“You'd be surprised by what emotion makes people do." -- Brit Bennett, "The Vanishing Half"

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Too Old ... Too Cynical?

      Last week I attended an online presentation from Network 20/20, a group that hosts programs addressing various current issues. My wife and I have attended several of the sessions and found them informative and thought-provoking.

     This last one was called Is American in Decline: Challenges and Opportunities in the 21st Century. The two panelists were Paul Kennedy, age 76, professor at Yale University, and Jessica Mathews, age 75, of the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace.

     What struck me was not so much their take on the issues of the day -- Trump, Covid, Climate, China, the Middle East -- but their overwhelming negative view of the world. Democracy is in decline. Authoritarianism is on the march. War is looming on the horizon. Global warming is choking us to death. 

     They also seemed nostalgic for the better times of yore -- of Roosevelt and Johnson and Clinton -- when America led the liberal world order and spread the ideals of democracy around the globe.

     Then it occurred to me. Maybe Dr. Kennedy is Gloomy Gus, and Dr. Mathews is Debbie Downer, because of their age. It seems like a lot of us in our 70s pine for the old days when life was simpler and America seemed a better place.

     If you're conservative, you look through rose-colored glasses at the age of Eisenhower and Reagan. If you're liberal you dream of Roosevelt and Johnson, or maybe Kennedy and Carter.

     I admit, sometimes I fall into the same way of thinking. Sometimes, it seems, life was better back when we were kids. We walked to school and played in the neighborhood without fear of crime or kidnapping. Mom was home to fix lunch and dinner. Dad went to work and coached Little League on weekends. We didn't worry about money -- either we had enough or didn't care if we had enough -- and everyone wasn't so competitive.

     But then I'd remember. The reason we could run around in the neighborhood was only because we didn't live in the inner city. I'd recall the family that was killed in a car accident, in the days before seat belts and airbags. My mother had a dear friend who died of breast cancer, when medical treatments were much more primitive. I knew a kid with polio who walked with braces. There was the boy with learning disabilities who was shipped off to some institution, never to be heard from again. Our neighbors got divorced -- and at the time it was a huge scandal. 

     We didn't have China as an adversary. We had the Soviet Union, which was worse. Remember hiding under our desks for the air-raid drills? Then there was Vietnam, the assassinations, the race riots and more.

     Maybe life seemed better because . . . we were kids. But I can only imagine was life was like for people of color back in the '60s. Women were pressured into domestic roles that for many became stifling. Men were trapped in jobs they had come to hate. My older sister told me that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was her hero, because she really didn't want kids and she credits RBG as the one who finally came along and gave her the options of birth control, and abortion if she ever needed it.

     I'm not here to argue one way or the other about racism or abortion or any other "hot topic" issue. I'm only saying that people who think America is in decline have got it wrong.

     Crime is down. Traffic fatalities are down. Life expectancies are longer. Social Security and Medicare help keep us comfortable in retirement. Yes, China and Iran and Korea and Russia present their challenges. But we are not on the brink of annihilation as we were in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

     Sure, there's still racism in America, as there is in many other countries of the world -- but it's nowhere near what it was 50 years ago. I live in a suburb of Philadelphia. The kids in my neighborhood walk to school, just like we did a half a century ago. But there are Asian kids who walk to school, and African American kids and other kids who ... well, I don't know what they are -- presumably some mixture -- but I don't really care.

     Meanwhile, the girls are on a college track, not shuffled off to home economics. And, yes, everyone has been dealing with Covid for the last two years, and it hasn't been easy. But at least we have a new world of technology to help us navigate the challenges.

     I dunno. Maybe I'm too much of an optimist. Or, maybe I'm just not acting my age.


ApacheDug said...

While I admit I do fear for our democracy (that sounds crazy, never thought I'd say such a thing) I can't deny this was a great read, Tom. I enjoyed this twice, then forwarded it to a couple non-blogging friends. Thanks for the positive reminder. 👍🙂

Arkansas Patti said...

Sometimes I do get down not only by politics or world disorder but how angry and mean the average Joe/Josephine has become. The Asian attacks, the airplane fights, school shootings, road rage or just plain shootings do get to me. Part of what I love about today is the Internet even when it is the first to let me know every detail of human misbehavior. Still, wouldn't want to go back with out it.

DJan said...

As Patti says, we have a great digital community through the internet, and I for one would not want to lose it. The main difference I see these days is the sheer population of the planet has altered our lives drastically. Politics change, come and go, but the intense level of polarization is new, it seems.

Rian said...

I'm with you, Tom. I know we're facing some difficult challenges (all of the things you mentioned) and they are very real. But I too think we can overcome them (or at least I truly hope we can). Maybe that's naive, but I'd rather be naive, then negative.

And I'm 76 and do remember growing up without all these worries, but... nowadays all this 'news' is instantly thrown in our face by TV, the Internet, or our phones. It's bound to be a downer. But we have had some wonderful things happen too (as you mentioned), things that have made our lives easier, things that help us live longer, etc. And although racial problems, women's inequality, gender issues, etc. are still issues that need to be continually addressed.... they have gotten better.

What Patti said about how people seem to be angrier, that's true too. But although not condoned, the situations brought about by the pandemic have apparently 'broken' some. I don't know the answer to this.

Kay said...

Is it just technology that makes us know more about the terrible things that are going on? When we were growing up, we only knew our neighborhood and things seemed safe. Our parents didn't have to worry about us, and yet, I can tell you I encountered some unsavory people even then. I think we still have racism. It didn't go away, but people are being made aware that it's wrong and more people are fighting it. It's so hard to compare then and now.

Linda Myers said...

When I was younger we watched the news at 6 p.m. Now we are bombarded by it 24-7, on TV and laptops and iPads and phones. Everyone has an opinion, not just the experts. We sometimes believe the people we listen to, to our enlightenment or to our detriment.

I am an optimist by nature. I suspect the future, both near and distant, will bring us happenings we never could have imagined. When the Jetsons were on TV in the 60s, there were lots of futuristic gadgets, but not the internet - so unexpected and so powerful.

Tom said...

Thanks for forwarding, Doug, that means a lot to me. As for polarization, sure we have it, and maybe it's worse than ever, but as Linda says it's stoked and probably exaggerated by the 24/7 news people to boost ratings (Remember the old saying: "If you want to draw a crowd start an argument"), and let's face it, polarization in nothing new. Now we have the Proud Boys, but then we had the KKK. Now we have defund the police, but then we had the Black Liberation Army shooting and killing Brinks security guards.

Anonymous said...

Views of history through your eyes changes over time. Studies show that most people are nostalgic for life as it was 20 years ago, at any age. This is true for every generation. It is so important to listen and learn from all generations and impart wisdom across the generations. Now, today is no different for good or bad news and events. Democracy will fail only if we let it.

Anonymous said...

Couldn’t agree more. There’s much to be missed about times past. We had a civic pride, for instance. It came at a cost to minorities, single women, women with ambition, gays and so on. Today’s far from perfect, gun violence seems relentless and drugs are a blight. However, there’s more tolerance and legal rights for those who’d been ignored. In any event, it does no good to try to live in the past.

Wisewebwoman said...

It is what it is what it is. I loved your post Tom as I was having a bit of a downer day with The Plague and climate change. There was nothing idyllic in the past for us women who were oppressed and choice-free.

All political systems have issues but decency does prevail when fear isn't stoked by fascism and Qanon, et al.

I truly believe there's more decency in the world than evil. It will prevail.


Sheila said...

Today I was reminded how kind and caring people can be. Someone on Nextdoor posted about how she saw a family living out of their car, and she gave the last money in her wallet She found out that their car had a bad starter, the wife had just started a new job at Walmart, and they were homeless with three children (infant, toddler, schoolage). In just a few hours, people who saw that had the car towed to a repair shop, the starter was fixed, a motel room was obtained and paid up through December. Donations of food, money, clothing, diapers, and Christmas presents given all in the space of less than 24 hours.

All these caring people are from different political, religious and economic backgrounds yet they cared enough about a family in need to do all that. Makes me hopeful.

Fred said...

"Social Security and Medicare help keep us comfortable in retirement."
Tom you are correct about most of the positive improvements in life during our lifetimes. I have no desire to go back to the 1950"s. The one area I would quibble with is the above statement. We have known for many years that Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare were financially unsustainable. SS is the easiest to fix. Paying for Medicaid and Medicare have and will continue to impoverish future generations. While we may be comfortable our descendants will not be so fortunate. We Baby Boomers will be remembered for not having the foresight to address these issues in a timely manner.
Authoritarianism is on the increase across the world. We have seen this play out before in the early 1990"s. Many good Americans supported it then as they do now. Let us hope enough people remember history well enough to avoid two more world wars. Ignoring the obvious while we are comfortable could be quite disastrous.

Fred said...

That was supposed to be the early 1900"s.

Carol Cassara said...

Here's what I think. Life was better when we were too young to have worries and responsibilities.

Meryl Baer said...

I was always an optimist, but not so sure anymore. I wonder about the kids - my grandkids - who are aware and concerned about school shootings, Covid quarantines, and the divisiveness and nastiness permeating political life. My hope is that when it's their turn to rule, they can turn things around for the positive. I won't be around, but that's OK.

Tabor said...

Unfortunately, there is a militia movement that has promised a civil war if their candidates do not get elected in the U.S. They think everything is rigged and the only way to change that is through violence. I do not think this is doom and gloom but the reality of the times. Authoritarian governments are getting more aggressive and threaten democracies as well. It may not be the end of the world as we know it, but it is going to be a reckoning.

Carol Cassara said...

For me, it's about the overt nastiness that has taken over our public discourse. Even from public figures. It disgusts me.

Rebecca Olkowski said...

It's true that many things are much better now than back then. For one thing, I could never read a map when I was driving but now I can listen to my GPS. But some people who are on the news are trying to bring us back to those sad, racist days. They are trying to undo the progress we made and are hypnotized by a cult leader reminiscent of Jim Jones. I think voters saw through that no matter what side of the aisle they are on. Decency is back. We just need to cut through the muck to see it.

Meryl Baer said...

I am optimistic when viewing a world perspective, but less so when looking at my own country. I think we (the U.S.) have made some wrong turns that will be difficult (but not impossible) to reverse, such as the proliferation of violence and lack of gun control, and the drug crisis.

Randy said...

This is a great post. I think old is a mindset. Young is about optimism and aspiration. About being excited about the future. Old is about how things are going to crap. It isn't like it was and I don't like it. They like the past. On our street we have some young 90 year-olds who just bought a brand new house and are excited about the future. And we have some old 55 year-olds who are convinced that things are heading in completely the wrong direction.

My view is that we continue to make lumpy progress. Lifespans are up. Poverty is down. Social media is a bitch. But we've faced worse. Life is good.

Rita said...

Great article. You are such a good writer.

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