Critiquing the ‘Me’ Generation: Bottle-fed and Boob-tubed
When my review copy of Bruce Cannon Gibney’s A Generation of Sociopaths: How The Baby Boomers Betrayed America arrived in the mail, I had half-forgotten that I requested it.
It was an impulse, originally. I am a sucker for controversy in areas which interest me, and since I’ve written at length on the failure of my generation (the merry millennials) and the immediately preceding one (the Boomers) to find common ground, I was of course intrigued.
But I have also come to the realization that the ‘generational blame game’ is of very limited use for actually solving any real social (or personal) problems. So, once I actually had the book in my hands, I was more skeptical as to its value. Nonetheless, they were kind enough to send it to me, so it was only right that I proceed.
As a disclaimer, these comments are my reactions to the first 70 pages, which I read last night. I’ll report back as I make progress, and I’ll publish something more comprehensive once I finish the book.
As a point of departure, Gibney situates the Boomers in American history, and explains why “The View from 1946” (title of Chapter 1) was so unique.
He shows that the Boomers inherited an unprecedented combination of economic prosperity and social stability. It was the post-WWII era, after all—the era when Russia, after seeing a model of a ‘typical’ American home, denied it outright as blatant propaganda. No one could achieve those standards of living. But America had achieved them, and this is what America bequeathed to the Boomers.
This idea–that the Boomers were born with a silver spoon in their mouths–initially surprised me. It shouldn’t have, considering the fact that I do have a rudimentary knowledge of history and should have known better. But the fact that it did surprise me shows to what extent I have been conditioned by the Boomers’ ad nauseam insistence that they ‘had it pretty rough’ when they were young.
Gibney makes it clear that it was not the Boomers who suffered through hard times. It was instead the parents of the Boomers who survived the Great Depression, the war rationing, and actually fought WWII.
If anyone had to eat squirrel and decaying potatoes just to get by, it was not the Boomers–it was their parents. Looking at it this way, and then setting this alongside the posture of moral superiority adopted by the Boomers, we can’t help getting the feeling that the Boomers somehow identified themselves with their parents’ struggle, which of course they had nothing to do with.
If we want to see that actual conditions to which the Boomers were subject, “Leave it to Beaver” is far more accurate.
From this standpoint, we get the first argument offered by Gibney:
The Boomers, contrary to the common opinion (of the Boomers), are in fact the ones who ‘don’t know how good they had it.’ They were given a great number of things, material and social, that they had not earned.
Yet they insist that they earned them. That they earned everything that they have. And they’ve been operating on the delusion of ‘success by hard work and personal perseverance’ all their lives.
This blindness to the advantages of one’s social inheritance is the foundation of the critique that–I assume–will unfold in the remainder of the book.
But things take a more interesting turn when we get to the next chapter, “Bringing up Boomer,” which points out the unorthodox upbringing experienced by Boomers. In this instance, it is the Boomers who are, in a sense, victims of circumstance.
Due to certain social developments that surfaced and thrived at just the right (or wrong) time, the Boomers were truly conditioned to be sociopaths. These trends are two: bottle-feeding and television.
Now, regardless of the fact that many of us were bottle-fed and still ‘turned out okay,’ it is pretty incontestable today that breast-feeding has a number of advantages over formula and bottle-feeding. Some of them are nutritional, but more important to Gibney’s thesis, many are relational.
Think about it. If you are Catholic–which you probably are if you are on this website–then you believe that the design of the body is not an evolutionary accident. You believe that it has a teleology, and that the way the body works has meaning, which is to say, its nature also has a purpose. The most developed study of all of this is St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.
And so, you should probably not have much trouble accepting the notion that the ability of human mothers to breast-feed is not a random development of nature, but was put in place purposefully, and that the exercise of this function is healthy and very human. Given this admission, if we disregard the design we should expect consequences of some kind.
If you don’t follow this reasoning, by the way, we can say that even materialistic science now tells us that breast-feeding considerably aids proper emotional balance and social development. Breast-fed babies just tend to be better people.
The Boomers, as Gibney shows, got screwed over on this point. No generation was more bottle-fed than the Boomers, and if social development is indeed affected by the deprivation of the breast, then there is no better proof of the drastic consequences of this deprivation than the Boomers’ inability to understand their relations to others, their apparent lack of remorse or denial of any responsibility for social problems, and their inability to put off present wants for the sake of future needs (the Boomer generation is the generation that stopped saving, for example).
Now to the second point: television.
As much as Boomers today may complain about kids being slaves to their electronic devices, the cell-phone phenomenon doesn’t hold a candle to the television takeover of the American household. Today there are more televisions in our homes than there are people. Cell phones at the dinner table are just a latest manifestation of a process that began with television at the dinner table.
So, judging by the passive acceptance and immediate addiction to television on the part of the Boomers, we can say with confidence that if they’d had smartphones available to them, they’d have been at least as enslaved to them as today’s kids.
But that’s not the worst of it. Television, by its nature, encourages sociopathic traits. Think about it:
Conversation on television is not dialogue, it is diatribe. It is always one-way. It trains the viewer to think of human communication in terms of ‘giving one’s opinion’ and nothing else.
By its nature, it requires that the viewer temporarily surrender reality in order to enjoy what is being observed. The Boomers, by the numbers, quickly began to spend more time watching television than socializing. Tellingly, reading as a pastime almost went extinct.
In this environment, not only does conversation and awareness of non-television reality begin to dissolve, but the viewer becomes wholly dependent on the television, not only for entertainment, but for information.
This is why Gibney calls Trump the ‘avatar’ of the Boomer generation. He is the President of the United States, and he still seems to depend on Fox News for the bulk of his ‘intel.’
So that’s where I’m at, and I’m only 75 pages in. Gibney doesn’t get everything right, but what he gets right he really nails.
More in the near future as I read on…