Saturday, April 2, 2016

A brief note for older readers

I've been going pretty hard at old folks during this election. The immediate reason for this is that the generational divide among Democrats is, as I've argued ad nauseum, the most significant and consequential demographic dynamic in the Democratic primaries. It's having much more of an impact than gender or race, the two factors that most mainstream election punditry has fixated on so far.

A second reason is that I think this divide is just the first symptom of a profound structural shift underway in the United States. Last year was the first in decades that Baby Boomers lost their status as the plurality age cohort. For most of modern history, they have been in a position to engineer American society, politics and economics around their personal interests. Those days are over. Millenials in particular are going to challenge those interests, and it's going to be a bitter fight against enormously entrenched power - but they are eventually going to win as a matter of simple attrition, and the end result will probably be a more egalitarian America. That's why I've called Clinton the last gasp of the boomers.

A third reason is that as this happens, I think the left is going to expand and refine its understanding of privilege as it relates to age. This is such a pitifully unexplored topic that many on the left don't even seem to appreciate that age privilege exists (*ahem*), but it seems obvious to me that some people are going to have certain built-in, structural and systematic advantages over others based on how old they are. And as a matter of historical fact, those advantages have accrued to Boomers in a way that they haven't accrued to anyone else. I write about this issue because I want the left to start thinking about this kind of privilege, how it expresses itself in our politics, and how we can resist it and build a more just and egalitarian world for people of every age.

Whenever I write about olds, I invariably get a few responses from older leftists who feel like I've treated them unfairly. Usually, these are people who, despite their age, have not accrued many of the privileges and advantages of their generation - or they are people who do have those privileges and advantages, but who are nevertheless fighting the good fight.

Liberal identitarian discourse would say that these people are making a #NotAllOlds complaint - that they are just "derailing" important discussions about privilege to talk about themselves. Let me be clear: this is utter bullshit. Ideology that refuses to consider people in their individual humanity and forces them into an abstract intellectual system with no regard for their personal circumstances and stories is the definition of totalitarian. Thinking, decent people should absolutely reject this kind of discourse as an utter abdication of our ability and responsibility to relate to each other personally. This does not mean that we cannot talk about questions of identity in general terms; it just means that we should be careful about how we do it, and be willing to recognize commonalities and exceptions.

On that note, I want to affirm that there are a lot of older folks out there who are doing the right thing, and who have been doing so for years. As Chomsky (one of my favorite older folks) rightly notes,
It's a totally different country, much more civilized than it was forty years ago. That's why the sixties are so hated, so denounced in elite discussion. The reason is that they had a very substantial civilizing effect on society, in many different ways. Women's rights, environmental issues, opposition to aggression, the anti-nuclear movement, and so on - all this goes back to the sixties. It was there before, but it really took off after the sixties. (Democracy and Power, 144)
Older Americans are also vulnerable to poverty and age discrimintion in ways that younger, working Americans are not - though of course they're also covered by welfare programs like Social Security and Medicare, as well as anti-age discrimination laws, in a way that younger Americans are not. The picture is complicated, but the general privileges and advantages older generations have shouldn't erase the fact that they also have all kinds of unique disadvantages and challenges as well.

Returning to the present election, older Americans may not be giving Sanders the overwhelming support that Millennials have, but a respectable third of all voters over fifty are still backing him - a number quite close to the appreciable support Sanders has earned among black Americans. None of these people should be ignored, despite popular political analysis's tendancy to treat demographic constituencies as monoliths.

A unique aspect of old privilege - one that no other genre of demographic privilege can claim - is that we'll all have it eventually. I think that this makes it uniquely instructive: it gives all of us a stake in navigating issues of privilege and power in a way that treats others as we will want to be treated. That's one of many reasons why, when I write about the olds, I hope that I do it fairly. If I fail, older readers, please take consolation in the fact that I'll be in your shoes soon enough.