My Generation has been a dumpster fire of epic proportions. I am a baby boomer, born in 1961, at the tail end of the boom. And, according to Time magazine, we broke America. We probably destroyed the planet. And, oh yeah, we’ve also screwed up the economy. I’d like to say it isn’t true, but I’m pretty sure it is. As a generation, we have an extensive rap sheet.
Statistically, baby boomers are one of the most politically polarized generations alive today. So, the vast chasm that exists between the right and the left may also be our fault.
As I said, we’re a generational dumpster fire.
A few columns back I said this: “We create the medium -- which then becomes part of the environment we adapt to.” I was referring to social media and its impact on today’s generations.
But what about us? What about the generation that has wreaked all this havoc? If I am right and the media we make in turn makes us who we are, what the hell happened to our generation?
Television, that’s what.
There have been innumerable treatises on how baby boomers got to be in the sorry state we’re in. Most blame the post-war affluence of America and the never-ending consumer orgy it sparked.
But we were also the first generation to grow up in front of a television screen. Surely that must have had some impact.
I suspect television was one of the factors that started driving the wedge between the right and left halves of our generation, creating a non-stretchable world in between. Furthermore, I think it may have been the prime suspect.
Let’s plot the trends of what was on TV against my most influential formative years, and — by extension — my generation.
When I was 5 years old, in 1966, the most popular TV shows fell into two categories: westerns like “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke," or cornfed comedies like “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres” and “Petticoat Junction.” Social commentary and satire were virtually nonexistent on American prime-time TV. The values of America were tightly censored, wholesome and non-confrontational. The only person of color in the lineup was Bill Cosby on “I Spy.” Thanks to “Hogan’s Heroes,” even the Nazis were lovable doofuses.
I suspect when certain people of my generation want to Make America Great Again, it is this America they’re talking about. It was a white, wholesome America that was seen through the universally rose-colored glasses given to us by the three networks.
It was also completely fictional, ignoring inconveniences like the civil rights movement, Vietnam and rampant gender inequality. This America never existed.
When we talk about the cultural environment my generation literally cut our teeth in, this is what we refer to. There was no moral ambiguity. It was clear who the good guys were, because they all wore white hats.
This moral baseline was spoon-fed to us right when we were first making sense of our own realities. Unfortunately, it bore little to no resemblance to what was actually real.
The fact was, through the late ’60s, America was already increasingly polarized politically. Left and right were drifting apart. Even Bob Hope felt the earth splitting beneath his feet. In November, 1969, he asked all the elected leaders of the country, no matter their politics, to join him in a week of national unity. One of those leaders called it “a time of crisis, greater today perhaps than since the Civil War.”
But rather than trying to heal the wounds, politicians capitalized on them, further splitting the country apart by affixing labels like Nixon’s “The Silent Majority.”
Now, let’s move ahead to my teen years. From our mid-teens to our mid-twenties, we create our social identities. Our values and morals take on some complexity. The foundations for our lifelong belief structures are formed during these years.
In 1976, when I was 15, the TV line-up had become a lot more controversial. We had many shows regularly tackling social commentary: “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H,” “Sanford and Son,” “Welcome Back, Kotter,” “Barney Miller” and “Good Times.” Of course, we still had heaps of wholesome, thanks to “Happy Days,” “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and "The Waltons."
Just when my generation was forming the values that would define us, our prime-time line-up was splitting left and right. You had the social moralizing of left-leaning show runners like Norman Lear (“All in the Family”) and Larry Gelbart (“M*A*S*H”) vs the God and Country values of “The Waltons” and “Little House on the Prairie.”
I don’t know what happened in your hometown, but in mine, we started to be identified by the shows we watched (or, often, what our parents let us watch). You had the “All in the Family” Group and “The Waltons” Group. In the middle, we could generally agree on “Charlie’s Angels” and “The Six Million Dollar Man.” The cracks in the ideologies of my generation were starting to show.
I suspect as time went forward, the two halves of my generation started looking to television with two different intents: either to inform ourselves of the world that is, warts and all — or to escape to a world that never was. As our programming choices expanded, those two halves got further and further apart, and the middle ground disappeared.
There are other factors, I’m sure. But speaking for myself, I spent an unhealthy amount of time watching TV when I was young. It couldn’t help partially form the person I am today. And if that is true for me, I suspect it is also true for the rest of my generation.