Editor's Note: Over the last few years, I have noticed numerous opinion articles in The New York Times that bash Boomers. Rarely have I seen a column elevating the generation. David Brooks and Thomas Friedman have ripped into Boomers in more than a few columns.
The following counter-critique focuses on Virginia Heffernan, media critic for the Times who wrote a scathing review of Ken Dychtwald's PBS special, "The Boomer Century."
The next post summarizes my reactions to another, more recent bashing column by former editor and columnist Bill Keller. These two posts provide a useful exploration of Boomer bashing and how I confront the critics and their thin denunciations.
The first question I thought of after reading Virginia Heffernan’s scathing review for the New York Times of Ken Dychtwald’s PBS documentary, The Boomer Century, was, “Who is Virginia Heffernan?”
The review has such a vehement, personal tone that it makes a careful reader wonder which aspect is penetrating insight honed by a very precise and special intellect and which part is jeremiad — emancipation of a personal, angry agenda.
It begins and ends with her headline: “Apart From Wanting It All, What Makes Boomers so Special?”
The condensed take-away is that this critic dislikes the idea of Baby Boomers. This review is less an appraisal of Dychtwald’s two-hour documentary and more an excoriation of the construct of a self-aware, demonstrative, and once-upon-a-time pugnacious generation.
And why would that be?
An online search reveals some superficial information about Virginia but very little that would fully inform a curious surfer about who she is…really.
She has a Ph.D. in English Literature from Harvard. She has also written for Slate, Harper’s and Talk magazines. She has coauthored a “comic novel” with someone by the name of Mike Albo, entitled The Underminer. Huh? Her smiling visage portrays the face of someone who has not yet faced the cosmetic ravages of middle-aging. And since she was born on August 8, 1969, why would she have?
The concept of being an underminer is a good place to begin dissecting Virginia’s fusillade at Ken Dychtwald and his generation. She asks, “Is the cute concept of ‘baby boomers’ useful to historians?” And then she forcefully answers her rhetorical question: “Not really.”
This begins Virginia's demonstration that she does not know what she does not know. She clearly hasn’t been a student of sociology or demography. She must not be aware that generations truly exist, and they differ in their sense of intragenerational connectivity due to the variable power and lure of shared early events.
Further, early life experiences in a time of unusual turmoil (a cold war teetering toward thermonuclear holocaust, assassinations of revered political leaders, unpopular invasions of other sovereign nations, severe racial segregation, and gender inequality) can foment the gathering of powerful shared and enduring values.
A sense of the role of generations in forming history has been around for a long time, but I like to point to the father of sociology, Karl Mannheim, as the thinker who best clarified the construct of generations in understanding the march of a nation through time. Mannheim wrote in his definitive essay, The Problem of Generations, that “individuals who belong to the same generation, who share the same year of birth, are endowed, to that extent, with a common location in the historical dimension of the social process.”
Virginia assesses the PBS documentary simply as “Rehash, rehash and more rehash.” Indeed. Rehashing is the telling of history, the discovery of perspective, and the elevation of insights from the past. Rehashing of the Civil War continues without becoming overly tiresome to serious thinkers, as does all the rest of American history.
Over time, many different voices and scribes gather around a historical period to help our nation grasp the many lessons and meanings of bygone years. And, accordingly, the arc of history during the last half of the 20th century will not lose its importance or significance in the retelling by different storytellers. Boomers will tell this story many more times; so will others from different generations.
But, hopefully, the next significant storyteller after Ken Dychtwald will not be harboring a grudge at the idea of an unprecedented and influential generation. She will not spew cynicism and distaste that millions could actually harbor a true and shared sense of place and time. She will not, in effect, convey an undertone of envy that maybe her trajectory into adulthood came at a different time that was comparatively lusterless and devoid of passion for and sacrificial pursuit of important ideals.
Virginia almost admits some momentary significance of the documentary’s lens as “a dutiful detour into the lives of marginalized boomers, like blacks and women.” Being someone who apparently never has had to grapple personally with marginalization, she could not easily grasp that nearly an entire generation became marginalized from mainstream value consensus until the wrongs of exclusion were made right by the victories of inclusion. (This, by the way, was one purpose for all that marching and protesting, the rehashing of which clearly aggravates her.)
Maybe Virginia came of age when her primary focus could be simply accumulating straight A’s at Harvard because the hard battles for equal rights had already been fought for and won by members of preceding generations, especially her older sisters. A protest placard in hand, a college education at risk, is something this critic possibly cannot understand on a personal level.
Is it fair for me to suggest that Virginia is at best naïve and in other ways, downright ignorant? I think so. Anyone who has lived the history of the Boomers would not, could not, diminish the documentary replay of hallowed news coverage as “Kennedy assassination clichés” and “palaver about idealism, disillusionment and self-discovery.”
On the contrary, she would recognize that the retelling of the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King is consecrated American history, incapable of being told wrongly as long as it is told truthfully. And truth is in the news footage. For Boomers (as well as older generations), these instant-replay moments are not abstractions at which to groan and roll the eyes, but palpable and gut-wrenching. These moments call for veneration from those who lived them.
Further and finally, Virginia’s understanding of the historical influences of the 1960’s and 1970’s on this generation depends on appropriated, not acquired memories. As Karl Mannheim observed, appropriated memories are those that are “taken over from someone else” and are less powerful than those we acquire on our own. “Immediate contact with historical events allows a person to develop his/her own meaning based on personal experiences within the social structure, which is necessarily different from other generations.” (Mannheim, 1928/1971)
Virginia Heffernan was not there when the Boomers came of age, of that I’m certain, so she cannot easily understand what it means to be a part of Ken's and my generation. Her enlightenment can only begin when she casts aside her considerable education and literary skills and then learns history again with a fresh attitude and a true desire to know what she does not know.