Thursday, September 15, 2016

"Both sides do it" is a reactionary defense of ageism

Earlier today, Mother Jones Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery openly avowed her hatred of an entire generation:


Understandably, a lot of progressives, who have historically opposed bigotry against oppressed communities, took issue with this. In one pretty straightforward post, for example, Atrios related Jeffery's ageist rhetoric to its more familiar expressions ("Kids Today," "get...off of [the] lawn") and noted that she'd evidently misread the very poll she was quoting. It doesn't take much more than that to point out the problems with what she said - the case is fairly open-and-shut.

Enter, however, Kevin Drum:
Atrios is upset because he doesn't like criticism of young people. Why? Beats me. As near as I can tell, millennials don't actually attract any more abuse than any other age cohort. I'm not sure why they should be any more immune to criticism than anyone else.
Drum changes his mind

Set aside the crass rhetorical deck-stacking here ("criticism" vs. "abuse") and Drum's defense is clear: ageism is okay because both sides do it. Clara Jeffery can't be criticized for hating young people because hatred of Boomers also exists. But what I find striking about this is that for Drum, just a few months back, both-sides-do-it was no defense of ageism:
Bruenig's tweets were nasty, apparently unfounded, and a bit two-faced (charging Walsh with "ageism" followed by insulting Tanden as "geriatric").
If Drum actually took his own both-sides-do-it rule seriously, we would expect him to waive off Bruenig's comment and ridicule those who refuse to do so as "upset". But instead, Drum decries the remark as "nasty" and an "insult", and adds:
This is the kind of thing that I'd normally call a non-firing offense, but only if the offender agrees there's a problem and promises to reign it in. The risk of having an employee like this go completely ballistic at some point and write something either libelous or just plain repellent is too great. 
This is infinitely stronger than the mild disapproval Atrios posted. And Bruenig, at least, was responding to the specific ageist comment Drum quotes earlier in his piece ("barely shaven") - this would make his reaction even more justified, if the both-sides-do-it rule held. Jeffery, meanwhile, is simply reacting to a poll in a news report, and one that she evidently misread.

"Reverse ageism" does not exist

It's tempting to say this is just a case of Drum defending his employer - but that just underlines the ageist power dynamic at work here. Boomers are far more likely than Millennials to be employers, which means that these conflicts-of-interest will usually play out in their favor. Even Boomers who aren't employers will tend to have more professional power for Millennials, which means that age-solidarity will also play in their advantage as well. Obviously, Jeffery can say almost whatever she likes about young people, she has few professional consequences to worry about, and she can rely allies to defend her who, like Drum, have aged into large platforms. Younger people, meanwhile, can count on the exact opposite: powerful professional retaliation, both from employers and from people like Drum. Age solidarity is of little help to Millennials, since their young colleagues are typically just as powerless.

And that's the deeper critique of Drum's both-sides-do-it rhetoric. Even if accept that moral equivalence, Drum clearly applies it selectively, using it to exonerate Boomers while ignoring it in his criticism of the young. But if we accept the standard progressive premise that oppression is prejudice plus power, then even a "both-sides-do-it" rule applied consistently would be grossly reactionary, a kind of "reverse-ageism" defense that draws a false moral equivalence between two very different political situations. Both sides don't have giant corporate media platforms, and both sides don't face draconian professional consequences in these intergenerational conflicts. Jeffery's hatred of the young is the bigotry of privilege, and any progressive worthy of the name should condemn it.