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Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster

Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster. Helen Andrews. New York: Sentinel, 2021.

 

There is a literature on the famous “baby boomers,” but it is a largely self-absorbed one. Themes include “my” journeys or adventures, including exotic travels or experimentation with drugs or other tools for changing consciousness. There has been a tendency to treat mundane experiences as something new—just because boomers are now having them. Childbirth: has this happened to anyone before? Raising children, divorce, financial disaster, all are grist for the mill, and if one admits to transgressions it is important to show that one has grown somehow from the experience. (What one might call the “Ted Kennedy” defense). There may be a slightly gloomy note. Old-fashioned motivational texts would tend to encourage the reader—yes you can! Boomers have experienced advice on so many self-help topics, it would take a lot of work to follow advice on diet, exercise, sex, preventative medical care, plastic surgery, finance, and careers, to take only a few examples. As the boomers have grown older and more conservative—I’m tempted to say more afraid of viruses and other things—there is at least a looming possibility of wise people saying “no you can’t.” Perhaps the ultimate boomer book, which may never be written, would be called Mortal? Moi?. Millennial Helen Andrews offers something different: a book that is critical of a few boomers, more or less famous, with the idea of drawing conclusions about the ideals and failures of boomers in general. In an interview she has credited P.J. O’Rourke for his amusing book on the boomers (The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way, And It Wasn’t My Fault, And I’ll Never Do It Again), but she insists it is necessary to be more vigilant in finding flaws, and in fact to hit harder, than O’Rourke.

Andrews profiles six individuals. As the dust jacket informs us:

“She shows how Steve Jobs tried to liberate everyone’s inner rebel but unleashed our stultifying digital world of social media and the gig economy. How Aaron Sorkin played pied piper to a generation of idealistic wonks. How Camille Paglia corrupted academia while trying to save it. How Jeffrey Sachs, Al Sharpton, and Sonia Sotomayor wanted to empower the oppressed but ended up empowering new oppressors.”

One can question the ways in which Andrews has limited the scope of her book. The focus is obviously on the U.S.—boomers in all Western countries may have some similarities, but it is probably wise to focus on one country at a time. For one thing, if it is post-World War II experience that defines the boomers, it is worth noting that many countries even in the West found the 1950s to be a gloomy, hardscrabble, and depressing time. The U.S. benefitted tremendously from the way its economy was ramped up for war; virtually no U.S. civilians or homes were ever bombed, total U.S. casualties were relatively light (a third of one percent of its population, practically all military, vs. about 1% for the UK). The economy, with lots of new amenities, simply boomed in the 1950s. One can easily think of some missing names. Bill Clinton, for example, is obviously important—perhaps the ultimate American boomer—but Andrews considers that he has been “covered” elsewhere, and receives at least substantial treatment in various chapters here.

Boomer World

The book was inspired partly by Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, in which he profiled four famous individuals, but Andrews strives to be more just, and less mean, than Strachey. She focusses on the good intentions her profiled individuals had, before dealing with the bad consequences of their decisions. Before she gets to some specific individuals, she addresses the question whether the boomers in general have done more good than harm—or as much good as they think they have. One of her themes is that the boomers have not just been failures in the way that many people have been; they have squandered a great opportunity. “They inherited prosperity, social cohesion, and functioning institutions. They passed on debt, inequality, moribund churches, and a broken democracy” (xv). For some specifics, I will paraphrase at the risk of putting words in Andrews’ mouth. Feminism was committed to ensuring that women had more choices and careers available to them than was true for their mothers and grandmothers. For a while this may have been the result, but then two-income households bid up the prices of many things, including houses, so that for many the second career became a necessity rather than a choice. A job is just a job, and for the most part a career is just a career—it is not likely to bring the fulfillment that feminist intellectuals had promised. Higher education, as it became more common, also became less impressive—more of a meal ticket which can appear ridiculous when it is not even of much use in getting or keeping a job. Popular culture has had a huge flattening effect. It was formerly part of being an educated person to move from the “folk culture” one grew up with to “higher” culture—opera, classical music and plays, the art in museums. Pop culture has to a great extent destroyed both folk culture and high culture. Former generations would no doubt have indulged in various questionable tastes when they were young; but they would grow up, show some regret about what they had done, and even explain why adult tastes are better than youthful ones. Boomers at any age have shouted from the rooftops that the Beatles are as great as anything in music. This becomes relevant to Andrews’ treatment of Paglia in particular.

Television made a short attention span seem normal—preparing the way for Twitter. Drugs have gone from a bold experiment in altering consciousness, and in treating mental illness, to a general stupification and unwillingness to face reality—to say nothing of all the problems associated with genuine addiction, and fatal overdoses. Boomers retreated from some of their extreme sexual experimentation in the 60s, and became somewhat more conservative in the 70s and 80s. But their actions were always based on calculating what would be good or pleasant for themselves, so when they urge their millennial children to settle down and take care of relationships, the words ring hollow. The divorce rate went down, but that is because marriage became more rare. Boomers may claim credit for ending the war in Vietnam, and for delivering civil rights to African Americans and other disadvantaged people. Andrews argues at various points that these initiatives were ultimately selfish, or they were captured hypocritically to serve political narratives. Various kinds of immigrant, for example, benefit from programs that were clearly designed for African Americans, who actually have historical claims against what we might call the American mainstream.

Steve Jobs: Technology

Andrews has said that there is a kind of ranking in her profiles of individuals; those who come first are more admirable, their good intentions more meaningful, than is the case for those at the end. Steve Jobs, in some ways a more admirable tycoon than Bill Gates (at least when the latter was still running a big company) is the subject of the first profile. Andrews disagrees with those who say Jobs’ idealism eventually gave way to nasty corporate tricks, or that Jobs changed with success. “The idealism and the obnoxiousness were always mixed up” (21). Jobs was very comfortable in a world where slightly older boomers had made a smooth transition from the Grateful Dead and rock music as a way of life, the Whole Earth Catalogue, and the “new journalism,” to Silicon Valley. Boomer values were taken for granted. The Macintosh computer, in contrast to keyboard access to an IBM terminal, or even the later IBM home computer, gave “power to the people.” The 1984 Super Bowl ad, presenting the Mac as a tool to fight Big Brother, is enshrined in popular lore. What can only be called faith in the Mac and later devices could take some surprising turns; Jobs believed the selling of Apple devices was the ultimate in philanthropy, and the mere giving of money to good causes was contemptible in comparison. John D. Rockefeller was always convinced that selling more and more kerosene for indoor lighting, and doing so more and more cheaply at the expense of many competitors, generally improved the lives of human beings all over the world. At some point, however, Rockefeller also became perhaps the most spectacular private philanthropist the world has ever seen. There were times when Job differed from his peers, as when he insisted on keeping porn off the iPhone. This is not about freedom, he said, it is about doing the right thing.

The difficulty is in trying to grasp at what point anyone knew what kind of world the internet would actually create.

Jobs succeeded beyond his wildest hopes in building a lasting institution. Whether that is a reason to praise Jobs is uncertain; the very durability of his creation means that the rest of us now have to live in the world Silicon Valley made, a world that gives free rein to the boomers’ worst vices, even the ones Jobs himself did not share. (28)

Let us consider one example. When they were young, boomers attacked consumerism—the marketing of perishable or useless items, planned obsolescence, and waste. Once the internet really got rolling, there was cheap delivery to one’s home of all kinds of items, including fast food. Many items are cheaply made and more or less disposable. There is fuel burned for all these trips, and lots of packaging and waste. Andrews says there were early companies attempting to run such businesses, but they paid employees full-time wages and offered benefits. It was only when cheap or desperate labor became available, resorting to “gig” work, that these business models could really take off (29). Immigration is a big part of this picture, with global corporations driving wages down for programmers and others, ultimately for low-paid people in general. We can tell ourselves that by our purchases we are helping to grow a middle class in China; but we have brought some of the Third World home in more ways than one. Boomers at one time sneered about “wage slaves,” tied to work. The dot com companies famously fostered an atmosphere where it was always questionable to go home, and always something to be celebrated if you could put in consecutive 24-hour days at the office. This was the other side of “casual clothing,” varieties of food available at all hours, and games rooms. Why would you go anywhere else? There was an assumption that everyone who counted was either single or somewhere in the process of going through multiple temporary relationships; no one would have kids. Home would probably not be much of a place to go to. And of course, with phones as an electronic tether, you never really leave work. Still, employment is something. For the unemployed male, Andrews evokes a picture of digital devices filling much of one’s time, and pornography substituting for actual human relationships. “The only thing worse than spending your adult life as a yoga instructor or dog groomer is living in a city [i.e. an older or isolated city] with no one to be yoga instructors and dog groomers for” (31). Banks formerly warned individuals against debt, and serious people only favored debt for longer-term investments; now corporations induce people to live “digitally” far beyond their means (33-4).

When it comes to actual politics, there are unintended consequences. Apart from the driving downward of low-wage Americans, there was a hope that China would adopt liberalism along with capitalism. They show no signs of doing so, and until they do, we are all subsidizing a brutal regime. Even the argument that there is always a net economic benefit to off-shoring to China (something Jobs opposed) is questionable in more ways than one (32-3, 39). And finally (so far), Silicon Valley always prided itself on being politically progressive, but now its younger woke employees are insisting that no matter what, the companies are not woke enough. A female VP of diversity, who was a person of color, was fired for saying a roomful of white males might achieve diversity—they may have had a diversity of life experiences (40). We all know that won’t fly today. The new great hope, once again hailing back to when the boomers were young, is a kind of universal humanitarianism. Instead of Jobs’ lack of conventional philanthropy, there is successor Tim Cook proudly contributing to many global causes, and receiving recognition for doing so. For Andrews, this kind of philanthropy borders on a humanitarianism that does not necessarily do any actual human being much good, as compared to caring for actual children, families, and communities (36-8).

Andrews suggests that if there is something admirable in a boomer, it is probably a trait that stands out as old-fashioned. In Jobs’ case, he “wanted to transcend … cheap consumerism by creating beautiful products as different from the usual plastic garbage as a Chez Panisse dinner is from McDonald’s” (34). The iPhone is expensive, well-designed, arguably beautiful, and a status symbol—it is obviously never the cheapest phone on the market. Yet “users” know that iconic products such as this “by their nature, will never be passed on to their children” (35). Jobs can be compared to Thomas Watson, founder of IBM; he was not really “the first hippie CEO” but “the last of a dying breed” (41). The streams of innovation for which Jobs was responsible fed into a larger river, and then an ocean, that in many ways ran contrary to what he believed in, or what he thought was good and healthy for human beings.

Aaron Sorkin: Entertainment

I will not deal with the “Aaron Sorkin” chapter in any detail, as interesting as it is. Sorkin is now most famous for “The West Wing” on TV, which mythologized political staffers in Washington. This helped to reinforce a bias in favor of the growth of the welfare state; if such people, and not the sometimes seedy people running for office, are in charge, what can possibly go wrong? The show almost amounted to propaganda for what has been referred to, in high moral tones, as the “inter-agency consensus.” Sorkin’s first love may always have been old-fashioned show business, and he may have thought his serious purpose was to demonstrate that TV could be a medium for serious conversation—even for bridging the divide between “the two Americas”—roughly left and right. (Sorkin was conscientious about setting up debates between left and right, in a way that would be a breath of fresh air today; Andrews says he always got the arguments of fundamentalist Christians wrong). Andrews focusses on the contrast between Sorkin’s success with “The West Wing” and his various failures in which he tried to raise the level of discourse on TV in general. “Ideology aside, the tragedy of The Newsroom—which was a commercial failure for all three seasons that HBO gave it—was that in the course of trying to do a show about something he loved, Sorkin ran smack into two things he absolutely hates: the internet and journalism [as it has declined in recent decades]” (62).

Looking at the world outside television, things are worse than in the 90s. Technocrats are more in charge in Washington than ever, with some of them making questionable pronouncements that go without question, and little evidence of a “West Wing” style debate among intelligent amateurs. On the other hand, a kind of pure, fairly thoughtless focus on public relations dominates the media agenda. Andrews makes some general points that go beyond Sorkin.

The common factor behind all these changes, as Sorkin himself could have predicted, is television. But David Sarnoff’s great communications medium hasn’t made the world better informed; it has just made us feel as if we were. Looking at the consequences of television, from politics to journalism, one starts to wonder whether pseudo-knowledge might be worse than no knowledge at all. (67)

Perhaps this could be an epitaph for the boomers: we took for granted that pseudo-knowledge was better than no knowledge; we experimented with our own lives and those of others; we turned out to be mistaken. One might have expected Andrews to have more to say about Hollywood at large. The only reference to a movie is to “A Few Good Men,” written by Sorkin, and strongly supportive of old-fashioned military virtue (53-4). Andrews suggests that Sorkin might look back fondly to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan (53). Is it not possible that Hollywood has produced a lot of bad and harmful material that influenced the boomers? Andrews is more interested in what boomers can somehow be held responsible for.

Jeffrey Sachs: Economics

The chapter on Jeffrey Sachs is perhaps the biggest surprise here—at least to me. Who any longer follows the ins and outs of U.S. and international aid efforts, “fixing” the economic policies of Third World governments, and helping or hoping to rebuild economies, on a free market basis, in formerly Communist countries? Andrews seems to have followed such things quite closely in order to understand Sachs—a precocious student of economics when he was young, holder of various prominent academic positions in the U.S., but mainly famous for his international adventures. Sachs has crossed paths many times with Larry Summers, who on the whole has probably had a more successful career, including White House positions. How exactly has Sachs promised freedom, and then delivered disaster? The promise of freedom is fairly clear. Like Keynes, he promised that a new breed of economists could actually fix problems that might have seemed intractable. For old school sages, “let the markets decide” was as likely to mean “there’s nothing anyone can do” as “the invisible hand has a hidden wisdom.” Sachs wanted to do substantially better, but things did not turn out as he hoped or planned.

Sachs was usually paid by outsiders to “help” a country, rather than actually working for foreign governments. He prescribed “shock therapy” for Bolivia in 1985-86, and he persuaded people who were actually in a position to do what he suggested. Arguably this was a success, and if there were failures, it is probably not fair to blame them on Sachs. Next came post-Communist Poland from 1989 to 1991, with more mixed results. The Poles who had followed his advice eventually made it a point to deny his influence, but the influence was real, and once again he may have done more good than harm. Russia was his first disaster, first from 1991-93, and then in the pivotal year of 1995. Sachs can claim honestly that he was not responsible for the worst decisions—and unlike some prominent Americans, he did not turn to ruthless profit-taking for himself when he had the opportunity. Still, Russia seems to have been the place where the hope of new freedom turned into the reality of disaster. According to Andrews, Sachs’ failure was simply in establishing the respectability of a career like his, in such a way that waves of inferior followers or imitators became increasingly bad examples of the Sachs style: arrogant, and slightly deaf to the opinions and traditions of the countries he worked in and on. Sachs turned his attention to Third World countries, particularly Africa, beginning in 1995, with two years working for the WHO and then other high profile positions beginning in 2002. Sachs’ adventures in Africa may have gone even worse than in Russia; at least, it became more evident that fashionable theories about “development,” no matter what school of thought they derived from, were unlikely to be of much lasting help (88-9).

In the last few paragraphs, Andrews claims that the old European empires, especially the British, displayed at least some knowledge of how to both run things and improve things in various countries around the world. Americans before the boomers naively rejected “colonialism,” supported nationalism in many places, and often contributed, even while spending quite a bit of money, to making things worse. Sachs and other boomers fit smoothly into this pattern of well-meaning incompetence. By 2011 Sachs was marching in New York with the “Occupy” movement, side by side with Bernie Sanders. Once again, in Andrews’ view, this amounted to lecturing a country on the economic policies it ought to adopt, with little consideration for what would be practical for the people who are supposed to be helped. Sachs’ “old” neo-liberalism—creative destruction to open markets, in accord with international agencies like the IMF—is actually consistent with the “new” socialism; both, however well-meaning, are examples of boomer folly in practice (95-6).

I’m surprised Andrews did not consider a boomer advocate of what have been called “endless wars”—long inconclusive military conflicts, with the U.S. inflicting at least its share of death and injury. One gathers the Pentagon has learned lessons since the Vietnam War: don’t draft anyone; practice affirmative action in order to be one of the most “woke” organizations in the country; try not to take full responsibility for any country, since if you do, everything can be blamed on you. In Iraq there was some kind of promise that if the top crust of government were eliminated, there would still be an effective structure of law and government on which to build a parliamentary democracy. Instead there was a complete destruction of law and government, and five years of violent chaos which has still not entirely ended. The Pentagon now seems more determined than ever to interfere in many countries, tinkering in some ways, often violently, but not taking over. Are the various wars now underway not also examples of “exercising imperial power without admitting to it” (94)? Andrews criticizes Woodrow Wilson and other Americans (including Eisenhower in the Suez Crisis) for forcing the Brits to give up their empire (91). She may also think it has been unfortunate for the U.S. to abstain from having an empire—a real one.

Camille Paglia: Academia

The chapter on Camille Paglia is an enigma, at least to me. Andrews’ main point seems to be that Paglia flirted throughout her career with decadence, never apparently realized how dangerous this was to her and especially to people she influenced, and missed out on the career she ought to have had as an art critic—focusing to the point of obsession on popular culture instead. Andrews tells the story of how pornography (alas) became ubiquitous because of some key court decisions. After that, there was no way to stop it. Some kind of extreme minority was experimenting with sexual decadence, and Paglia should not have been part of inviting this minority to dinner. Beyond porn, pop culture has dumbed down academic life, so it is difficult to encounter students who are well-informed on any subject. “Some of this is Paglia’s fault, or the fault of the pop culture she lionizes” (119). The word “or” may undermine the point of the Paglia chapter. The overall theme of the book is supposed to be promising freedom, while delivering disaster; does Andrews think Paglia, while promising bold experimentation with things that shock the puritans (including feminists) caused millions of people to be both more vicious and stupider than they would otherwise have been? Any such proposition is hard to believe. What Paglia is famous for is providing a laugh at the pretentiousness of people who are more likely than she is to be shaping opinion. When she said sex, love and violence are not entirely separable, so that when women keep going back for more, that may be why, she sounded a bit like both Rush Limbaugh and Jonathan Swift. Andrews finds it hard to forgive Paglia for soft-peddling Alfred Hitchcock’s abuse of Tippi Hedren (here Andrews is a conservative getting on the Me Too train) (112-113); possibly one can make excuses for genius? No wonder Paglia repeatedly faced the question whether she was a conservative; in some ways she is too old-fashioned for Andrews (106).

Did Paglia’s career lead to disaster in that she got distracted from the art criticism of which she was capable, and taught her audience not to care for such stuff? In attacking people with credentials, did she undermine the sense that the university should serve purposes that are different from both immediate gratification and self-congratulatory conformity? Only in this chapter is there much discussion of university life or the life of the mind which may or may not have to do with a vocation. One would think boomers have been shaped by ideas that were passed down to them, and by books that present or debate these ideas. There is very little indication of all of that in Andrews. Lady Chatterley’s Lover comes up in connection with the court cases about pornography. Is it not true that many real-life boomers wanted to experiment sexually, and the “material” that inspired them was as much Rousseau and Freud as Lawrence or Hefner? Strachey conveyed a sense that the Victorian establishment in England had failed to provide the young with a plausible vision of the future; has there not been a common belief that the pre-60s establishment in the West had let people down by not teaching enough about sex, and not putting it into a context of love and community? Did Marcuse not become the philosopher of the boomers by promising to unite the benefits of Marx and Freud (arguably aiming at justice and happiness)? Did Marx and Nietzsche not inspire dreams of both personal greatness and violent political change?

Andrews offers some bizarre pronouncements, such as that the main reason students began to “act up” on campus was simply that there were so many of them, money was thrown at the campuses, and they felt some kind of restlessness. “Naturally this swollen demographic became conscious of itself as a bloc and wanted to throw its weight around” (115). She also says, in a possibly misguided criticism of Allan Bloom (not Harold Bloom, who also figures in this chapter), that radicals did not become tenured; radical people died young, or failed to make it through the academic hiring process; tenured people were pure careerists. Academics were free to both pursue and teach crazy fads, because the people paying for the credential would keep paying for it no matter what (115-16). It is hard to believe there was no overlap between “radical” and “tenured,” or more generally that there was not a certain seriousness about ideas underlying various campus movements. The reader begins to suspect there is something deeply personal here to which Andrews does not admit. She may be proud of her Ivy education (she does not mention that she has a BA in Religious Studies from Yale); at least, she puts down lesser schools (“Nothingburger U”). Graduates of the elite schools, she says, are less likely to be crazy than those from bad schools; the latter “need to prove they are college educated, and the easiest way to do that is by being even more dogmatically progressive than those less anxious souls who went to proper liberal arts schools” (117). In any schools, students in “normal majors like psychology and education” are less likely to be crazy than others. OK, Andrews admits, students may get caught up in “the frontiers of Lacanian theory” regardless of their major.

What is more remarkable here is that even in the elite schools, Andrews does not seem to think there should be too much attention to the life of the mind, or higher things. She criticizes Paglia for suggesting that the solution to academic pursuit of progressive fads is “for academia to rediscover its sense of purpose,” to “recover its clerical or spiritual roots.” Here we might say Andrews opposes both Paglia and Bloom.

This fuzzy nonsense about academia being soul creating is piffle of a very recent vintage. [Cynicism about teaching English literature] is far healthier than the overblown panegyrics one reads in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which amount to nothing more than the same puffed-up veneration the Romantics used to claim on behalf of the Artist, reapplied to the Professor. (117)

Andrews actually suggests there is plenty of contact with great literature to be had at a public library, and concern for one’s soul is better addressed, at least for “classes below the upper middle,” at church—which does not cost $50,000 a year (118). If not for “soul creating” (surely soul guiding or soul nurturing would be more like it), what then is higher education for? Admittedly, “to the extent that the conversation across the ages [about the soul? the debate about regimes and ways of life?] is an ongoing one, it is being conducted in universities and a handful of magazines” (118). This does not mean that this conversation could ever be part of the lives of many or most students. “There are very few people whose pleasure, and fewer still whose employment, consists in debating the big books” (118); one can infer that there are not enough of these people to make up a good-sized university.

Presumably a realistic goal of higher education is to polish or produce ladies and gentlemen with a certain well-roundedness—an ability to “handle” a certain amount of intellectual and spiritual life, knowing in a way what to dismiss or ignore, rather than any actual proficiency in reading or teaching such matters. For all one can tell, Andrews’ model of a college graduate may be a church-going Bertie Wooster. This may be another way in which Andrews admires the Victorian Brits: they had empire without much soul-searching at the universities, or old fashioned Socratic philosophy which questions the soul and ways of life. The Brits left philosophy of this kind to the Germans. Back in the Sorkin chapter, she says that with the rise of the boomers, “Harvard and Yale stopped producing gentlemanly amateurs and instead unleashed on the rest of the country … ambitious strivers who believed that hard work and intelligence could solve any problem” (49). (For that matter, the Victoria era was the time of Gilbert and Sullivan). Does she believe the experience of an elite university is worth the high tuition, almost regardless of course content? Is there is a kind of experience, perhaps a culture, that is attained, one that outsiders may not be able to understand? Or does Andrews see herself as one of the millennial victims of impoverished education and high tuition, resulting in high student loans (xii)?

Her main complaint about the modern university seems to be that too many people attend—with the implication that many of them are the wrong people. One alleged mistake of Paglia’s was in not recognizing that “most of the people engaged in [the academic] enterprise today are too dumb for her to fight with.” In her Preface she says in a different time Paglia could have been a great scholar (xiv); this is generous praise. Is the main point of this chapter that Paglia should have been less of a media star, spent more of her time on somewhat abstruse academic work, and contributed to debates among a few experts, teaching and setting an example for the young of “high” themes rather than “low” ones? Andrews’ only other reference to Allan Bloom, who surely belongs among those whose vocation consisted of debating the big books, is a bit of gossip about a time when Bloom cried during the takeover of Cornell University by armed radicals (114-15). Andrews gives no hint that Bloom might have seen something truly precious—a university at least loosely connected to long traditions of wisdom and teaching—under attack.

There is at least something in common between Paglia and Bloom: the notion, if not a guiding preoccupation, that eros is part of human nature, and it can point us toward both low and high things. With this in mind, it may not make sense to dismiss all kinds of porn or non-missionary sex. Obviously some of the results of eros might be wild, lawless, or dangerous; but it may also be hard to imagine a human being who is motivated to do much of anything without eros—wanting something which remains to some degree unattainable. Does Andrews think this is all nonsense, the kind of thing a nice girl would only hear from a school yard pervert or perhaps the Devil himself? No doubt she is modest or realistic enough to recognize that she is not a scholar; she identifies as a journalist (despite Sorkin), and perhaps as a successor to Mary McCarthy, who lacked a Ph.D., rather than to Susan Sontag (who is featured in this chapter) or Paglia. If the universities are failing, perhaps the world of the best magazines—to a great extent Andrews’ world—is enough.

Al Sharpton: Politics

Andrews’ chapter on Al Sharpton is a model of dealing with emotional subjects soberly and intelligently. The United States has perhaps done more than any country or regime in history in providing opportunity for people of many different races, religions, and socio-economic backgrounds. In a way this very success makes it seem more unsatisfactory that it is still necessary to deal with the “original sin” of slavery, and ongoing issues with the status of, and opportunities for, African Americans. Andrews gives credit to Sharpton for dealing, for the most part, with actual injustices, and trying to make the world a better place. He never simply stood for talk or virtue-signaling; he would promise to get people out on the streets, and he could always do so. He cared about politics, not just the courts. He got carried away when he believed Tawana Brawley’s story about gang rape by whites, and when he organized actions on behalf of Phillip Pannell while believing wrongly that Pannell was unarmed when he was shot by the police. Such incidents inflamed hatred based on race in the United States, and Sharpton did not exactly step up and admit his mistakes, even when he knew the truth.

Andrews is interested, however, not so much in this or that episode, as in Sharpton’s approach to activism as he identified it himself. He said “transactional” leaders had been ineffective, and he intended to be a “transformational” leader. He wanted to be a thermostat rather than a thermometer. Andrews makes a case that generally speaking, or in the long run, a transactional approach actually achieves more and better results; transformational “events” may have no follow-through to speak of, or they may do more harm than good. Andrews’ model for successful transactional politics, one that has a history of helping new immigrants and disadvantaged groups, is the old “machine politics,” with examples such as Tammany Hall in New York, and the Daley machine in Chicago. She shows briefly that court-ordered busing, which was intended to integrate public schools, was generally a failure, leaving inner-city schools and neighborhoods worse off than before. If there was one thing the old machines were good at, it was working with various ethnic enclaves, often hostile to each other, creating new opportunities to succeed, and achieving incremental progress that satisfied most people, most of the time. Court-ordered busing, we might say, promised freedom and delivered a disaster.

Jesse Jackson succeeded Martin Luther King Jr. and became perhaps the leading black leader in the U.S. partly by his successful use of boycotts and other kinds of interference with private business in order to achieve social and political goals. Jackson was put in charge of Operation Breadbasket, originally under the auspices of the SCLC—King’s organization. With Breadbasket, “any Chicago company that failed to meet a workforce quota of 20 percent blacks would be gently informed of the need to hire more. Businesses that did not cooperate would be hit with picketing and boycotts” (137). It seems safe to say that Jackson pushed at the limits of what was legal behavior in intimidating his targets. Jackson eventually founded his own group, Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) in 1971, and at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, he actually forced Daley to accept some Illinois delegates that were chosen by Jackson. Daley’s approach had always been to work with people who had roots in a community, and could actually deliver votes; Jackson was shifting toward a model of a few people pressuring or intimidating organizations to change their ways, by-passing democratic channels. The next step was to threaten action, not so much by any sizable group of Americans, black or white, but by the federal government, specifically the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This became Sharpton’s preferred method with his group, the National Action Network (NAN). With Black Lives Matter, it is sometimes suggested that things are as bad as ever for African Americans, and there is no real answer other than to take to the streets. How can all the activism of intervening decades, to say nothing of the War on Poverty and other programs, be seen as a success when the very leaders who claim to speak for the downtrodden can speak of nothing but failure?

By way of contrast, Andrews says the long-standing “troubles” in Ireland have practically disappeared. Largely this is because the old loyalties, especially to particular churches, have lost their hold. Still, in a context where it was common to say that memories of hundreds of years could never be erased, crimes and government brutality could never be forgotten or forgiven, and so on, it is striking that peace came so completely and so suddenly. Andrews says with her biting wit: “The Irish on both sides of the border have become fat, rich, and lazy like the rest of us. If this is a victory, it is a sad kind of victory” (159). Nevertheless, a victory seems like a good thing; why does this kind of victory seem unavailable when it comes to race, and particularly the old race issues, in the U.S.? I would think the tendency of rival groups to resort to violence in Ireland was affected by the War on Terror associated with George W. Bush and Tony Blair. Sometimes the killing of innocents by religious fanatics is condemned, sometimes it is not. Andrews’ answer is that the race issue in the U.S. has taken on some distinctive features. Too many careers now depend on the cycle of grievance and putatively or provably inadequate responses. America’s race problem “survives … because the people invested in it gain too much from it to let it go away.” “The problem today is not that we have regressed to the old machine politics. It is that we have all of the old machine politicians’ vices and none of their virtues” (160-1). Sharpton is seen by Andrews as a leading example of a boomer who hopes that shortcuts from which he profits can work, but is less than fully honest about the failures of these shortcuts, and then simply moves on to the next grievance.

Sonia Sotomayor: Law

Sonia Sotomayor, for Andrews, is the key example of how political and social issues which might be addressed, sometimes with frustrating slowness, by democratic means, are increasingly likely to be dealt with by the courts instead. Andrews says public interest law has been “the legal equivalent of an industrial revolution” (171). Before the 1960s, when lawyers engaged professionally in social and public policy issues, they would do so on behalf of individuals with a specific grievance, or with the workers at a specific factory or mine. The whole process was costly and slow, and lawyers and judges would typically ask if there was an actual harm to actual individuals that could be appropriately addressed by the courts. Beginning with the 1960s, it became much more common to claim to represent classes of people, with a limited amount of harm to a few people being enough to hypothesize about possible harm to millions. After 1970, cases would be generated by lawyers, or by organizations claiming to represent disadvantaged groups, before they even had an actual “victim” in mind. “Eventually, many of the big public interest law firms stopped accepting routine cases lacking landmark potential” (172)—that is, the potential to change legal arrangements for millions of people overnight, without legislative debate or oversight.

The issue of “boycotts” in the Sharpton chapter is linked to “public interest law” here (137-39, 172-174). Until fairly recently it was generally against the law for a third party to disrupt a business in pursuit of their own agenda—such as raising awareness of an issue, or fundraising—as opposed to actually trying to help someone who has suffered recognizable harm. In a similar vein, it was at least discouraged for a court to hear a case raised by a third party, even if they were ostensibly helping an alleged victim. Now actual victims, who have suffered specific harms which can be traced to the actions or inactions of others, are largely replaced by statistics, ostensibly showing such things as systemic bias. Government agencies, and here again EEOC comes up, actually advertise for potential plaintiffs to come forward. This is the politics of grievance, somewhat abstracted from the rights or wrongs of particular cases, raised or detoured to the judiciary. It is as if wise people look around and conclude that despite progress, there are still such things as disadvantaged individuals. Making an issue out of one individual at a time will be slow and difficult; lumping groups together based on victimhood mingles politics and law in order to deliver a bigger bang for the buck.

Some cases involve the safety of workplaces, air and water, and vehicles; people with disabilities benefit by being “noticed” more than ever before. When many boomers think of “public interest law,” they think of Ralph Nader; Andrews does not mention him, or issues that have become largely non-controversial. The highest profile cases involve social issues: church and state, birth control, abortion, gender, sexual orientation. By default there will be an implied or explicit criticism of a group that is the “not victims”—religious people who expect to see some version of Christianity reflected in the “public square,” the able bodied or non-disabled, and then, more or less heterosexual white males. They can at least be stigmatized as obstacles to progress; leaving things to the democratic process will leave these bad people too much in charge. In some cases white males can be made to suffer by a system that is blatantly discriminatory, in order to make up for the old discriminations that may have been less blatant. Indifference may hurt as much as hate does; buildings were built in a way that did not accommodate people with disabilities—not because of hatred of such people, but because the matter was never really given any thought. When it comes to race and gender, “systemic bias”—to be detected and resolved by courts and government agencies—can come to seem just as bad as actual discriminatory laws, which always gained political support from bigots.

Sotomayor made much of her career out of the politics, and then the judicial processes, of grievance. In terms of Sotomayor’s personal involvement in a major decision, Andrews focusses on a case where Sotomayor wrote a draft dissent that was never published, but no doubt overlaps heavily with another dissent.[1] The critical point is that Sotomayor changed Anthony Kennedy’s mind, and swung his vote to the majority in a 4-3 decision, in a way that had lasting consequences.[2] In her dissent Sotomayor argued that race must be allowed as a factor in college admissions, more than had been admitted by earlier courts, because of constant slights, indignities, and denials of opportunity that are suffered by people who are identified as members of racial minorities. Such a person, we are told, is left thinking “I do not belong here”; a deliberate weighting of race as a factor for admissions is a way of assuring such people that they do belong (165-7). Andrews takes the line that we might associate with Thomas Sowell; a person who benefits from affirmative action is likely always to feel somewhat second-rate, at best an object of pity, in comparison to someone who has won the same (apparently or putatively) tough but fair competition as everyone else. I have heard of academic job competitions in which the hiring committee refuses to make an offer to the third choice, even if both the first and second choice turn the job down; how could the third choice person ever live down the way in which they were hired? In this way academic life may be more meritocratic or elitist than professional sports, where players who are drafted late, or are even undrafted, can go on to great careers.

Andrews suggests that all of this was always very personal with Sotomayor; her awareness of grievances in which she was a victim dominated her thinking at critical times in her life, and her example encourages others to think and act in the same way. She joined a Puerto Rican identity group at Princeton, where she had a full-ride scholarship, and led the group in demanding that more Hispanics be hired. There was an appearance that the group got immediate action; this was misleading in the sense that both Princeton and the federal government were already moving quickly on minority hiring plans (169-70).  At Yale Law School Sotomayor decided that she was singled out for tough questioning by recruiters for major law firms. The toughest question was: if we hire you, will you not always been as an affirmative action hire? Will this make it difficult for clients, and for opposing lawyers and judges, to take you seriously? The lawyer who had “grilled” her soon made it clear she had handled the questions well, but in the meantime she demanded an apology from the firm; under pressure from Yale, the firm issued a second letter, more abject than the first. Andrews describes how Antonin Scalia handled a similar situation: is it not a problem that you are a Catholic?; are you going to defend teachings of your Church, on matters such as Blue Laws? Scalia apparently thought, as people of his generation usually thought, that this was perfectly reasonable. Better to see how a young candidate faces tough questions that may indeed be relevant to professional practice, than hire the person and then see them crack under pressure (170-1).

Events and trends converged with Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings when she was nominated to the Supreme Court. Public interest law, causing courts to adjudicate the merits of grievances raised by or on behalf of groups, has done more than anything else to bring about the “circus quality,” as Andrews calls it, of modern nominations. Sotomayor was prepared to see the hearings as unfair, biased against Latinas, and so on; in fairness, Andrews says, the hearings actually were “rougher than most.” Sotomayor was criticized in demeaning terms, with questions raised by prominent people who were known as liberal or progressive as to her intelligence and character (with an alleged tendency toward bullying) (174-7). Of course Andrews suggests that this vindicates the questioning by big-time lawyers when Sotomayor was interviewing for a job; how will you handle a perception that you are an affirmative action hire?

To put Sotomayor’s views and actions in context, Andrews goes back in time. She discusses some major decisions of the Warren Court, which institutionalized the arbitration of grievances by groups, and then focuses specifically on the issue of religion in schools. In the Schempp case (1963), the Supreme Court struck down both Bible readings and the Lord’s Prayer in public schools. Both practices had been traditional since before the school boards, or even the cities, of the 1960s existed. Public Christmas crèches, which of course have also been subject to litigation, were a somewhat kitschy novelty by comparison. A famous atheist named Madalyn Murray O’Hair apparently had a major part in persuading the Supreme Court that saying such practices did some kind of harm to students and others who did not believe in the words of the Bible or the Prayer—or perhaps in the idea of prayer. Any notion of a social benefit from public prayer—even any real debate in these terms—was set aside in view of what might be one “victim.” Since there was also no real study of any actual harm to any actual victim, a hypothetical victim would do, and the real intended beneficiaries were a class of people who had supposedly been discriminated against in the past (178-80).

Andrews seems shocked in hindsight that this went over so smoothly with the public (180-2). People who were sure prayer in school was a good thing before the decision, changed their minds shortly afterward. There was a kind of deference that one would expect for an old institution acting in more or less traditional ways, but in this case there was also respect for a bold new direction of constitutional thinking. Andrews is convinced that this reinforced the tendency for boomers to be more or less churchless after childhood, and this has meant in turn that millennials are even more churchless. With no church, what is the likelihood of having any respect for tradition? One of Andrews’ better thoughts is that the only people you can count on to be conservative on any issue are those who are in the habit of defending long-lasting institutions. By definition such institutions will be imperfect—they will even make mistakes, individuals may commit crimes and other terrible acts—but in defending them one learns the wisdom of not embracing novelty without much thought, or not being an advocate of change for the sake of change. This may answer the question of what unites or does not unite “conservatives” in a progressive society. In the final pages of this chapter Andrews discusses some cases where Sotomayor has clearly been on the woke and anti-Trump side.

Finally, in matters in which Sotomayor was not directly involved, it seems a logical outcome of grievance politics that people can be fired for expressing views that are contrary to the latest progressive or woke diktats. Only a few decades ago, it might have seemed progressives wanted to replace dogmatism of any kind with a new openness—a true welcoming of different points of view, a marketplace of ideas comparable to the agora in ancient Athens. Instead, of course, we are experiencing the tightening and enforcement of new dogmas. One can almost say an old church was displaced from the public schools, but it has been replaced with a new church. There are things that one must say and do, and things that one must not say and do. Words and actions are scrutinized for evidence of bad thoughts that might hurt real or hypothetical victims in ways that are hard to predict or clarify. One excuse for the banning of speech is that Trump somehow benefitted from the use of social media, so it is right to control such media from a progressive perspective. Of course such arguments could be used for controlling the printing press. The trend toward stigmatizing any kind of conservative position, and treating every progressive impulse as some kind of revelation from the God of History, goes back far beyond Trump.

The Millennials

In a concluding chapter, Andrews returns to an overview of the boomers and the millennials. One cannot help but notice the similarities between the street protests of 2020 in American cities, and those spread over a number of years in the 60s. There is anger at the police, and beyond them, at an Establishment that is allegedly racist, sexist, and so on. To some extent boomers have cheered on the protests, hoping they will actually bring about change for the better—a greater justice for society. There are differences. Unlike in the 60s, there seem to be no protests against capitalism or big corporations, except in certain industries that we can all recite like a mantra: coal-oil-gas and probably nuclear. There is generally no attack on any war or the military-industrial complex. Nevertheless, we may be witnessing the coming about of Marcuse’s dream: in the light of the failure of an actual proletariat to arise, a coalition between victims who may or may not be angry, and angry people who may or may not be victims. There is a sweet dream of happiness that has not been realized. We may need a different type of human being, transcending what has been considered to be natural. We may need to colonize space—but in a much better way than what the Europeans did to the world for a few hundred years.

Progressives seem to have shifted from big issues like poverty, inequality of income, and (as Mickey Kaus says) inequality of status—the question of whether people count, and respect each other—to smaller issues such as whether someone’s feelings are hurt by things that are said and unsaid. The latter issues are reminiscent of old ideas of virtue, setting an example, giving up things one wants now in order to build a future in a community, but it seems true that we have far more virtue-signaling than actual seriousness about virtue. The apparent smallness of the issues is obviously not a guarantee against violence, or even the breakdown of a constitutional and lawful order. Various kinds of radicals or trouble-makers may agree with the idea of burning things down, and then hoping for the best.

Andrews suggests that the apparent similarity of today’s protests to yesterday’s in the 1960s, even though the latter clearly inspired the former, will be deceptive; today’s will do more lasting harm. The protests and other kinds of disobedience, sometimes violent, that were carried out by boomers in the 60s were not exactly harmless, but they occurred within a regime that provided safety both for protesters and for society. The older people, roughly parents and grandparents of the boomers, maintained law and order, and lived every day in a bourgeois regime with standards of behavior, so that boomers always knew that after they sowed their wild oats, they would have a version of home to return to. When younger people protest today, there is only boomer world to return to, a much more chaotic place, intellectually and morally disoriented and (in a way appropriately) lacking in self-confidence. We seem to have a moral and intellectual elite that is determined not only to root out traces of the evil thoughts of the past, but to replace them with a depressing Pablum of rhetoric that would embarrass the propaganda agencies of a Communist regime.

Andrews gets back to the expectations of a good life which might seem normal, and the somewhat grimmer reality faced by millennials. In keeping with her overall theme, she insists that the common boomer rationalizations for, or justifications of, how they have affected the world are generally wrong. Even though she hesitates to say boomers have done bad things because they have been taught to do so, she blames boomers for what they have taught the millennials.

Kenneth Clark was wrong about the boomers. They did not take their place in the chain of civilization. And if the boomers think that they can unmoor millennials from our past, immiserate our futures, tell us we’re rich because we can afford iPhones but not families, teach us that narcissism is the highest form of patriotism, and still have a nation resilient enough to bounce back to normal after the younger generation starts to riot in the streets, then the boomers will be wrong about us.

Some Last Words

It is poor form to suggest to an author in a book review that there is another book that she ought to have written. From the point of view of those who wish to educate the public, or future leaders, it probably makes sense to persuade a conservative society to be less conservative, and a progressive society like ours to be more conservative. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates makes some effort to make democratic Athens a bit more Spartan; in the Laws, an Athenian Stranger who may or may not be Socrates tries to make militaristic Sparta and Crete a bit more Athenian. Today the fact that anything resembling conservative thought is more and more rooted out as if it were an infection is a sign of where we are. A defender of the old British Empire, such as Andrews, or even a defender of the U.S. in the 1950s as compared to later decades, is now stigmatized as a lover of all the unfair treatments of all the minorities. At best such a person, with their heart putatively in the wrong place, is seen as an obstacle to progress; at worst, which is increasingly seen as the most likely, they are seen as actually hating any group or any individual who has suffered discrimination in the past.

What is sometimes difficult to recall is that the ideas of the West come from books, and indeed from great books. It is probably unique to the West to have in our past, but also in our vocabulary and thinking today, pinnacles of reason in works of political philosophy, and pinnacles of lives based on faith in the Bible. It is not ethnocentric to point out the uniqueness of our situation, nor to suggest that what seems to be our fate presents us both with great opportunities and great challenges. In some ways Andrews’ book is reminiscent of Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, to which she barely alludes. It is possible to construct a narrative that is largely shared between the two books. Decadence in Europe was more or less obviously violent and dangerous; in North America it presented itself as fun and games for teenagers. “Mack the Knife” is something one dances to. There was probably more confidence in the American way of doing things before World War II than there has been since then. Before that time, even the greatest American universities probably provided a somewhat shallow version of the educated amateur; after that time, European refugees, especially German ones, occupied teaching and research positions, and this made a big difference. Nuclear power demonstrated both the power and the threat of modern technology in a way that European thinkers including Swift, Rousseau and Heidegger had warned about. Americans had previously specialized in mass production, rapid railway building, electricity, and indoor plumbing; who was likely to believe existential questions were at stake in living more comfortably?

If a substantial part of the public begins to engage in such questions, the result may be either good or bad for the regime, child-rearing, and law and order. Bloom stresses the opportunity in engaging the great questions, alongside the urgency, even the sense of crisis that has arisen. Andrews is more likely to see any departure from the old consensus as a bad thing. Some of Plato’s “message” is an apologetic for the life of Socrates, who focused on achieving wisdom for himself. Did he knowingly corrupt the young, or make the survival of the Athenian regime, or any decent regime, precarious? Did he, at least, do as he wished, and let the political and moral chips fall where they may? Or did he pursue questions of the best life and the best regime in a way that was more likely to foster and encourage decent, educated citizens than to undermine them? If the ancients stand for an unforgettable, searching approach to living life as much as possible by reason, we also have the Bible as the source of many traditions to guide human life.  The two sources both may seem “old fashioned” today, but they are somewhat contradictory, and the contradictions have been fruitful for people who aspire to both think and live as well as possible.

Somewhat in contrast to both the ancients and the Bible, Machiavelli proudly stood for what was modern. In the foreground he wished to weaken the Catholic Church that had risen to such heights in the Middle Ages; beyond that he makes a case for reason as opposed to revelation. He seems to look back to the Greeks, who also generally opposed, or at least taught the young to question, the traditional religion they found around them. Even the Greeks, however, do not exactly provide a model for Machiavelli. First, he offers a conquest of nature which requires learning from nature. Build dams and dikes, he suggests, in order to save human beings from floods and other disasters. Obviously dams and dikes were built before Machiavelli, so he must mean to work harder at it, study the matter, build more structures, more consistently and effectively, save more human beings from hardship or discomfort, deliberately rather than haphazardly, on a mass scale rather than in isolation. It seems not only wise but urgent to ameliorate the effects of the rather harsh nature we find ourselves living with—whether given by God or not.  This would have been somewhat shocking in Machiavelli’s time, but it became a commonplace in what we think of as Modern Europe and its colonies and extensions. Machiavelli also says something that may still be shocking today. We are urged not to accept the power of Fortuna or, we might say, nature. Beat her, as hard as you can, and then beat her some more. This will do little harm to her—she is resilient, she always comes back for more—and it is likely to do you a great deal of good. This seems to mean that if we simply accept the power of nature, our engineering projects will remain too limited. By deliberately pushing beyond what seem to be the limits, we will discover we are capable of much more than anyone, including the old priests and sorcerers, ever suggested.

It may even be that there is so much room to improve, it is almost as if there are no natural limits at all. In physics and engineering, this may still sound like nonsense; in politics and morality, it turns out to be intoxicating. In chapters of the Prince on specific virtues, Machiavelli suggests that it is never wise to identify an action as a transgression, as long as there is at least an intention to benefit someone; of course that someone may be oneself. One can think of excuses for Machiavelli, and he offers these excuses himself. He means actions for political ends, which almost by definition benefit many people. He does not advocate pure selfishness; you have to benefit others in order to have allies. It does no good to be cruel if you simply generate hatred or a “backlash.” In an exhilarating kind of way, troubling for moralists, Machiavelli offers solutions to these problems. Given the influence of Machiavelli in modern movements including nationalism and twentieth-century totalitarianism, it is probably fair to say he promised freedom and delivered (at least in some cases) disaster.

Since Machiavelli we have lived with variations of modernity and post-modernity. Obviously there have been heroic efforts to have our cake and eat it too; to be proudly modern, while maintaining a sense that there are transgressions, there are things we will not do, and we are capable of admiring a self-sacrificing paragon of virtue.  Protestants have presented themselves not as the end of Christian civilization, but as its revitalization; nationalists have suggested that human assertiveness is less problematic when it acts for a recognizable group than for a (mere) individual. Unfortunately, contrary to some hopes or predictions that might be described as Hegelian, the twentieth century did not see simply the demise of old or traditional sources of hate and war. Instead new hates including anti-Semitism were able to control the infrastructure and technology of a modern government, giving them unprecedented power and destructiveness. The West also saw the rise and arming of Communist regimes based at least loosely on Marx, and the spread of such Western ideas to Asia. The more one thinks about these intellectual developments, and how they are likely to shape our thinking, the less plausible it is to blame boomers for the way things are turning out. We like to think we choose freely, but we know we react to our own hopes and fears, and these are made more or less powerful by the hopes and fears of others. Intellectual teachers do not simply teach us how to think, but how to identify which hopes and fears are the most urgent.

 

Notes

[1] Sotomayor’s published dissent came in the case of Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (2014), in which the Court upheld by a vote of 6-2 the right of voters in Michigan to amendment the state’s constitution to prohibit race-and sex-based discrimination and preferential treatment in public university admission decisions.

[2] Timing and references in Andrews are confusing. Andrews cites Fisher v. University of Texas (2013), in which the Court ruled 7-1 that the case should be remanded to lower courts for further consideration. Kennedy wrote for the 2013 Court majority in saying any use of race as a factor in college admissions should come under strict scrutiny, and the University of Texas program at issue could probably not pass a proper test. Andrews’ criticism applies to a case by the same name in 2016; the Texas program was once again under review, and the Court narrowly (4-3) approved the use of race in this case.

Lloyd Robertson

Lloyd W. Robertson holds a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. He has taught at the post-secondary level at selective liberal arts colleges in the U.S., and at a number of Canadian universities. He writes on issues in Canadian and U.S. politics and history.

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