The Public Interest

On the character of Generation X

Diana Schaub

Fall 1999

BEFORE I say anything either in praise or blame of today’s young people, it might be well to remember what Montesquieu says in his Spirit of the Laws: “It is not young people who degenerate; they are ruined only when grown men have already been corrupted.” The young may indeed be degenerate, but if they are, it is their elders who ought to answer for it. Since the generation of students in college now was raised by the Baby Boom generation, moral soundness was perhaps not to be expected. We have recently had an all too revealing look at the respective degeneracy and corruption of these two generations in the persons of Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton. But before we start bashing the Boomers, and lamenting the ruination they have wrought, we should note that Montesquieu’s maxim would lessen tile blame attaching to the Boomers as well, since it is the World War II generation that bears responsibility for them.  Somehow, the kernels at least of that self-absorption and moral heedlessness were already present—yes, even in the generation that is being called “the greatest generation.” (Perhaps it shouldn’t have been so surprising to see the decorated war veteran Bob Dole recommending against impeachment and then becoming the pitchman for Viagra.) Virtue cannot be passed intact from one generation to the next, because it never fully exists in any generation. The regression that Montesquieu implies would take us all the way back to the Founders, and cast doubt on the potency of even their pristine virtue. 

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