"There's nothing so absurd that if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it." ~ William James
How the Baby Boomers Almost Saved the World . . . and why they failed
Exclusive to STR
February 12, 2007
Say the word and you'll be free
Say the word and be like me
Say the word I'm thinking of
Have you heard the word is love?
It's so fine, It's sunshine
It's the word, love
-- John Lennon & Paul McCartney, The Word
In the 1960s, the first half of the Baby Boom generation began to emerge from childhood into – well, teenhood. Already liberated (or corrupted, depending on who you asked) by Elvis and Little Richard, this tsunami of youthful rebellion continued on the road to heaven (or hell), which was apparently paved with massage oil, bricks of hashish, and 45-rpm records: the fabled "sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll."
Long hair, peace, and love were in; racism, being uptight, and waging war were out. Naturally, our parents were horrified.
Not everyone fit these stereotypes, but enough did that one might speak of the tenor of the times. Some of what follows is how that tenor sounded, at least to me, as it was happening.
Yeah, come on all of you, big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again.
He's got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books and pick up a gun,
We're gonna have a whole lotta fun.
And it's one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam ;
And it's five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain't no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we're all gonna die.
-- Country Joe and the Fish, I Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag
In the beginning I misunderstood
But now I've got it, the word is good
-- John Lennon & Paul McCartney, The Word (again)
Instead of Burning Man, Boomers had Woodstock and the Summer of Love. Instead of rap and video games, Boomers grooved to Stevie Wonder (and a thousand other artists who were focused, as much as anything, on love and peace) and staged massive anti-war protests. "Do your own thing" was the generation's affirmation of personal freedom and rejection of all forms of repression. "Do whatever you want as long as you aren't hurting anyone else" was another oft-heard sentiment.
Boomers took the "not hurting others" part seriously and rejected the racist and sexist attitudes of their elders, supporting integration, civil rights, and gender equality – despite sometimes violent opposition. As the Vietnam War raged, Boomers not only embraced peace and compassion; they put real energy into anti-war demonstrations and marches, and in political opposition to President Johnson and other war-mongering Democrats. Boomers supported Eugene McCarthy and even Richard Nixon, who wasn't much in harmony with Boomer ideals but said he had a "plan" to end the war, although he, uh, couldn't tell us what it was. Best of all, many Boomers supported Nobody. The Nobody for President movement, begun in 1975, brought the voting choice "none of the above" into the limelight, along with the subversive idea that we might actually be better off without anyone ruling us.
It was easy to see a more free, peaceful, and compassionate world emerging as this Baby Boom generation moved into the future. The Boomers' personal respect for the choices of others seemed to ensure that freedom would blossom as the younger generation gradually became the adult majority. Boomers' willingness to visibly and energetically oppose war and other evil made a warmer, more humane future believable. The sense of connection with others shown by many Boomers (volunteering for the Peace Corps, joining communes, supporting the rights of minorities and the downtrodden) reinforced that sense of being on the verge of a better, healthier world. Surely, the repression, conformity, racism, and war-mongering of previous generations were about to give way to a more open, free, compassionate, and peaceful world.
So what happened? I believe the answer is surprisingly simple. With tragic consequences, Boomers failed to embrace non-coercion, at least where government was concerned – and that one mistake sabotaged everything positive the Boomers stood for, including peace, love, and freedom.
Failing to reject coercion eventually even corrupted the Boomer's positive stance on sexuality; consider, for example the bizarre, zero-tolerance laws that have recently been used to imprison people for consensual sex between what would have been considered adults in most times and places throughout history. When a 17-year-old can be sentenced to ten years in prison because his 15-year-old girlfriend initiated oral sex, you know that the use of government coercion to "protect" us has gotten so far out of hand as to almost defy description. And this is only one example of how "compassion" becomes "tyranny" when enforced by government power.
Compassion is not something you "enforce." Compassion does not long survive coercion, and attempts to provide compassion via coerced taxation reminds of the '60s anti-war saying that "killing for peace is like f*cking for virginity." One does not make progress towards a goal by using methods that undermine or destroy the goal.
Compassion is a natural and voluntary emotion that, in a healthy person, leads to appropriate action within the context of his or her own life. Compassion and coercion are diametrically opposed; whenever coercive government begins doing something for alleged reasons of compassion, you know a disaster is in the making. For example:
Alleged reason: Compassion, expressed by protecting us from ourselves at gunpoint, because alcohol is dangerous. Americans were told Prohibition would reduce spousal and child abuse, employee absenteeism, and other symptoms linked to heavy drinking.
Actual results included forcible ending of consumer protection with subsequent blinding and death of numerous Americans from bad booze; creation of vast, wealthy, and violent criminal empires; corruption of legislators, police and judiciary; ruining of many thousands of lives due to arrest and imprisonment; none of the promised improvement in productivity or worker absenteeism or in reducing family violence; an actual increase in drinking (after initial drop), according to many authorities.
Alleged reason: Compassion, expressed by protecting us from ourselves at gunpoint, because pot and other drugs are dangerous. Well, we were TOLD that marijuana is dangerous; in fact, its safety record is exceptional; far better than that of prescription drugs.
Actual results include forcible ending of consumer protection resulting in very high prices and occasional deaths; 500,000 Americans currently in prison because they prefer pot (or some other illegal drug) to, say, vodka; creation of vast, wealthy, and violent criminal empires; corruption of legislators, police and judiciary; creation of vast and expensive bureaucratic and law-enforcement empires; destruction of the freedom that Americans have fought for since colonial times; similar harm to other nations caused by the US drug war; extreme racial bias in practice; failure at elimination or reduction of drug usage; an increase in the potency of illegal drugs (e.g., from coca to cocaine to crack) because more potent forms take less space, are easier to smuggle, and bring more cash per pound.
War (in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.)
Alleged reason: Compassion, expressed by liberating foreigners from tyrants, protecting Americans from supposed danger, and spreading American-style democracy.
Actual results include death for millions, including over 655,000 Iraqi civilians since the 2003 invasion; the moral and financial bankrupting of America; over 700 US military bases on foreign soil (imagine the annual expense for a single such base); a military budget larger than the next 20 biggest military spenders combined; extremely widespread emotional damage among the civilian and military survivors of war and their children; increasing disrespect and outright hatred for America by people around the globe.
Alleged reason: Compassion, expressed by ensuring a good education for even the poorest American children.
Actual results include traumatic levels of boredom, violence, coercive and otherwise disrespectful treatment of children throughout their childhoods; increasing replacement of actual education with pro-government propaganda, and notoriously bad results in core academic subjects. As John Taylor Gatto, a three-time former NYC Teacher of the Year puts it, "Mandatory education serves children only incidentally; its real purpose is to turn them into servants." (Against School, Harper's Magazine, September 2003). Gatto's books and website document that "The real makers of modern schooling were leaders of the new American industrialist class, men like: Andrew Carnegie, the steel baron, John D. Rockefeller, the duke of oil, Henry Ford . . ., and J.P. Morgan, the king of capitalist finance." These men wanted easily manipulated consumers and a large pool of docile corporate workers; governments saw massive new bureaucratic empires and a chance to reduce parental influence while increasing government control over future voters and potential cannon fodder. Mandatory education was (and is) a win-win for corporations and government, the conjoined-twin pillars of Power. Furthermore, experience with public education taught power-seekers a valuable lesson: that anything can be sold to American voters if it is only presented as being "for the children." This is true even if the program is demonstrably harmful to children.
One would think that a community such as the one described in this article would be a powerful ally in the fight against an ever expanding and oppressive government. Unfortunately, the hippy community does not understand fully the free market forces that it embraces.
~ David Barnes, The Hippy Market
Nobody is starving in China, man. Mao is doin' his sh*t.
~Twenty-ish propaganda victim, Berkeley , CA , circa 1972
By supporting government power ("But only good government power, man!") the Boomers of all stripes – not just the Hippies who David Barnes describes in the quote above – played into the hands of Power itself. The power elite adapted instinctively, dancing around the issues like Cassius Clay danced around opponents in the ring, shifting from the Red Menace to the War on Drugs to the War on Terror; moving from the Great Society to Compassionate Conservatism. "You want GOOD power? You want a warm, cuddly, mommy-daddy government that will make everything OK? You GOT it, boys and girls! We feel your pain! Heck: we even smoked pot! We promise to solve every problem, to leave no child behind, and to make all the bad people be nice. So on election day, be sure to vote!"
The Clinton presidency finally brought a Boomer to the White House. Yet pot smokers continued to be arrested and imprisoned by the hundreds of thousands, and every other evil of America 's coercive power machine also continued without a hitch. The Bush II presidency which followed gave us another Boomer; today, even many who helped put Bush in office are unhappy with the result. In comparison, the Eisenhower years of the 1950s really were a golden age.
To say it plainly: Boomers, as a group, failed to understand that love and freedom require each other.
Like millions before and since, Boomers were seduced by the idea that compassion can be imposed at gunpoint by the State – not that this scam is ever described so directly by proponents.
Emphasizing love at the expense of freedom leads to horrors, because freedom is a necessary part of love. Even seemingly minor reductions in freedom begin the process of corrupting love, because love and coercion are polar opposites. More of one always means less of the other.
For that reason, it is equally true that freedom without love also leads to horrors. A free society absolutely requires a sense of connection with others (love) to function. A million people who don't give a bleep about each other will never create a healthy, functional free society, no matter how many of them have read Ayn Rand.
I have no doubt that if the Boomers had developed a wide and profound understanding of the love and freedom duality, the world would be very different today. Imagine the anti-war passion of the 1960s and early 1970s being channeled by a group which truly understood that giving coercive power of any type to the power-hungry never leads to anything good. Imagine if the Boomers had insisted on dramatically reducing the initiated coercion of government and putting the energy and finances thus saved into real works of compassion. John Lennon expressed something close to this:
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...
-- John Lennon, Imagine
I have come to believe that it isn't countries or religions we need to end; it is systematic initiated coercion and widespread emotional damage. A country is just a very large group of people (the land is secondary, as shown by changing borders, among other things). Whether or not the people of a country condone the use of initiated coercion (the State as we have known it) is the real issue. Lennon's idea of 'no countries' may actually have been surprisingly close to that; for example, in 1973 he and Yoko Ono ran an advertisement for the country of Nutopia: "Citizenship of the country can be obtained by declaration of your awareness of NUTOPIA. NUTOPIA has no land, no boundaries, no passports, only people. NUTOPIA has no laws other than cosmic. All people of NUTOPIA are ambassadors of the country."
As with countries, religions can be positive or negative; their actions may be compassionate or cruel. The issue is mostly emotional damage, not whether someone carries Jesus in her heart – or the Buddha, or whomever. People practice their religion and behave generally in accord with their level of emotional health; healthy people think and behave in healthy ways. On the other hand, people who must be told to "love one another" probably can't, and religious teaching will not likely fix the problem. The capacity for love grows naturally in childhood (and in infancy and even in the womb) when we are treated with affection, compassion, and respect. No amount of later teaching can replace the love we needed in childhood.
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...
-- John Lennon, Imagine (again)
Here also, I would argue that Lennon did not get things entirely right (but then, he was still young). The hypocrisy of an extremely wealthy person promoting the idea of 'no possessions' seems obvious, but the truth of Lennon's position shines through despite the corrupting influence of Marxism (if indeed that's what it was). It is not possessions per se – not property itself and the ownership of property – that causes so much harm, but rather the combination of emotional damage and coercive State power. Emotional damage dims the sense of connection with others, which in turn leads to greedy, insensitive, and otherwise unhealthy behavior. For example, people who did not get what they needed in childhood often feel that no amount of money (or sex, clothing, power, or whatnot) is ever enough, and in a sense they are right – because no amount of anything received as an adult can make up for the love one needed but didn't get as a child.
It is important to understand that private property itself is actually a critical element in creating and maintaining prosperity, in providing a mechanism for the poor to improve their lot, in preventing the concentration of wealth in the hands of those who seek power (and thus in protecting human rights – if that seems counterintuitive, consider reading The Black Book of Communism), and in creating the levels of wealth that allow for and encourage charity and philanthropy. Non-coercive socialism makes sense and often works well in a small setting (families, churches, communes, etc.) but in larger groups and especially when imposed and funded coercively, it leads to the erosion of wealth, to the concentration of power, and eventually to much worse.
I like to think that what Lennon was really imagining (or would have eventually imagined) was a world without severe and widespread emotional damage, and without the systematic use of initiated coercion to run societies. What I personally imagine, in other words, is a world of love and freedom, and I believe that Lennon – like many others of his generation – was very close to imagining such a world as well.
Would John have gotten there, at some point? We'll never know. For now, all we can do is take up where he left off.
Love and freedom are a connected duality, and each half only works with help from the other. Our job is to move that thought, and eventually that understanding, into people's minds as widely and quickly as possible. The free and compassionate world – the secret world of our hearts – depends on it. Life itself on this Earth may depend on it.
The Boomers stumbled and failed here; their children and grandchildren must not.