How Boomers Destroyed Civility… and America

One of the last civil debates: John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon on television during the 1960 presidential campaign.

By Jason Andrew Garshfield

After the acrimonious debate between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden two weeks and an eternity ago, Game of Thrones creator George R. R. Martin made a post on his Not a Blog encouraging people to watch for contrast the 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

Martin heaped praise on Kennedy and Nixon for the tone of the debate: “Two candidates exchanging views and ideas, debating facts, dealing with the issues of the day, all the while treating each other with respect.”

In the same post, Martin did acknowledge that both Nixon and Lyndon Johnson were not so polite in private. If the best you can say about that generation of presidents is that they only said awful things about blacks and Jews behind closed doors, that is faint praise indeed.

But there is one even more important thing which needs to be said here, and it is that the calm and respectful political climate of the late 1950s, in which two white male World War II veterans could stand across from each other on stage and politely debate the issues, was destroyed by the actions of George R. R. Martin and his ilk.

Martin was part of the hippie counterculture when he was younger, and it was his generation that revolted against stuffy and conformist 1950s-era sensibilities. In one of his earlier novels, The Armageddon Rag, a washed-up ex-hippie in the 1980s laments that even if the Age of Aquarius did not fully come about, “We did change it, Sandy. We stopped the war. We changed the colleges and we changed the government, and we changed all the rules about men and women and love and sex. We even got rid of Tricky Dick, finally… Think of it like this: if it hadn’t been for the Sixties, the Fifties would have gone on and on forever.”

Perhaps George R. R. Martin and those of his generation, now lamenting the death of the culture of civility exhibited by Kennedy and “Tricky Dick” in 1960, should consider that it was their own generation of self-absorbed hedonists – who, by the way, would never have socially distanced or worn masks to keep their World War II hero parents alive – that helped bring about the decline of just that culture. They “changed all the rules,” and that paved the way for the rise of Donald Trump, a character who never could have become president under the old set of rules. Now, too late, they long for the good old days.

We have to remember just how much the rules of politeness have changed in the past half-century. It used to be that children, and even adults, would call other adults “Mr.” and “Mrs.” for a while before getting to be on a first-name basis. In French, the formal second-person “vous” form was used much more frequently before the events of May 1968, while today the informal “tu” form is more common. There is no such formal/informal divide in modern English, but the same cultural shift has happened: more egalitarianism, more informality, less politeness.

Donald Trump is a product of the Boomer generation, just as much as the hippies were. He and George R. R. Martin were born within only a few years of each other in the postwar 1940s. Trump might never have been a hippie himself, but he is in many ways the culmination of what the hippies tried to bring about, except not in exactly the way they wanted. Theirs was a monkey’s paw wish: they wanted Richard Nixon and the rest of the old guard to be gone, and now they have a president who is essentially Richard Nixon, but with all the rudeness, irreverence, and libertinism of a hippie. What a beautiful cosmic joke.

Martin’s character was correct: The Boomers did change the world. They changed the colleges; now, a language professor who references the Chinese term “ne ga” can be accused of using racial slurs and suspended from his job. They changed the government and the rules about sex as well, and we are seeing the fruits of that glorious harvest all around us every day. The consequences speak for themselves. Res ipsa loquitur. In this brave new world, even Martin himself can face cancellation from social justice radicals.

The Boomers took over our nation’s institutions and now they lament the fact that our country feels like it is falling apart. Perhaps they should not have been so quick to advocate radical social change without fully understanding the nuances of the intricately complex system they were rebelling against, or developing a clear picture of the alternative.

If America does collapse, we can at least take some dismal glee in watching the Boomers live out their final years witnessing the consequences of their revolution play out, and having to die knowing that their great experiment failed. No other generation was given so much and gave back so little. Now it is we, the Millennials and Gen Z’ers and all the rest, who will have to pay the heaviest price for their “counterculture.” I hope Woodstock was fun.

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