The Greatest Generation


A friend of mine, an old student, was taking me around the National Mall. I hadn’t been to Washington since college. We walked through the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, defiled, since I first experienced it, by the sentimental kitsch of Frederick Hart’s Three Soldiers sculpture, a sop to those who found Maya Lin’s chthonic incision insufficiently patriotic. We walked past the World War II Memorial, huge and empty in a grandiose imperial style more suited to the countries we defeated, another rebuke to Lin’s spirit of collective introspection. The sight reminded me of The Greatest Generation, the book that coined the cliché and launched the tide of baby-boomer self-abasement that also brought us Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and The Pacific, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg working out their daddy issues.

We walked up the hill to the Washington Monument. She pointed to the White House. She pointed to the Capitol. And then she pointed to the National Gallery and told me a little story. She and her girlfriend had walked out of the gallery one autumn afternoon a few weeks earlier. It was a new relationship, my student’s first with a woman. The sun was setting softly, the air was mild and still—it was one of those perfect romantic moments when the world is all before you. She turned to her girlfriend, threw her arms around her, and gave her a big, slow, swoony young-love kiss. It was their first public embrace, and it happened right there, right on the National Mall.

My student was born in 1988. She takes the freedom to kiss her girlfriend three blocks from the FBI building entirely for granted, and she has a right to. But a generation fought so she could have that freedom, and it wasn’t the “greatest” generation. It was the generation of the ’60s, that increasingly demonized decade, the very age that Hart’s statue and Brokaw’s book and the World War II Memorial were all erected to inter. But before the boomers’ egos reinflate, we need to remember which generation exactly we’re talking about. The oldest boomers were all of 22 in 1968. The generation that led the rights revolutions and the antiwar movement was neither Greatest nor boomer. It was the so-called Silent Generation—rather a bad name, it turns out—the one that came between them. Martin Luther King was born in 1929. Harvey Milk was born in 1930. Gloria Steinem was born in 1934. Abbie Hoffman was born in 1936. Bob Dylan was born in 1941. Muhammad Ali was born in 1942.

That’s my greatest generation, and maybe they should get a statue, too. It could be a sculpture of two young women kissing—right there, right on the National Mall.

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William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


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