I suspect that most people would find me bad company – Lord knows I would. I criticize or denounce just about anything that everyone else believes or – worse than believing – takes for granted. I insist on questioning the most widely accepted values and treat things that give others comfort or even joy – religion, entertainment, political ideologies – as nonsense to be refuted. As a result, I offend everyone sooner or later. Doesn’t that sound charming?
One of the unquestioned values of American society (I cannot call anything American “culture”) is the value of youth. Youth is thought to be desirable, beautiful, and creative. I have scoffed at this belief in the value of youth for at least four decades.
First, even half an hour’s honest reflection on the memory of one’s own youth forces one to admit to having behaved foolishly almost all the time or, on those occasions when one behaved reasonably or perhaps wisely, to have done so by chance. The choices and decision of the young cannot be wise because the young can foresee only a tiny fraction of the potential consequences of each choice. They who make decisions without weighing as many of the consequences of their action as possible might turn out to be lucky, but they cannot be wise. Nothing can be learned from the example of such a person. Youth is necessarily ignorant and therefore given to folly.
Second, the beauty of youth is after all shallow and meaningless. There is nothing to be learned from clear skin, firm flesh, or plentiful hair. But the beauty of old people –
think of Dominique Sanda --
or of Sean Connery --
whose willingness to age honestly, without the supposedly age-defying self-mutilation of plastic surgery, has given them faces not only still beautiful but full of the power born of having lived, faces that manifest self-respect and therefore command the respect of others. We can learn much from the beauties of age.
Third and finally, it is absurd to place value on something you can only lose. Only that which is attainable can be a source of value, and no one has ever or will ever grow younger. All we can do -- and must do if we are lucky -- is grow older. Youth is fleeting and ephemeral; it is not something to value. It is absurd – if it isn’t madness -- to hold youth in high esteem.
The other day I had as a passenger in my cab the young fellow who lives next door to me. He is a friendly, considerate, attractive, and intelligent young man. I found myself grinning while we drove because it seemed that he would comment on the sexual allure of at least one man in every block we passed. And when he talked about the people whom he was on his way to visit, he would describe their sexual prowess or their sexual endowment. I kept grinning to myself because I remembered being young and gazing after just about every moderately attractive man I saw in passing. The first and foremost fact about any man I knew was always his sexual allure. And I grinned because I simultaneously realized that no such thought had passed through my mind in quite a long time.
I smiled to think what a relief it is that sex just doesn’t matter to me that much anymore. I also smiled because I had been reminded again that I had once been a different man than I am now, a man moved by different passions, professing different beliefs, and worried by different problems. Life had once been a matter of different needs and different obstacles from those which now force me onward and block my path.
Is the illusion of continuity and of identity through time, the sense, that is, of selfhood and individuality, really only an illusion imagined and not a thing perceived? Do we find in our memory of ourselves only those moments that correspond to the now in which we are living while we cast a blind eye on all those things in our past which are alien to that which we at this moment believe ourselves to be?
I notice another difference between my young neighbor and myself, something more deeply rooted, more significant, and powerful than mere sex. He is a creature of his electronic tools to a degree that is not merely foreign to me but is actually a source (for me) of alienation and disdain. I watch him as if across a great distance that I feel divides me not only from my neighbor but from all of his contemporaries as well. And in conversations that I have had with others of my age, I find that they feel the same: we find that "kids these days" seem to focus their attention almost exclusively on their communication and computing devices and to ignore the people, places, and things in the real world around them.
Interestingly enough, my work driving a taxi gives me opportunities to listen in on conversations among members of the younger generation, whom I think of as the app-addled or mobile-mad. I can think of a couple of occasions when I discovered things about how they regard smartphones, tablets, pads, etc. On one of those occasions I happened to remark that many people do not want to have smart phones. Such an attitude mystified the young man with whom I was speaking. Why on earth would anyone feel that way? To him the dislike of and refusal to use these devices seemed unimaginably irrational. On the other occasion another young man said that he preferred using apps on his phone to making a phone call to do the same thing (such as hail a cab, order take-out, and the like) because he just did not like having to talk to a person. In both cases our brief conversations ended with comments by my young interlocutors that people who do not like smart phones and apps are old and will die out fairly quickly anyway. Thus we dinosaurs go unheeded: we are not, after all, a valuable demographic for manufacturers and service providers to consider.
I had the great good fortune of taking courses on the art of film in my freshman year at college. I remember that when we studied German films of the early twentieth century, in particular Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympiad, the professor remarked that the movies made in Germany during those decades, with their yearning for Wagnerian heroes, seemed to be preparing the country’s psyche for the Nazi ideology of Aryan superiority. So for the last 40 years I have been looking at the box-office hits, the blockbusters, the mythic tales being told in our movies and asking myself for what future were we as a society preparing.
First came the disaster movies, e.g., “Airport!” and “The Towering Inferno”: taken together, they provide the blueprint for the attacks of September 11, 2001. Then came “Rambo” and the endless string of Schwarzenegger muscle-heroes, from “Conan, the Barbarian” on down, all quite hysterical if understood as descendants of the campy ur-gay Hercules (and Jason, et al.) movies of the 1950s: these willfully violent "heroes" seem today to be clearly the inspirational myths for all the mass-murdering gunmen from Columbine to Sandy Hook to ____________ (fill in the blank from this morning’s news). Those movies in turn morphed into the “Terminator”/“Matrix” genre of "the-machines-take-over-the-world" stories.
These last are becoming our social reality today. As I will lay out in the near future, iphones, Google glasses, and smartphones are indeed taking over our lives. The only difference is that in the real world these machines are not independent creatures but rather the tools of corporate capitalists and of the government. These technological toys are in fact instruments of social control being turned against us by people who, for my money, might as well be machines themselves.
The day of the jackal, indeed.
O yes – and let me close by reminding you that Mussolini defined fascism as “the perfect marriage of the corporation and the state.”
The true patriots are named Manning and Snowden.