Two recent connected media pieces got me thinking. The first was President Donald Trump’s tweet:” Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me 'old,' when I would NEVER call him 'short and fat?' Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend—and maybe someday that will happen!" The second was Tad Friend’s New Yorker essay “Why Ageism Never Gets Old.”
So ingrained is ageism in our world of advertisements for getting rid of wrinkles and gray hair, you might think the Korean leader was the one guilty of ageism for insulting Trump by calling him “old.” And actually Kim did insult the president, but not by saying he was “old”—Trump does not always report facts accurately. What Kim actually stated was that the president was a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” A dotard is not just someone who is old, but also one in a state of senile decay.
Is being called “old” an insult? When I was Trump’s age (eight years ago), I already considered myself old. Was I insulting myself for thinking so?
Leaving aside Kim’s thinking and the wisdom of two leaders exchanging insults like schoolyard boys, what first struck me about Trump’s tweet was the phrase “insult me by calling me ‘old.’” Is being called “old” an insult? When I was Trump’s age (eight years ago), I already considered myself old. Was I insulting myself for thinking so? Nope, even though there are others who think like Trump—an impatient young woman unfairly mad at me for delaying her rushing around in her car, once yelled “old man” at me. She did not mean it as a compliment.
Ageism is “prejudice or discrimination against a particular age-group and especially the elderly.” Both Trump and the impatient young woman demonstrated it by equating old age with an insult. (Trump often overemphasizes looks—“It’s very hard for them [some women] to attack me on looks, because I’m so good looking”—and demeans those whom he considers too fat or short, like calling a former Miss Universe, “Miss Piggy,” or tweeting about “liddle” [Senator] Bob Corker and reportedly telling associates he was too short to be secretary of state.”)
We progressives sometimes like to think of Trump as an outlier, far different from most of us Americans, Unfortunately, as I indicated a year ago and more recently this year, he is not so much an outlier, as a representative of the uglier side of our national character. The same side that overemphasizes making money and entertainment and dismisses scientific facts like evolution and the importance of human-caused global warming.
Over four decades ago, I wrote two works on aging and growing old and mentioned them briefly three years ago in an essay on myths related to aging. All three works alluded to ageism, but the recent New Yorker article indicates that this most common prejudice has not abated.
Consider some of the statements in Friend’s NY article. “Last year, Americans spent sixteen billion dollars on plastic surgery, most of it on fountain-of-youth treatments for wrinkles.” “Silicon Valley believes that bold ideas are the province of the young.” “The relatively new tech sector is generating enormous amounts of a very old product: ageism.” Mark Zuckerberg, who was “nineteen when he created Facebook, in 2004,” once stated “Young people are just smarter.”
Hollywood is not much better. Actress Kathy Bates stated, “One of the worst things you can be in Hollywood is old.” And a talent manager observed “that ageism in Hollywood has grown even more rampant because so much content is being viewed on younger-skewing platforms like Netflix and Amazon.”
Friend correctly points out that ageism is not just a current U. S. problem, but a global one that has been around for a long time. Yet in many ways it is still worse here than in most other countries.
Early on, we prided ourselves as being “the new world,” as opposed to old Europe. In the early twentieth century, Mr. Dooley, a fictional character of author Finley Peter Dunn, said, “I’m just as young as I used to be” is our national anthem and it’s a good one.” Presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy proudly proclaimed they were seeking a “New Deal” and a “New Frontier.” The new and the young have always been more popular with us than the old.
In the early nineteenth century, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville noted: “In the midst of the continual movement that agitates a democratic community [the USA], the tie that unites one generation to another is relaxed or broken; every man there readily loses all trace of the ideas of his forefathers or takes no care about them.”
Today, as Friend observes, the ties between generations are even more loosened by accelerating technological change—which is most prevalent in the USA. Already in the 1960s one of the heroes of the young, Bob Dylan, in his song “The Times They Are A-Changin,” told parents that their “old road” was rapidly aging and that their children were beyond their command. He advised them to make way for their sons and daughters and not to criticize what they couldn’t understand.
Friend writes, “In the nineteen-twenties, an engineer’s “half life of knowledge”—the time it took for half of his expertise to become obsolete—was thirty-five years. In the nineteen-sixties, it was a decade. Now it’s five years at most, and, for a software engineer, less than three.” In recent decades, as iPhones, GPSes, Facebook, Twitter, ebooks, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Skype, Amazon’s Echo, and Apple’s Siri have become part of our national life, many younger people believe that their parents and older people generally have little of value to pass on to them.
But that depends on which parents and which older people and what is considered of value. True, many older people are not wise. In general I think younger people were wiser than old people in voting for Clinton over Trump—with older people, it was the reverse. And the 71-year-old Trump (the oldest man ever elected U.S. president), is one of the unwisest presidents in our entire history.
But wisdom is more often found among the old than the young, and wisdom, including political wisdom and its attending values (like love, compassion, empathy tolerance, and humility), is greatly undervalued in modern times. Young people could significantly enrich their lives and their futures if they learned to value wisdom more.
At the end of his essay, Friend tells us that “ageism is so hard to root out” because of our fear of death. But we can try to “reprogram ourselves” by fostering respect for the old and “calmly accepting our inevitable deaths.” In my essay “Wisdom, Death, and the Transcendental: Beauty, Nature, the Arts, and Love” I offer a more detailed way of dealing with this great fear, as well as mentioning various values that can help us become more appreciative of older people, as well as our own inevitable aging process.