Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Tiptoeing through the moral minefield of the young

     Sympathizing with yourself, or with those exactly like you, is not the laudable exercise of virtue that some seem to imagine it being, but ordinary selfishness disguised as morality. The trick is to have compassion for those different than yourself. 
     That’s much harder.
     None of this was in mind last week when an old pal showed up at the newspaper shepherding two dozen Canadian college students: bright, attentive multi-cultural kids bristling with enthusiasm.
     At first.
     Then I spoke.
     In my defense, I had asked my friend: What should I talk about?
     “Just be you,” he replied. Bad advice.
     This being Chicago, I figured, start with corruption. Start with Ed Burke, the lion of the City Council, hauled away by the feds last year for trying to jam his hand too far up the goose that was a bit too slow laying the next golden egg.
     “The scandal is what’s legal,” I said. They nodded. Condemnation is good.
     But finding fault in others, like lavishing sympathy on yourself, is too easy. The media is also part of a compromised system, I continued, influenced by proximity and the need for access. 

     Everything was swimming along. Maybe a bit dull, because my pal offered an idea:
     “Tell them about Barack Obama calling you from Africa,” he said.
     Sure! He had called to complain about something I wrote. I eagerly told the story, blundering into the briar patch of race, gender, and class. I could see them souring, one by one. The more I tried to twist free, to extricate myself, the deeper I sank.       Afterward, a few wouldn’t pose with me for a group photo. As if I were radioactive.
     Later, I asked my friend what had bothered the students most.
     I had, he replied, described women who stood on Cicero Avenue and exchanged sex for money as “hookers.” And newborns scourged by cocaine as “crack babies.” Instead of, I assume, ”sex workers” and, geez, I don’t know, “babies with special needs due to in utero narcotic use” or some such thing.
     The famous “cancel culture” we’ve heard so much about. One strike and you’re out. Big among college youth, trying to fight bigotry by unconsciously imitating its methods.

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  1. So some of them wouldn’t pose with you for a group photo. So what? Why should you care? Young and rude and treating you as if you were radioactive because you said "hookers" and "crack babies"...seriously? I bet you were also close enough to see the eye rolls and hear the sighs. First time I've ever heard of “cancel culture” so maybe I'm just an old geezer who's totally out of touch. But one strike and you’re out? That I know about. If that's what "college youth" are into, and are fighting bigotry by being bigots themselves, then the hell with them.

    You tried being nice to them, and in return they pissed on you. Probably, given the chance, they would have called you dumb enough not to come in out of the yellow rain. At least you were not vilified, critcized, and crucified (as the evil old white guy) on the Twitter cross.

    Hell, why not return their scorn? You did nothing wrong. You made yourself feel bad for no reason. They condemned you for the crime of being 59, and found you guilty of possession--of too many birthdays. You are what you are and that's all that you are. Or ever will be. You're being much too hard on yourself, Mr. S.

    If you think it's rough now, wait another 10-15 years, until you're a true geezer I'm old enough to remember a line from Simon and Garfunkel's "Old Friends"--which came out when I was roughly their age: "How terribly strange to be seventy." That milestone seemed light-years away. It wasn't. Those fifty years shot by, much too fast. And I certainly remember that line from “Hair”, too.

    If those students truly gave a damn about strangers, or cared about evil and social injustice, they'd have been a helluva lot more polite. But they weren't, because they don't. They were just self-absorbed twentysomethings, trying to make themselves feel better by being condescending to an almost-sixtysomething, whose very age makes you beneath them.

    And no, that won't improve the world one bit. It just is what it is...and it's certainly nothing new. It's the way of the world. I was 21 when Michigan Avenue was a battlefield over age and class and culture and politics. Nixon and Reagan, and their ilk, were about the age you are now, Mr. S. And I despised them at least as much as these kids despised you, and probably more so.

    What you experienced was being called "The Generation Gap" in '68. That divide hasn't gone away and it probably never will. It's just one of many divides now, so it gets lost in the shuffle of all the others. Same stuff, different decade...and century.

  2. What you described doesn't sound as bad as it obviously felt. It's not like everyone refused the group photo. Those that didn't, I can understand - in today's world with an internet that remembers everything, why take a chance with someone you're uncomfortable with? An online world that never forgets contributes to "one strike, you're out" justifications.

    It's no cause for despair. You have decades of writing ahead of you, and while you may have only one writer's voice, it's not like it hasn't grown over the years and can continue to do so.

  3. You did nothing wrong. I grew up reading you, your fine. Once you sent the email/apology and received no response, that about sums it up. But I do wish I could have been there.

  4. I don't understand. I thought Canadians were supposed to be nice. In any event, your apology seemed misplaced. You did a friend a favor and he didn't seem to reciprocate by coming to your defense.

    The frustration implied in your headline brings to mind what others have famously said on the subject. The first Earl of Chesterfield noted in a letter that "young men are apt to think of themselves as wise, as drunkards are apt to see themselves as sober."

    And Mr. Thurber concluded one of his Fables for Our Time with this wise maxim:

    "The saddest words of pen or tongue,
    Are wise words wasted on the young."


  5. Perhaps ageism is the last remaining socially acceptable bigotry.

    Though there are apparently certain individuals eager to revivify other forms.

  6. I’m not sure that declining to be in a group photo merits such a curmudgeonly reaction :) If you let that start this early...

    To be fair, if they were put off by you, and it was for the reason your contact believed, I don’t think that reflects all that badly on them. They apparently found your words dismissive of “those different than yourself.”

    “ A bigot dismisses all qualities of a person based on one quality he finds damning.” If that one quality is an immutable or physical one, that’s inexcusable. If it’s based on the words out of their mouths, that’s fair game. I’ve never thought age was a good reason to not stop using terminology offensive to those it refers to, once aware of that.

  7. "trying to fight bigotry by unconsciously imitating its methods."
    Thank you for that elegant and mordant description.

  8. My niece, a veteran of the Occupy movement, is something like that I'm told. The closer you come to matching her ideology of the moment, the harder she strikes, "How dare you come within sight of the promised land and not grasp it wholeheartedly." But she gives me a break for no reason that I can discern, while she excoriates her mother mercilessly for her wrong thinking. She also lets her dad slide, apparently as a long lost cause due to his love of Limbaugh.


  9. Hookers I can't guess at but crack babies are more likely to be black than white, so maybe they see racism there. If a pregnant white woman snorts cocaine in the suburbs we don't generally hear about it but black women use the same drug and look out, it's time to get excited and point fingers.

    1. I would think there is more racism in your assumption than in the phrase itself. I would assume, demographics being what they are, that most babies affected by cocaine were white.

  10. “Crack baby” is not a race-neutral term. Did you also mention super predators and welfare queens?
    I wasn’t offended by your language, just trying to figure out why the youngsters were offended.


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