The “generations” theory of History is overhyped in Our Thing, but there’s something to it. In the 20th century, at least, the greatest cultural damage was done by people who juuuuuuuust missed some huge, world-defining event. The Nazi-est Nazis, for instance — Himmler, Heydrich, Eichmann, Goebbels* — grew up watching World War I, knowing their turn was just a few months or years over the horizon, and then… nothing. It defined their childhoods, but only as spectators. So when their opportunity came to join a grand crusade of their own, they did it with murderous gusto.
The American version of the Great Crusade was, of course, Vietnam. America was then a young society, so generations telescoped — lots of the hippy-dippy countercultural venom we think of as “The Sixties” was actually secreted in the Fifties, by the so-called “Silent Generation” — kids born in the late 1920s and early 1930s who grew up watching their fathers and brothers and older classmates go off to fight World War II. The rest of “The Sixties” was actually the Seventies, and all the namby-pamby self-esteem rot that has taken hold of our culture since then is the creation of the Baby Boomers, who just know they would’ve ended Vietnam if they hadn’t been in middle school at the time.**
This had a very odd effect on American intellectual life. When I got to college, back in the early Clinton years (effectively, 1988-2003), there were three generations of tie-dyed hippie dorks wandering around in search of something to protest. There I was, thinking hey, it’s 1990, shouldn’t the Tyrell Corporation have a booth at the job fair?, and yet every academic I ran into was still going off about Agent Orange and acid rock. Left-wingers in 1992, including 18 year old college freshmen, all looked like Left-wingers from 1967. It was all Vietnam, all the time, to the point where Bill Clinton was some kind of hero for having dodged the draft.
(Remember that? And wasn’t it a hoot when, just 8 short years later, George W. Bush was some kind of commie scumbag for having dodged the draft? Or remember the “brutal Afghan winter?” Good times. If you’re not old enough to remember this stuff, I’m sure you get the point from the context — the Left spent the entire W. era trying to make the War on Terror into Vietnam II. John McCain was still humping that chicken on the campaign trail in 2008, when most of his torturers from the Hanoi Hilton had keeled over from old age).
Hence, deconstructionism, feminism, critical race theory, and all the rest. Lots of folks read about this stuff now and think it’s something new. It’s not. It was all there back in the early 1990s, and not just at Berkeley, either — I went to a third-rate public school in one of our less intellectual states and got the whole catechism, chapter and verse. They couldn’t find a new Vietnam, as hard as they tried, so they had to settle for sticking it to The Man however they could. And since The Man was too busy getting rich off the internet tech boom and unemployment was under 4%, The Man indulged them… with what consequences, I surely don’t have to tell you by now.
If I wanted to fix the current rot, then, I’d think about giving the Kids These Days (TM) a grand crusade of their own. Now before you start unleashing your inner Robert McNamara and start drawing up target lists, recall that the undergraduate population these days is overwhelmingly female. The grand crusade of the early 21st century will, alas, need to be a lot cattier.
I don’t have the answer, but it’s something to think about. Suggestions?
*Goebbels was actually of the war generation, but was medically unfit for service (clubfoot). “Psychohistory” has a (justified) bad rap these days, but man oh man could someone do something with that.
**You’ll notice I don’t mention a “Vietnam generation” — as in, servicemen who were there, or kids who lived their whole young adulthood in fear of the draft board. This is because there wasn’t a “Vietnam generation.” The Vietnam War was tiny – 58,220 Americans were killed in a decade of war. That’s a hard campaign for American forces in World War II, and a hard day’s fighting for the Soviets, Japanese, and Germans. Given that we’d had universal conscription since 1942, even most draftees didn’t go to Vietnam. Of those, most weren’t in the infantry, and of those, most didn’t see combat. It was life-defining for those who were there, no doubt, but service — or fear of service — in Vietnam as some kind of generational marker is postwar propaganda from self-congratulatory Leftists (BIRM, I know).