Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Boomer Reflects on Boomeritis

Walter Russell Mead (born 1952), James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, is one of my favorite commentators on the world political economy.

Although I have never heard him mention Ken Wilber, his writing is certainly integrally informed.  He understands and writes about the impact of cultural dynamics on historical, political, and economic trends globally.  He acknowledges the role that our human foibles play in the way we make and carry out public policy.  He looks for and analyzes the interplay of events and impulses, both personal and collective.

He recently posted a useful polemic on the impact of Boomeritis on our generation—although he doesn’t use that term.  In “Listen Up, Boomers: the Backlash Has Begun,” Professor Mead takes us Boomers to task for what he sees as a generational failure whose seeds were sown from the very beginning.

He, like Wilber, certainly acknowledges the many contributions we have made to the material advancement of humanity.  But these pale in comparison to our disappointments.
But at the level of public policy and moral leadership, as a generation we have largely failed.  The Boomer Progressive Establishment in particular has been a huge disappointment to itself and to the country.  The political class slumbered as the entitlement and pension crisis grew to ominous dimensions. Boomer financial leadership was selfish and shortsighted, by and large.  Boomer CEOs accelerated the trend toward unlimited greed among corporate elites, and Boomer members of corporate boards sit by and let it happen.  Boomer academics created a profoundly dysfunctional system that systemically shovels resources upward from students and adjuncts to overpaid administrators and professors who by and large have not, to say the least, done an outstanding job of transmitting the cultural heritage of the past to future generations.  Boomer Hollywood execs created an amoral morass of sludge — and maybe I’m missing something, but nobody spends a lot of time talking about the towering cultural accomplishments of the world historical art geniuses of the Boomer years.  Boomer greens enthusiastically bet their movement on the truly idiotic drive for a global carbon treaty; they are now grieving over their failure to make any measurable progress after decades spent and hundreds of millions of dollars thrown away.  On the Boomer watch the American family and the American middle class entered major crises; by the time the Boomers have finished with it the health system will be an unaffordable and dysfunctional tangle — perhaps the most complicated, expensive and poorly designed such system in the history of the world.
And, he points out—channeling Wilber’s indictment of Boomeritis—“all of this was done by a generation that never lost its confidence that it was smarter, better educated and more idealistic than its Depression-surviving, World War-winning, segregation-ending, prosperity-building parents.”

Mead almost immediately puts his finger on our generational defect, which Wilber has identified in A Theory of Everything as narcissism. 
This strange mixture of very high postconventional memes with preconventional narcissistic memes is Boomeritis.  A typical result is that the sensitive self, honestly trying to help, excitedly exaggerates its own significance.  It will possess the new paradigm, which heralds the greatest transformation in the history of the world; it will completely revolutionize society as we know it; it will revision everything that came before it; it will save the planet and save Gaia and save the Goddess; it will be the most extraordinary . . .
Mead amplifies this theme. 
Too many Boomers high and low clung to the ideology of youth we developed back when we didn’t trust anybody over thirty and believed that simply by virtue of our then-recent vintage we represented a unique step forward in planetary wisdom and human capability; those illusions are pardonable in a twenty year old but contemptible in those whose advancing years should bring wisdom.  Too many of us clung for to that shiny image of youth and potential too long, and blighted our promise because we were hypnotized by it. This is of course narcissism, our greatest and most characteristic failing as a generation, and like Narcissus our generation missed greatness because of our fascination with our glittering selves.  . . . That the greatest and most effective political leader the Baby Boom produced was William Jefferson Clinton tells you all you need to know.
What Wilber identifies as an obstacle to human transformation, Mead explains precisely how it has helped bring the world to the sorry pass we are currently facing.
We are the generation that accepted the behavior of the multi-millionaire CEO with the trophy wife.  We are the generation that failed to protect its children from a tide of filth and debasing popular entertainment without parallel in the history of the world.  We are a generation that deliberately and cynically passed the cost of its retirement down to its children.  We are a generation that preferred and rewarded financial engineering over business construction.  We lost control of the borders and failed to make provisions for the illegal immigrants our fecklessness allowed into the country.  We embraced a free trade agenda that accelerated the hollowing out of manufacturing and took no thought about what to build in place of the industrial economy we condemned.  We shopped until we dropped, and then we got up and shopped some more.  On a scale unprecedented in American history, we broke the most solemn vows human beings can make in order to pursue something we deemed much more important than honor and fidelity.  We chased chimeras and started at fantasies but failed to take sober measures to prevent a clearly visible and, once upon a time, easily preventable budget crunch.
We Boomers are steering the world into a new depression, and we seem singularly incapable of changing course. In the Anglosphere and the Eurozone, our generation holds the leadership roles in politics, finance, mass media, and culture.  In spite of the cumulative buildup of evidence of breakdown across the globe, we seem collectively obsessed with preserving the world we created over the past thirty years rather than going for breakthrough.

But, suggests Mead, “perhaps the Boomers can go out on a higher note, learning from our mistakes and spending the rest of our time smoothing the path for new generations rather than endlessly nurturing our narcissism, our selves.”

It is good to be optimistic, and it is certainly powerful for us to set a new intention collectively.  The evidence, however, suggests that it will be tough to gin up the remorse necessary for us to become “a generation that learned, that got better before the end, and that gave its final decades to help the next generations succeed where we, alas, did not.”

But this generation did include in its numbers Ken Wilber and Walter Russell Mead.  The pioneering theoretical work Wilber has done on the Integral Model will reverberate for decades to come.  Even though it has still not entered mainstream dialogue, its insights, as we have explored on this blog over the past years, by virtue of their commitment to the core principle that everyone has a part of the Truth, have set the stage for the transcendence that Professor Mead hopes will start with us.

It has, Professor, it has.  It’s just that it’s unlikely to comprise enough of us for later generations to remember that we atoned for our failures before we left the scene.  And while we can expect our children and grandchildren to expand and exploit all the discoveries of both the inner and outer realms that we produced, like Moses leading the Israelites to the Jordan River, our penance is knowing that we ourselves could never cross over to the Promised Land that we, in our succumbing to the blandishments of Narcissus, thought we were creating.

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