Are baby boomers the most narcissistic generation ever? Or have they been foot soldiers in the war to bring dignity and equality to all Americans? In The Greater Generation, Leonard Steinhorn (of American University) argues for the latter and says that boomer values of pluralism and egalitarianism have become the norm in America.
Did you have a personal investment in writing this book?
I wrote it with two hats. One is the historian side of me.... I had to do that to maintain a sense of perspective and credibility. But obviously anybody at my age—I'll be 50 in April—has lived through many of these changes. I also felt a compelling need to make sense of it beyond the media stereotypes and the cartoon images that we too often substitute for intellectual dialogue in this country.
How did boomers get such a bad rap?
There has been a counterattack by the guardians of the old, people who are unwilling to accept a pluralistic culture. They, in many ways, from the '60s on, felt that what was going on was a revolt against the father. What emerged was a sense that the liberation movements of the '60s were more an adolescent temper tantrum than they were a legitimate and healthy reaction to a society that denied freedom and justice and equality to too many of its citizens. These folks are the equivalent of cultural Luddites who are loud and angry that the world has passed them by.
You say boomers are now the silent majority. Could a new activism arise in response to Bush's conservatism?
To some extent there already is, but if Bush appoints justices to the Supreme Court that will overturn Roe v. Wade, that's a totemic decision that will suggest that, my gosh, the inmates have indeed taken over the asylum. And I do think that that will then charge people up again to say, oh, boy, we'd better be more vigilant about the rights that we won.
You write that Mad magazine was an important influence on boomers.
Mad magazine is so emblematic because it took shots at the conventions of middle-class culture. But it was the idea of conformity, the idea of feeling that you needed to fit in, of shutting the windows in your house and boiling in the summer to make people think you had central air conditioning. It was basically doing what Jon Stewart does today, which is to look at what people say, and then look at what people do, and see the hypocrisy.