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The Greatest Generation

While we're on the topic of great rants, Stephen Masty at The Imaginative Conservative takes on the "greatest generation" in his latest post:

America’s so-called Greatest Generation is great only in comparison to the rubbish that followed them, which frankly and literally they begat. The rest is mostly sentimentality, projecting onto an entire generation what we may more rightly respect about our own dear relations.

While it may sound ungrateful to the veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, from where did these ghastly Boomers come? Did they spring like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, fully-armed with credit cards, neuroses and BMW motorcars? Or did they have parents?

The so-called Greatest Generation created Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society that metastasized welfarism and made permanent the culture of entitlement. They created or enabled the Permissive Society that shattered millennia-old values leading to the decline of marriage, a level of narcotics-abuse never seen before in a developed country, an epidemic of sexually-transmitted diseases and the industrial-scale production of bastard children. They ran America when Roe-v-Wade opened the floodgates to 50 million abortions since.

Too nice to argue and too weak to put their foot down, they spoilt their offspring with the kind of good-natured generosity and blind tolerance that is far more harmful than parsimony and even cruelty.

Having inherited a work-ethic from their parents who fed them through the Great Depression, they built America’s post-war economic surge but then wiped the cultural hard-drive, hoping to free their creepy kids from what the “Greatest Generation” saw as a work-a-day encumbrance and we now see as a missing ingredient of national strength.

In that sense, they were hopeful ideologues of materialism as much as any of Chairman Mao’s acolytes were ideologues of communism. If they had religion in their fox-holes and bomb-craters, they failed to pass it on to many of their progeny.

OK, that felt good. Yes, the fact of the matter is that this generation, while retaining many of the old virtues we justly admire, nevertheless ushered in the Age of Aquarius and the subsequent collapse of civilization we are living today. To be fair, they were war-weary and probably war-traumatized. That's not psychobabble: war either strengthens or weakens the moral constitution, more often the latter. I think it is fair to say that Americans of this generation began to lose their inherited Christian faith, while those who retained their faith hardly tried to pass it on. Planned Parenthood was formed in 1942; Levittown was launched in 1947; "rock and roll" was an identifiable genre by 1951; Playboy magazine was founded in 1953. In the 1950s atheism became chic and respectable, and by 1963 both prayer and bible reading were banned in public schools. Etc.

I think, however, that there may be another cause of the Boomers' revolt, one that involves their parents' experience but mitigates their culpability. In his essay "Rosie the Riveter and the Gender Warriors", Gerald L. Rowles explains how the war impacted the family:

The predictions and findings of the emerging social sciences of the 1940's were not particularly well received, in part because of their relative newness and in part because of the social euphoria of the war's end. Everyone had been subjected to enough doom and gloom after five years of warfare and death, and now was the time for celebration and launching career/family pursuits. But something had changed, and was continuing to change, dramatically, in the family arena. Blankenhorn, in a subdued, almost tongue-in- cheek manner, goes on to recount predictions we all know as reality today.

"Some experts feared that a mother on her own, might overidentify with her child, thus undermining the spousal bond (i.e., mother and child would become so tightly bonded that father would become virtually superfluous to their emotional needs). Or that a single mother might become so reattached to her own parents or other close relatives that the returning husband would be treated as an intruder."

And then, in the predictions, research and concerns of the social scientists mumbling in the background, we find the predicted source and intensity of the anger we see today: "Moreover, the mother's independence as a solo parent and worker might lead to an increase in sex (gender) antagonism following the war." "A Stanford University study of returning fathers found that they had a hard time establishing good relationships with first-born children (those born before or subsequent to their departure). Compared to fathers who did not go to war, these fathers tended to be more critical of the oldest child, to discipline him or her too harshly, and to be more easily annoyed by disruptive behavior. They tended to view their son's behavior as too babyish or girlish." "In many ways, military service had diminished these men in their roles as fathers and family men... They were fathers, but of unknown children whom they had only seen in pictures; they lacked any warm interpersonal relations with these children and were vague and uncertain in the role of father."

In a contemporary study of middle-aged adults who had been children during WWII, Blankenhorn quotes the author (William A. Tuttle) as concluding "for fathers coming home after prolonged absence in a military environment in which they either gave orders or promptly obeyed them, there seemed little doubt that their sons and daughters should respond to them as buck privates had to first sergeants... A militaristic approach to family life provoked resentment and sometimes rebellion among children, in turn leading some fathers to crack down even harder. One woman remembers a fighter-pilot father, a man she never really knew, disturbing the secure nest she and her mother had made with her paternal grandparents: 'suddenly, I was no longer a princessly half-orphan but a spoiled brat! He scolded, I cried, Mom and Grandma stood up for me,... Many years later, Mom told me what a rocky time it was for all concerned.'"

In the parental homefront aftermath of WWII, these kinds of conflicts - on a wide-ranging scale of intensity - were played out in millions of American homes, affecting the lives of millions of baby-boom boys and girls who have become today's mothers, fathers, and single parents. Many post-war mothers resented being summarily moved back into the homemaker role, displaced from the work place by men who had previously been friends, family and lovers, who now, in many cases seemed to be strangers. Fathers, returning home from the close-contact horrors of a distant war, many still in shock, were groping to move into their new, instant roles, as fathers and providers. Many would remain in shock, to varying degrees, for the rest of their lives.

As Leo Priebe, A WWII veteran poignantly wrote in the Des Moines Register in 1995, "war either makes you a Christian or a savage. I saw them both." Mr. Priebe goes on to recount the lingering, buried effects of the war experience which suddenly came to the surface when he returned to Frankfurt on vacation: "One evening some thirty years later, as I stood on the balcony of our hotel overlooking that beautiful city, the words came back to me - 'we leveled Frankfurt last night' - and the tears came."

Comments (21)

If I'm not mistaken, the Baby Boomer generation children were also more likely to go to college than their parents had been. Eager to give them what was seen as that "opportunity," the war generation parents worked hard to pay for it and, in the process, turned their children over to often rather shockingly avant garde professors who most decidedly did not share their own values. It's a process we're very familiar with today, but my impression is that that was one of the first generations upon which the "college experience" worked its anti-magic on such a broad scale. Thus the ideas of the intellectual classes, which had been shocking to people of normal morals and sensibilities for a long time, had an enormous opportunity to "trickle down" to the middle classes and, especially, the middle class young people. The reaction among the intelligentsia into communist and socialist sympathies as a result of having fought the Nazis in the war (and the false view that if you were against fascism you automatically thought there was something not-so-bad about communism) played its role as well.

I believe that growing up in the Depression and fighting WWII ruined that generation, gutted them. TV was a new narcotic that soothed the pain.

Sounded kind of psychobabbly. Sure enough, here it is: "Over recent years, because of my clinical background...."

Maybe there's even something to this hypothesis, who knows? You won't find out from the article, that's for sure. Anecdotes, speculation, and fragmentary results of studies.

Beware of therapists who tell you stories you want to hear.

What? "explains how the war impacted the family" Arghh! "Impact" is not a transitive verb.

"Impact" is not a transitive verb.

Sure it is: "the asteroid impacted the moon."

As for the subject of the post, there's truth in both the point and the counterpoint. But I think the point has the better of it. The men who led the way down the path of ruin were not hippies or boomers: they were men who had lived through the wars and the Depression. Warren, Blackmun, et al. are as responsible as any of their drug-addled children for the mess. If the adults in positions of authority and leadership had said "no" to barbarism and anarchy, in the home or in the courtroom, we wouldn't be where we are today.

At the same time, of course the huge social upheaval of the war had an affect on people's lives. But to blame the psychosis of an entire generation on some fathers' demands for discipline is simply silly. First, relatively few baby boomers fall into the category described: children who spent their early formative years without their fathers. Most were born immediately after the war. Second, acceptance of that model requires one to pretend that military-style discipline was both previously unheard of in and incompatible with natural family life. That's a hardly supportable thesis. Third, it rests upon the hypothesis that returning fathers more or less universally demanded military-style discipline; the anecdotal evidence relied upon to support this idea just as easily suggests that baby boomer children were indulged and coddled, rather than held to spit-polish standards.

Our grandparents did many fine things and deserve our gratitude for the victory they secured in the Second World War. But that does not mean they didn't screw the pooch when they came home.

I think we've lost the fight over "impact." A while ago I happened to look through one of those popular English usage books from the 1970s, and the author (I forget who) was complaining about the misuse of "impact." The noun "impact" - apparently no one yet had the chutzpah to start misusing it as a verb. People were misusing the noun by using it to refer to little things.

It's amazing how fast usage can change. You hardly ever see the word "horrible" anymore. It's always "horrific" now, which you hardly ever saw a decade or so ago.

This is one of those issues in the culture war that cuts across conservative and liberal, left and right. Lots of language conservatives on the left and vice versa.

I had an impacted tooth (and this is not a recent usage of the word). Is the "ed" on the end of that a past-tense form of the verb, or is it the past participle? Since the verb of the sentence is "had", I'm guessing that it is a participle. In which case "impact" is, also, properly speaking a verb, because otherwise it cannot have a participle.

In my opinion, the "greatest generation" was the first generation that felt a kind of freedom or opportunity to not pass on the culture they had received just as they had received it, and they didn't have any moral or intellectual grounding in why that culture ought to be passed on intact. Thus, even when they did practice some of the old morals or customs, they did so in a fashion that allowed recalcitrant kids to break away from those morals or customs with impunity. Going to church? Heck, in the 1960's and 1970's most mid to older teens felt perfectly capable of doing without church, and there was virtually no effective backlash from their parents. The adults were unprepared to make a distinction between those practices that were essential to a good person living well (such as morals), and those which were were potentially exchangeable (such as mores). Earlier generations, I think, didn't have to make that distinction, you just taught the kid to do what you were taught to do, and that's that.

We must by no means underestimate the effect in those decades of higher criticism and modernism in the seminaries and churches. I believe that these things undermined the confidence of the pastors and the parents in the reasonableness of Christianity and the reliability of Scripture, which gave the scornful, would-be-intellectual young an excuse for throwing "all that" out the window.

Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead is in my opinion a very great work of literature indeed, and her protagonist, John Ames, is very believable and a man of his time. A man of great faith himself, a man who deeply loves God and whose Christian commitment is not in the slightest doubt, when confronted with a bitter skeptic who wishes he could believe, Ames refuses to debate him and, as an act of love, gives him a copy of...Feuerbach!???

Lydia, I share your opinion of Gilead. A couple comments: I don't remember that particular scene, but Ames' relation with Jack is pretty deep, so I don't think Jack can be taken as a representative of bitter skeptics who wish they could believe. Maybe more to the point, Gilead, like its author, is Calvinist. Jack, a minister's son, is apparently not among the elect, and he knows it. Remember his anguished questions about predestination, and Ames' hearing them simply as an attack on the faith? Giving Jack a copy of Feuerbach is part of that whole history. I may be reading it wrong, but I think it's more a sign of Ames' personal (or spiritual) shortcomings than a symbol of mid-twentieth-century Protestantism.

But anyway, given that Calvinist theology (maybe this is just my popularized understanding of it), wouldn't the elect go to heaven and the damned to hell, whether they're given Feuerbach or the Gospel? It reminds me of that quote by Camus: "We must do what Christianity has never done...take care of the damned."

I do agree with your larger point. If you're looking for the Reason Everything Is a Mess Nowadays, you're not going to find it in some single event or time.

If you're looking for the Reason Everything Is a Mess Nowadays, you're not going to find it in some single event or time.

I will certainly grant that placing the bulk of the blame upon any single generation is misguided and inaccurate. However, some generations are more blameworthy than others. The Boomers and their parents had it uniquely within their power - as no other generation before or since - to contain the damage and prevent the calamitous disintegration of society that now engulfs the West. They chose, instead, what Kirk would call the pursuit of "unchecked will and appetite" and the delberate weakening of all cultural and institutional restraints.

Maybe you noticed it too: while Masty faults members of the war generation for "blind tolerance" and being "too nice to argue and too weak to put their foot down", thereby spoiling their offspring, Rowles argues that a "militaristic approach to family life" provoked resentment and rebellion in their offspring. That sounds like a contradiction, but I think there is truth to both of these claims. In the first place, the "greatest generation" was sharply divided in the way it responded to modernity in general and the war experience in particular. Remember, this "militaristic" generation is also the generation of Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose first book on laissez faire parenting was published in 1946. Both approaches can be found in my own family background, sometimes even within the same household - the "war baby" getting the militaristic treatment, subsequent children getting the permissiveness. And yet there was a common denominator: one way or the other, consciously or unconsciously, the war marked a radical break with the past.

Well, Aaron, we could have a very interesting discussion about Gilead. In fact, the greater the book, the more there is to discuss. But I'll just say this: Robinson doesn't give the last word to Calvinist determinism. She's ambivalent about it. That's why Lila tells Jack, "You can always change."

Of course, _Robinson_ doesn't think there's a problem with giving Feuerbach to Jack. She really does mean it to be an act of love, and apparently just the right book for him. I'm the one shaking my head over that and in general over the complete absence in both Gilead and in the wonderful companion novel Home of any notion that it is possible to have a discussion with Jack and to help him by answering questions, by any intellectual attempt whatsoever to address his doubts. Robinson evidently doesn't think there are any answers on that level, and neither do her characters. Not a single person even asks Jack a simple question like, "Why don't you believe in God?" or "Tell me what your objections are to Christianity as you understand it. I want to know where you're coming from." However, what is a fault from a philosophical and apologetic point of view is, I believe, a virtue from the perspective of a realistic fictional portrayal of what Ames and his friend Boughton (and even Jack's brother Teddy in Home) would really have been like at the time.

But I'll just say this: Robinson doesn't give the last word to Calvinist determinism. She's ambivalent about it.
Isn't that nearly universally true? Why do Calvinists argue (*) that Calvinism is true?

(*) disregarding, for the monent, that their back-up "argument" generally seems to be "You can't understand the brilliance of the previous argument because your unregenerate nature makes you unable to reason".

You're right, I was too quick to assume that Robinson is univocal on Calvinist doctrine. I've forgotten Lila's "you can always change," but I'd be very wary of taking Lila's voice as speaking for the author. Sometimes characters do speak for the author (sometimes Ames' grandfather, for instance), but not Lila in that case. On the possibility of redemption, I'd say look at the plot, especially Jack's story, in Gilead and Home. It looks pretty predestined - it sure ain't Flannery O'Connor! - but maybe I'm wrong. I guess I need to read the books again!

I'm not so sure that Robinson doesn't think there are intellectual answers for Jack. No definitive answers, probably. Her characters in both books are simply incapable, for various reasons, of giving any intellectual answers, especially Ames, who is intellectually capable. For Robinson to have stepped in somehow with an intellectual answer would have taken away from the characters and the story.

Last thing from me about Robinson. If you haven't seen Bill Forsyth's film version of Housekeeping, you need to see it. A beautiful movie, maybe his best.

"They chose, instead, what Kirk would call the pursuit of 'unchecked will and appetite' and the delberate weakening of all cultural and institutional restraints."

The Great War was a kick in the teeth to the myth of progress, and then the Depression didn't exactly help matters. Recall all the books that came out between, say, the mid-20s and the mid-40s that either asked what had gone wrong, or attempted to diagnose the problems. Now one could argue that such books are always being written, and this is true. But how many are still in print and still discussed? As Marion Montgomery points out for example, in a period of five short years both Marcel's Homo Viator and Jouvenel's On Power came out in France (in 1945), while Lewis's Abolition of Man and Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences appeared in 1943 and 1948 respectively. All four dealt in one way or another with man's growing sense of alienation.

Many observant conservatives and traditionalists noted at the time that these changes were taking place and that they were not good. However in large part their concerns were brushed aside in the wake of the post WWII economic boom, as the issues they were raising were metaphysical ones, and who had time for that now? Progress was back, and with a vengeance.

Thing is, the whole shebang was empty, running on fumes, and not enough people paid attention to the coughing and sputtering.

For Robinson to have stepped in somehow with an intellectual answer would have taken away from the characters and the story.

Right, I totally agree.

In real life--well, I'd like to see more people giving intellectual answers. Not that it's a whole lot better now! Plenty of parents and friends of parents do not give intellectual answers to skeptics, even much-loved skeptics.

All four dealt in one way or another with man's growing sense of alienation.

Nice Marmot, alienation from what? There has to be a terminus from which to be alienated.

I'd say that the spiritual and societal consequences of the modernist "flight from God" were beginning to be noticed more fully, but I doubt that few people grasped the spiritual nature of their restlessness except in a vague sense. The intellectuals on the other hand were starting to come to grips with a rather terrible question: Ok, now that we've killed God, what do we do, where do we go?

The alienation of man was from the self-understanding of his true nature as a creation made in the image of a transcendent Creator.

Aaron writes: "This is one of those issues in the culture war that cuts across conservative and liberal, left and right. Lots of language conservatives on the left and vice versa."

Actually, I don't see much of a war, culture or otherwise, between language conservatives and language progressives. The usage battles you're referring to are mostly about aesthetics; the appeals to history are generally dubious.

Take "impact." The discovery that this usage was wrong seems to have been made in the 1960's, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. (And, as you say, initially focused on its use as a noun.) Before that, according to the MWDEU's citations, it had been firmly established in edited prose for half a century (used by John Buchan, Virginia Woolf, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Eliot, among others) and used by earlier authors going back to Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817, albeit less frequently.

Christopher's complaint above is even more ahistorical since "impact" wasn't verbed from a noun; the nominal usage is actually more recent than the verbal. It does seem to have seen a sharp rise in use in the 70's and 80's, which probably sparked the "conservative" backlash that persists here today.

As for "horrible" vs. "horrific": Google finds 226 hits for the former and 105 hits for the latter in the New York Times Book Review since January 1, 2000:


Moving downmarket, horrible still beats out horrific on the New York Sun's website:

https://www.google.com/search?q=site%3Anysun.com+horrible (5,140 hits)
https://www.google.com/search?q=site%3Anysun.com+horrible (902 hits)

Admittedly a rough measure, but they seem to contradict your impressions.

I will certainly grant that placing the bulk of the blame upon any single generation is misguided and inaccurate. However, some generations are more blameworthy than others.

It's worth bearing in mind that federal fiscal policy did not become unsustainable until 1992-2008 which was the time frame in which the "Greatest Generation" started to take a back seat to the Boomers. Today, about 65% of both houses are from the Boomers and we have a Boomer in the Presidency (the last four presidential terms were occupied by Boomers as well).

The Boomers cannot be blamed for the existence of most of the programs that fell apart on their watch. They can, however, be blamed for the acceleration of the decline of those programs on their watch.

New York Review of Books, even.

All four dealt in one way or another with man's growing sense of alienation.
but I doubt that few people grasped the spiritual nature of their restlessness except in a vague sense....The alienation of man was from the self-understanding of his true nature as a creation made in the image of a transcendent Creator.

Nice Marmot, if people did not sense the spiritual nature of their restlessness, then the "sense" of the alienation had nothing to do with their no longer having a self-understanding as a creation. The SENSE of alienation has to be perceived. And the terminus also has to be perceived, at least indistinctly, vaguely, in order for the sense to be a sense of being away from it.

It is perfectly possible that the alienation that we sense comes about on account of the change in self-understanding. Then you will have pinpointed the cause of the alienation. But not what we sense being alienated from.

My impression is that the term is usually used to denote alienation from a condition of integration, wholeness, not having parts at constant war.

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