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Tanenhaus helps prove Brainiac Generational Theory

Posted by Joshua Glenn  April 27, 2008 02:38 PM

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Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of The New York Times Book Review and Week in Review, is also a historian. He's written books on McCarthyism, Greenwich Village, Whittaker Chambers, and Louis Armstrong; and he's working on a William F. Buckley biography. In an essay on John McCain titled "When the Times Make the Man," published in today's edition of Week in Review, he attempts to answer the questions: Will John McCain be the first American born in the 1930s to be elected president? If so, why? If not, why not?


Despite warning that it is never wise to "generalize too broadly about decades," because they are "arbitrary time divisions," Tanenhaus is perfectly willing to generalize about American generations -- i.e., cohorts of Americans born during time divisions that (it logically follows) are by no means arbitrary, since certain "generational distinctions," as Tanenhaus puts it, can be discerned between those born in one time division, and those born in the preceding or subsequent divisions.

Brainiac readers who have been following my efforts to reorient common notions about the Greatest Generation, Boomers, Generations X and Y, and the Millennials, know that I believe that generations aren't entirely a subjective matter; I agree with Tanenhaus, in other words, that "generational distinctions" exist. Unlike him, however, I'm willing to take the next logical step and generalize about decades. In order to do that, however, we have to rethink what a decade is.

Tanenhaus is on safe ground when he refuses to generalize about, say, the 1930s. If we insist on dividing decades into periods of ten years in a dating system that always begins with a 1 and ends with a 0 (the 1930s: 1931-40), then yes, that's arbitrary. Therefore it's a stretch to make claims about the years 1931-40, or 1941-50, or 1951-60, and so forth. However, my independent research and analysis reveals that when we divide decades into periods of ten years beginning with a 4 and ending with a 3, generalizations suddenly become very plausible. The Thirties (1934-43), the Forties (1944-53), and so forth: Yes! That works really well. NB: I haven't researched whether this periodization scheme works in any other century besides the 20th. My hypothesis is that it does work; but I'm not willing to argue the point yet.

Anyway, back to Tanenhaus. His Week in Review essay argues that an understanding of "generational distinctions" reveals important insights into the character of those Americans who've been elected (or nearly elected) president during the 20th century. It might be, for example, Tanenhaus writes, that "Americans born in the 1930s lack the particular qualities we look for in our national leaders." Young people in the 1930s "typically came of age in the 1950s, when consensus reigned, and with it conformism," he notes. "Young Americans were collectively disengaged from politics and distrustful of ideology. They were the 'silent generation,' content to be guided by their elders...."

We've heard this sort of thing before, many times. The Silent Generation, born between 1925 and 1942, according to the influential pop demographers William Howe and Neil Strauss, are merely "the generational stuffings of a sandwich between the get-it-done G.I. [i.e., Greatest] and the self-absorbed Boom."


Tanenhaus wants to argue that John McCain (b. 1936) does not exhibit the same weaknesses that the other so-called Silents who've mounted presidential campaigns have exhibited. Specifically, he wants us to believe that although McCain may be a member of the same generation as Ted Kennedy (b. 1932), and Mike Dukakis (b. 1933), both of whom Tanenhaus, a conservative, criticizes as uninspired and uninspiring would-be leaders, McCain somehow "defies the stereotype of the 'silent generation.'" However, because of his inability to break free of the orthodox generational periodization with which Howe & Strauss, among others, have saddled us, Tanenhaus can't make this argument coherently or convincingly. Whereas Silents stoically fulfill expectations, he writes, McCain is "skeptical toward the very expectations he stoically fulfills"; this may be true, but how does any of this follow from Tanenhaus's talk of understanding generational distinctions?

It doesn't. Unless you subscribe to Brainiac's periodization of America's 20th century decades. According to the latter, although Ted Kennedy and Mike Dukakis were born in the 1930s, they weren't born in the Thirties. Instead, they were born at the very end of the Twenties (1924-33). McCain, however, was born in the early Thirties. This periodization would permit Tanenhaus to make the following argument: Although McCain, Kennedy, and Dukakis were all born in the 1930s, generational distinctions between them can't be overlooked. Because they're not members of the same (Silent) generation.

According to Brainiac's theory of America's 20th century generations, there is no such thing as the Silent Generation. Instead, between the Greatests (1914-23) and the Boomers (1944-53), we find the Postmoderns (1924-33) and the Anti-Anti-Utopians (1934-43). So Kennedy and the Duke are Postmoderns; McCain is an Anti-Anti.

McCain with Giuliani, a Boomer

As I noted in a Brainiac post earlier this month, Americans born in a "3" year might identify with the following generation; Americans born in a "4" year might identify with the previous generation. The truth of this claim is illustrated by the generational distinctions between the only two US presidents born in the Twenties. George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter were both born in 1924; but Bush, at 18 the youngest naval aviator in US history to that date, is (as I've argued) a member of the Greatest Generation New Gods. Carter, on the other hand, is a Postmodern, ever alert to ambivalence and indeterminacy and undecidability. No wonder that in an infamous 1979 speech, he spoke of "a fundamental threat to American democracy.... It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation." Postmoderns like Carter make good diplomats and humanitarians, not presidents.

The two presidents younger than Carter and George H.W. Bush have been Clinton and George W. Bush, born in the Forties (both in 1946), and both indisputably Boomers.

Tanenhaus is correct, of course, to note that no American born in the 1930s has been elected president. More importantly, though, no American born in the Thirties -- no Anti-Anti-Utopian -- has been elected president. In other words, instead of asking why Dukakis and Kennedy weren't elected president, we should ask why Anti-Antis like Ralph Nader (1934), Jesse Jackson (1941), and John Kerry (1943) haven't been successful in their presidential bids. Not to mention erstwhile presidential candidate Larry Flynt (1942) and possible McCain running mate Colin Powell (1937).

According to my Brainiac entry on the Anti-Anti-Utopian generation,

its members look upon the competing ideologies and discourses of older and younger generations with a certain amount of detachment -- sometimes cynical, sometimes anxious, sometimes humorous. This doesn't mean they're un-idealistic. Thomas Pynchon, Morris Dickstein, Woody Allen, for example: They critique the excesses of the Establishment and the counterculture alike, and in so doing articulate -- in a negative fashion -- an ideal.

Doesn't this remind you of Tanenhaus's characterization of McCain -- skeptical toward the very expectations he stoically fulfills? Perhaps that's what Nader, Jackson, and Kerry had in common. Voters rightly suspected that they weren't sufficiently partisan; they didn't seem committed 100 percent to their own platforms. They appeared to have misgivings about politics; they didn't even buy into their own rhetoric. Perhaps we admired them and their accomplishments, but they didn't possess the singlemindedness and self-hypnotizing will to power that we seek in "born leaders."

I encourage the Times to continue publishing "Ideas & Trends" essays about the generational distinctions between the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates. But so far, these essays have been missed opportunities; the Times must start thinking outside the generational box.



1884-93: Lost Generation The New Kids
1894-1903: Lost Generation Hardboiled Generation
1904-13: The Greatest Generation Partisans
1914-23: The Greatest Generation The New Gods
1924-33: The Silent Generation Postmodernist Generation
1934-43: The Silent Generation Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation
1944-53: Baby Boomers
1954-63: Baby Boomers OGX (Original Generation X)
1964-73: Generation X PC Generation
1974-83: Generations X/Y Net Generation
1984-93: Millennials
1994-2003: Millennials TBA

Please credit Brainiac/Joshua Glenn whenever you use this guide. Got a beef with my periodization, or different generational name suggestions? Leave a comment on this post or email me. Born between 1954 and 1993 and still unsure about whether you're a Boomer, Xer, Yer, or Millennial? Here's a handy guide.

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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.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

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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