Monday, July 12, 2010

Neocon critics

Terry Teachout, ed., Beyond the Boom: New Voices on American Life, Culture, and Politics (New York: Poseidon Press, 1991). 237 pp. $18.95.

Originally published in Commentary (February 1991): 63–64.

According to the conventional understanding, baby boomers were hippies in the 60’s and then, after tuning out, turning off, and dropping back in, they became yuppies in the 80’s. At one extreme they are associated with antiwar protest, down-to-where-I-like-it hair, bell bottoms and tie-dyed T-shirts, McGovern for President, Eastern mysticism, the novels of Hermann Hesse, the poetry of Gary Snyder, sex, drugs, and rock-’n’-roll. At the other extreme they are the image of self-absorption and greed: two incomes, no kids, fancy cars, even fancier sailboats, junk bonds, safe sex, an expert knowledge of restaurants, Italian suits, the return of the wet look, and a certainty that their generation, if no longer the most idealistic in history, is still the most conspicuous.

It is the thesis of several of the essayists in Terry Teachout’s new anthology Beyond the Boom, however, that there are actually two boom generations. The hippies, those old enough to have found the Vietnam war personally threatening, can now be described as “older boomers.” They did not become yuppies because they never dropped back in. They drifted from job to job or settled in the university, drawing about them volumes of neo-Marxist theory like an old comforter. “Vietnam seems to have broken them,” Teachout writes in his introduction. “They . . . lost their nerve and were never heard from again.” The younger boomers, by contrast, surprised everyone by voting in heavy numbers for Ronald Reagan. They broke decisively with the politics and culture of their older brothers and sisters, and theirs are the voices you will be hearing “tomorrow,” Teachout promises—“and the day after tomorrow.”

Much support for this view can be found in Beyond the Boom. Although they range in age from thirty to nearly forty, the fifteen contributors are as one in repudiating the ideas embraced by the first wave of the baby-boom generation. Maggie Gallagher and Richard Vigilante convincingly demonstrate, for instance, that the political carryover of 60’s activism included no-growth restrictions which drove up the price of real estate, keeping younger buyers from the market; and a reliance upon government that led willy-nilly to staggering taxes, the deterioration of personal responsibility, and schools distant from or antagonistic to parents’ standards and values. In this light, what may appear as “yuppie greed” is in actuality a reassertion of an ideal much laughed at by 60’s activists—the “bourgeois ideal,” as Vigilante puts it, of “well-ordered prosperity in a law-abiding community.”

Actually, however, the book these authors have collaborated to produce is at best only tangentially concerned with the boomers, early or late. The chapters range from Roger Kimball’s “Requiem for the Critical Temper,” which traces the decline of literary criticism since the 50’s, to David Brooks's happy revival of the seventeenth-century character essay, “Portrait of a Washington Policy Wonk.” Some of the best writing in the book has nothing at all to do with the baby boom. Andrew Ferguson’s “Everything You Know Is Wrong” is a caustic belittlement of revisionist history, the spirit of which is summed up in Ferguson’s title, a line from an album by the Firesign Theater. At the other end of the tonal scale, Lisa Schiffren’s “Whiff of Grapeshot,” the surprise of the volume, is an earnest defense of the martial virtues.

Uncharacteristic of their generation—in as far as that generation is lingeringly identified with the values and deficiencies of the “youth culture” of the 60's—the writers in this volume are also not particularly interested in substituting a clearer image of it. They are not even sure that a generation is an intelligible category. After considering the failure of the boom to bring about a realignment in American politics, Richard Brookhiser concludes: “Maybe no one found a way to use the boom generation or its successors for political purposes because those generations didn't exist in the first place. . . . [T]here are no generations, in a politically coherent sense, at all.” And to judge by this volume, the same could be said of generations in art, literature, religion, business.

Yet if they are not coherent as a generation, the fifteen authors of Beyond the Boom are coherent as a movement—they are neoconservatives. And their book announces a flowering of criticism among a younger set of conservative intellectuals, the legatees of such as Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Hilton Kramer, Thomas Sowell, Joseph Epstein, Midge Decter, Robert Nisbet, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Edward Shils. Indeed, the authors of Beyond the Boom extend the achievement of neoconservatism as a critical movement. What makes them especially significant is that as Americans who came of age during the 60’s, or in the years immediately following, they acquired their intellectual maturity, their critical surefootedness, almost entirely at the expense of the ideas of the 60’s. This first-hand contention with bad thinking has given them, as writers, an authority and (at times) a hard literary edge that sets them apart from their run-of-the-mill contemporary, the workshop graduate who conceives of writing as the itemization of a sublimely ordinary life. Even when their subject is personal experience, these young critics return continually to ideas.

It is ideas, as Richard Brookhiser says at one point, that the neocon critics see as “the real force for change” in culture and politics. And from this angle, neoconservative criticism becomes the deliberate avoidance of what Bruce Bawer, in an essay on American movies since the 60’s, calls the “fashionable posture of ‘sensitivity’ ”—which usually means an “insensitivity to thoughtful distinctions.” The critics in Beyond the Boom are not too worried about being sensitive. In “Break Glass in Case of Emergency,” George Sim Johnston takes to pieces the “vague religiosity” in which many Americans find refreshment—just as long as it “does not interfere in any way with how they live.” Genuine religious ideas are too “rigid and authoritarian” for most people, and Johnston predicts that only “an unprecedented cataclysm, a new Dark Ages,” will shake them.

Not that these writers are out to shake anyone, at least not in the sense of winning converts. The function of social and cultural criticism, as they engage in it, is not so much to propose answers as to offer clear thinking on questions that are at present badly confused. In his essay “Second Childhood,” for instance, John Podhoretz shows how cultural attitudes toward children in America have oscillated wildly from a pleasant vision of their “spiritual greatness and moral superiority” (as embodied in the movie E.T.) to the current anxiety, needled by exaggerating the problem of child abuse, that children are “possessed of an infinite capacity for victimization.” In lieu of the truth about childhood, what Podhoretz's essay provides is a calm moment in which to reflect that the truth about childhood is not what it is popularly said to be.

This is a gain in knowledge, although it does raise a question about these young critics at this stage of their careers. They do not like The Greening of America, deconstruction, Gary Hart, health foods, the Grateful Dead, feminism, Jay McInerney, nuclear-free zones; they do not like too many new movies, and they are not crazy about the notion of old movies as high art, either. They are rather obscure, however, on the question of what they do like. At one point Walter Olson speaks of “reading Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman by flashlight under [the] bedcovers,” but he really means to contrast his private reading to the “Keynes-and-points-Left economics lectures” he was made to sit through in college. Andrew Ferguson touches upon the normative force of tradition, but he really means to scorn those (unlike him) who consider tradition to be “the vessel of the vulgarest errors.”

Although Beyond the Boom is crammed with derision for cultural quacks and mountebanks, it includes no sustained defense of a single artist or intellectual figure. At this stage, the neocon critics are still absorbed in the task of hauling away the last rusted-out ideas of the 60’s. But it is hard to believe this will satisfy them for long, particularly in view of their great gifts. For the correction of bad thinking is, as Santayana says, a “terrible tax to pay to the errors of others.”