Monday, August 10, 2015

Gen X Reflections on the Culture Wars

Ah, the early 90s, when the Vice President would give a speech attacking a fictional TV character

Last week, on the recommendation of a friend, I read Andrew Hartman's A War For The Soul Of America, a history of the culture wars of the 1960s-1990s, with most of the focus on the 1980s forward.  It's a good book, and one that got me thinking a lot about the political culture when I came of age.  It's hard to put a finger on how and when and why I managed to slough off the conservatism and Republican identity I was raised with, but it just might well have been as a reaction to the wave of censorship that hit in my teen years.  In 1989 I didn't care for 2 Live Crew's music (I loved rap, wasn't so big on misogyny), but thought it was absolutely ridiculous that they would actually be banned in Florida.  By 1992 I had come to realize that big money ran the system, but it was when I saw Pat Buchanan's infamous "culture war" speech at the Republican convention (where the title of Hartman's book comes from) that I truly realized that I had no identity with the Republican party anymore whatsoever.  In that vein, Hartman's biggest contribution is to show that the so-called "culture wars" were not a sideshow or a distraction, but one of the (if not singular) central fronts of American politics.

At the end of the book Hartman claims that the culture wars are over, but it is not a triumphant statement.  Instead of arguing over school prayer, conservatives are just slashing money from schools and effectively privatizing them.  Instead of pushing for canonical texts in the universities, the very existence of the humanities is being questioned.  His conclusion was one of the most depressing things I've read recently.  Despite gains by progressives in many areas of cultural life, the neoliberal economic model has emerged victorious in ways people in the 1960s could never have imagined.  That, of course, is a different discussion for a different time.

In terms of the culture wars, as I read the book I began to think of their impact in generational terms.  I think my cohort, which could best be described as "late Generation X" were the first to feel these conflicts as children in our daily lives, because our school years coincided with the high point of the power of Christian conservatives.  (I'm thinking here of people born about 1973-1979.)  I have friends who were part of the wave of children sent to evangelical Christian day schools, indoctrinated to be foot soldiers in the Army of God.  I have cousins who were home-schooled in the 10th grade so that they would not learn about evolution in school.  Had they been born ten years earlier, their lives would have been very different.

We were also a generation to be scared of, the one described in, A Nation At Risk, the infamous 1983 report on education as part of a "rising tide of mediocrity."  My generation was viewed with suspicion, as a problem.  (This is why those columns praising millenials -inevitably written by boomer parents of millennials- make me insane with rage.)  We were the ones to pay penance for what our elders had wrought in the 60s.  We were the guinea pigs for the failed policy of "abstinence-only education," which coincided with the height of the AIDS crisis.  Because the generation before us had been toking weed, we were inundated with DARE in schools and my generational peers of color faced draconian policing in their neighborhoods and harsh new sentencing policies.  The popular culture we liked ended up being branded as evil and threatening.  Role playing games were purportedly Satanist, all the rap albums I wanted had "explicit content" stickers to bar me from buying them, and heavy metal supposedly had the potential to induce suicide.  When politicians fretted about the future and the loss of traditional values, we were usually the ones in their sights. African American youth of my generation had it far worse from me, from aforementioned drug enforcement policies to racist balderdash like Murray and Herrnstein's The Bell Curve.  Black youth were constantly portrayed in the media as a threat to the rest of society or a burden upon it, with talk of teenage "predators" who needed to be put behind bars in new superprisons.

It's often been said that my generation (speaking here of late Gen X) that we are cynical and not politically motivated.  I think the political world of our youth, at the height of the culture wars, has a lot to do with it (however true the stereotype is.)  Politicians used us as a symbol of decline or an object in need of discipline.  The Democrats finally took the White House with Bill Clinton, who promptly sold out his base.  The Republicans put forward the likes of George HW Bush, a patrician lacking any charisma.  It was effectively a choice between "read my lips, no new taxes" and "I did not have sexual relations with that woman!" No wonder we are less trusting than others.  (This article has statistics showing Gen Xers are far less trusting of institutions than either boomers or millennials, so it's not just a stereotype.)

Of course, generational thinking can be lazy thinking, and I don't want to indulge in it too much.  I do think, however, that my particular mini-cohort was the first to experience the culture wars in a real visceral way as children, and that experience marked the political mindset of its members in ways that it didn't for others.


  1. In my 20s (I'm just a bit older than you) I took a kind of gruesome pleasure in collecting clippings bashing us Gen X slackers. I'd sometimes put them up next to my desk and point out choice bits to my (mostly Boomer) co-workers. One of my all-time classics was from the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1997. Choice quotes:

    "Parents [in the 1980s] were anxious to avoid the child-rearing 'mistakes' that produced the previous generation - those gloomy, body-piercing Generation X-ers, he and others said."

    "Boomers saw what happened to the X-ers 'and said we're not going to let that happen to our kids,' Russell said."

    "People who work with kids are breathing a sigh of relief.
    The X-ers 'needed to work on . . . self-esteem and tolerance and diversity,' said Pat Haupt, principal of Bala Cynwyd Middle School. This group 'is the best as far as caring of others, respect for others and overall discipline.'"

    "'We're kind of seeing this odd bond between 40-somethings and [people] below the age of 15,' said Gregorsky. 'We've kind of built a bridge over the X-ers.'"


  2. Wow, that is like the ur-text of the "millennials are our saviors" meme. I have nothing against millennials, but nothing but contempt for the type of boomers you mentioned. I have been thinking about a post for years called "A Baby Buster's Manifesto" about this topic.

    I was born in 1975, the year of the lowest birthrate on record in the US up to that time. My cohort was literally unwanted. Divorce rates skyrocketed in our youth, the bottom fell out of broad postwar prosperity, and the neglect of urban communities was at its height. After being neglected by our elders, we were then seen by many of them with fear and contempt. Those feelings may well have been displaced guilt for what they wrought. When I hit middle school in the late 80s the usual adolescent difficulties were made worse by the war of drugs, AIDS, and the assault on subversive pop culture. (I have another post that's been brewing for years about how the late 80s was America's cultural nadir.) At least hitting my maturity at that time made it pretty obvious that the authorities were full of shit.