'Willpower' and the Suckiest Generation


I often joke with my wife that I wish my generation — the Baby Boomers — could die without taking me with them. I’d sure as hell like to be around to see them go. They ruined the culture of this country, threw away the untold riches bequeathed to them, betrayed and undermined centuries of wisdom, spread the use of drugs, legitimized divorce and abortion, and even managed to screw up the civil rights movement that might otherwise have been their signal achievement. On the other hand, they did give us pre-faded jeans, so I guess that’s something.


All this misery they (we, I fear I should say) heaped on America and the west while retaining a sense of arrogant self-satisfaction and self-justification that, were it not for our knowledge of sinful human nature, would defy understanding. The television show Mad Men is excellent drama, I admit, but it fairly drips with the Baby Boomers’ overriding notion that America used to be nothing more than a desert of falsehood, bigotry, and oppression before the Sixties cavalry arrived to rescue us from ourselves. Which, not to put too fine a point on it, is crap.

A book called Willpower has been making a splash lately and will, I’m told, appear on the New York Times bestseller list next week. I have not read the book yet, but while in New York last week at the behest of the Manhattan Institute, I attended an MI-sponsored presentation by the book’s authors, psychology researcher Roy F. Baumeister and science writer John Tierney.

Willpower surpasses even intelligence as a predictor of success in life. And Baumeister has performed a number of experiments that convinced him that willpower is something like a muscle:  it can be strengthened, conserved, and fatigued. Like a muscle, it also needs to be fueled. Baumeister’s assertion that glucose in the blood is essential to willpower has featured in the headlines about the book.

But in the question period after the presentation, I asked Baumeister how else, aside from eating well, could willpower be strengthened. His response was this:  Exercise strengthens willpower just as it strengthens muscles. Even a meaningless exercise of will — training yourself to use your left hand for a task instead of your right, for instance — can make the will stronger over time. He added — I quote from memory: “When I was a boy, I used to be baffled by the idea of profanity. I used to wonder why there should be all these words that everyone knew but nobody used. But now I understand:  that strengthens willpower.”


Well, right. In other words, behaving well, behaving responsibly, learning the norms of politeness and refusing to abandon them without good reason tend to make you a more self-controlled, successful, and finally better person.

This is precisely the wisdom my generation threw away. Their promiscuity, adolescent foul-mouthedness, bad manners, and disregard for tradition — all of which they claimed were a new kind of freedom — were in fact the precursors to the very oldest kind of slavery:  slavery to one’s own impulses and desires. This slavery, packaged in the Sixties as “identity” or “culture” or “the right to be yourself,” ultimately leads to enslavement by others as it makes you indolent and irresponsible and in need of protection and restraint by the powers that be. A poor black man’s journey from hip hop culture to prison is a perfect example. So is a middle class white man’s journey from moral license and unwarranted praise to his sniveling need for an all-providing — oh, and by the way, all-powerful — state.

A government that wants more power  knows well it can acquire that power by stripping the citizenry of every need and opportunity to provide for and take control of themselves — every reason to exercise their will. Welfare, unending unemployment benefits, “free” health care, business bailouts, the “right” to live off your parents’ insurance until you’re 47 or whatever:  these, not religion, are the true opiate of the people.


My generation, using the loftiest possible language, destroyed the loftiest possible image of man — his image as God-made creature endowed with the right to be left alone. Instead, they declared him a weak collection of needs with some mysterious right to have those needs paid for by other people’s earnings. They told us government had to provide the citizen’s material needs even if it hampered his ability to live free.

Instead they should have asked:  “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, if he forfeits his own soul?”


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