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The Vanity of Human Wishes by John O'Sullivan

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The Vanity of Human Wishes

Classroom at the University of Lyon with markings on the wall reading ‘DE L'HISTOIRE KARL MARX’, made during the student occupation of parts of the campus as part of the May 1968 events in France

Book Review of Helen Andrews’s Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster

In the last year of the 1914–1918 Great War, Lytton Strachey’s book Eminent Victorians was published and immediately scored a success both popular and critical. Its success reflected the horror felt by a war-weary British intelligentsia, aka ‘Bloomsbury’, of which Strachey was a polished ornament, at the terrible carnage of the war just coming to an end. That ‘disillusionment’ with the war and its original justifications was to spread to the middle and working classes, becoming angrier as it did so, once peace had been safely achieved. It remained the dominant cultural atmosphere in Britain and its empire until Munich and 1940. And the effect of Strachey’s work in particular was to pin much of the blame for the war’s massive worldwide casualties and deaths on the Victorians and their ‘Age’.

Today one has to make a serious intellectual effort to realize how perverse an achievement that was.

By any historical standard, the Victorians made enormous achievements in domestic politics and international affairs

Victorians made enormous achievements in domestic politics and international affairs. It was an age of successful political reform, social improvement, and imperial expansion. The late Christie Davies, a rare conservative sociologist, pointed out in his book The Strange Death of Moral Britain that Victorian social reformers had transformed the drunken and unruly early nineteenth-century English proletariat into a respectable working class in which both (male) crime and (female) illegitimacy reached historical lows, and remained there until the 1960s. And in The Communist Manifesto Marx is writing especially about the Victorians’ British Empire when he observes admiringly: ‘The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication draws all, even the most barbarian nations into civilization.’ Thus, it was that the Royal Navy suppressed not only the international slave trade but also piracy, as well as facilitating global trade by keeping the world’s sea lanes open.

How does Strachey trace the moral and physical horrors of the 1916 Battle of the Somme to the achievements of this astoundingly progressive generation? What responsibility in particular did Strachey’s four biographical targets—Dr Thomas Arnold, the founder of Britain’s public school system; General ‘Chinese’ Gordon, the martyred hero of Khartoum; Cardinal Manning who restored the influence of the Catholic Church in Britain; and Florence Nightingale, who pioneered modern nursing in the Crimean War—have for the Great War? The straightforward answer is: none whatsoever. They were guilty only of being unusually energetic holders of earnest and slightly old-fashioned patriotic, Christian, and judgemental attitudes that Strachey—a gay literary dilettante—found distasteful or crass.

When Strachey embarked on the mischievous literary project of writing ‘Victorian Silhouettes’ before 1914, he could have had no intention of charging the four with war crimes. But when the war came, Strachey became a conscientious objector and an active opponent of military conscription. Asked by a hostile but naive army board how he would behave if a German soldier attempted to rape his sister, Strachey replied archly, ‘I would interpose my body between them’. Though Strachey was left free to continue writing his silhouettes, he had nonetheless been radicalized. He took a darker and more hostile view of his subjects than before the war, concluding that the Victorian generation had handed down to his own a ‘profoundly evil’ system ‘by which it is sought to settle international disputes by force’.

That was nonsense. The Victorians inherited an international system that had always existed; indeed, they sought to restrain and improve it by a series of international congresses and conventions on matters as various as treaty-making, navigation, telegraph and postal communications. That system broke down in 1914, but the forces that destroyed it were not Victorian but self-consciously anti-Victorian, symbolized perhaps in their antinomianism by the sad end of Count von Hulsen-Haseler, chief of the Kaiser’s military cabinet, who in 1908 dropped dead of a heart attack attired in a tutu while performing a series of arabesques and pirouettes before an invited audience in one of several regular performances before mixed audiences that sometimes included the Kaiser. As Modris Eksteins argues in his remarkable book, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (from which this episode is taken), these forces, which were stronger in Berlin and Paris than in post-Victorian London, rejected the self-control, self-regulation, self-effacement, and prudent self-interest that characterized the Victorians, in the hope that smashing their restraints would release new energies in culture, politics, and international relations. The smash-up of 1914 was far more traceable to Strachey’s amoral aestheticism than to the moral earnestness of Arnold, Manning, Gordon, and Nightingale.

Strachey got it the wrong way round: instead of the Victorians being responsible for the ruin of the Great War, the war was responsible for the ruin of the Victorians. Someone had to take the blame for the attempted suicide of Western civilization. Strachey’s ironic wit persuaded the survivors in the post-war wasteland that their upright parents and grandparents had done the deed, even though they were far away when the gun was fired. To condemnation, his book added a mocking ridicule against which there was no possible appeal. As Helen Andrews writes in the first paragraph of her book Boomers (New York: Sentinel, 2021), ‘The Victorians had less influence on the world when Strachey was done with them’.

Andrews is the editor of The American Conservative and one of the sharpest and wittiest writers in today’s Washington DC. (Full disclosure: I worked with her on the Australian magazine, Quadrant.) Her later editor at First Things, looking for a suitable topic for her pen, suggested she write a book similar in style if not outlook to Strachey’s on the Baby Boom generation of Americans born between 1945 and 1964. It was a tempting suggestion, since the so-called ‘boomers’ enjoy a reputation even less enviable than the Victorians after Strachey. They are commonly seen by more recent generations in a colder world as having lived lives of perpetual indulgence—pampered as children by fond parents home from the war, indulged as rebellious students by liberal professors who praised them as ‘the most idealistic generation in history’, enabled to live a hippie lifestyle as employees, thanks to a tight US labour market in a world hungry for US goods, and when they reached ‘maturity’ they could enjoy experiments in living thereafter via drugs, draft-dodging, and divorce—that is, lifestyles that left many of their children wounded and hostile to them. Yet when boomers imagine themselves, they celebrate their transformation of America from the totalitarian nightmare of ‘Amerika’ to the society they shaped for the better in the social revolutions of civil rights, women’s liberation, and the gay movement. Which vision is nearer the mark?

When it came to social reform and racial justice, much of the heavy lifting was done by the so-called ‘greatest generation’ of the boomers’ parents

They had survived the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the long Cold War, but remained in charge through the 1950s and most of the 1960s. Their last president was the first George Bush. The post-war civil rights struggle starts with Truman’s desegregation of the US military, continues with Eisenhower’s dispatch of US troops to Little Rock to enforce school desegregation, and reaches a deceptive climax under President Lyndon Johnson, with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, then seen as a national triumph over regional bigotry. The boomers arrived after all those reforms had been achieved either in full or substantial part. They do not arrive on the political scene until 1967 and 1968 with the widespread anti-Vietnam protests and the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. They do not get their own boomer president until Bill Clinton in 1992. Even then, they do not yet exercise Gramsci’s hegemonic power. But their arrival in the late 1960s serves to introduce a tone of ‘idealistic’ self- regard into debate on all political questions. That newer tone made the old politics of compromise that led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act harder to achieve. As time went by, reform was gradually replaced by revolution in left boomer rhetoric and by the imposition of bitterly contested policies by the courts and raw judicial power—as Christopher Caldwell’s book The Age of Entitlement has demonstrated unanswerably—in left boomer political strategy.

All of which evoked an answering harshness from the right. For ‘boomer’ is a social description at least as much as a generational one. It covers mainly those born from 1945 to 1964 who went on to universities, flirted with revolution, adopted alternative lifestyles, and otherwise strung out their adolescence.

The ‘hard-hat’ blue-collar workers who marched against the pro-Vietcong students were largely opposed to the spirit of the boomer age

The unaware children of evangelical Christians were largely protected from contact with them, their generation’s ‘leaders’. In short, socially speaking, though all the boomers were young Americans, not all the young Americans were boomers. So when Andrews delivers her harsh general verdict on boomers—‘They inherited prosperity, social cohesion, and functioning institutions. They passed on debt, inequality, moribund churches, and a broken democracy’—she is indicting both perpetrators and victims, those whose reforms removed the stigma from drugs, draft-dodging, and divorce, and those who grew up in the families devastated by them. The best and brightest devastated the lives of the deplorables.

She knows that, of course, and she is even more acutely aware of another division within the boomer generation, that between the purely destructive boomers who quite happily went to hell in a handbasket and those who had both formidable talents and ambition to do good in the world. She writes: ‘I was drawn to the 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.’

Like Strachey, therefore, she attempts a deeper picture of the age by examining the individual lives and achievements of six of the most transformative boomers: Steve Jobs, the visionary designer of Apple; Aaron Sorkin, the writer of The West Wing; Jeffrey Sachs, the globe-trotting economic adviser to Poland, Russia, and the Third World; Camille Paglia, the literary analyst of sex in culture, ancient and popular; Al Sharpton, the Black preacher who rode race-baiting to corporate power; and Sonia Sotomayor, the Latina Supreme Court Justice who introduced racial empathy into the rule of law. Each of these figures is the subject of a substantial biographical essay exploring their impact on their times. All of these are interesting as stand-alone pieces. How do they stand up together as representatives of their age? Andrews is a fairer judge than Strachey. Strachey’s method of judging his targets was essentially a promiscuous exercise in malicious irony. Manning can hardly butter his toast without Strachey seeing the act as another instance of his rampaging hypocrisy. There is no lack of irony or wit in Andrew’s pen portraits, but she has some sympathy for her subjects, and her method is to show how the good intentions of her subjects, usually augmented by talent, run unhappily up against some aspect of reality they ought to have foreseen. The boomer conviction that they can remake the world anew through their good intentions, together with their suspicion of their less virtuous elders, all too often means that they do not consult those who know the mistakes to avoid. They have the Google map to utopia. Or as Marshall Foch said of the graduates of the Military Academy of Saint-Cyr: ‘They know everything. Unfortunately, they don’t know anything else.’

That said, Andrews has her favourites. Of her six chosen boomers, she seems to have no time at all for two, namely Al Sharpton and Sonia Sotomayor, and it is difficult to disagree with her harsh verdicts. Her account of the rise of Sharpton is a brisk and persuasive history of Black political leadership from the 1950s to the present. Sharpton himself divided Black leaders during this period into two types: the transactional and the transformative. Transformative leaders make the world a better place for the poor and minorities; transactional ones sacrifice the principle of racial ‘equity’ for modest gains that accrue mainly to themselves. Like the boomer he is, Sharpton saw himself as a transformative force. But the ‘shakedown’ tactics he employed against corporations to hire more minorities mainly provided benefits such as votes for his Democratic political allies and contracts (seats on the board, etc.) for him and his organization, while consciously stoking racial antagonisms. He did well without doing much good. But when leaders like Martin Luther King bargained with transactional party bosses like Chicago’s Mayor Daley to craft compromises that gave something to every ethnic group, Black America saw genuine social improvement. And so did Chicago. It was a success of transactional politics—a success gradually undermined as the progress of civil rights law replaced political bargaining with raw judicial power.

Sonia Sotomayor reached the Supreme Court at a point in US history when the political tactics of Sharpton and his progressive political allies had made US law into an instrument of almost unqualified legal tyranny. The qualification was that the court’s edicts still had to be justified in legal language. But even that modest restraint has been undermined by Justice Sotomayor’s argument in cases involving affirmative action that race must always be a factor in such judgements largely because many people—in particular herself—have hurt and/or resentful feelings about race and are therefore entitled to special protection. As

Andrews points out, however, many people feel resentments on many grounds. She cites the unhappy case of an earlier Supreme Court justice, a Protestant WASP, who resigned because he felt intellectually inferior to Felix Frankfurter and thus out of his depth. But Harry Truman, from exactly the same background, more than coped with tough challenges. Hard feelings make bad law. You simply cannot run a legal system on the basis of mass psychological empathy—whether it is confined to racial questions (which would be discriminatory) or applies to all kinds of hurt feelings (which would overwhelm the courts). Thanks to Justice Sotomayor, however, the US courts and American academia both seem to be giving it the old college try.

Andrews has a softer spot for two representatives of boomer culture—Aaron Sorkin and Camille Paglia—because they possess great gifts and considerable achievements. But in the end, she believes, they let the side down. Her indictment of Paglia is crisp: she employed her gifts as a profound literary critic in a shallow cause. Worse, she succeeded. She persuaded a generation of arts graduates that studyingMadonna was a pursuit as worthwhile as studying Raphael’s ‘Madonna and Child’.

No Madonna fan myself, I am inclined to question this verdict. As Roger Scruton once told me, Camille Paglia had the ability to ‘de- program in fifteen minutes’ students who had been subjected to three years of ideological indoctrination by their progressive teachers. That deprogramming was not entirely, maybe not even largely, political. She took aim at the lifeless ideas and colourless visions at the heart of progressive culture as well as its politics—its tendency to treat even sexual passion as little more than a probable civil rights violation. That is a service to civilization ultimately more important than mistaking Madonna for Marlene Dietrich.

Aaron Sorkin she admires as someone who, committed to the romance of television, tried to make it a vehicle for better drama, and more subtle political drama in particular. Andrews thinks he failed as lesser talents took over the medium, but admires his attempt. Nor is there any doubt that his greatest achievement, The West Wing, had a massive impact on politicians (at Westminster as much as in Washington) who started imitating some of the show’s attitudes. That may point to a flaw, however. Politicians liked the show. As she drily points out, it flattered them. On television the president’s aides noticed a stolen quotation in a presidential speech almost right away; in real life, such pilfering survived many drafts. Compare The West Wing with the earlier British sitcoms, Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. Politicians watched those shows too, but they did not feel like imitating them because they were much too realistic. Sorkin’s liberal president lost a few battles, but never the big ones; Prime Minister Jim Hacker, never identified politically but clearly a conservative, lost most of the battles he fought unless he was supported by his Machiavellian civil service adviser, Sir Humphrey. In the end, Yes, Prime Minister is, quite literally, an education in political reality: it is shown to newly arrived congressmen to warn them of the bureaucratic traps they will face in the capital. The West Wing is an example of the romance of liberalism on television. And that makes it a boomer show.

I have left Steve Jobs and Jeffrey Sachs to the last because they are global figures rather than just American ones. They set out to change the world, and they succeeded, but not in the ways they had hoped. That is the verdict delivered by Andrews on both of them, but she sees more to admire in what Jobs achieved, more to condemn in the record of Professor Sachs. The former built beautiful smartphones that enabled us to do wonderful expensive things cheaply— like keeping in regular contact with our sweethearts across the world. Sachs advised governments (also across the world) on how to make their poor countries modern, wealthy, and democratic, without knowing much about the people in the countries concerned. So we did at least get beautiful smartphones, but Third World prosperity was more elusive.

Her portrait of Sachs is not unlike the usual caricature of the economic consultant as someone who blows in, blows up the business, and blows out again—except that Sachs is blowing up national economies. I would argue that this portrait is overdrawn in the case of Poland, where ‘shock therapy’— whose main author was in any case the Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz—made the Polish economy one of the strongest and most resilient in Europe. The case is more compelling with regard to Sachs’s involvement in similar policies toward post- 1991 Russia and Africa, where her argument is rooted in the insights of economists sceptical about development aid and the theories of development on which aid is based, like the Anglo-Hungarian Lord Peter T. Bauer and William Easterly. They point out inter alia that development occurs when the people have attitudes favourable to wealth creation, and cannot take place in their absence. Aid may even discourage such attitudes by under-cutting local entrepreneurs and raising the rewards of political life over business.

To this case Andrews adds her own important twist: that the international aid bureaucracy is itself a form of disguised imperialism in which Sachs is a viceroy commanding an army of official and NGO workers: ‘The humanitarian ones are like district commissioners, out in the field teaching agricultural techniques, distributing seeds, vaccinating children, mediating local conflicts. Others are like high commissioners, working with the politicians who nominally govern these countries, instructing them in the proper way to run their parliaments, their armies, their political parties.’ But these new imperialists lack two advantages that their British predecessors enjoyed. They are usually in their postings for brief periods only, and have neither the experience nor the deeper cultural knowledge the older colonials had of their societies. Nor do they have the direct power to intervene and adopt new policies when the policies they have mandated go wrong. And things very often go very badly wrong, as she recounts.

In the case of Steve Jobs, who had an idealistic vision of how communications could liberate mankind, Andrews notices two unanticipated consequences of the net economy he had helped create that undercut his idealistic vision of individual choice and liberty. The first was a domestic economic consequence. Silicon Valley was built on cheap foreign labour. More than half of its tech workers were foreign, and tech lobbyists in Washington DC tried to keep it that way, pressing for ever more visas for high-skilled workers. That was why wages for US computer programmers remained ‘stagnant’ while their companies prospered. Worse, it was transforming the whole US economy along regressive lines: ‘Big Tech has proceeded to remake the rest of America in its image, insofar as cheap immigrant labour is the crucial ingredient that makes the app economy possible. The technology for something like online grocery delivery existed in the late 1990s. Instacart is succeeding where dot-com- bubble-era companies like Kozmo and Webvan failed because of the availability of low-wage casual labour.’

In short, through a combination of mass immigration and high tech, America was becoming a more unequal and stratified society

In short, through a combination of mass immigration and high tech, America was becoming a more unequal and stratified society. The second unanticipated consequence was a foreign one, and even more alarming. It is that as Andrews puts it: ‘The part of the American model that globalization was supposed to promote in China, individual liberty, hasn’t materialized at all. President Clinton quipped in 2000 that China’s attempt “to crack down on the internet” was “sort of like trying to nail jello to the wall”. Twenty years later, it is obvious that ubiquitous smartphones have made the Chinese people less free, not more.’ Which meant that, like other boomer visions, that was a big mistake for America too—just how big a mistake, we can only fear.

Looking back at the boomers both individually and collectively, we may feel hopeful that their dominance is coming to its demographic end and their reputation will protect us against any repetition of their policies. Except that the next generation now knocking on the door to the corridors of power seems to regard the boomers’ failures as the result of being transactional moderates rather than transformative social justice warriors. The ‘woke’ will now inherit the earth and make it a little bit of heaven. It is a grim and gloomy prospect. But we will at least have one consolation: the pen of Andrews, dipped in vitriol, will be available to entertain us in our captivity, and to make the woke regret every victory. Even if only in Samizdat.


John O’Sullivan, director of Danube Institute

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