Richard Reinsch (00:04):
Today we’re talking with Helen Andrews about her new book Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster. Helen Andrews is senior editor of The American Conservative, before that managing editor of the Washington Examiner, she was a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow and her writing has appeared in numerous journals, including The New York Times and First Things, among others. She’s also written for Law & Liberty in the past. So we’re glad to have her on the program to talk about Boomers, Boomer nation.
Helen Andrews (00:53):
That’s us! We are the boomer nation.
Richard Reinsch (00:55):
So Helen, what got you interested in writing about the Boomers? I mean, there’s been obviously a lot said about them. What did you want to add?
Helen Andrews (01:03):
Well, I’m a millennial to start by laying all of my cards on the table. And the millennials and the boomers are natural enemies, in many cases because the boomers are our parents. And as I looked around the world, when I graduated from college in 2008, into the teeth of a massive financial crisis, I started thinking that the world that my generation had inherited was not the one that we were supposed to, that something had gone wrong, somewhere. And so I wanted to trace back, where mistakes had been made, in the economy, in politics, in religion, in the family. And every time I tugged on a thread, I found that it led me back to the generation that came of age in the 1960s, and started running the world in the 1990s. And that was the baby boomers.
Richard Reinsch (02:00):
Something that I’ve always thought about with the baby boomers. And I think about it in terms of my own family, one of my grandfathers grew up on a farm during the Great Depression, in northern Indiana. He talked a bit about that with me difficult times, then very early in his life goes off to fight in a world war in the Navy, and then comes back. And GI Bill goes to college, becomes an engineer, and raises a family. And when I juxtapose his early life with the life he was able to create for his children. And this is I think, throughout the baby boomer generation. And so he would be a part of what’s called the silent generation. So we have a boomer generation that grows up, obviously, underneath the specter of nuclear war. But they grow up compared to previous American generations and conditions of unparalleled prosperity, and peace, and good education systems, largely very much intact families. And what do you think goes wrong there?
Helen Andrews (03:13):
The long and short of it is that the boomers, as you say, came of age, at a time of unparalleled prosperity. I don’t think America has ever been wealthier in the fullest sense than it was in the 1950s and 60s. And it was also a time of great social cohesion. All the things that make American society great, we’re still functioning at full capacity then, our churches were exceptionally strong in the 1960s, our civil society, and informal volunteerism, all of that good stuff, was hitting record highs in the 1950s. And all of this together gave the baby boomers a sense that that was just the natural order of things, that the natural state of the world is for everybody to be rich, and for society to work well. And for there to be high levels of trust among the people who live together. And they behaved on that assumption over the next six decades. And the result was that they thought they could act out and destroy institutions and that society would continue to function in the wonderful, healthy way that it had when they were young kids.
Helen Andrews (04:31):
And of course, that’s no longer the case. Prosperity, as we have discovered is not the natural order of things, and that if you destroy institutions like the churches, then the result will be what you see today in the Protestant mainline, which has churches their moribund, is not on their literal deathbed. So that was what happened to the boomers. They came of age at the time when everything was great. And they assumed it would always be that way, no matter how badly they acted.
Richard Reinsch (05:00):
Question, in your research for this book did you ever take up the question, something that I’ve been interested in. What’s the interaction between, say, the silent generation and these children that they’re raising? And it seems to me at some level, there was just a failure to inculcate time-honored habits and the American past, at some level, did you think about that?
Helen Andrews (05:26):
I did. But the thing that first made me start questioning that narrative, that it’s actually the silent generation fault. And the greatest generation fault is reading about the phenomenon of the 1960s in other countries because, of course, the baby boom 1960 that was a global phenomenon. And the people in Germany and France, who asked themselves, why is it that all of our students are rioting in the streets and throwing cobblestones at cops in 1968? The answer they came up with was, well, they hate their parents because their parents bequeath them a world of war. Their parents were the generation of fascism and collaboration. And that’s why these young Frenchmen don’t trust anybody over 30. I thought, well, that’s almost the opposite of the situation you had in the United States. Here, the narrative is that the generation that were the boomers’ parents were the good guys, and they made things too nice for their kids. And that’s why they hated them. And you can’t have two opposite explanations for an identical phenomenon. So eventually, I ended up concluding that the generational boomer phenomenon, the 1960s, that rebellion, was a product just of simple demographics, when you have a very large generation, as the boomers were, when they become of age, they start to throw their weight around because there are just so many of them and that makes their desires just so important to the rest of society. So that was what was going on not in the actual… The substance of generational debate did not have a lot to do with it.
Richard Reinsch (07:00):
You profile six boomers in your book and you in many ways mirror very successful book Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey, which was a very successful book at the time for dispelling a vaunted legacy of the Victorians in the English mind. I take it you wouldn’t mind taking that place here in America with regard to the boomers, you profile Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin, Jeffrey Sachs, Camille Paglia, and Al Sharpton. I’m wondering, why not Bill Clinton? Isn’t he the quintessential boomer?
Helen Andrews (07:35):
He was absolutely on my shortlist. And the reason why I ended up passing his name off, even though he is as you say, the quintessential boomer, I agree with you 100% is that I wasn’t sure there was a lot left to say about Bill Clinton that hasn’t already been said. And also, I got a chance to say most of what I wanted to say about Bill Clinton in the chapter on Aaron Sorkin. Because if people out there don’t know, if you watch an episode of The West Wing, there’s a 75% chance that at least one of the plotlines in that episode is ripped from the headlines, as they say in Law and Order from something that actually happens in the Bill Clinton White House. If you know anything about the Clinton years, you will see familiar news stories and anecdotes pop up in The West Wing all the time. So that was where I got my chance to say what I have to say about Bill Clinton.
Richard Reinsch (08:32):
And then in that regard to Hillary Clinton. I know there is so much that has been said about them. It’s the handprint. The boomer generation is so large, and their print on all aspects of American society continues today. And it to me he just exemplifies that and what he was able to achieve and also dissolve.
Helen Andrews (08:56):
And also Clinton was a man who squandered what were great gifts, not just the power that he was granted that he then abused, but the gifts that God gave them. He had many virtues, and he did not turn them to as good use as he should have. And that’s the boomer story in a nutshell.
Richard Reinsch (09:14):
Okay. You profile first, Steve Jobs, he seems to be the one you’re the most sympathetic to.
Helen Andrews (09:22):
People have told me that I get gradually less sympathetic as the book goes on. That may be true.
One of the most fascinating subjects to me of California and business in Silicon Valley, is how the hippie side and the aggressive capitalist side are two sides of the same coin, that they are more alike than people tend to anticipate.
Richard Reinsch (09:28):
Yes, with Jobs, you profile him. Why?
Helen Andrews (09:33):
Because you really can’t tell the story of the last sixty years in the United States without talking about technology. And nobody shaped our view of technology more than Steve Jobs. He’s also somebody who exemplifies California more than just about anybody. If you bought Apple products in this century, you’ll probably remember turning over on the back of your iPod or whatever and seeing made in China, but designed in not in America, designed in California. So Apple was very much a California company. And if you think about the boomers’ effect on the world, pretty adequate way to summarize, it would be making us all look a little bit more like California. And that’s what Steve Jobs represents to me.
Richard Reinsch (10:20):
Jobs in the Apple company and creating the smartphone, which has, I mean, in my mind, transformed so many things and in conjunction with social media, in terms of how we interact with information and interact with one another. Jobs also you write about, there’s certain countercultural strains in Jobs, but also certain other strains as well, in terms of I didn’t know that he wasn’t going to allow pornography apps to be sold on Apple products, et cetera. And he said, “We’re going to do what’s right for our customers.” So there was this interesting, sane part of Jobs that you profiled.
Helen Andrews (10:58):
Absolutely. He was a quintessential boomer in some ways, but the anti-boomer in other ways, the stand against pornography in the Apple Store is one example. He hated politics. I mean, he would go to a meeting at the Obama White House if they invited him just because there’s always a hobnob with powerful people. But the strain that you see in Silicon Valley now where everybody’s very woke and political, he just had no time for that. And he insulted Bill Gates and his dabbling in philanthropy. For Steve Jobs, he was a true-believing capitalist. That was what he thought was his contribution to the world, which is, in many ways very unboomerish, as well.
Richard Reinsch (11:42):
There’s the side of Silicon Valley that it was this myth of the hippie in the garage, inventing new tech products that we would use, but it was about creativity, with some amount of bourgeois productivity and business acumen, but this was really the flowering of a new ethos and way of being in business. And do you think Jobs fulfilled that? Or is he a crossways, with that?
The reason why the boomers are failing to be a bulwark against crazy woke fanaticism is that they feel like these kids are just believing the same values that they do. You see it in Silicon Valley all the time, the people who run Google in the top management positions, the boomer generation people have the same values as sensibly as the millennials who are terrorizing them. It’s just that they thought we could pursue those values and still be nice to each other.
Helen Andrews (12:07):
One of the most fascinating subjects to me of California and business in Silicon Valley, is how the hippie side and the aggressive capitalist side are two sides of the same coin, that they are more alike than people tend to anticipate. I think my favorite thing that’s ever been written about Silicon Valley is Tom Wolfe’s essay that’s collected in his collection, Hooking Up about noise in the early founding fathers of Silicon Valley. And because he’s Tom Wolfe, one of the things he notices is the way everybody’s dressed. And he notices that California has a much more casual style and you can spot somebody from East Coast Wall Street when they come out to visit a Silicon Valley company in a second because they’re the only ones wearing a suit and tie. But when I talked to boomers, just to have my personal acquaintance about things that they thought had changed in the last 50 years, one of the things that a lot of them mentioned was workplace attire, that is a lot more casual now than it used to be. And that’s a great example of the Californication of the rest of America. It used to be, you only saw that kind of thing on the west coast. Now you see it everywhere showing up in jeans and sneakers to an office job. But one of the boomers that I talked to about this phenomenon made a chilling observation, he said that this casual workwear coincided exactly with longer hours, that it used to be even in my hardcore New York law office, that everybody kept basically nine-to-five or nine-to-six hours, everybody understood even your boss, that everybody ought to be home for dinner. And it was only as the go-go ’80s started going and especially into the ’90s that they started thinking it’s okay to ask your employees to start staying till 10 o’clock at night on a regular basis. And so supervisors said, “Well if I’m going to do that, I can’t ask them to be in an uncomfortable suit all that time.” So in that way, the rise of casual wear in the office went hand in hand, with employers demanding more and workers losing leverage in the workplace. It’s not about self-expression and dressing how you want no, it’s about them squeezing every drop of labor they can out of you. So I think that’s the kind of California workplace the Steve Jobs represented.
Richard Reinsch (14:26):
As you say that I think I’m recalling something I read about Marissa Mayer, who was the CEO of Yahoo, that started on the ground floor of Google, that she didn’t go home for 30 days or something like that, something ridiculous like that in the early days of Google. I guess one thing that comes to mind here is so the wokeplace phenomenon in some ways in which is such a part of Silicon Valley and it’s become at least what you and I do. It’s something we interact with every day, an unpleasant reality. And that’s post-boomers though, isn’t it? Isn’t that something that, did they prepare the way for that? Is that a part of this merging of workplace and values and virtues? Or does that come after them? And it sparks the question. Are we afraid of an America after the boomers? Do we fear what that might look like? One place is, the presidential race, we were actually afraid of the next generation of Democratic politicians. So we chose Joe Biden.
Helen Andrews (15:27):
I think that’s absolutely right. But we can’t let the boomers off the hook because the reason those Millennials are so terrifying, is because of the things that the boomers taught them. And the reason why the boomers are failing to be a bulwark against crazy woke fanaticism is that they feel like these kids are just believing the same values that they do. You see it in Silicon Valley all the time, the people who run Google in the top management positions, the boomer generation people have the same values as sensibly as the millennials who are terrorizing them. It’s just that they thought we could pursue those values and still be nice to each other. They weren’t fanatical about it. So the millennials know that they have the leverage in these battles. Because the boomers claim to believe in the very same thing. So yeah, the boomers are the last barrier between the coming insanity that is the world takeover of absolutely everything. But they were the ones who created the monster in the first place.
Richard Reinsch (16:37):
I want to skip, this being Law and Liberty. The last person you profile is Justice Sonia Sotomayor, talk about her for a minute. There was a lot of interesting facts about her in your reporting that I wasn’t aware of. But one of the things it calls to mind and is and there’s another person you profile before her, the Reverend Al Sharpton, that there’s this awareness, particularly for later stage baby boomers of how civil rights has turned into maybe not so much transformational, you talk about that, but a way in which one can really further one’s own projects.
Helen Andrews (17:17):
I think that’s an accurate description of Sonia Sotomayor and she learned it back in college. She writes in her own memoir about how… she went to Princeton on a full-ride scholarship. And rather than express gratitude for being able to attend an Ivy League University for no money, she decided to attack the university for cultural genocide for not having enough Puerto Rican professors.
Richard Reinsch (17:43):
She used that term cultural genocide?
Helen Andrews (17:46):
I don’t think she used the term cultural genocide, but she did say the obliteration, eradication of an entire culture it was something suitably hyperbolic.
Richard Reinsch (17:56):
Helen Andrews (17:57):
But we shouldn’t hold it against her. She was an undergraduate at the time, and undergraduates are just naturally hysterical. The real fault lies with the Princeton administration, which responded to the blackmail letter that she sent them about not having enough Puerto Rican-born staff, by falling all over themselves, and saying, “Oh, of course, we’ll appoint a diversity manager right away.” And that was an early lesson for her, that if you just invoke the right narrative of victimhood, everyone will fall over themselves to comply with what you’re requesting. And that’s the way that the law is, that’s not just a product of culture, that’s a product of civil rights laws, and has come to be interpreted. And now that she’s the one doing the interpreting, she’s very happy to expand its reach so further.
Richard Reinsch (18:43):
Yeah, and that institutionally, obviously, that goes on today, throughout all universities, Princeton’s response to the latest round of protests we’ve been experiencing in this country is to accuse itself of systemic racism and to promise ways in which it’s going to counteract that including building more majors devoted to the studies of other cultures that aren’t affiliated with European civilization. Sotomayor, though, you talk about her pushing forward. There’s a conversation one time she has about affirmative action with a law partner of a major firm. And I thought it was a law partner quizzing her about does she think it’s fair for minorities to be in certain positions when they’ve likely obtain those positions through race and affirmative action? And she’s incensed about this. And I can understand how that would be an aggressive question to ask someone from a minority background.
Helen Andrews (19:46):
You’re right that that was an aggressive question on the part of the law partner. The setting this clarifies the anecdote for listeners is that she was a three L at Yale Law School about to graduate and go look for a job and it was at a job fair when all of the big firms in New York and across the country come to Yale Law to interview prospective hires. And it was at a dinner of about a dozen people where the partner was there and went around the table quizzing people. And he really got into it with her saying, “Do you think you’re only here because you’re Puerto Rican? Do you think it’s fair for our firm to hire people on affirmative action grounds when we know they’re going to wash out in a couple of years?” And she complained to Yale Law and said, “If you don’t do something about this, I will file a complaint, saying that that firm should not be allowed to send partners here to interview law students for jobs ever again.” And the firm submitted a letter of apology and was actually forced to submit two letters of apology because the first one was not apologetic enough. But the reason why I liked that anecdote is that there is an exact parallel one about Antonin Scalia. When Scalia got out of Harvard Law, he went to interview at a Midwestern big law firm, I think Jones Day and the partners there said, “Oh, you’re a Catholic? Well, then you must believe in blue laws saying that we got to close our shop on Sundays. Don’t you think that’s imposing religion? Aren’t you just a retrograde, Pope follower, or whatever?” And he really aggressively attacked his Catholicism. He was, of course at the time, the only Catholic at the table. But the reason law partners do that is to see how you respond under pressure. Because judges will sometimes get into it with you, and sometimes the judges will be wrong or irrational. So seeing how you respond to aggressive, angry, irrational questioning is something that prospective hirers might want to know if you’re applying for a job as a lawyer. And Scalia himself, even though a lot of the questions they asked him were unfair and racist, just gave as good as he got. He really got into it because he enjoys the feeling of debate. That’s what he lives for. And the fact that Sotomayor responded in such an opposite way. There’s a lot about their respective characters.
Richard Reinsch (21:57):
Just, as I was thinking about Sotomayor, one thing that came to mind, you probably came across this, PJ O’Rourke has this analysis of the baby boomer generation that is so large, and it takes into account so many different aspects of America, given that how rapidly America changed as they came into their own, that there’s this first tranche of baby boomers who are the most left-wing, and were the most committed to social change, were the ones leading protest later as an early adulthood, then you have this middle group, who moderates more, and they’re following. But they’re also the first ones to really go home and call it a day. And then you have this later group, which he puts Barack Obama in, who pretty much figure out which way the wind is blowing and adjust accordingly. So maybe they’re left-wing, maybe they’re moderate, maybe they’re something else, they’re corporate, or whatever. They’re willing to cut deals. And he says, “This is precisely how the boomers understood Barack Obama and the famous Reverend Wright episode where Obama was in his church, presumably, while this man was preaching and saying a lot of hateful things. And Obama’s response was, “Yeah, I didn’t take any of it seriously. And I was just there because I was in Chicago politics. And that’s what people did.” And the boomers instantly accepted that because many of them actually knew that to be the way they’ve handled things in their own lives. I’m curious what you think of that. But is Sotomayor seemed like, as I read your account of her one of the ways in which she found a way to succeed was precisely to rely on the things that she was being given to rely on to succeed?
Helen Andrews (23:39):
Yeah, I’m glad that you brought up the PJ O’Rourke book because, in some ways, the book that I wrote was a response to his. He even wrote a whole book about the baby boomers, which is very acute and very funny.
Richard Reinsch (23:50):
Helen Andrews (23:51):
But it ultimately a little bit too fond. And so when I read it, I thought he hadn’t really stuck tat knife in quite the way that I wanted to see the boomers be treated. So I wrote my entire book because I thought PJ O’Rourke was too nice.
Richard Reinsch (24:05):
Helen Andrews (24:06):
But the framing that he uses is really useful. It’s what you say that there are divisions within the boomer generation. I think he compares them to seniors, juniors, sophomores, and freshmen at a high school. They’re all in the same cohort, but they’re different generations. And yeah, that might be a good way to think about Sotomayor. And one occasion, when Sotomayor the younger boomer came into conflict with somebody from just slightly, the generation ahead of her somebody born in their early 1940s was when she was confirmed and Laurence Tribe, the Harvard law professor, decided to attack her and almost along the lines that you’re saying, he said, “For me, left-wing law is a matter of intellect. I have the arguments. I’ve thought about this deeply. I know what I’m doing with bringing my liberalism to the law.” Sotomayor, Laurence Tribe famously said in a memo that he wrote to the Obama administration is, and this is a direct quote, quite simply not as smart as she thinks she is which is rather a rude thing for a Harvard professor to say about somebody who was about to be a Supreme Court justice. But it was really the argument that you’re presenting that for the younger boomers, it was just something they absorbed, they were not on the front lines of these protests, they did not arrive at their liberal opinions through deep thought or outrage response to social conditions. They just saw that it was the dominant belief system and adopted it because that’s what you do to get ahead. And Tribe was worried that in close cases, when the outcome depended on the liberal justices managing to win arguments with Anthony Kennedy, Sotomayor would not be impressive enough in those intellectual arguments to get Kennedy’s vote because her liberalism was not sufficiently intellectual. Now, I think the moral events or the outcomes of that story, proves something important about the baby boomers, which is that Laurence Tribe was wrong, the non-intellectual, more emotional, more therapeutic style of argumentation that Sotomayor prefers, has actually been really successful. She is everything he said she was. And yet she has won. And she has prevailed in arguments and won in cases. So I think maybe the intellectuals were not as powerful or as influential as they might wish they were. And it’s the people for whom liberalism is just an adopted belief system because it’s in the air supply are the ones who have the power.
Richard Reinsch (26:47):
You note the dissenting opinion, she writes in the Michigan case where voters in a popular referendum had eliminated racial preferences in that state, and a suit was filed that this in and of itself was racial discrimination. And Sotomayor wrote a blistering opinion of basically equating the voters in that state with Jim Crow voters. And there were some other things she said in that opinion as well that were just howlers and she was criticized directly by Chief Justice John Roberts. And also she was criticized by, it was Scalia, I think, but you said that actually referring to this, this may have changed Kennedy’s mind. You argue.
Helen Andrews (27:28):
Yeah. And Joan Biskupic, is a Supreme Court reporter has written biographies of I think, at least three sitting justices, maybe four. But she is a Supreme Court journalist. And she believes based on evidence, that Sotomayor blackmailing dissent was what changed Kennedy’s opinion. And if you look at Kennedy’s jurisprudence, from the moment he was confirmed, he has been a reliable vote against affirmative action. Justice Kennedy did not like racial preferences. So it was a genuine surprise that in this Michigan case that you’re talking about, he ended up on the Sotomayor side. The rumor mill attributed that really startling defections on Kennedy’s part to this blistering dissent, and really something that called out for explanation because it would require something extraordinary for Kennedy to come down in defense of racial preferences.
Richard Reinsch (28:24):
Helen, now, maybe switching gears here. You include, and I thought this is an interesting choice. You include Jeffrey Sachs, in your list. I’m curious why I don’t naturally think of him when I think of him and boomers. But you explore the arc of his career. And I thought that was interesting.
Helen Andrews (28:43):
He was one of the first people that I thought of when I was thinking of people who capture the essence of boomerness, maybe because he personifies the combination of idealism and hubris. Nobody can question Jeffrey Sachs’ idealism. He’s a professional do-gooder, but not a humanitarian in the philanthropic sense. He’s a an economist, which is also, in my mind, very representative of the baby boomers. Their consummate do-gooders are not people who run charities. They’re people who have PhDs in economics, this elevation of social science and expertise to the highest value, and that that’s who we should give true power to people with PhDs. That’s something that the boomers invented, that’s a boomer phenomenon. So you see, it’s right at the intersection of a lot of different boomer qualities, and also one of the three most famous economists living.
Richard Reinsch (29:46):
Yeah. Do you think his contributions and what he has done in the developing world you write about his first foray was in the country of Bolivia, one of the more impoverished countries in Latin America also heavily involved in transitioning communist countries, Russia, Poland into a more market-oriented settings? And then obviously his work goes on in Africa. What do you make of his overall contributions there?
Helen Andrews (30:12):
I think he’s done a lot of good. And this is probably a good moment to mention that I think a lot of the boomers that I’ve profiled, did a lot of good. None of these chapters are intended purely as takedowns. I want to give a full and objective assessment. And in the case of Jeffrey Sachs, I think a fair and objective assessment would have to say he did a lot of really good things. The downside of his career, a lot of people hate him for what he did in Russia. And there’s no question that the transition from communism to capitalism in Russia was devastating. The ’90s were just a horrible decade. And the reason why everybody loves Putin now is because he refers to the 1990s as this national trauma. And so it was, but the terrible things that happened in Russia, happened very frequently because the people in power did not listen to Jeffrey Sachs’ advice. He’s gotten so sick of people blaming him for the catastrophe of the ’90s in Russia that he wrote an entire essay titled, “What I did in Russia,” explaining that all the things that went wrong, were from people not listening to him. And I think most of what he says in that essay, “What I did in Russia,” is accurate. But the way that he approached development economics, was fundamentally deficient.
He was a big believer in not cheating, national particularities. Jeffrey Sachs would frequently say, “Every finance minister I’ve ever consulted with has said, “No, Mr. Sachs, you don’t understand my country is different.” And then the reasons they give me for why their country is different, or the same as the one I get from every other finance minister, I’m an economist. Don’t give me your nation’s history. Give me the numbers. And that is all I need to know.” And that’s a very Harvard and boomerish and social scientific way of approaching questions. I’m married to a Russian. And so I think I can say that the Russians are nationally distinctive people. If you go in and try to treat them like your average homo economicus, you will not come up with an adequate solution to their problems. And I think that that was what was missing from Jeffrey Sachs development economics when he went around the world trying to consult. Just an insufficient appreciation for the complexities and the human factor in this place.
Richard Reinsch (32:48):
You’ve written on empires, the British Empire, and its experiences in Africa. And I think I remember reading essays from you on that. When you look at this and think about that learning and Sachs’ career. Did you ever put those together and what see what washed out?
Helen Andrews (33:02):
A lot of people have accused Jeffrey Sachs of being an imperialist. A lot of people on the left, really the same kinds of people who use the word Neoliberal as a consonant slur. Those guys hate Jeffrey Sachs and colonialist is the word that they always throw at him. And he bristles at that insult. He hates the old empires. Me, I think that the left-wingers are accurate, insofar as they have gone and appropriated an analogy between what Jeffrey Sachs says and what the imperialists do, I just don’t think that’s necessarily a problem, I don’t consider Empire to be a flaw the way that they do. And that was something that I really wanted to talk about in the book because it’s one of the most astonishing achievements of the boomers in the last sixty years. Empire is the most common political form in human history. And many of the greatest governments in human history, those under which human flourishing has reached its highest summits, have been empires, it’s very difficult to make a historical case, for the idea that Empire is per se, a bad thing, or an evil thing. And yet, today, it has become conventional wisdom. All it took was one generation, saying that Empire is evil, for it to be ruled out for all time as a possible political arrangement. And that’s just really weird. One of the frameworks that I adopted and going through what to talk about in the book was to imagine a time traveler, somebody from 1950, or somebody from 1850, or somebody from 1250, transports to today. What things would they find weird? And the fact that we’ve decided empires per se evil would definitely be on the list of things that a time traveler would find very puzzling.
Richard Reinsch (35:03):
Well, I remember William Easterly, which I’ve read some of his books and Easterly and Sachs are opposites in the sense of Easterly, a classical liberal emphasizes trying to allow the spontaneous order of an economy in a developing country to come to fruition. And that this would be the best way for economic growth to happen and human flourishing, and that counteracts Sachs to a great degree. And you said, well, they’re both wrong, and what they should do, I think, they should actually look to the British Empire. I thought that was interesting. Just in light of this conversation, that’s a bold statement, Helen.
Helen Andrews (35:42):
I don’t know if I would say that they’re both wrong. I would also say that they’re both Right. And there are a lot of debates within the discipline of development economics. And Easterly versus Sachs is a good example. And I read a lot of them in the research for this chapter. And they were all very fruitful. They were all really smart people arguing about important topics. But for me, I think it’s worthwhile to take a step back from those debates, which are very insular within the tiny world of professional academic economists. And just consider big questions like how do we make Africa a better place to live in a slightly longer lens, from the perspective of centuries of history because if you get too much into the minutiae, you lose that sense of perspective. And so many people have gone to that wonderful, infuriating continent, trying to make it a better place to live.And a lot of them have done wonderful things. But in the end, humanity is humanity.
And Jeffrey Sachs goes around saying that we can eradicate extreme poverty not alleviate it, eradicate it. And that history lacks, and claims like that, and so do I. And there is no solution to the problems posed by Africa or the problems posed by any human policy, other than imperfect human judgments, and learning from experience. And so the thing that drives me crazy about the boomers and about Easterly versus Sachs and about development economics is the discipline, is that it cuts itself off deliberately, from a wonderful source of imperfect human experience. And that is the history of the 19th-century empires, not just the British, but the French, the Portuguese, everybody who has gone to the third world and tried to make it better, through the means of Empire. If you’re going to say that Empire is evil, and those people don’t have anything to say to us, you’re cutting yourself off from people who were if you learned a little bit more about them, would remind you of yourself and would have really useful things to say to you. So that’s the point of defending Empire is that it’s a resource, and we should learn from it. And if we start off from the premise that all those people were battling evil racists, we’re never going to learn the lessons that they could teach us.
Richard Reinsch (38:24):
I think you’ve got your next book. No, I’m serious. I would read it. Camille Paglia, you are critical of her. I think overall, you discuss what’s been a very interesting career. She’s somewhat, I remember beginning to read her in college, favored by many conservative thinkers because she… Very aggressive ridiculing at times, feminist writers and thinkers, and certain claims of the gay rights movement she’s been very critical of, but you place her within also a boomer deformation of culture.
The baby boomers rewrote American history to center it on themselves. They said that America was a terrible, horrible racist country where nothing good ever happens until about the 1960s when we showed up. So the only good thing about American history is the baby boomers themselves. I don’t know how they got away with that. That’s just transparently narcissistic and ridiculous to try and pull on the American people, but they succeeded. And now the millennials are, to my great dismay, in agreement with the boomers that the only good thing about American history is what the boomers did.
Helen Andrews (39:02):
I understand why conservatives like her. Not only does she beat up on the feminists, but she also was a valuable warrior in the PC wars of the 1990s. She was right there next to Allan Bloom, saying that the western canon is worth studying. And don’t you dare come in here telling me Emily Dickinson is bad because she was white. Don’t even start with me on that. And so good for Camille in taking that line in the ’90s when it took guts to say things like that. Where she parted ways with Allan Bloom was on the subject of popular culture. She loved Madonna. She loves Hollywood movies. Hollywood is just a running theme in all of her books. And that really, to me, is-
Richard Reinsch (39:51):
Helen Andrews (39:53):
Well, that’s almost a story in itself but if you’re a millennial, those are two very important things in terms of explaining how your life is different from how it would have been if you had lived 50 or 100 years ago. On the one hand, your head is stuffed with all kinds of pop-cultural knowledge. I sometimes wonder if the space in my brain that is currently occupied by knowing the tracklisting and personnel of every Steely Dan album might not have been better deployed knowing things like I don’t know the Emperor or Rome or something, anything more useful. But I cease to marvel at the classical literacy of the Victorian once I realized just how much pop culture minutia was occupying space in my own head. And Camille Paglia is right there at the front saying those two things are equivalent. It is just as worthwhile for someone to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the films of Joan Crawford, as it is for someone to have encyclopedic knowledge of the work of Milton. And I just don’t think that’s true.
Richard Reinsch (41:08):
How would she square that then with the defense of the Western canon? Was she just being irksome to PC activists because that’s a contradiction?
Helen Andrews (41:17):
She wanted to elevate pop culture, to the level of the Western canon she held them both in high esteem. She’s a believer in standards, which is one of the things that I respect her for. When the PC wars where people were saying there’s no such thing as standards, everything is relative. She said, “No, shut up. There are standards, there is a difference between things that are good and works of genius, and things that are bad, and not.” She just happens to think that the films of Ingmar Bergman qualify under the heading of works of genius.
Richard Reinsch (41:47):
Where do you think she falters? Or why? Is it because she dismisses perhaps a classical account of the soul and virtues or something along those lines by which one would begin to evaluate of great thought and writing.
Helen Andrews (42:02):
She wanted to put pop culture, side by side with the Western canon. And she assumed that people would learn both of them. But as a millennial, I am in a position to tell her that that is not the way it has worked out in practice for my generation. Yes, she was very successful in getting my generation to be taught to take pop culture seriously. The problem is that that crowded out the Western canon learning that we should have gotten. And I also think it’s important to consider the vast impact of pop culture, not just in education. The boomers were the first generation to grow up surrounded by television. And I think that television has had all of the terrible brain-deadening effects that the doomsayers in the 1950s predicted that it would. One of the greatest anecdotes about Camille Paglia that I mentioned in that chapter is that she had a very famous debate with Neil Postman, the author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he really took aim at pop culture and media, the way that the media landscape was deadening and warping the human mind making us all perpetual adolescence. And in this great debate with Neil Postman, Camille took the side in defense of visual media she said, “TV is great. I wrote my great magnum opus with my TV running in the background.” And that actual debate that she had was inconclusive. But a decade later an anniversary edition of Amusing Ourselves to Death was put out by Penguin Random House, and Camille Paglia blurbed it and she says in her blurb, “I used to think that Postman was just a doomsayer. But now I have come to the conclusion that he was absolutely right.”
Richard Reinsch (44:04):
Wow. Yeah, I remember reading it.
Helen Andrews (44:08):
And I think some of that might be the result of teaching college students to be. Camille Paglia is a working professor. She teaches at a college in Philadelphia. And I think she has seen in her own students, just how ignorant they are of the Western canon. So maybe that’s where that disillusionment came.
Richard Reinsch (44:26):
No, that’s something I hear from professors all the time, every year the students get worse. And this is at universities we think of as elite. And every year, their thinking and writing skills deteriorate. And also the fact of what they know gets less and less relevant. Thinking about and then the conclusion of your book what do we need to unlearn? As I finished your book, it was like, “Wow, if Helen’s right then we really got a lot to do here.” In terms of thinking about the legacy of the boomers, one of the things I took from your book is Millennials are further deepening these holes that have been dug for them by the baby boomers.
Helen Andrews (45:16):
That’s absolutely right. The baby boomers rewrote American history to center it on themselves. They said that America was a terrible, horrible racist country where nothing good ever happens until about the 1960s when we showed up. So the only good thing about American history is the baby boomers themselves. I don’t know how they got away with that. That’s just transparently narcissistic and ridiculous to try and pull on the American people, but they succeeded. And now the millennials are, to my great dismay, in agreement with the boomers that the only good thing about American history is what the boomers did.
And so the millennials are keen to adopt all of the boomers favorite political causes and reenact their methods, have their own 1968 student rebellions in the streets. I think that’s what’s going on with Antifa, I think that’s what we saw over the summer. So in order for things to get better, we first have to break free of the boomers set of values and their way of looking at the world and their version of our story of ourselves. It’s understandable that the boomer version has been able to dominate America for so long because so much of the boomers and why they are the way they are is explainable by their demographic tests, there are just so many of them, and they have outnumbered the rest of us for so long. And that’s why they managed to get away with so much. But as their numbers dwindle, I hope that we are able to take advantage of the boomers weakening demographic positions in order to get some alternative storylines going around there, which the millennials, sadly has so far not shown any interest in doing.
Richard Reinsch (47:04):
Something you note, which I agree with that I have thought about when thinking about the protests this summer. When I hear stories, anecdotally, from boomers of protests that they were involved in, I’ve also talked to people who were counter-protesters in the 1960s. And the awareness that basically America was not out on the side of the protesters, and we forget when we think about the Kent State tragedy, Americans weren’t exactly sympathetic to what they were doing there that day but this has really changed. And you note this and it’s a society where the guardrails have fallen off. And there’s this insistence on, “Well, let’s further deplete what good resources we have.” And as you think about what’s one thing that’s been working well in America the past few decades, and it’s been control of crime, particular in our larger cities, and that’s now at least temporarily, perhaps, fallen off from these latest rounds of protests, which do seem to regurgitate or revive or rhyme with a lot of theories from the 1960s.
Helen Andrews (48:07):
I think the moment that I realized things were going to be different this time around, was when NASCAR went woke, and the NFL went woke, I thought, “Gosh, if even bastions of reactionary culture are falling in line behind the latest woke BLM line, then things must be a lot worse than I thought whatever silent majority I thought was out there, it clearly is not anymore. And we saw that in polling results over the summer, when even after these riots had led to death, and millions of dollars in property damage, you still saw a large majority saying, “Yes, I support Black Lives Matter and their current protests.” So the silent majority is gone. It is absolutely gone. And that means that there’s not going to be a correction of the kind that we saw in the 1970s where America acted out and got its protest on. But then in came Richard Nixon and we have a return to normalcy, round two. And that’s not going to happen this time. So I think the widening gyre is just going to keep on a widening, and I’m very apprehensive. I wish I had a better, more optimistic answer for you, Richard I’m really wishing I had some hope to extend. But I just don’t think I do.
Richard Reinsch (49:27):
I tried to write a piece. It’s in National Affairs right now. I played around with Montesquieu and faction and how there is still a group of Americans who they think they’re moderating our politics and they’re willing to change sides if they think some things are getting out of control. You did see in the 2020 election, this is one of the more interesting things of the 2020 election amongst a very interesting election overall was the willingness of certain minority groups to be open and actually crossover and vote in the Republican party and I think a huge part of that were the protests. And so the silent majority maybe is more silent but is open to appeals along these lines because of these tendencies. So maybe there’s something there.
Helen Andrews (50:13):
I don’t know, people said that Biden winning the nomination was evidence for a silent majority within the Democratic Party. And I can see why people think that because Joe Biden, he’s not even a boomer. He’s a pre-boomer and he says things like “malarkey,” and he’s very old-fashioned. So he’s not a crazy, woke, insane person. And yet, when you see how he behaves, he is perfectly willing to recite whatever woke platitudes his handlers give him. Kamala Harris is number two on the ticket she’s going to be taking over soon and she’s way out in left field on all of this stuff, that people staffing his administration are fully paid up believers in the most extreme version of millennial wokeness. So putting a sensible middle-of-the-road guy at the top of the ticket doesn’t seem to actually help anything. So that makes me maybe even more pessimistic than I was before rather than convincing me of the existence of a silent majority.
Richard Reinsch (51:15):
Okay. Well, Helen on that we can end. The book is Boomers, The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster. We’ve been talking with the author, Helen Andrews, thank you so much for your time. It’s been great.
Helen Andrews (51:30):
Thank you. This is fun.