American exceptionalism and the real Baby Boomers

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Michael Kinsley’s latest modest proposal in Atlantic magazine — that the Baby Boomer generation give something back to America because of all its profligate lifestyle and debt — is well-argued, and being a Boomer (1959), I’m susceptible to the guilt-tripping.  But I have some quibbles.

The first is definitional.  Kinsley blithely equates Baby-Boomers (Americans born between 1946 and 1964) with a “peace and love” agenda.  That confuses “Baby Boomers” with “the Sixties,” which Kinsley calls “the Boomers’ heyday.”  Baby Boomers, as a demographic, are vastly more diverse than “the Sixties” — a media artifice for what was exciting rather than what most people were actually doing.

The great majority of young people coming of age in the Sixties were conservative.  They didn’t do drugs.  They didn’t engage in the Sexual Revolution.  They didn’t protest — they supported — the war in Vietnam.  They didn’t burn American flags or draft cards.  Indeed, some of them were activists.  Leftist Tom Hayden wrote in 1961, “what is new about the new conservatives is their militant mood, their appearance on picket lines.”

This great conservative majority of young Americans were uninteresting to the monolithic media in the Sixties and thereafter.  The media seized instead upon the margin, the few we now associate with “the Sixties,” who protested, burned, screamed, slacked, toked, swilled, screwed, sang, and slept.  And forevermore, we associate “the Sixties” with this unseemly, loud, slouching minority.

Okay, if you wish, call that “the Sixties.”  But don’t confuse it with “the Baby Boomers.”  That’s a demographic category with very real modern-day consequences.  Most Baby Boomers were not emblems of “the Sixties.”  They believed in their country, they sought jobs, and they desired most urgently to care for their own.

If we’re really talking about “the Baby Boomers,” then we’re talking about a demographic group that Kinsley doesn’t want to acknowledge.  Either they’re glamorous because of their faux-Sixties “heyday,” and therefore guilty, or they’re the ordinary folks who actually lived through the 1960s — and less interesting, and less guilty.  A dicey metaphor is a poor basis for generational indictment.

And then Kinsley inexplicably writes: “American exceptionalism — the belief that the rules of nature and humanity don’t apply to us — and American hubris about promoting our values in the world got us into Vietnam.”

What? And what?  Kinsley heard about American exceptionalism from somebody who heard about it from somebody who saw something . . .

American exceptionalism has nothing whatsoever to do with “the rules of nature and humanity.”  American exceptionalism is about the oldest surviving democracy.  American exceptionalism is about the power of a uniquely diverse people to rally around the idea of liberty.  American exceptionalism is about that liberty’s capacity to unleash unprecedented wealth.  American exceptionalism is about the belief that global power can be exercised for the good of the globe.

What we sought in Vietnam, as we sought in multiple other venues for better and worse, was simply to check the march of a hostile ideology’s tyranny.  American exceptionalism was apparent not because we believed we were exempted from nature’s rules (whatever that might possibly mean), but because no other country was equipped to challenge the expansionist Communist menace.  And for this venture in a distant land, we learned how not to fight a war.  Baby Boomers made that profound sacrifice.

The lessons of Vietnam enabled us to dispatch, efficiently, the murderous Taliban in Afghanistan and the butcher of Baghdad in Iraq.  Both regimes had been killing and torturing with impunity, and were eager to do more.  Because they could.  God bless “American exceptionalism,” if that’s the label for the narrow will to put an end to these monstrous blights on our community of nations.

Kendrick Macdowell is a lawyer and writer in Washington, D.C.