They Are A-Changin',"

and its defiant invocation of a

generational Death Race 2000

scenario: "Come mothers and

fathers throughout the land / and

don't criticize what you can't

understand / Your sons and your

daughters are beyond your

command / your old road is rapidly

aging / please get out of the new

one if you can't lend your

hand / for the times they are

a-changin'." These days, the

boomers are whistling a new

tune, one of gushing admiration

and respect for old people. It's

summed up in the title of a new

book about people lucky enough

to live through the two great,

character-building historical

episodes of the 20th century,

the Great Depression and World

War II. The book, "written" by

NBC news animatron Tom Brokaw,

is simply titled The Greatest


Given that the Vietnam War had

been one of the major sources of

generational friction, it is

particularly ironic that the war

movie Saving Private Ryan has

been a prime factor in sewing up

the generation gap. (Well, that

and the fact that the "greatest

generation" has one foot firmly

in the grave: Whether it's

mountain lions, American

Indians, or nagging parents who

tell you that they never had

half the opportunities you've

had, there's nothing like

imminent extinction to prime the

nostalgia pump.)

The ultra-violent battle

scenes of Saving Private Ryan did more

than erase the memory of Steven

Spielberg's first attempt at a

World War II movie, the

hilarious yuk fest 1941 (which

in its own small way added to

the horrors of this bloody

century and doubtlessly fueled

co-star John Belushi's desire to

destroy himself). Through the

ritual sacrifice of America's

sweetheart, Tom Hanks, Saving

Private Ryan helped create a

newfound appreciation for the

almost casual heroism of

American combatants during World

War II. (Whether Hanks' latest –

You've Got Mail—will similarly

legitimatize cyber sex remains to

be seen). Another of the year's

most-anticipated releases,

Terence Malick's Guadalcanal

drama The Thin Red Line, is

likely to deepen those feelings

in a generation that derided John

Wayne as a camp icon—though

the casting of hemp pitchman

Woody Harrelson in a heroic role

plainly reflects vestigial

ambivalence on the part of


Of course, however long overdue

the boomers' gratitude and

empathy may be for the folks who

suffered through bread lines,

survived the Axis powers, and

then raised the generation Spiro

Agnew accused of throwing the

"longest panty raid in American

history," there remains

something characteristically

self-absorbed it all. Hence, in

an interview with film critic

Roger Ebert, Saving Private

Ryan director Steven Spielberg

referred to World War II as the

"key, the turning point of the

whole century … It was as

simple as this: The century

either was going to produce the

baby boomers or it was not going

to produce the baby boomers.

World War II allowed my

generation to exist." If nothing

else, such a novel

interpretation of a conflict

that left tens of millions dead

drains the humor out of Hogan's

Heroes even more than Bob

Crane's brutal murder or Richard

Dawson's battle-fatigued hosting

of Family Feud.

There is something similarly

disquieting about the lessons

the boomers are learning from the

"greatest generation." Seemingly

drawing largely on such primary

historical sources as The

Waltons and the Bowery Boys

movies, marble-mouthed TV

personality Tom Brokaw wrote in

Newsweek that during World War

II, "ordinary people found

common cause, made extraordinary

sacrifices, and never whined or

whimpered. Their offspring, the

baby boomers, seem to have

forgotten the example of their

parents. We should be reflecting

more on what we can learn from

the men and women who … were

called to duty at home and

abroad…. We must restore the

World War II generation's sense

of national purpose, not merely

of individual needs. They saw so

much horror and deprivation in

their formative years that they

rarely engage in self-pity. No

one could ever say that of the

Me Generation." Apparently never

having attended a Who concert

during the 1970s, Brokaw zeroed

in on what he took to be the unique

character of the period: "The

one time we got together was

during World War II," he quotes

Hawaiian Sen. Daniel Inouye,

who lost an arm during the war.

"We stood as one, we clenched

our fists as one."

Brokaw grants that

there's "no overarching

national crisis" today (other,

perhaps, than the broadcast

networks' declining ratings),

and he's a bit vague on spelling out

exactly who will be called upon

to make what "extraordinary

sacrifices" without complaint.

But the chances are better that

Willard Scott will dress up as

Ben Franklin or Carmen Miranda

for a weathercast than he, Dan

Rather, Peter Jennings, or

the honchos at Dreamworks SKG

will scrub toilets at the local

grammar school or work for scale

and use the extra shekels to

retire the national debt, to buy

up all extant copies of 1941, or

to make some other gesture that

would bring some small measure

of joy to the world.

Indeed, when you hear a

zillionaire utter phrases like

"national purpose" and

"extraordinary sacrifice,"

citizenship in the Republic of

Texas starts sounding better and

better all the time. The costs

of "national crises" are always

paid by the relatively young.

Those of us who were

born at the tail end of the baby

boom or later lived through

the shift from the Me

Generation to the We Generation,

a stroke of luck that

inspired maximum

cynicism. The sudden reverence

for the elderly, as with all

things related to the boomers,

seems overly self-interested and

sanctimonious. Things were fishy

enough when the same folks who

exclaimed, "Don't trust anyone

over 30″ in the '60s only a few

years later offered up Logan's

Run, with its revisionist

message that even actor Michael

York should be allowed to live

into a fourth decade.

Can anyone seriously doubt that –

given the boomers' penchant for

sucking up all the shrimp and

steak in the buffet line of life

– they are setting up the rest

of us not merely to fork over

ever more generous portions of

our wages to fund their Social

Security and Medicare (hey, why

shouldn't face lifts and Viagra

prescriptions be covered?) but

to deny us any last crumb of joy

that comes simply from being

younger than them? We have,

after all, spent a lifetime

being castigated for following

in the boomers' footsteps and

being found wanting: They were

idealistic, we were cynical;

they did drugs to open the doors

of perception, we did them just

to get high; they dodged the

draft out of high moral purpose,

we simply forgot to register for

selective service at the post

office; they had the Manson

Family, we had the Menendez

Brothers; their congressional

impeachment hearing was about a

president fucking the country

over, ours is about blowjobs;

and on and on. And now, in a

stunning, cunning gambit, they

are laying the groundwork to rob

us of our last remaining

generational birthright: the

simple, unfettered pleasure of

some day dancing on their graves.

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in Suck, and can be viewed in that format here.