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Is Everything the Boomers’ Fault?

Many readers will find it easy to accept Helen Andrews’s claim that the boomers left the world worse than they found it. Yet the biographies Andrews has written are evidence less for the special guilt of the boomers and more for the limits of human finitude, the persistence of sin, and naïveté in the face of evil.

One sign that the millennial generation has come of age is that it can produce a book whose writing is as excellent as Helen Andrews’. In Boomers, she argues that the baby boomers sundered Western civilization, leaving their millennial children dispossessed financially and culturally: “They tried to liberate us, and instead of freedom they left behind chaos.” To support this argument, she profiles six boomers “who had all the elements of greatness but whose effect on the world was tragically and often ironically contrary to their intentions. Their destructiveness came from their virtues as much as their vices.”

Andrews’ essays combine more general conservative arguments with the biographies of her subjects. She shifts from a generally strong critique of the boomers’ destructiveness, especially in their misguided values, to tragic accounts of how various figures unwittingly betrayed those values. These are two distinct lines of argument, and the second sometimes fails to support the first. Thus, Andrews’ chapter on Steve Jobs is both a somewhat admiring portrait of Jobs—concluding that his greatest rebellion was against his fellow boomers—and a polemic against the world of porn, video games, and globalization that his creations made possible. The polemic and the portrait both succeed, but Jobs ends up as stronger evidence of the boomers’ tragic side than of their destructive values.

Andrews returns to the theme of the boomers as idealists and bullies repeatedly. Her chapter on Jeffrey Sachs argues against the “virginal imperialism” of all development work rather than claiming that, say, William Easterly or Paul Collier has sounder strategies than Sachs. She finds Sachs responsible not for any wrongdoing of his own (apart from that bullying), but for the wrongdoing of others whose malfeasance would not have been possible but for his creation of the new career paths that enabled it. But if pioneers can be held responsible for their successors, is Steve Jobs responsible for the porn now on iPhones—even though he kept them clean while he was alive, or Henry Ford for bad carmakers?

Andrews hits her target most clearly with her chapter on Camille Paglia, who celebrates sexual transgression and pop culture while remaining seemingly naïve to the corrosive effects that both have on those who come after her. In her weakest chapter, Andrews argues that Sonia Sotomayor, too, is a bully, and that the Warren Court’s jurisprudence was bad, but she fails to connect the two. After all, if we shouldn’t let the boomers claim the victories of the Civil Rights movement—which, Andrews reminds us, happened under their predecessors’ leadership—then neither should we blame them for their predecessors’ court decisions.

In the end, many readers will find it easy to accept Andrews’ claim that the boomers left their children a world without many of the benefits that they themselves enjoyed, both because of evidence she provides and because they see it widely themselves. But the biographies Andrews has written are evidence less for the special guilt of the boomers and more for the limits of human finitude, the persistence of sin, and naïveté in the face of evil. Millennials and their successors will have ample occasion to relearn these lessons in the years to come.

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