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Generation Obama mailbag 1

Posted by Joshua Glenn  February 21, 2007 02:04 PM

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Some Brainaic readers want to know why I've compared Barack Obama to Hollywood celebs. Jim M. writes:

So you're really good at naming people who where born in the early '60s. What does this have to do with politics and how can you compare Obama to the likes of Sean Penn and Emilio Estevez. I don't think they went to Columbia/Harvard Law or spent years working in poor neighborhoods.

Julie M. (no relation) writes:

As someone born in that era I've long argued that the label "baby boomer" did not apply to myself and my peers.... We came of age in a very different atmosphere, one that was more cynical and self-absorbed. What I think is unfortunate is that among the many figures you cite as examples of this post-boomer generation, all of them are actors. Other than Obama, you fail to mention anyone involved in politics, academia or literature.

First, I should say that this business of naming and defining generations is a pseudo-science at best, more of a parlor game than a sociological project. That said, on with the show. As you'll recall, in my post I was picking up on Peter Canellos's acute observation that if we understood Obama's generational touchstones better, we might understand better what kind of president he'd be. One way to understand Bill Clinton's politics is to view him as a product of the Sixties, suggests Canellos; George W. Bush's politics, inversely, can be thought of as part of the neoconservative reaction against the Sixties.

The Sixties, as we know them, are part history, part generational attitudes and worldview, and in no small part pop culture. (Chris Shea points out the importance of that Fleetwood Mac song to Clinton's campaign.) I was obviously focusing on the pop culture, partly for comic effect. But Canellos, who I'm pretty sure is part of Obama's generation, says it's hard to know what to say about those Americans born between, let's say, 1954 and 1965:

Just what these touchstones comprise in political values and impulses is still undefined, partly because so few politicians born after the first years of the baby boom have been on the national stage. Political dialogue has so often contrasted the quiet commitment of the World War II generation with the self-referential baby boomers that a voter could easily assume that no other perspective exists besides Greatest Generation stoicism and Me Generation bravado.

This suggests that Generation Obama is a new Silent Generation -- you know, the generation between the Greatest Generation New Gods and the Boomers who've never had one of their number in the White House. We don't know anything about them; they've toiled in obscurity. Chris Shea suggests that musicians born in those years are "anti-boomers" -- a negative definition, but still something. I'm born too late to be in Generation Obama, so let's hear from you readers born in the late '50s and early '60s. What's it like to be you?

MORE FROM BRAINIAC: Generation Obama: Music | Generation Obama sports stars | Generation Obama vs. the Boomers

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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