The following essay is excerpted from Helen Andrews’s new book, Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster, with permission of Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Helen Andrews, 2021.
It’s always the people who most hate the idea of turning into their parents who end up doing so.
The millennials blame the boomers for wrecking the country, yet rather than break free from their influence, we continue seeing the world in their terms. Our social justice activists devote their lives to the same causes, with only the most minute updates in terminology but an agenda otherwise unchanged. Our rebels wear the same Che Guevara T-shirts, do the same drugs, obsess over the same music. I remember being surprised back in high school that the stoners cutting class behind the gym all had Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd patches on their jackets, and not anything more contemporary.
Worst of all, millennials seem intent on making the boomers’ same mistakes. This is a book about the baby boom generation that has so far gone without mentioning the antiwar movement, Chicago 1968, Days of Rage or long hot summers. For some people this is an unthinkable omission, because street protests were what the 1960s were all about.
The reason for de-emphasizing street protests is, first of all, that they did not work. Adam Garfinkle’s revisionist history of the antiwar movement, Telltale Hearts, notes that the protests had no effect on decision makers in the Johnson administration and little effect on public opinion, except to give second thoughts to the many Americans skeptical of the war but repulsed by Abbie Hoffman. Civil rights had fewer victories after the ghetto riots started, not more.
One cannot even make a case for the street protests having had some deep cultural impact despite their political ineffectiveness, because for most participants it was nothing but a jolly interlude, after which they retired to the suburbs and a happy bourgeois life. The revolution did not come, and soon even Angela Davis grew up and got tenure.
Yet it is precisely this interlude that millennials are most determined to reenact. In the summer of 2020, when cities from Portland to Raleigh erupted in street violence and mobs looted storefronts, lobbed Molotov cocktails and tore down public monuments, journalists rushed to compare it to 1968, with Joe Biden standing in for Hubert Humphrey and Antifa in the role of the yippies. The question on everyone’s mind was whether the unrest would be as bad this time as it was 50 years ago.
The answer is that it would be much worse, at least in its long-term effects, because all of the civilizational cushioning that gave boomers the leeway to act out without permanently destroying the country has been eroded. The only thing worse than a street protest that’s all just fun and games is one that isn’t.
The 1960s left Americans with an idea of street protest, even violent street protest, as something with minimal risks. You go to a march, have some fun, raise some issues and then the country goes back to normal. Of course, it is easy for us to say in hindsight that the 1960s were bound to turn out fine. At the time, there were serious people who worried that street revolts might lead to an actual revolution.
The Kerner Commission, the federal inquiry into the causes of the urban riots of 1967, is famous for the line in its final report warning of two Americas, “one black, one white, separate and unequal.” But before that, an earlier draft written by Lou Goldberg, a sociology grad student on the commission’s Washington staff, was less sonorous but more chilling:
The beginnings of guerrilla warfare of black youth against white power in the major cities of the United States: that is the direction that the present path is taking this country…. Twenty men, dedicated, committed, willing to risk death, and with intelligence and imagination could paralyze an entire city the size of New York or Chicago…. The history of Algeria or Cyprus could be the future history of America.
Bill Ayers was no Saadi Yacef, so Americans were spared the fate of the pieds noirs. There was no protracted war over urban territory, because middle-class families just moved to the suburbs. As for the boomer troublemakers themselves, they discovered when they aged out of their adolescent rebellion that there were good white-collar jobs waiting for them on the other side, underwritten by a strong economy favoring the college educated. The social stability that marked their 1950s childhoods had not yet been completely destroyed. Revolt never escalated into revolution because everyone had too much to gain from peace, the revolutionaries included.
Helen Andrews is a senior editor at The American Conservative. Previously, she was the managing editor of the Washington Examiner magazine and a 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, First Things, Claremont Review of Books, The Hedgehog Review, American Affairs, and National Review. She lives in Washington, D.C.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.