Is “A Generation of Sociopaths” the most wrongheaded work of social analysis ever?
Bruce Cannon Gibney, whose successful career as an investor in online start-ups began when his college roommate (conveniently enough) invented PayPal, has now written a book criticizing the Baby Boom generation and lamenting what he considers the social, cultural, and economic decline of America since the 1960s. Bearing the title A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America (Hachette Books, 430 pp., $27), Gibney's critique is wide-ranging: he takes on such issues as the downfall of cities like Detroit and Baltimore; the decay of highways, railways, and airports; the irresponsibly low personal savings rate; the dive in educational standards; the rise in divorce rates; and the failure of NASA to do anything truly breathtaking in the almost half-century since it put a man on the moon.
None of this, of course, is unfamiliar territory. In innumerable books over the last few decades, perspicacious observers have taken on different aspects of America's post-Sixties comedown. As I write this, I can look up at my bookshelves and see such titles as The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses by Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate, White Guilt: How Blacks & Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era by Shelby Steele, The Death of Feminism by Phyllis Chesler, and The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America by Roger Kimball. These books look at different aspects of the American scene from different political perspectives – conservative, libertarian, classical liberal – but, generally speaking, they locate the root of the problems they address in Sixties leftism or in some perversion thereof.
Not Gibney. I picked up this book never having heard of its author and not knowing exactly what to expect, although I must say I assumed that it would fit pretty neatly into the above list of titles. Nope. This book is sui generis – in a category all its own. My jaw started dropping on page one and kept dropping to the end. Two reasons: Gibney's use of the word “sociopaths” in his title is not the usual hyperbolic bookstore attention-grabber. He seems to mean it. He literally thinks that baby boomers are sociopaths (although he's quick to add that he exempts some of them, such as his dad). Throughout the book, he quotes amply from the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, his objective being to demonstrate that an entire generation of Americans fit the DSM-V's description of sociopaths to a T.
The other reason my jaw kept dropping is that, in Gibney's view, what makes Baby Boomers sociopaths is that they aren't socialist enough. To be sure, he mostly avoids using the words “socialist” and “socialism,” although he leans heavily on “neoliberalism,” by which he means capitalism – which, despite his own path to success, he patently despises. Nor is he fond of individualism. The great crime of the Baby Boomers, according to him, is that they “eschewed social solidarity in favor of personal indulgence.” While countries in postwar Europe and Asia, he maintains, “built functional and caring societies,” Baby Boomers took America in a more selfish direction. (Aside from making this claim, Gibney doesn't take a very close look at any of those other countries – which makes sense, because if he did he'd destroy his own arguments.)
The Baby Boomers' selfishness, Gibney maintains, is reflected in their failure to get worked up as much as they should about man-made climate change, which he considers a definitively proven calamity. It's reflected in their stubborn determination to collect Social Security when they retire (never mind that they were forced throughout their working lives to pay for it). It's reflected in what he views as seniors' overconsumption of health care. “The public,” he writes, “is entitled to ask whether (a) it wants to spend this money, or (b) the money can be better spent improving the welfare of a vastly broader and more productive population.” Gibney mocks what he calls “the 'death panel' crowd,” but it's death panels, by whatever name, that he's implicitly arguing for.
This book is an ode to the glories of big government. Consistently, Gibney paints government as a benign savior, the source of all good. He thinks America's ills would be cured by higher income and corporate taxes, by more government regulation, by free universal college, by the return of the Fairness Doctrine. He blames a lot of the Boomers' psychopathology on TV, but exempts “the commercial-free uplift” of PBS. It seems obvious to some of us that the counterculture of the 1960s became, in many ways, and to unfortunate effect, the mainstream culture of today, but Gibney says the opposite: today's mainstream culture, he insists, is rooted in an execrable right-wing “rebellion against a big government and a regulatory/welfare orthodoxy that many mid-century Republicans had helped build.”
Some of us would assert that many of today's social ills can be traced directly to two Lyndon Johnson-era initiatives. One of them was the massive expansion of the welfare state, which led to the establishment of a toxic subculture of fatherless, welfare-dependent families in which young people are encouraged to commit crimes, take drugs, and have “booty calls” and in which getting an education, building a career, and living a responsible life are viewed with scorn. The other initiative was the 1965 immigration act, which replaced the former preference for European immigrants with a preference for immigrants from the Third World, thereby turning immigration from a means of welcoming the cream of the civilized world into a means of adding to the welfare rolls, Democratic Party voter lists, and crime statistics.
But although these developments are obviously central to Gibney's topic, he's decided to keep them off limits: as he informs us in his introduction, he entirely exempts non-white Americans and the non-native born from this study. Blacks and immigrants, he explains, don't count in his mind as Baby Boomers. “[T]o do justice to the minority experience,” he writes, “requires an entirely separate book.”
Thus he's able to savage an entire generation of native-born white Americans for relatively minor failings while entirely ignoring other matters which, if addressed in the same tone, would doubtless lead certain readers to condemn him as a racist and xenophobe. When he does bring up welfare, it's to defend generous freebies for “the poor” while decrying Social Security payments to old Boomers, who, he all but says, should just save the government money by dropping dead.
Gibney hates pretty much all Baby Boom politicians, but is especially snide about Donald Trump. He loves eminent domain, the EPA, the FTC, the SEC, and the Council of Economic Advisers. He reveres John Maynard Keynes but mocks Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman. He idolizes FDR, whose New Deal policies, he claims, helped end the Depression (although in Gibney's view FDR didn't go far enough). He quotes at length from Jimmy Carter's famous “malaise” speech, because he agrees with pretty much every word of it. (Carter's main point, to cite his own words, was that too many Americans have a “mistaken idea of freedom” and “a growing disrespect for government.”) Gibney also shares George McGovern's view that it's the government's job to “define a vision for the nation.” And naturally he deplores Reagan's old joke that the “nine most terrifying words” in English are “I'm from the Government and I'm here to help.”
Indeed, it's remarkable just how much Gibney worships government. He looks back fondly to what he sees as a pre-Boomer America in which citizens “trusted their government.” In his view, Americans should regard government as “a benign expert” – because, after all, “government is nothing but an elite of experts.” For him – and this is really the bottom line of the whole book – it's the Boomers' very failure to respect government sufficiently that is the preeminent symptom of their sociopathy. You and I might think that a healthy distrust of government is the hallmark of the American character, inextricable from American individualism, American self-sufficiency, and the American creative spirit – a trait, rooted in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, that through almost two and a half centuries has helped save us from tyranny even as the rest of the world was being ravaged by it.
Of course, there's a great deal about post-1960s America that deserves to be criticized. But Gibney's diagnosis could not be more spectacularly off-base. Even some of the worst social critics now and then hit upon a valid observation. Not Gibney. He's a convinced hard-line socialist, determined to prove an ideological point that could not be more wrong. That he pulls this off at such heroic length is a remarkable achievement, although far from an admirable one.