When I first heard of Helen Andrews’ book Boomers, I was thrilled. Having followed Andrews’ work at a distance for years, I knew that it would be a careful book backed by extensive research showcasing lively rhetoric. Like the older writer Steve Sailer, Andrews is a “cultural virtuoso” with a broad familiarity of historic US culture going back to World War I and before. Andrews is a sardonic writer who skewers the moral failures of the Boomer generation with lively intensity while stopping just short of displaying outward contempt. Her book is a “family friendly” takedown of that failed generation, the Baby Boomers.
Consider her commentary on Camille Paglia: “Her constant jabs at feminism and other left-wing pieties made her many interviewers ask, Camille, doesn’t this make you a conservative? Her response was always to point to her three favorite things: prostitution, pornography, and homosexuality.” It’s refreshing to see someone of my generation—“geriatric Millennials” with such an upbeat condescending attitude to sacred cows of historic feminism such as Camille Paglia, whose work is taught ubiquitously in universities as if she were as important as Aristotle or Plato.
Andrews’ debut work focuses on six renowned icons of the Boomer generation: Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin (creator of The West Wing television drama), Jeffrey Sachs (centrist Keynesian development economist who authored The End of Poverty), Camille Paglia (semi-feminist scholar-celebrity who once signed a petition in support of NAMBLA), Al Sharpton, and Sonia Sotomayor. Of these, I got the most mileage out of the portrayals of Aaron Sorkin, Jeffrey Sachs, and Al Sharpton, having never heard of the first two figures prior to picking up the book. Al Sharpton’s bit is important especially in light of the present day where race grifters such as him have created an entirely new industry called “diversity and inclusion”. The book is snappy, at just short of 200 compact pages in double space.
The angle of criticizing Boomers that makes up the underlying foundation of the book is hardly a new one. It’s one of the most well-worn tropes on the paleoconservative right, which originated and popularized the term “OK Boomer”. The line goes that Boomers squandered their economic and cultural inheritance from the Greatest Generation and flushed it down the toilet, leaving every generation after them with nothing. Andrews echoes this theme in her opening chapter but stops just short of shoving the knife into the gut of that entire generation with a broad indictment, preferring a more zoomed-in approach that specifically criticizes the lives and values of prominent Boomers in the format of Lytton Strachey’s 1918 book Eminent Victorians. The general implications of these vignettes as they apply to the entire Boomer generation is mostly left as an exercise for the reader.
The blurb on Helen’s website highlights the general theme of the book: “With their overthrow of tradition and authority, the Baby Boomers claim to have been humanity’s greatest liberators, but their children would happily trade some of that so-called liberation for a little less debt, the chance to own a home before fifty, and a shot at extracting some commitment from the bosses and romantic partners who view their relationships as temporary. In Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster, millennial journalist Helen Andrews calls the Boomers to account. Inspired in part by Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, she presents profiles of luminaries who promised much but failed to deliver.”
What is exciting about Andrews’ book is more the implications and the looming background shadow of what she writes, not the profiles themselves. This “background” is evident to anyone who has familiarity with the anti-Boomer trope on the paleoconservative right and anyone who reads between the lines of Helen’s introductory chapter and her promotional blurbs. The implication is a direct condemnation of the Boomer generation by a representative of the right from the Millennial generation. Indeed, Helen’s book establishes her as a cultural warrior in it for the long haul in the vein of Pat Buchanan or Steve Sailer and distinguishes her from milquetoasts like Ross Douthat and Rod Dreher. I’m not sure if she would welcome that characterization (in public, anyway) but it stands nonetheless.
Within pages the book gets off to a good start by referencing the “anti-boomer brief that all my millennial friends seemed to be arriving at independently”. The purpose of the book is to “figure out where the boomers had really departed from historic norms and done irreparable harm to Western civilization,” which of course they have. Boomers have disintegrated our ability to buy homes at affordable prices, turned markets into a derivatives casino which set the stage for the 2008 economic crash, pumped up private and public debt to unimaginable levels, praised selfishness and hedonism as the guiding compass of relationships between men and women, and set a cultural trend that Julius Evola would have called “spiritually Jewish”. Many conservative or right-wing Millennials like myself and Helen wish that the entire Boomer generation never happened, and this book is the first articulation of that sentiment in a coherent volume.
Andrews uses the chapter on Jobs to launch an overall assault against the Silicon Valley elites who see themselves as global citizens without any loyalty to America as such. She condemns Stewart Brand and other Daviosie as follows: “Their humanitarian universalism argues that a person who limits his loyalties to a single nation will only become narrow-minded and chauvinistic.” Andrews remarks, “It is a kindly sounding creed, but it simply does not work well in practice.” It is easy to see how the hippie mantra of “imagine a world without countries” has led to the border disaster of the present day and politicians who want to defund all border enforcement.
I knew the book was going to be a good one when I read this bit on the 9th page, in the introduction:
Earlier generations felt obliged to graduate from the good-time music of their youth to opera and classical, upon reaching a certain age. Not the boomers. They believe that their adolescent taste stands in no need of improvement. Rock opera is as good as actual opera, as far as they are concerned. In 1963, the music critic for The Sunday Times called the Beatles “the greatest composers since Beethoven.” That could be chalked up to excessive enthusiasm in the first flush of novelty. The fact that large numbers of American adults hold the same opinion fifty years later is a serious failure of taste.”
Andrews styles herself as a defender of high culture in an era of Boomer-driven prole drift (see Paul Fussell’s Class for an explanation of this phrase). Her cultural and moral critique of Boomers thrusts into relief how totally and completely we live in their world, the world created by people who took John Lennon’s “Imagine” seriously as a blueprint for society. A world dominated by jokey sound bites that eventually gave rise to political “comedians” like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and where nobody listens to classical music anymore. One wonders, how low can we go? With the accelerating downward momentum in cultural standards set by the Boomers and aped by their children (the most conformist generation in history in terms of following their parents’ cultural opinions), we may soon find out.
Andrews’ chapter on Aaron Sorkin harps on the point that Boomers like the feel of something more than they like boring questions about substance. Helen writes: “Viewers liked The West Wing because it sounded serious, and Sorkin tried to explain that he didn’t actually know what he was talking about. Then he got serious about something he did know something about, and everyone told him to lighten up. Baby boomers love idealism, but do they know the difference between the real thing and the imitation? Is their appreciation of moral integrity real or just an affectation?” A generation of politicos went into their careers because they were inspired by The West Wing. Andrews remarks on what many already know: “a significant portion of our ruling class is made up of former West Wing obsessives”.
What impact did The West Wing have on our government culture? Helen writes in reference to Sorkin’s glorification of everyone being busy, “All things being equal, it is better for a political class to be hard-working than not, but by turning devotion to work into a fetish, Sorkin encouraged D.C. staffers to think of themselves as a caste apart. Well-intentioned, hypercompetent, with the relevant facts at their fingertips at all times, these were just the sorts of people anyone would want to see running their country. In the absence of a preexisting commitment to small government, one could easily come to the conclusion that such people ought to have as much power as they can get their hands on. Sorkin taught a generation of Washingtonians that they were capable of running the country from eighteen acres on Pennsylvania Avenue if only they put in the hours and, worse, that they deserved to.”
Around the Aaron Sorkin chapter it becomes clear that the profiles of each Boomer are in fact each a sort of “paleocon parable” touching on all those talking points we love so much. The part on Jobs is about the importance of family structure and how the Boomers wanted to tear down the ideas of country and borders. The part on Sorkin is about the superficiality of Boomer moral evaluation and the overextension of the government managerial class. The book continues in this format where each chapter has a certain parable or two that is fleshed out by the biographical details of the Boomer in question.
The chapter on Al Sharpton is especially well-detailed and acutely relevant in the here and now in terms of how race grievance has exploded into a massive grift movement that deeply affects the fundamental politics of the entire United States. Sharpton with his former mentor Jesse Jackson pioneered this field. Andrews writes, “No one in civil rights is better at extracting large sums from big corporations than Jesse Jackson, which is why Al Sharpton spent so much time studying him. Jackson’s method is like Operation Breadbasket on a larger scale. He chooses a company and, if possible, waits for a moment when it will be legally vulnerable, like a merger or an IPO. Then he makes an accusation of racial discrimination, at which point the company has two choices. It can take its chances with bad press and a lawsuit, or it can come to an agreement with Jackson. That agreement can involve making a donation to one of his nonprofits, putting one of his friends on a board, giving a franchise contract to one of his family members, or any combination of the above.” This modus operandi became the working template for an entire generation of racial demands going all the way from the Evergreen College meltdown to the domination of the New York Times newsroom by the 1619 Project and beyond.
Helen’s criticism of the Civil Rights Act and her portrayal of school integration even goes so far that it is reminiscent of my own writings or people like Richard Hanania or Jared Taylor. On school integration:
Teachers in white schools had been told to assume that their new students would be on roughly the same academic level as their old ones. Instead, they found tenth graders who couldn’t write their own names and sixth graders who couldn’t find Washington on a map—even though, prior to integration, the district’s black and white schools had had equal budgets, fairly equal facilities, and the same salaries for the teachers.
Of course, producing these sorts of passages is a sort of gesturing towards the race IQ gap without directly referencing verboten concepts like IQ or general intelligence or heritability. In Helen’s world, overt discussion of racial IQ differences is not welcomed, but roundabout anecdotal storytelling that says the same thing in so many words is vaguely nodded at. To me, who roughly understood what Andrews’ positions on all these issues already was before I even picked up the book, I’m not so interested in the points themselves being made but rather in the strategic and technical delivery of those points and how she tries to pull it off without ringing the “alarm bells” of her colleagues at magazines like The American Conservative or Chronicles. We all know what she knows, what is interesting is what fancy footwork is deployed to make it palatable such that the book can be recommended at garden parties in the DC suburbs. What do the Neal Dewings and Michael Brendan Doughertys of the world think about my book? That’s part of the driving consideration behind these missives. They all hold each other back in their calculated politeness. This blunts the force of Andrews’ critiques and holds them back from landing a penetrating blow.
By the standards of Helen’s world (she is a Senior Editor at The American Conservative), criticizing the Civil Rights Act while not outright condemning it is the sort of “this beat is fire” rhetoric that the khaki and blue blazer crowd considers the pinnacle of transgression. Consider this line: “The quality of a civilization is judged by its great cities; for decades, beginning in the 1960s, ours were rendered uninhabitable.” Given that this line occurs in the context of a discussion about Blacks and Puerto Ricans displacing Italians and Jews as “crime and disorder exploded” in the outer boroughs of New York City in the 1960s, it’s fairly spicy for TAC fare. As Helen is part of the leading clique at The American Conservative, one can only hope that her book gives tacit permission for younger climbers in the scene to feel free to address the connection between Black crime and the destruction of our cities, though I’m not going to hold my breath. Future taboo-breaking along these lines is more likely going to only be offered by Helen herself—provided that upon viewing the numbers the book sells enough copies and isn’t viewed as too “racist,” of course. For the likes of myself and my colleagues, we would simply take the text of the Civil Rights Act and throw it in a fire, but that isn’t part of the menu of options that contemporary American paleoconservatism permits. Individuals like Richard Hanania are edging in that direction, however.
Andrews describes in considerable detail how black influxes destroyed the safety and security of numerous urban neighborhoods in the 60s, particularly Jewish ones in the Northeast:
It was not “self-generated” fears that made the Jewish population of the Boston neighborhood of Mattapan fall from ten thousand to twenty-five hundred in the space of four years between 1968 and 1972. The neighborhood was experiencing as many as thirty robberies a week. With an influx of new black residents, street crime became epidemic. The local rabbi was temporarily blinded when acid was thrown in his face by two black youths who rang his doorbell and handed him a note telling him to “lead the Jewish racists out of Mattapan.” Another rabbi repeatedly assured an elderly congregant that he would never abandon the neighborhood “as long as you are alive and come to the synagogue.” The congregant was murdered in a break-in in 1973. “The elderly Jews live in fear for their lives and they are not wrong,” a local dentist said. “I know because my office is in Dorchester and I have to repair their broken teeth.”
By confronting Black historic crime so directly, Andrews is being bold by the standards of her intellectual background and pedigree. She does not go so far as to discuss recent Black crime and homicide in the context of BLM riots or anything like that, but the parallels are there for the reader to infer on their own. Andrews does offer a response to modern-day race demagogue Ta-Nehisi Coates in a few paragraphs however, chiding today’s easily-duped Boomers for buying into his lies:
It is therefore a mark of white flight’s success that so many boomers are willing to believe Ta-Nehisi Coates’s lies about it. Coates has been one of the keenest enforcers of the new orthodoxy, blaming residential segregation and black neighborhood dysfunction on the (by now century-old) bugbear of “redlining,” not the violent traumas of the 1960s. But even Coates sometimes betrays the cognitive dissonance of his position.
In 2012, the McCarren Park Pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn was reopened after being closed thirty years earlier due to chronic violence and vandalism. On opening weekend, teens ended up causing a violent scuffle that led to the near drowning o a lifeguard, several injuries, and multiple arrests including for second-degree assault. The NYPD announced that a plainclothes team would be detailed to the pool going forward.
“Maybe I’m jaded but if I re-open a pool in New York, on a hot day, to much fanfare, I expect a crowd, I expect kids, and I expect beef,” Coates wrote in a blog post about the brawl. “It is by no means shocking that some kids decided to rush a lifeguard instead of listening to him. You need cops there.” It may surprise Coates to hear it, but there are many places in America where a day at the public pool is not a form of recreation thought to require a police presence. When a neighborhood changes from one kind to the other, residents have every right to consider it a change for the worse.
This line by Ta-Nehisi Coates about “beef,” delivered as if he were some kind of wise Black grandfather figure straight out of Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood is among my favorites, so I was thoroughly gratified to see Andrews make reference to it in her chapter on Al Sharpton and even connect it to the overall topic of Boomers by referencing their bottomless credulity towards this line of trickery. I can just imagine a liberal Boomer in the Houston suburbs reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s line about “of course there will be black kids trying to hold the lifeguard underwater until he has taken his last earthly breath and his lungs are filled to the top with chlorine at pool openings on a hot day” and nodding sagely in silent agreement and understanding.
Andrews connects Al Sharpton to the Obama campaign and writes that his support of Obama allowed the latter to avoid the inconvenience of weighing in directly on racial controversies since Sharpton was there to be his proxy. Sharpton also supported Obama from very early on. In this way Andrews is implying a direct lineage from Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to Obama. Notwithstanding the fact, as Andrews points out, Jesse Jackson was caught on a hot mic saying he wanted “to cut [Obama’s] nuts out” for “talking down to black people” in a Father’s Day speech attributing responsibility for Black family breakdown to a lack of fatherly involvement. Despite this unsteadiness, the relationship between old-school Civil Rights activists and the Obama camp was rather close, helping seal the deal of his election to the Presidency in 2008.
The last chapter of Andrews’ book is on the Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is perhaps the Boomer with the most power here in 2021 among all of those profiled in the book, making her biography most relevant to contemporary issues. It’s no secret that Sotomayor is the least intelligent Supreme Court Justice who was appointed solely because she was the best Hispanic woman candidate available. Andrews quotes anonymous quotations from Sotomayor’s colleagues who worked as clerks with her on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals: “Not that smart and kind of a bully on the bench.” “She has an inflated opinion of herself, and is domineering during oral arguments but her questions aren’t penetrating and don’t get to the heart of the issue.” “She’s a fine Second Circuit judge. Maybe not the smartest ever, but how often are Supreme Court nominees the smartest ever?” Responding to these criticisms, Sotomayor knew exactly where to turn: “People kept accusing me of not being smart enough. Now, could someone explain to me, other than that I’m Hispanic, why would that be?”
Andrews reviews Sotomayor’s history in law school and as a clerk and says of her, “The journey from Bronx housing project to Ivy League law school had taught Sotomayor resilience. But it also taught her that bullying would yield results, that she would never pay a price for acting out; on the contrary, that she would be rewarded. This was, in a way, an appropriate lesson for her to learn. She was about to enter a profession that made a decades-long mission of bullying America.” Of course, this refers to the affirmative action bullying that took “the liberal eruptions of the Warren Court, which had caught the country by surprise, and make them routine.”
By criticizing Sotomayor’s career of “manufactur[ing] left-wing precedents” which was “not the practice of law as it had been known for centuries,” Andrews is again doing her tapdance of inviting the reader to reject the entirety of civil rights law by showing how it deviates from America’s traditional history, without just coming out and saying it. She reviews the reign of terror of the Equality Employment Opportunity Commission which is reminiscent of Richard Hanania’s more recent article touching on the same subject. Instead of legal cases emerging from an “earnest and vital controversy” as law was traditionally practiced, the EEOC would target individual companies by putting an ad out in the local paper for former employees to come forward with accusations of discrimination. Andrews remarks, “By the time the gay rights movement hit its stride at the turn of the century, no one any longer thought it odd that such far-reaching social changes would be accomplished through highly choreographed plaintiff selection and organized harassment of shop owners.” Indeed, such behavior has become the bread and butter of leftist judicial activism and has helped push our country so far to the left in a short few decades that it is now completely unrecognizable.
In her final short chapter of a few pages, titled “Millennials,” Andrews offers a note of resistance addressed to Boomers from Millennials, the generation I and Andrews are a part of. She writes, “Today’s young people don’t belong to anything, never have, and never expect to. Growing up in the world the boomers made, millennials have gotten used to an America denuded of institutions. Old-fashioned virtues like loyalty not only aren’t practiced; they are no longer considered virtues. You can be loyal to an institution—employer, school, your country of birth—to the extent that it conforms to your values and not one iota more, and those values are of course subject to change according to the latest fashions. After a century of revisionism and debunking, the only part of American history that millennials feel they are allowed to like or have pride in is the 1960s. So that’s the part we’re determined to imitate.” It’s a narrow world where the boundaries of acceptable discourse are set by the Boomers and their unending vanity. Millennials happily skip along and obey with dumb smiles on their faces, unable to comprehend any other way.
It is wrapping up the book where Andrews ventures her strongest statements. Condemning them, she writes, “As this book has hopefully shown, the boomers leave behind a dismal leacy. In all the fields touched by the six boomers profiled here—technology, entertainment, economics, academia, politics, law—what they passed on to their children was worse than what they inherited. In some cases, as with Steve Jobs and his products or Camille Palia and her books, they left behind accomplishments that are impressive and worthy of gratitude. But the overall effect of the boomer generation has still been essentially destructive.” In TAC-land, that is about as controversial and bold as we can expect. It’s useful because such rhetoric can serve as a gateway drug to more forceful denouncements.
Andrews worries that the Boomers’ encouragement of rebellion for half a century has finally caused the foundations of Western society to erode and crumble. She writes, “[Boomers’] rebellion took place at a time when America could afford to indulge a few rebels who wanted to run around mouth off about burning the system down. There were enough sane people, with enough commitment to capitalism and democracy and the survival of the country they grew up in, that the system was never in any real danger. Now the boomers are encouraging their children to follow their example, but after more than half a century of boomers eroding the pillars of American stability, rebellion is not nearly as safe as it used to be.” Here Andrews is channeling John Derbyshire’s 2009 book We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism or even going beyond it by directly stating that the stability of the country itself is in danger. That is definitely a position one can applaud, but paleoconservatives like Helen Andrews are much less forthcoming on such remarks than figures closer to the Alt Right have been. The reason why is fear. They are afraid that the Cathedral will rend their delicate souls.
The book ends with a defiant tone: “Kenneth Clark was wrong about the boomers. They did not take their place in the chain of civilization. And if the boomers think that they can unmoor millennials from our past, immiserate our futures, tell us we’re rich because we can afford iPhones but not families, teach us that narcissism is the highest form of patriotism, and still have a nation resilient enough to bounce back to normal after the younger generation starts to riot in the streets, then the boomers will be wrong about us.” It’s not immediately clear what the boomers will have been wrong about, perhaps that is meant as a speculation for the reader to unravel.
In general, I was impressed by Andrews’ book. Not so much the power level of the material covered, which was roughly in line with what I expected, but more the good editing, a clear writing style that injected difficult words sparingly while addressing complex topics with a salonesque spriteliness, and a broad familiarity with human affairs from law and entertainment to politics and economics. Andrews is obviously an intellectual giant on the right who has barely shown her hand in public, which might be why she is a Senior Editor at TAC in her thirties. The book can be used as a general example of good writing, approaching political topics with a kind of genteel touch that makes it easily digestible for those delicate persons at the forefront of whatever passes for high society these days. I do hope that the work doesn’t garner too much nasty backlash, and inspires similar works both by her and others. One idly fantasizes that it isn’t the peak of what paleoconservatism in the 2020s has to offer.