September 2017

Review: A Generation of Sociopaths

The social safety-net afforded white, middle class boomers access to relative comfort. However, by middle and old age, boomers began supporting hard right-wing politicians such as Ronald Reagan, who made it their goal to destroy the welfare system that had bolstered them to middle-class status.

by Eric Morgenson

Millennials are killing everything from the American mediocre dining experience to Donald Trump’s chosen form of exercise. Given this propensity for destroying everything America holds dear, one might be forgiven for assuming that any work offering a collective psychological assessment of an entire generation would focus on the one that seemingly murders American institutions with impunity. Generation X venture capitalist-turned-author Bruce Gibney turns the tables on this millennial blaming with his work, A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America. Gibney offers an explanation for the disintegration of the American economic and political system that rests on the backs of the generation that raised millennials: baby boomers.   

Similar to millennials, the baby boomer generation has been subject to extensive criticism, especially focusing on the recession of 2008. Much of the resentment of the younger generations focuses on the fact that boomers benefitted extensively from the welfare state, then worked to destroy it, in part by supporting conservative politicians of both parties in the 1980s and 1990s from Ronald Reagan to “the first boomer President” Bill Clinton. Historians have pondered and explored the rise of this postwar right wing and generally place its origins not with the baby boomers, which Gibney’s book does, but instead with libertarian reactions to the New Deal in the 1930s, strengthened by racist reactions against the civil rights movement in the 1960s.[1]

White middle-class boomers never wanted for much of anything. With easy access to affordable housing and cheap education, the world was theirs.

White middle-class boomers never wanted for much of anything. With easy access to affordable housing and cheap education, the world was theirs. Born into this life of privilege, some boomers did use their position to try and make the world a better place: some opposed the Vietnam War, in which they also served, and some marched in the African American freedom struggle, occasionally giving their lives for equality. While the New Deal welfare state was far from perfect, suffering from racism and shortcomings in providing universal healthcare, the system did help white boomer’s parents survive the Great Depression.[2]

This social safety-net afforded white, middle-class boomers access to relative comfort. However, by middle and old age, boomers began supporting hard right-wing politicians such as Ronald Reagan, who made it their goal to destroy the welfare system that had bolstered them to middle-class status. In hindsight, it seems as if the boomers were burning the bridge they just walked across: denying to others the privileges and advantages that a middle-class life had given them.

Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan
President-elect Clinton shaking hands with Ronald Reagan, November 27, 1992. Courtesy Newsweek.

Some of Gibney’s examples clearly reflect individual personality quirks and experiences with privilege as opposed to deep-seated, generational sociopathy. For example, the author recounts an infamous case where a Black Lives Matter protester angrily confronted Bill Clinton over his administration’s 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The Act itself led to increased incarceration terms for minor offenses, increased the number of African American men in jails and prisons, and weighed on Hillary Clinton in her 2016 run for president. Instead of deriding Clinton for his personal defensiveness or ego, Gibney attributed the confrontation to being illustrative of baby boomer sociopathy. He writes: “In Clinton’s boomerish mind, though, if you were against the crime bill (or more pertinently against Clinton), then you were clearly for the criminals.”[3] While examples of both Bill and Hillary Clinton being defensive are rampant, this trait is not out of the ordinary for politicians who end up on the wrong side of history.

The book also suffers in its treatment of race. When Gibney does deal with this issue, he does so in a very simplified way that ignores the complex reality of race in the United States. In discussing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he writes that it “advanced equality, helping black voters previously diminished by racial regulation, to count the same as whites.”[4] This simplistic interpretation of the African-American freedom struggle is emblematic of the deepest issue with the book: Gibney is writing about a certain segment of the population, a group of middle and upper middle-class whites who existed in relative privilege. What Gibney describes as sociopathic is largely what we now define as white privilege and a general sense of unawareness about the experiences of others. Unfortunately, this issue is ongoing and transcends the baby boomer generation.

While Gibney’s history focuses on larger issues, the individual boomers who were involved in the events are not discussed.

What the author dismisses as sociopathic, including the impact of divorce and reactions to the Vietnam War, needs to be properly historicized. While Gibney’s history focuses on larger issues, the individual boomers who were involved in the events are not discussed. Stories from individual boomers would have greatly enhanced the book. Perhaps perusing  Texas Tech University’s Vietnam Center and Archive and hearing or reading the experiences of those who served in the conflict would have given Gibney a better understanding of the morale of soldiers. Instead, he writes dismissively of boomers, calling soldiers in the Vietnam War “perhaps the worst fielded in the modern era, plagued by indiscipline, drug abuse, insubordination, desertion, and war crimes, with occasional helpings of outright treason and murder.”[5]

Ignoring the fact that war crimes are nothing new to American combat actions, Gibney displays a notable lack of empathy for young men serving in the conflict. He writes, “the scope of misconduct during Vietnam rules out the few bad apples theories; the conduct was systemic and given the nature of the draft and the composition of those involved, it was also generational.”[6] Similar to the thesis of the book, which implicates an entire generation in destroying major aspects of American social welfare, Gibney’s chapter on the Vietnam War does not contextualize the events that surrounded it. He fails to consider the role of decision-makers from earlier generations in Vietnam, some of whom have admitted their own culpability in the conflict.[7]

Vietnam War Protest 1966 The Nation
Protesters marching in opposition to the Vietnam War in 1966. Courtesy The Nation.

The war was extremely unpopular. It broke the Democratic Party and helped end the administration of Lyndon Johnson. Vietnam, and opposition to it, contributed to the outlook of a generation. The simple fact that soldiers in Vietnam did not want to be killed or maimed fighting in a war that they did not feel was legitimate and therefore resisted using unconventional methods seems to elude the author. Gibney also does not deal with the complexity of the war itself, and how opinions of the conflict changed over time, something that would greatly complicate his narrative.

While Gibney tries to remain politically amorphous, his calls for reform reflect a liberal, technocratic approach based on a reliance on what he calls data over emotion. He states, “the boomer cult of feeling has gotten out of control. In policy matters, ‘I feel that’ does not have the same validity as ‘the data shows’ and ‘prudence suggests’.”[8] The problem with this argument, of course, is that personal narratives help to drive political actions. Recent defenses against the Republican attempt to undo the Affordable Care Act were driven by individuals who put grassroots political pressure on their representatives to prevent the broken healthcare system from deteriorating even further. While these protesters had the numbers and models on their side, it took direct political action in order to preserve the ACA—at least temporarily.

That they supported their work with “data” does not make it sacrosanct.

The reliance exclusively on empirical and numbers-based solutions ignores the fact those doing the numbers and creating the science are fallible human beings whose inherent biases impact their solutions. Right-wing scholars such as Charles Murray have misused data to make racist inferences in works such as The Bell Curve. More recently, a right wing Google engineer used misogynistic pseudo-science to try and explain the gender imbalance in the notoriously sexist tech industry. That they supported their work with “data” does not make it sacrosanct. It merely adds a facade of science to their fiction, making them bar none the worst science fiction writers both in content and in form.

Gibney’s deliberately provocative book—a counter to the multiple attacks on millennials that have been featured prominently in popular media—offers a cathartic read for younger people who believe that they have gotten blamed for systemic failures that they had nothing to do with. While the work has its own deep flaws, it nonetheless offers readers a different way of looking at how the economy became broken seemingly beyond repair. Beyond catharsis, however, A Generation of Sociopaths will give historians much to critique and criticize. The most glaring issue with Gibney’s work is his lack of contextualization. Reviewers have praised his reliance on statistics and facts, but without context these empirical methods can fall flat or be used to tell an incomplete story. From speaking about an entire generation as a single entity to an inadequate discussion of identity politics and the sexual revolution, the work would have benefited greatly from the watchful eye of a historian.

morgenson-bio-picEric Morgenson is a PhD student at SUNY-Albany. He is writing a dissertation on the idea of antisemitism in the Black Nationalist Movement and American Jewish identity in the 1960s. He can be contacted here.

Notes

[1] For studies of the rise of the right see: Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (New York: Scribner books), 2009. Kimberly Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal (New York: W.W. Norton), 2009. Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (New York: Penguin Books), 2009.

[2] Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality New York: W.W. Norton 2006.

[3] Bruce Cannon Gibney A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America (New York: Hachette books 2017), 302.

[4] Gibney, Generation of Sociopaths, 9.

[5] Gibney, Generation of Sociopaths, 44.

[6] Gibney, Generation of Sociopaths, 47.

[7] Robert McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Random House), 1995.

[8] Gibney, 354

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