Sunday Night Journal — August 29, 2004
Invasion of the Old Fools
On my way to work one recent morning, late as usual and trying to hurry, I found myself behind a car going very slowly in the left lane on Highway 98. This road has grown steadily more congested over the twelve years during which I’ve driven it to and from work. I’m convinced that on the average I’m likely to reach the end of this ten-mile stretch more quickly, and without too much vexation, if I get in the left lane and stay there. The right lane seems to move a bit more slowly most of the time, and switching lanes only leads to frustration, in accordance with the well-known fact that switching from a slower-moving queue to a faster-moving one will cause the former to speed up and the latter to slow down.
The key to preserving my equanimity in this situation while still being in a hurry is to recognize that although I may win the bet more often than not, I am still going to lose regularly, and to be ready to accept gracefully those occasions when the left lane is consistently slower. On the day in question I happened to be directly behind the car that was causing the slowdown. It was occupied by a man and a woman who appeared to be in their sixties or so. This also is not unusual, but what was unusual was that their car bore several bumper stickers advertising various more or less left-wing opinions.
Vexed after a mile or so of their blockade, and beginning to think it was time to give the right lane a try after all, I found myself thinking No fool like an old fool. An uncharitable thought, to be sure, and yet there is something a little unseemly about an old person with political views of multiple-bumper-sticker intensity. It is very hard for such a person to avoid seeming, or in fact being, a crank, or worse—for instance, the hardened old women one sees sometimes in pro-abortion marches. Left-wing causes, which at least in their more innocent forms (“Give peace a chance!”) are based on hope but often also on naivete, seem in general more fitted to youth. Or perhaps it is only that near-fanatic attachment to a political cause, whether right or left, seems more fitted to youth. Age should be more serene and more measured.
Be that as it may, I think the old saw about the old fool is going to find a lot of application over the next twenty years or so. My generation, the baby boomers, is about to join the ranks of “senior citizens” (a term I dislike—I would rather be called simply “old”), and I do not expect us to handle it well. I remember thinking, sometime around 1990 or so as I entered my early forties, that it would probably not be long before someone of my generation became president, and that I did not expect to like him. My pessimism was rewarded with Bill Clinton (and of course Hillary Clinton).
Of course like many people who discuss the baby boomers I’m really not thinking of the whole cohort of people born between 1945 and 1962 or so, but of the most visible subset of them, those of us who perpetrated the Great Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. My generation is often given, or appropriates for itself, credit for such noble works of the 1960s as the civil rights movement. But in fact we were too young to be much of a factor in that struggle, which was at its most intense from the mid-‘50s to the mid-‘60s. We saw it and experienced its effects, but we did not much participate in it, much less initiate or lead it. A person born in 1946 was only sixteen at the time of the March on Washington. Moreover, many of the most influential artists of the time—Bob Dylan and the Beatles, for instance—were not baby boomers but rather were born in the early ‘40s.
No, our contribution was to propagate, later in the decade, the gospel of drugs and sex. We did not invent it, but we (and again I am speaking of that active and attention-getting minority) made it our own, and, what is far more important, we institutionalized it.
When I started college in 1966 there were very strict rules that kept the boys and girls out of each other’s living quarters. Neither sex could pass beyond the lobby of the other’s dormitory, and the girls had a rigorously enforced curfew, which was arguably unfair but which had the effect of providing an informal curfew for the boys as well, because once the girls were locked up there wasn’t much for them to do. By the time my wife entered the same school in 1970 all that was gone, as if it had never been. And the drugs which a few years before had been the secret of a few hipsters were to be found in fraternity and sorority houses. And within a few more years society as a whole was being transformed and ravaged by the effects of promiscuity and drug addiction.
We were young fools, that’s plain enough. But the young are often foolish. The reason the population of old fools is about to increase greatly and abruptly is that so many of us have never admitted that we were wrong or faced the harm we did. Far too many influential people in entertainment, politics, and education now accept as normal and inevitable and even laudable a level of sexual activity among teenagers that is clearly doing them a great deal of harm, especially the girls. The response of these people to the risks involved is to push a cold-blooded program of contraception and “safe sex” which operates on the impossible and absurd premise that young people can be encouraged to give in to their urges but only after coolly evaluating the costs and benefits, like bankers considering a loan. (It is mostly women, I think, who push this, women who seem to be some horrid combination of bawd and schoolmarm—most men either don’t care or know better, while women understand the risk for the girls and utterly misunderstand the boys.)
I mentioned a while back my habit of reading Dear Abby. I quote from today’s column:
I’m 14 and my name is “Pearl.” I just found out that I might have chlamydia. I really like this guy and I need to know if I should tell him. What should I do? I am a little scared. Please answer soon.
I don’t think it’s too strong to say that those who do not acknowledge the relationship between the pathetic situation of “Pearl” and the great cultural shift of the late ‘60s are fools, and I think there are a lot of them.