A Boomer History, Confession, and Apology

“Okay Boomer” is already passé, but there’s still this feeling that we Boomers owe the world (and especially our kids) an apology. It’s hard to apologize for your own life, but I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I think I’m onto something.

 First some history, to set the context.

From the 60’s to today, as fast as I can.

I lived through it, read a lot about it (so have you), watched the Ken Burns 60’s series way back when it first came out (have you seen it?) but I still don’t get how we got from V-J Day to Haight Asbury. Something to do with the Commies and Joseph McCarthy… also Elvis, James Dean, and ’56 Chevvies. Also “I Like Ike” buttons (I remember asking my dad who “Ike” was).

Mostly I wasn’t there. I started to be there around JFK and Khrushchev and fallout shelter signs on buildings and articles in the paper telling you how to build a backyard bomb shelter. But instead of nuclear holocaust we had the British Invasion, Dylan, Berkeley, Timothy Leery, Abbie Hoffman, Zeppelin, and 1968. And pot — don’t forget pot. And Woodstock. Pot and Woodstock. And the Establishment, and movements to overthrow it – civil rights, anti-war, women’s rights. LBJ on TV telling us how many more dead in Vietnam. Neil Armstrong moonwalking live on TV.

How long were the 60’s?

Not as long as the 70’s, which a cynical and insightful friend summed up as, “What was that decade about?!” Yeah, pretty much. It blasted out with two bestsellers – The Late Great Planet Earth, about how the Christian Apocalypse would go down, and Future Shock, about how technological innovation was scrambling the world’s collective brains.

It was the decade of iconic helicopter photos:  the Saigon rooftop embassy scramble and the famous helicopter that was later donated to Broadway; Nixon’s helicopter taking one last nostalgic swing by the Capitol that almost made him seem human; and the three crashed helicopters on the failed Iranian Hostage rescue attempt.

Nixon ended the draft, which saved my butt since I had a low number. I was also the first-ever conscientious objector in my small rural town. Gerry Ford and Jimmy Carter took over for Nixon — nice guys but inept. Carter was the first President I voted for. I remember his campaign speeches– how he would flash that smile and it never seemed to be related to anything he was saying — like a facial tic. Creepy, but not Nixon creepy. I also remember that he turned “impact” into a verb, which to an English major was fingernails on a chalkboard. And let’s not forget beer-drinking barbecue brother Billy Carter (how do some people become media darlings?). Plus Jimmy was a God-fearing, Bible-knowing man, and that becomes important later.

The 70’s also gave us Roe vs. Wade and the scandalous idea that pregnancy was biological and it wasn’t a soul in there. Also the OPEC oil embargo — our first serious wake up call from the environment, but we didn’t think of it that way, we just thought those Arab guys who dressed like Lawrence of Arabia had gotten too greedy. Lines around the block at the gas pump and keeping the thermostat at 68 in winter were obvious signs that Late Great was right about how Middle East oil would ignite the Second Coming. Plus, speaking of petroleum, don’t forget polyester leisure suits. And bell bottoms. But how about we all agree to forget 70’s mustaches?

We made it to the 80’s, when we all turned 30 and couldn’t be trusted anymore. If we had all resigned like we should have, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But we didn’t, and instead tried to grow up, have careers, start families – you know, the usual, except that we invented “participant” ribbons so our kids would know that they were all special. We didn’t do participant trophies in my household. Probably explains a lot.

Ronald Reagan swept in with great speeches – the first we’d heard since JFK and MLK. Besides his Gipper act, he ended Smiling Jimmy’s double-digit inflation, freed the hostages, fired the air traffic controllers, and appointed Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics as a substitute Treasury Dept. As for rock and roll, it was “Springsteen, Madonna, way before Nirvana/There was U2 and Blondie/And music still on MTV.” (Bowling for Soup – go ahead — sing along). (I missed all that great music – even ABBA. I was too busy trying to grow up.) Then Gorbachev and Chernobyl and Berlin brought over four decades of the Constant Commies to an end for good, which proved that capitalism is obviously superior.

When the Clintons and Gores got elected we had our very own President, complete with jamming a sax on SNL. Tipper gave us lyric warning labels on CD’s while Bill was busy taking the 60’s sexual revolution a bit too far. He and Tony Blair on the other side made up for it by cleansing the world of welfare queens, and by the time they were done, the Treasury Dept.’s vision of the privatizing and monetizing everything was well on the way to becoming the new normal – an expression that hadn’t been created yet.

The 90’s started with the 2000 Millennium Bug no-show, and by now the pace of growing up had slowed enough that I could finally discover all that great 80’s rock n roll I missed. “Cool” made a resurgence as “kewl,” which you could put together with “like” and “dude” to make a complete sentence. Like, kewl dude. The dot.com bubble made geeks into millionaires, then flabbered out like a whoopee cushion. “Okay” made a resurgence, along with making declarative statements with a rising intonation, so they sounded like questions? Kind of kewl, but maybe a hint that things weren’t really all that okay. “The kids are  alright,” The Who assured us in the 60’s. Not anymore. Now we had a new kind of crime — school shootings — that would become an American mainstay. 

Somewhere in the decadal seams there were PC’s, cell phones, and internet dial-up connections. Lots of Future Shock. We’d been warned. It didn’t help. Then something came with no warning and changed things forever:

The twin towers fell.

One of the most spectacular crimes ever committed. Nothing like the legalized crime of two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, nothing like the Holocaust or Hiroshima. But we weren’t there for those. Now we had people hating us just for existing, and they had broken into our house.

My kids’ ages were still in single digits when they held a memorial service in our living room. Post-9-11 is the only world they’ve ever known – security lines, Homeland Security, the Patriot Act and the surveillance state….

All of us remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard about it – like we do with JFK’s assassination (as Dylan reminded us a couple years ago. Dylan! 17 minutes of Dylan! In the midst of a pandemic!)

9-11 gave W a chance to launch his righteous war that we will never, ever get out of. We kicked ass in Desert Storm – which unlike the Vietnam War was fun to watch on TV (remember the Scud Stud?). Then came the phantom WMD’s and the advent of “truthiness” (Colbert) and some White House staff guy (everybody thinks it was Karl Rove but he denies it) who said, “guys like me were in what we call the ‘reality-based community’ – [people who] believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality… That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

Truthiness and “we create our own reality” were the serious beginning of the end. Mark that on your calendar. It wasn’t the Late Great Apocalypse, not yet anyway, but it was unquestionably the end, and the main reason why we Boomers owe everybody (especially you) an apology. I’ll clarify that in a moment, but first — and I’ll speed it up now – I need to mention that hope made its last public appearance when we danced in the streets at Obama’s election. But too soon the party turned into The Civics Lesson They Never Taught Us – that one man in Congress who shall not be named (oh, that reminds me, I forgot to mention Harry Potter back in the 90’s) can block an entire Presidential agenda.

One man.

Remind you of anybody?

By now, the new Millennium was turning into the new Disillusionment – a trend  emphatically reinforced when the economic bottom fell out with the “Great Recession” which wasn’t so great unless you worked on Wall Street, in which case your firm got a huge bailout because you were too big to fail and you and all the other account exec’s got humungous bonuses.

You gotta love capitalism.

Yes, somehow we got affordable healthcare legislation, which we needed because Clinton and Blair had privatized the world so that consumers had to fend for themselves, which the Friedman Chicago Treasury Dept. had been telling us was a good thing because the top 1% can’t get rich enough fast enough if the government has to pay for stuff. The Republicans are still pissed that Obamacare snuck past them, so it’s been on the chopping block ever since — along with Obama’s birth certificate.

And after that there was Occupy (a.k.a “The Millennials Last Stand”) and in the aftermath came Trump and Covid and… and… and I guess I just don’t feel like completing the list, okay? We all know it by heart anyway.

Which brings us up to “okay Boomer” and our kids’ generation (you) demanding an apology.

You deserve it. Not that it will do anybody any good. We’re way too far lost in the land of Trump-Republican-Libertarian-Fascist-End-of-Democracy-QAnon-Insurrection-Anti-Vaxxers-Climate-Change-Deniers-And-All-The-Rest for it to do any good. But I’ll try anyway.

Here’s the worst thing I think we did that screwed everything up:

We believed.

Really. That was our biggest, most enduring sin. We believed so much that we gave the world belief metastasized – something I call “beliefism” — my version of “truthiness” and “we create our own reality.”

  • Belief creates worldview, worldview creates reality, and reality is whatever belief makes it.
  • Belief is biological. Our brains are wired to believe.
  • Belief doesn’t distinguish fact from fiction, truth from truthiness, clarity from delusion. As far as belief is concerned, all reality is alternate reality.
  • Belief is powered by hormones, chemicals, and electrical charges. Those things make us feel good.
  • The more we believe, the more belief we can tolerate. The more we tolerate, the more we believe. That’s called “addiction.”
  • Belief is both individual and communal. We share perspective with each other, we create shared reality.
  • Belief takes on substance. We build things together to support and perpetuate the reality we create together — institutions, architecture, art, economics, law, government, religion, norms and customs, rituals and practices, metaphors and icons.
  • Belief provides purpose and meaning and mission, lays out incentives and rewards, hypes us into feeling inspired and enthusiastic and fired up to do great things.
  • Belief should come with a warning — “Handle With Care.” But it doesn’t, and we just go along believing things like it’s no big deal.
  • We believe things, then our brains get busy proving that what we believe is the way things really are. Hence the silos we live in.
  • All of that is a set up for beliefism.
  • Belief’s enemy is doubt, which is caused by thinking.
  • Belief always takes its war against doubt to the extreme – pushes its own agenda to the exclusion of alternatives, silences reasoned discourse to the point that we lose the power to think for ourselves.
  • At that point, belief metastasizes into beliefism.
  • Beliefism is self-referential, therefore unaccountable and unethical. It runs on a repeating loop of self-reinforcing “logic” that polarizes and builds silos.
  • Beliefism radicalizes belief into fundamentalism, extremism, cultism.
  • Beliefism runs on neurological and social conformity – for the sake of personal identity and survival, for group cohesiveness. Cults, nations, corporations, religions, academic disciplines, societal institutions — anything believed into existence — is built on mind control.
  • Beliefism runs in stealth mode. We don’t notice or examine what beliefism is doing to our perspective, worldview, reality. We don’t see it because we can’t.
  • Beliefism removes belief from reason, examination, and critical thinking until unmoored belief bloats into delusion. We become a danger to ourselves and others. Our risk/return matrix warps. We drink the Kool-Aid, storm the Capitol, flock to super-spreader events.
  • Beliefism makes fantasy and foolishness logical.
  • Beliefism corrupts and is corrupted. It equivocates, luxuriates in hypocrisy. It takes bribes, is enticed, falls for the temptation. It justifies, exempts itself. It isolates, withdraws, banishes, protects, secures, seizes the greater share while denying the lesser. It harvests where it has not sown, builds where it does not own. It taunts, bullies, lies, cheats, steals, curries to the strong, the rich and the powerful while chastising, blaming, and afflicting the weak, hungry, homeless, and despairing.
  • And more. So much more.

Confessions of a believer.

We really thought we were on the brink of the Age of Aquarius, that Peace Love Prunes and Woodstock could last forever. Jesus Freaks like me repurposed all that as the Kingdom of God. We started believing with Jimmy and kept believing right through Reagan and the Berlin Wall and Bill and Tony. I personally started dropping out at W and the Not-so-Great Recession bailouts and bonuses, but by then the Truthiness Train already had too much momentum.

Back in the day, I was the most advanced form of believer — a Christian. Nothing happens in Christianity without belief. Nothing. Not even God. I cheered for the Christian Right (not called that yet), prayed for them, believed in them.  I never knew. My generation never knew. We had no clue that beliefism, truthiness, and “we create own reality” would morph into fake truth and Christian Nationalism and believe-whatever-conspiracy-theories-you-want-and-the-more-bizarre-the-better. We didn’t see that a greedy, selfish, delusional mindset would take over the American mind, turn us to self-absorption and stupidity and the loss of community and the common good – and even more privatization and monetization in an economy so skewed that the world’s billionaires could see their net worths rise by over 60% — with estimates as high as $4.0 TRILLION – during a frickin’ pandemic.

Future Shock didn’t warn us about this, but we could have known — this kind of crap has happened before, and hasn’t ended well – but we were too full of ourselves ,too busy asserting our “self-efficacy” and “agency” to think history had anything to teach us.

Yes, we were children of our own times. Yes, we were at the beck and call of Future Shock and Late Great and movements and megatrends that swallowed us up. Yes we were victims, the tools of Fate. None of that is any excuse. We were also the perpetrators, the “free” moral agents (who weren’t free at all) making bad choices, full of the kind of hubris that guarantees a tragic end. Looking back, our arrogance and ignorance were stunning. We were blind and unaware of history and of ourselves, and in that state we created the reality in which we and you now live.

We did this. Our belief was corrupted, we squandered our inheritance and sold what was left to the highest bidder. And now opportunity and fairness are a thing of our parents’ past. And you? We left you with the side hustle. Good luck. Hope you can survive.

And now you want an apology.

Okay. You and I both know it’s not worth the digital 00’s and 01’s it’s written with, but I assure you it’s heartfelt.

I’m truly sick about the mess we created.

We made this mess. We did this – by our belief and in the name of God.

If there were a God, I would petition him for mercy.

If there were a God, and if he had any decency and ethics and self-respect, he would petition us to forgive him for allowing it to happen.

But I’ve lost all my old faith that there’s a God to forgive me, and God has never gone on record to ask our forgiveness.

We did this – we Boomers all, and especially those of us who did it in the name of God.

Guilt, shame, grief, regret… Yes, I’ve experienced all of that. But it’s not enough. All I have left to offer are two totally inadequate words:

I’m sorry.

The Strangest Dream

johnny cash last night I had the strangest dream

Last night I had the strangest dream
I ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war

Ed Curdy — folksinger, songwriter, Vaudevillian, disc jockey, radio and TV personality — is best remembered for a song he wrote in 1950 that The Weavers recorded ten years later. It was a song for the times, and the Chad Mitchell Trio, Simon &Garfunkel, and many more followed suit. Click here or on the image above for the Johnny Cash version.

The song’s portrayal of how war ends is a period piece:

I dreamed I saw a mighty room
The room was filled with men
And the paper they were signing said
They’d never fight again

And when the papers all were signed
And a million copies made
They all joined hands end bowed their heads
And grateful prayers were prayed

A much earlier version of the dream goes back a few thousand years:

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.

Isaiah 2: 4 NKJV

The prophecy was given for “the latter days.” Until then, it seems that war — like the poor[1] — will always be with us. Like a lot of people, I wish it weren’t so. When Ed Curdy’s song was making the rounds, I sang along — we really believed it was possible. Now, I’m convinced it’s impossible. It’s just something we seem wired to do. (More on that next time.)

Not everyone agrees — for example the folks at World Beyond War. This is from Myth, War is Inevitable, on their website:

“Even violence on a small scale is not inevitable, but the incredibly difficult task of ending violence is a million miles past the simpler, if still challenging, task of ending organized mass slaughter. War is not something created by the heat of passion. It takes years of preparation and indoctrination, weapons production and training.

 “Developing ways to avoid generating conflicts is part of the answer, but some occurrence of conflict (or major disagreement) is inevitable, which is why we must use more effective and less destructive tools to resolve conflicts and to achieve security.”

According to cultural critic Chris Hedges, people like those at World Beyond War are beset by a fatal blind spot that prevents them from seeing the dark side of human nature that makes utopian visions run off the rails.[2]

“If we see ourselves as the culmination of a long, historical process toward perfectibility, rather than a tragic reflection of what went before, then we are likely to think the ends justify the means. … Fascists and communists combined violent, revolutionary fervor with the Christian millenarian dream of a heaven on earth. They adopted the pseudoscientific doctrine that it was possible to have complete knowledge and complete mastery of the human species. It was that fusion of utopian violence and industrial and bureaucratic power that marked the birth of totalitarianism.

“The totalitarians were aided by the well-meaning but naïve pacifists who appeared in large numbers throughout Europe and the United States following the First World War. The pacifists argued that human beings could be educated and molded to reject war and live in universal harmony. These pacifists, while not succumbing to the disease of militarism, were just as deluded as the militarists were by a utopian belief in human perfectibility. They failed to build an ethic from the stark limitations of human nature. In the ensuing crisis and war they became ineffectual and impotent. These pacifists rejected all acts of violence, even those that could have stopped a resurgent Nazi Germany. They kept their hands clean. This was moral abdication. They, too, divided the world into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ those who were pure and those who were impure. They, too, sought to convert others to their higher moral state. And by their passivity they aided the forces they hoped to defeat.

“Pacifism, in times of war, falls swiftly out of favor — indeed, it is often branded as a form or treason — but the central myth championed by the pacifists, the myth of human advancement, remains the dominant ideology. Pacifists, although they do not fuel the lust for violence, keep alive the myth that the human species can attain a state of moral perfection. This myth feeds the aggressiveness and cruelty of those who demand the use of violence to cleanse the world

“The danger is not pacifism or militarism. It is the poisonous belief in human perfectibility and the failure to accept our own sinfulness, our own limitations and moral corruption. This belief in our innate goodness becomes dangerous in a crisis, a moment when human beings feel threatened. It enlarges our capacity for aggression, violence, and mass slaughter.”

I Don’t Believe in Atheists:  The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist, Chris Hedges (2008)

Interesting that both Hedges and the World Beyond War website use the term “mass slaughter” for war — which is what it is, despite the ways we try to clean it up. More on that coming up.

[1] Matthew 26: 11

[2] Click here to view this blog’s series on utopia/dystopia.