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Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Conventional Wisdom is Always Wrong

What is conventional wisdom? Think the about the questions you don’t ask because the answer is obvious. Think about the assumptions that you rarely articulate but just assume to be true.
‘You should buy a house and build equity’

‘You should go to college and study what you love!’

‘You should explore yourself in your youth’

‘You just have to show initiative, what boss couldn’t love that’

‘You should be a lawyer, they make a lot of money’

It’s deeper than that. We all have a loose movie script in our heads about how our life is supposed to turn out. This is not an explicit script with a plot, but a collection of vague bits of unsourced trivia, group identification, and repeated lessons with a few sign posts indicating institutions and cultural references of great import: universities, prestigious career tracks, accoutrements of aspiration.

When we’re young, this script is informed by our parents and our teachers, the people who make television programming and market to children. These people are a generation older than the children their passing these messages to in both overt and unconsciously subtle ways. The intellectual world of children is established by the adults in their society.

But then you grow older and try to establish your persona. You make your first independent experience with the world you realize that those adults were either clueless or they were lying to you. The struggles of your twenties and early thirties, when you’re out and about in the world, inevitably shape your entire world view for the rest of your life. You grow older, you have kids and retreat into the well worn patterns that worked out for you once you figured out your path. How many middle-aged people take the effort to change their basic premises to more closely match reality?

But those are the people who control institutions, who run colleges, who greenlight movies, who run the legal system and manage our militaries. It’s the middle-aged who’ve begun losing their hair and have given up the battle of the bulge who shape the messages that we absorb as reality. Younger adults aspire to have their power but they’re merely the shock troops of messaging, still absorbing whatever lessons they’ll pass on to their equivalents when they start worrying about wrinkles and graying hair.

The Conventional Wisdom wasn’t always wrong, it was a collection of useful messages at one point in history. The Conventional Wisdom is usually about a generation out of date. It’s the wisdom of middle-aged people developed when those same people were young and fresh faced. It’s based on their heartbreak and the paths of success that worked for them at one point.

The Conventional wisdom is an unconscious nostalgia, a mental reassurance that the world is at it has always been when you’re old enough to worry about what you can lose.

The Conventional Wisdom of the Greatest Generation included a desire for conformity and stability following their experience in the great depression and a massive war. It also assumed that honor and the appearance of proper decorum were of great importance.

The Conventional Wisdom of the Boomers included is based on two contradictory beliefs.

1) You follow your own path and do what you love. Fight the power that wants to hold you back

2) The institutions that make our society function are fundamentally sound, competent and you should trust them to take care of you.

It’s a conventional wisdom that comes from growing up in a country so prosperous that you could spend your youth breaking the rules and still expect that system to come to your rescue when you wanted to grow up. The Baby boomers enjoyed a country with competently run schools and universities, government manned by people who folks who were hired during the good governance movement. They may know our institutions are corrupt on some intellectual level, but mentally, they still believe that everything will turn out alright in the end, because it worked out for them. Their rebellion and cries to tear down the system were the equivalent of a sixteen year old rich girl who screams vitriol at her father for not getting her a nose job. The hate is real but shallow, deep down she knows that he won’t toss her on the street to live with the ruffians.
They got into the culture wars because the lived in a secure, wealthy, peaceful country that could afford to. Compared to the generations that preceded them, and history in other countries, the boomers lived in a country that functioned so well on a day to day level, that they never had to put serious thought into why the lights turn on or who manned the institutions that made that prosperity possible. The early Boomers who’ve known relative prosperity their whole lives probably can’t believe that the symbols, institutions and organizations they thought were implacable, have been hollowed out with entryism, and corrupted by thieving elites and bitter social rejects. Asking them to accept the failure of everything we call ‘The Cathedral’ is akin to convincing a man that his dear mother who was always a proper lady in his eyes was actually a skank who sucked off entire football teams for tip money. It’s a mental bridge gone too far, it’s almost blasphemy. The world is a different place but the boomers are still mentally in the 60s and 70s when you could screw around for fifteen years and then hop onto a slot in the middle-class in the suburbs with your kids. More than nostalgia for the idealism or the memory of great change it’s an unspoken belief that the people in charge know what they’re doing that defines the boomer conventional wisdom. I don’t mean that they believed the folks in charge were good people or progressive, just that Boomers assumed that replacing people would change nothing else about the prestige or functionality of the organizations they stormed into. They still think that a bachelors degree and a fancy job title mean something.
The folks who suspect that everything’s falling apart and that institutions are rotten to the core, ready to be buried are a lot younger than Boomers. Whatever memory they have of a functional, consensus America is a memory of that country in decline, its’ best days either a hazy memory or golden age stories from boomer created media.

Overtime, that conventional wisdom will date us as much as it dates all generations. We may never truly be capable of the kind of innocent idealism that early boomers remember with such fondness. We’ll probably never lose our inherent skepticism of any institutions, no matter how seemingly benign. The generations that follow us will probably blame us for perpetually sounding ‘Doom and Gloom’ when making predictions about the future.
Change happens on the scale of generations growing into prominence and then dying off. We’re still in the world of boomers until they start to retire and become a memory.