Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Bitter Old White People

Disappointment is a fact of getting older. We feel disappointed when our youthful hopes and expectations remain unfulfilled. We are disappointed in the young. We feel increasingly alienated in a world that changes all around us. We feel our bodies beginning to wear out with time. Most of us handle this with a measure of grace. We remember when we were young how disappointed our elders were with us, and we decided to give them something to cry about. Now, our kids do the same thing to us, and if we have any sense, we realize that turnabout is fair play. We manage to adjust our hopes and expectations over time to new realities and take advantage of new opportunities. We do what we can and make the best of declining strength.
But some of us don't.

It seems to me that our public political conversation these days is disproportionately dominated by bitter old white people, the same people who 80 years ago said that there was no Depression, that there was work for those who wanted to work. These are also the same bitter old white people who got left out when the Republicans dumped Robert Taft for Eisenhower in 1953. Now, they are all watching Glenn Beck and listening to Rush and keeping copies of Atlas Shrugged next to their Bibles. Young people (at least people under 40) are conspicuously absent. The kids dominate popular culture and technology as they always do, but they are remarkably absent from political participation, or at least invisible. I've had a lot of students tell me that they don't vote as a matter of principle, that both parties and all the politicians are bought and paid for, and the whole system is rigged by corporate oligarchs. The sad part of it is that they are not exactly wrong about that. The whole system may well be corrupt to the core, but why surrender even your small portion of the decision making process? I think one of the reasons why politics seems so dominated by bitter old white people is because younger people take themselves out of the process. Old folks don't always handle disappointment well, but kids give up too easily and walk away.

I've always thought the tea-party was a lot less than meets the eye. How authentic a grass-roots movement is it when it gets lavish corporate sponsorship and active promotion by Rupert Murdoch's media empire? How grass roots is it really when their gatherings charge admission to participate? The membership is overwhelmingly elderly and late middle aged. They've never polled more than 30% support in the polls, and their much vaunted Washington rallies have always had fairly low turnouts (a pro gay rights rally in DC that followed one much hyped teabagger rally drew a much larger crowd and a lot less press attention).
It seems that the political rhetoric and the political policy decisions are all the work of guys in high-water pants and baseball caps with the age and wisdom to find fault in every last little thing. I think the old geezers have such disproportionate influence because they complain, they make noise (unlike the middle aged who are either too busy or unemployed and too broke), and they vote (unlike the young). They also tell the corporate Powers That Be what they want to hear, which is why they get all that corporate money. So now, we have political rhetoric that makes me wax nostalgic for the saber-toothed robber barons of yesterday. At least they made a pretense of civic responsibility (and some like Carnegie, more than a pretense). Their attitude toward the rest of the population was "let them eat cake," but sometimes they did serve up some real cake. Now, their imitators and wannabes look out from the secured perimeters of their gated communities and say, "Let them eat shit."

The old play a large role in progressive politics too, but without the bitter edge. I remember going to sign up for a bus to an anti-war rally in DC, and seeing an office with legions of very busy and very determined retirees. They form the brains of these movements and really do the basic legwork of organizing, administering, and fund-raising (anti-war movements don't get no corporate sponsorships, and not even the librul NY Times gave them much press attention). The kids provide the creativity, the enthusiasm, and the muscle. The anti-war rallies were mostly kids and old people, grandmas marching with hippies and hipsters. The really large ones brought out the middle aged people. You know it's serious when people over 40 take time off from work to participate. Something else which I saw in abundance at antiwar rallies that I can't imagine at tea-bagger rallies was families bringing their kids along; lots of tots in strollers and on parental shoulders. There aren't that many places in the world where people would feel safe enough to bring their kids to a political rally, especially an opposition rally.


susan s. said...

Good post, Counterlight. I was reminded of a peace demonstration the Peace-Life Center did in front of a congressman's hometown office when I lived in Modesto in the late 70s. All the WWII conscientious objectors who were in their 70s and some young folks were there. It was a daytime demonstration. As we stood there with our signs people would drive by and honk if they agreed with them, but others would roll down their windows and yell "Get a job!" Most of the folks there were retired! It tickled the heck out of them that there weren't any more creative objections coming down the street!

JCF said...

My dad is the same vintage as the guy in the pic (WW2 vet, "Old White Guy").

But he's a proud Obama supporter, who loathes Teabagger Wingnuts (He leaves MSNBC on most of the day, the way I do! ;-/)

In other words, it's not just age, and gender, and "melanin-deficiency".

My dad has at least one foot left in Reality, and the Teabagger Wingnuts are "a sandwich short of a picnic."

What's made the difference, I wonder?

[JCF guesses: California Dept of Fish&Game employee for 40 years (Government good; corporations, less so!). Recently-deceased sister-in-law: African-American (so not isolated in his whiteness). Last but not least: Episcopalian! :-D (Doubt that there are very many Episcopal Teabaggers, verdad?)]

Counterlight said...


I meant BITTER old white guys. Your dad would not qualify; too sane and too happy.

Mine wouldn't have qualified either for the same reasons. I doubt he would be an Obama supporter (too old school Republican), but he supported gay marriage long before it became legal anywhere.

MarkBrunson said...

What I love is that these bitter old white people, bitching about "socialism," would have a fit if you actually paid them only what they paid into Social Security, and took away all the underlying programs that mean they don't have to work for pennies a day in a factory until they drop dead at the machines!

If teabaggers got the country they wanted, they'd be eaten alive.

Counterlight said...

"If teabaggers got the country they wanted, they'd be eaten alive."

Indeed, and that thought occurs to me when I see all these bitter old white folk on Medicare complaining about "socialism!"