Is It Really “the Worst Generation”?

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“With the convertible and your long hair,” the girl had said, “you must really think you’re something.” And so the next time I got drunk—which was that night—I shaved my head. This was in 1967, immediately before the arrest. “March on Cincinnati, end the war in Vietnam” was the slogan, which even then sounded absurd—even to me. After the disinfectant shower, my college mates and I were herded into the outer shell of the jail, where the more experienced prisoners could look down on us from the tiers.

“Hey, killer,” one of them called out to me, “what are you doing with the hippies?”

Membership in my much-ballyhooed generation has always been a distortion. I am mistaken for another man altogether, somebody important, or dangerous.

Dinner at the Cincinnati workhouse was spaghetti on a tin plate. The guards had automatic weapons. I was treated like a determined enemy of the state, whereas I hadn’t even decided on my major.

I hadn’t intended to go to the demonstration at all, but it was boring at Antioch College, with the campus emptied of activists, and I’d promised a friend I’d try Siddhartha . “Just read the first line,” she told me. “You won’t be able to put it down.”

I read the first line: “In the shade of the house, in the sunshine on the river bank by the boats, in the shade of the sallow wood and the fig tree, Siddhartha, the handsome Brahmin’s son, grew up with his friend Govinda.”

I got into my new convertible and headed south. I’d sooner block an induction center than read Hesse. Escaping that man’s clammy embrace wasn’t easy. He was an icon then, like Timothy Leary, Betty Friedan, or Bob Dylan. Our candy man called himself Demian after another Hesse novel, which he hadn’t read.

Foolish and reactive, I bounced around in life. This makes me, well, it makes me human. So why am I mistaken for the good soldier in a cultural juggernaut? The analogy often used for our generation is that of the pig eaten by the python. There were 76 million of us, a healthy pig, but we mustn’t forget who’s doing the eating.

The piece this essay accompanies is a thorough and sensible exploration of the generation, the mold and the lead that was poured. This is not the norm.

Google “the Worst Generation” and you get us, the boomers. First there’s a book actually titled The Worst Generation . I quote from the preface: “Boomers have created an anti-America, an “Evil Twin” America, a Frankenstein America… .” The next hit is an essay with the same title by Paul Begala, published in Esquire in 2000.

“I hate the Baby Boomers,” writes the former Clinton adviser. “They’re the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-interested, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing generation in American History… .”

Begala, himself a late boomer (1961), would have been six when I went to jail. He worked for the early boomer Bill Clinton (1946), which may help explain his fury. But then Begala is not alone.

When was it agreed that we are the absolute worst? Was a vote taken when I was out sick? What is it about my birth cohort —outside of the size and the alliteration—that makes us such a target?

I’d guess it’s about change. We’ve been safe, we’ve been affluent, but the world has been changing at a dizzying rate. Nobody likes change. Somebody needs to be blamed.

Lord knows we’ve had some screamers as spokespeople. But then our world is so hungry for entertainment that the more outrageous a spokesperson is, the more he or she gets to speak. We’ve had Jerry Rubin (co-founder of the Yippies). Rubin wasn’t born a boomer, but he spoke—or claimed to speak—for the generation. Al Sharpton (1954) is a boomer. These people, and there have been a lot of them, weren’t chosen because they were representative. They were chosen for the scream.

The screamers have often done well, which may help explain why we—as a group —are often condemned for selfishness. Begala, just for instance, writes that “most campuses did not become hotbeds of unrest until the Boomers’ precious butts were at risk as the Vietnam war escalated.” But then I drove to Cincinnati with a 2-S. The three days I spent in jail were used by the Selective Service as justification to switch me to a 1-A. Many desperate phone calls later, I was switched back.

We were spoiled. No denying that. And we have spoiled our children. Is this a moral failing? I think not.

It’s certainly true that most of the 80 students and faculty were quickly bailed out, whereas—I heard—the working-class kids who had joined us stayed in jail for months. That’s the class system for you. Unjust, but hardly new to boomers. And we did have, within our privileged ranks, some who went jail-no-bail and stayed in prison. DeCourcy Squire fasted from December 7 to January 29, generating a lot of attention for the antiwar movement, and had this constant weight-watcher in awe.

My father had paid for my bail but said nothing in support until he was invited to give the William Howard Taft Lecture at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. He declined and wrote me this: “I told them I would not make a potholder in the city that had arrested my eldest son.” Fathers and sons, now there’s an issue. Not entirely new to our generation, though, is it? Unless Turgenev was a boomer.