Category Archives: Silent Generation

Blame It On the Geezers: Matt Bai’s Generational Theory of Politics

In Sunday’s New York Times, Matt Bai argues that it’s old people who are disproportionately driving the Tea Party Movement, and especially its anti-government venom and its strong racist element. “According to a survey by the Pew Research Center in June, 34 percent of Americans between the ages of 50 and 64 — and 29 percent of voters 65 and older — say they agree with the movement’s philosophy; among Americans 49 and younger, that percentage drops precipitously,” he writes. “A New York Times/CBS News poll in April found that fully three-quarters of self-identified Tea Party advocates were older than 45, and 29 percent were older than 64.”
 
Based on this data, and on the history of the last 70-odd years, Bai constructs a theory that divides American politics largely along generational lines:  
[A] sizable percentage of the Tea Party types were born into a segregated America, many of them in the South or in the new working-class suburbs of the North, and lived through the marches and riots that punctuated the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s. Their racial attitudes, like their philosophies of governance, reflect their complicated journeys…
 
In other words, we are living at an unusual moment when the rate of progress has been dizzying from one generation to the next, such that Americans older than 60, say, are rooted in a radically different sense of society from those younger than 40. And this generational tension — perhaps even more than race or wealth or demography — tends to fracture our politics.
 
These numbers probably do reflect some profound racial differences among the generations, but they are more indicative of how young and old Americans approach the issues of the day, generally. Older Americans now — no longer the New Deal generation, but the generation that remembers Vietnam, gas lines and court-ordered busing — are less enamored of expansive government than their parents were. They fear changes to their entitlement programs, even as they denounce the explosion in federal spending. They are less optimistic about the high-tech economy, more fearful of the impact of immigration and free trade.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Mostly, what’s wrong with it is what’s left out. Bai (who is 41) mentions that todays old folks “lived through the marches and riots that punctuated the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s.” But who, exactly, does he think was carrying out the marches and riots? The exact same age group, of course–made up of my own generation and that of the Baby Boomers.
 
These people are today, for the most part, over the age of 60–the precise age that places our roots, Bai says, in a “radically different society.” Despite these apparently rotten roots, the generations that Bai criticizes (with a hint of oh-so-condescending compassion) managed to accomplish the following:
 
1. Launched and fought the Civil Right Movement, in which several dozen African Americans and a handful of white lost their lives, and hundreds more were beaten and arrested. Compared to this, the accomplishment of younger generations–voting for a black president–was a cakewalk.
 
2. Protested against and eventually shortened the Vietnam war. These protests were large, fierce, and widespread, and went on for years. Unless I somehow missed it, I’ve yet to see a comparable antiwar movement mounted today, among the young people Bai celebrates.
 
3. Supported the War on Poverty–not only with our rhetoric, but with our paychecks. (The top marginal tax rate in 1965 was 70 percent; now it’s 35 percent). In contrast, today’s Democratic party, starting with Clinton and continuing through Obama, has pretty much abandoned the poor to their fate. So today’s bourgeoise youth can declare themselves “progressive” without having to give up a thing.
 
The gist of Bai’s article is that our society will improve as we bigoted old geezers to die off, and make way for more broad-minded generations. But I wonder: Are there any among the younger generations who are going to fight the kind of fights we fought in this brave new world? If there are, they’d better stand up now. 

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Robert N. Butler, 1927 – 2010: Visionary Psychiatrist and Champion of Elders

If you’re like most people, you may find that at about age 70, life begins to close in on you. You’re supposed to be retired by then with an adequate pension and/or a 401K–only you don’t have a pension, your 401K went down in the big recession, and to tell the truth, you  don’t want to retire anyway. You want to work, but there the job market is tight, age discrimination is rampant, and thanks to the Supreme Court, there’s virtually no way to fight it. You don’t have the money, or maybe the nerve, to strike out on your own, unless you call flipping burgers striking out on your own.

The advertisements for retirement investments and hair color keep telling you that 70 is the new 40, that you’re only as young as you feel. AARP’s magazines say the same thing–but the world they depict seems unreal and, to tell the truth, somewhat revolting. Because you don’t feel young–you feel old. And in today’s America, that’s hardly a happy feeling. You feel shoved aside, irrelevant, a relic waiting to hurry up and die. You realize you can’t remember things as well as you once did, have more and more of the proverbial “senior moments,’’ and start wondering how long it will be until you sink into dementia, maybe Alzheimer’s, at which point your life will really be over.

There’s precious little in our society that acts as an antidote to any of these thoughts. But for the last half-century, there has been one man: Dr. Robert N. Butler. A psychiatrist, activist, and visionary, Butler died on Sunday at the age of 83, and is being eulogized in the obituaries as the founder of modern gerontology, the man who coined the word “ageism.’’ Butler founded the National Institute of Aging at the NIH, and helped found the American Association for geriatric Psychiatry and the Alzheimer’s Disease Association; he also launched the first medical department devoted to geriatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.  He wrote influential books, advised politicians, counseled the World Health Organization, and he founded and ran the International Longevity Center in New York. 

Through all of this work, Butler inspired thousands, perhaps millions of people to think differently about growing old, and to treat aging and the aged differently. For old people, that transformation is even more profound, because it means thinking differently about yourself. I am one of those people whose thinking was changed, in some significant way, by Robert Butler and his work.

I was lucky enough to meet Butler a few weeks ago at a week-long series of seminars his International Longevity Center put on annually for a small group of journalists, called the Age Boom Academy. That one week produced some of the most astute briefings on every aspect of health policy and the challenges ahead that one could hope to take in–from research on Alzheimers, to the political assault on Medicare and Social Security currently underway in the administration and Congress, to the day-to-day work on the ground across the City of New York. What I had feared might consist of a bunch of self-serving medical and psych professionals was instead an immersion into the real world of the politics and economics  of medicine, tempered always by Butler’s vision. Despite his concerns for the scandalous lack of funding for research on Alzheimer’s and the aging brain, as well as the growing shortage of doctors trained in gerontology or even general practitioners, he approached his work with unyielding  optimism. I had no idea he was battling a life-threatening illness.

On Monday I was on a train on my way to New York, where I had an appointment this week to sit down with him to further discuss his ideas, when I received an email and learned that he was gone. Although he had acute leukemia, Butler reportedly had been working until three days before his death. At 83, he had seemed like he was in the prime of life–not because he acted like he was 40, but because he had succeeded in redefining 83 as a different kind of prime, for himself and for others.

 In a speech not long ago at the American Academy of aging, Butler quoted Proust from In Search of Lost Time, “If we mean to try to understand this self, it is only in our innermost depths, by endeavoring to reconstruct it there, that the quest can be achieved.” He saw that quest as part of the journey into old age, and gave it significance and dignity. He said in his speech:

In the 1950s, psychology, psychiatry and gerontology textbooks devalued reminiscence and memories. Reminiscing was condescendingly called “living in the past,” and phrases like “wandering of mind,” “boring” and “garrulous” were used to describe elders who looked back. Actually, reminiscence was thought to be an early diagnostic sign of senile psychosis–what is known today as Alzheimer’s disease. However, I was seeing a different picture in vibrant, healthy individuals who were engaging in a fascinating inward journey.

More than fifty years later, Butler’s ideas are widely respected by psychologists and social workers, many physicians and research scientists, and even some policymakers. As far as they have caught on at all with the general public, it is thanks to his tireless work. He like to point out that demographics was on his side: More and more, elders will outnumber youth, and the voice of the geezers will grow stronger and stronger.

I was pleased to see, this morning, an eloquently written obituary in the New York Times by Douglas Martin. Fittingly, it included some remembrances of Butler’s past. As Martin notes, “Dr. Butler’s mission emerged from his childhood.” His parents split up less than a year after he was born, and he went to live with his grandparents on a New Jersey chicken farm. 

He came to revere his grandfather, with whom he cared for sick chickens in the “hospital” at one end of the chicken house. He loved the old man’s stories. But the grandfather disappeared when Robert was 7, and nobody would tell him why. He finally learned that he had died.

Robert found solace in his friendship with a physician he identified only as Dr. Rose. Dr. Rose had helped him through scarlet fever and took him on his rounds by horse and carriage. The boy decided he could have helped his grandfather survive had he been a doctor. He also concluded that he would have preferred that people had been honest with him about death.

From his grandmother, he learned about the strength and endurance of the elderly, he wrote. After losing the farm in the Depression, she and her grandson lived on government-surplus foods and lived in a cheap hotel. Robert sold newspapers. Then the hotel burned down, with all their possessions.

“What I remember even more than the hardships of those years was my grandmother’s triumphant spirit and determination,” he wrote. “Experiencing at first hand an older person’s struggle to survive, I was myself helped to survive as well.”

Butler spent his life passing on that painful but profound gift to thousands of other people. I feel fortunate to have been one of them.

The Late Ted Kennedy

An especially insightful review of Ted Kennedy’s memoir True Compass appeared on The American Prospect over the weekend. It may be of interest to members of the Unsilent Generation, not only because so many of us grew up—and grew old—with Teddy, but also because it is a homage to the wisdom and fortitude that came to him with age. In a review titled “He Kept the Flame,” Harold Meyerson points out that Kennedy’s real achievements were made late in life, when he was bucking the dominant political tide. “The essential Ted Kennedy,” he writes, “only truly emerged as he sought to keep the nation and his party from moving rightward”:  

For decades, the [Democratic] party had been losing the support of working-class whites (and gaining support among professionals). It had been complicit in the evisceration of American manufacturing and had generally grown more centrist in its economics. For Kennedy, however, the Democrats had an enduring compact with working Americans, one they had to renew every generation by enacting such policies as universal health care. Though the party moved rightward during the age of Reagan, Kennedy writes, “I maintained my conviction that the working-class majority forged by Roosevelt remained our best hope for justice and progress.” 



The appreciations of Kennedy’s achievements that followed his death this summer noted, of course, that he was the only one of the Kennedy brothers to be given a long career and that his list of accomplishments was, accordingly, a long one. But in measuring Ted’s work alongside that of Jack and Bobby, another key difference also emerges: His brothers were liberal political leaders during an age of liberalism. Ted was liberalism’s leading standard-bearer in a time of conservatism, a time when conservatism made inroads into his own political party. 



The Republican Right: Bring That “Boy” Down

Jimmy Carter yesterday plainly said what everyone ought to know already. As the BBC reported it:

Former US President Jimmy Carter says much of the vitriol against President Barack Obama’s health reforms and spending plans is “based on racism”.

Mr Carter told a public meeting there was “an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president”.

Any journalist who covered the Democratic presidential primary between Obama and Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania could not possibly have missed the naked hatred of the man based on the fact he is black. Comments such as “Oh I’ll vote for the nigger” were actually emanating from Obama supporters, so you can imagine what his opponents were saying. These same kind of comments were in the air in western Maryland during a recent town meeting on health care. The area has a history of being not just right wing territory, but Klan territory.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves. Younger people might have illusions of a “post-racial” society, but the unsilent generation knows racism when it sees it. America has not crossed any divide on this subject. The Republicans, especially the Republican South, reborn under Nixon, now based on young white men, can be easily ignited on this subject. This is a region of the nation where black men were not so long ago addressed as “boy”–and are still sometimes referred to that way when no one who would object is listening.

You can bet this is the kind of atmosphere Joe Wilson is familiar enough, and you can bet that’s part of what emboldened him to call the President of the United States a liar from the floor of the U.S. Congress. As I wrote on Mother Jones last week:

Joe Wilson isn’t just some mean-spirited buffoon. As a South Carolina legislator, he was one of only 7 state senators who fought to keep the confederate battle flag flying over the state capital. South Carolina, of course, was the first state to leave the Union after Lincoln was elected. Flying the confederate battle flag was a big deal in the south, which was once—and in some cases is still—inhabited by the KuKluxKlan and its successors…

The decision to fly the Confederate battle flag was made by an all-white legislature in 1962 as the civil rights movement was picking up steam. The bill passed in 2000 didn’t even remove the flag entirely—it called for a different version of flag to be flown in front of the state house instead of on top of it.

The continued presence of a Confederate flag at the state house has caused the controversy to continue. In July 2009, the Atlantic Coast Conference—after discussions with the NAACP—decided to move three future college baseball tournaments out of South Carolina.

Jimmy Carter, who knows this world well also, called Wilson’s outburst “a dastardly thing to do”–which implies, as many others have, that it was a calculated move and not a spontaneous outburst. Responding to the personal attacks on Obama at town hall meetings and similar venues, Carter said: “Those kind of things are not just casual outcomes of a sincere debate on whether we should have a national program on healthcare.”

Likewise, the attacks won’t end with health care reform. They’ll just roll on into other issues on the President’s agenda. Leaders of the Republican Right, whether or not they are deeply racist themselves, are determined to bring Obama down–and if the racism of their constituents does the job, so be it.

Teddy Kennedy, 1932-2009

Democratic Convention, August 12, 1980

(If you can’t listen to the whole thing, start about 5 minutes in.)

American Dreams

POETRY AND POLITICS SERIES

Jean Casella, my longtime editor, who has published, edited, and written about books for twenty years, has agreed to bring some culture to Unsilent Generation by posting a literary excerpt every now and then, along with reviews of books, movies, and music.

For July the 4th, she sent me these two poems, one from the 1930s (and especially relevant to our current economic conditions), and one from the 1950s (which reminds me what things were like in this country when I was young). In both, the poets confront their nation about its failure to live up to its own promise, and its own mythmaking. Both, I think, are examples of what Howard Zinn meant when he said that dissent is the highest form of patriotism.

I can’t post these in their entirety for copyright reasons, but urge you to follow the links and read them through.

 

Let American Be America Again
by Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)…

Read the complete poem here.

 

America
by Allen Ginsberg

America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956.
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.
I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I’m sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.
Your machinery is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint.
There must be some other way to settle this argument….

Read the complete poem here.

Iran: The Protests in the Streets–and Their Cold War Precursors

As demonstrators continue to protest what was clearly a corrupt election and possibly a stolen one, police are responding with “water cannon, batons, tear gas and live rounds,” according to the BBC today. For those who want to follow what’s going on in Tehran’s streets, I’m listing some sources for breaking news and ongoing updates. With the government trying to effect a news blackout, this is first-hand reporting on the fly–and at considerable risk to those providing it. 

Tehran Bureau, which describes itself as “an independent online magazine about Iran and the Iranian diaspora,” is running this Twitter feed, describing developments as they happen.

My old colleague Laura Rozen is constantly updating a series of news links on Iran on The Cable, the blog she runs for Foreign Policy. It includes on-the-scenes reporting from Tehran Bureau and other on-the-ground sources, as well as a roundup of the best reports from more traditional Western and local new sources, official statements, and the like. 

There are also plenty of clandestine videos being released on YouTube and elsewhere, most of them shot on cell phones, showing the beating, tear gassing, and shooting of protestors. This one, sent to me by an Iranian reporter, reportedly shows how the Ahmadinejad regime prepared stacks of fradulent ballots before the election even began. 

For members of the Silent Generation like myself, all of this will bring back memories of 1953, when a coup overthrew nationalist premier Mohammed Mossadegh. While the images are familiar, however, the situation is quite different: Rather than a homegrown democratic movement, the 1953 coup was engineered by the CIA, aided by British intelligence. At the height of the Cold War, the West could not tolerate the leftist Mossadegh, especially seeing that he intended to take over the oil business from the international corporations.

iran 1953The two events are not entirely disconnected, however. The CIA-engineered coup reinstalled the despotic Shah of Iran, which in turn led more or less directly to the Islamic Revolution and the repressive regimes of today. In addition, the destructive history of American meddling inevitably affects the U.S. government’s response to the current uprising. 

The Obama administration is under pressure–mostly from the right–to make a more aggressive response to the situation in Iran. But American support for the protestors–or for Ahmadinejad’s rival Mir Hussein Mussavi–is tantamount to the kiss of death. As Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the New York Times: “If we overtly take sides, the regime could well react with a massive and bloody crackdown on the demonstrators using the pretext that they are acting against an American-led coup.” Or, as he might have said, another American-led coup.