Tuesday, June 28, 2011

THE OLD FOLKS AT HOME. Referring to his own essay at National Review, Matthew Shaffer tells readers of The Corner, "I encourage you to read the whole thing here, precisely because it’s a bad piece, in need of serious work — quite sketchy and incomplete." This at first endeared him to me, and made me wish his colleagues would similarly warn us when they were about to uncork a stinker.

Alas, I read the thing. Shaffer's self-evaluation is overly generous. His premise is that "America today is startlingly segregated by age relative to historical norms, a change that is as lamentable as it is unremarked upon." You can tell he's serious because he mentions C.S. Lewis several times.

He never explains why this "segregation" is bad, though -- or why it's segregation as the term is generally understood, since there is no evidence that the generations are being forcibly separated. Of course, by the modern terms of conservative victimology, Shaffer needed only to find people who felt freedom of association was working against them, as with the Big Hollywood guys' claims that their lack of Hollywood jobs proves they've been blackballed. Perhaps he should have strengthened his case with quotes from seniors complaining that the kids don't ever come over. Didn't he think to take a tape recorder to an early-bird special?

Shaffer supplies a list of malign influences leading to generational drift. Social mobility after the Second World War is one; Shaffer says it brought about a "change in the conception of home and property," which I suppose couldn't be helped, as no one had to foresight to throw the battle against fascism and thus avoid the socially disastrous post-War boom.

But naturally the New Deal made everything worse: "FDR’s Social Security used Leviathan to free the elderly from want" -- that is, codgers got cash and were not obliged by the threat of starvation or ill-health to take their kids' spare rooms, thus "freeing of duty the children who might have cared for them more holistically, and more humanly."

In a better, Social-Security-free world, the elderly would have been discouraged from relying on doctors and home-health aides for end-of-life treatment, and had their poultices applied by grateful progeny. As for those elders who didn't have children, they might have rotted in lean-tos or on the street, but they would at least have had the satisfaction of knowing their miserable deaths were not distorting the American way of life.

This is not entirely new thinking; Stanley Kurtz has similarly longed for an America without a safety net, so that out of economic catastrophes "a new set of social values could emerge" -- that is, we'd learn to eschew our former mobility because each family would need every member's contribution just to survive.

But Shaffer is even more ambitious than Kurtz, at least in the ringing of rightwing bells: Having unmasked the cultural menace of the New Deal, he lays into "the Sixties," which "took cultural authority from the elderly and gave it to the youth." In evidence he offers the heartbreaking fate of Yale students deprived of the company of their professors. (Or of the kind of company Bill Buckley kept with his profs at Yale -- I couldn't really figure out what Shaffer was talking about there.) Then he tackles that newer tool of Satan, the internet:
On the new digital globe, the generations are separate nations. A twentysomething trying to explain to his mother why, at the frivolous end, a video of an “Auto-Tune cat” is funny, or why, at the political end, his generation is resolved that it is taboo and a stigma to oppose same-sex marriage, will have as much luck as the Hawaiian natives had with Captain Cook.
Here I lost patience and wondered, first, how Shaffer knew, given the anonymity of the internet, that geezers are uniformly ignorant and suspicious of LulzSec and viral videos -- I'm quite an old dog myself, and I enjoy those things -- and, second, if Shaffer ever considered that different people might enjoy different things without suffering spiritual decay. That goes for old folks too; if grandma would rather watch reruns of Quincy than Portlandia -- if in fact she's grateful that she has a range of choices, instead of being limited to the quilting bee, the revival meeting, or rocking and whittling on the porch -- isn't it possible this is a good thing?

As usual, the idea of consent seems to elude these people.

Anyway: Shaffer has solutions.
Here are a few preliminary prescriptions to counter the problems of age segregation...

More people should die in their homes.
At first I thought he was longing for an uptick in fatal domestic accidents, perhaps to put the fear of God into people, but it turns out he just doesn't like hospices and such like. Also, "Grandparents should be more involved in raising their grandchildren" -- they should stop spending their time at the senior center, or on vacation, or working as greeters at Walmart, and go home; while Mom is cooking and the kids are playing video games, they can set by the fire and rail about how in their day TV was in black and white.
To counter age segregation, and because of economic-demographic realities, we should improve employment opportunities and incentives for seniors.
Since they're already taking care of the kids, it looks like the grandparents aren't going to get much of a retirement.
Churches especially should be skeptical of the efficacy of youth services... Even if they did increase youth attendance, that would not be worth the alienation.
This seems like a recipe for empty churches, as the elders will probably be too exhausted after their double-shifts at child care and senior employment to attend services. Or maybe in their misery they'll be psychologically driven to embrace religion anew. It worked with slaves!

Why is it that their solutions always seem to make things worse?

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