Monday, August 04, 2014

Aging gracefully

"At 15, I set my heart on learning. At 30 I knew where I stand. At 40, I had no more doubts, at 50, I knew the will of Heaven. At 60 my ears were attuned. At 70, I follow my heart’s desire without crossing the line.”—Confucius

Although I am increasingly reluctant to watch news programs on television—one can stand to see only so much bloodshed and tragedy—, I still have the habit of watching the evening news on PBS or one of the three networks I knew as a child: ABC, CBS or NBC. Watching the network news stations entails seeing a good deal of advertising. Watching which products are advertised with the evening news makes it clear that the networks have learned what kinds of people watch their news programs. Almost all of the products advertised are aimed at the so-called Baby Boomer generation, the folks who are most likely in the market for Viagra or Cialis, or products that ease the pain of post-menopausal sexual intercourse or arthritis or that relieve the symptoms of enlarged prostate or leaky bladders or indigestion, or products that minimize the effects of osteoporosis, or products that hide or eliminate or prevents wrinkles or double chins or bags under the eyes. The advertising one sees on the network news suggest two social trends that are separate from one another but collectively somewhat troubling. One of the issues is troubling to many older people, and the other is (or ought to be) troubling to everyone.

To begin with the social trend that is troubling to many people over the age of 60 or so, there is a perception that young adults do not know what is going on in the world. Some years ago I taught a course in reasoning and critical thinking, one of the required core courses for all undergraduates at my university, and one election year I decided to focus on the quality of argumentation found in political campaigning and in the official platforms of the various political parties (Republicans, Democrats, Green and Libertarian). In one of the first classes of the semester, I asked the class how many of them read the New York Times. None. Los Angeles Times? Wall Street Journal? Christian Science Monitor? USA Today? The local newspaper? None. Well, I thought, perhaps newspapers are not as popular as periodical news magazines, so I asked how many students in the class read Time Magazine. None. Newsweek? The Economist? Foreign Affairs? Mother Jones? The National Review? The New Republic? None. Well, I thought, perhaps students prefer watching television—although I had seen a Pew Research Center report that young adults were far less interested in television than their parents and grandparents were. So I asked how many students watched news on ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC or C-SPAN. None. Finally, not having named a single news source that none of my students would admit to using, I asked where they went to get information about what is going on in the world. Students began calling out their favorite sources of news, almost all of them sites on the Internet. Of the sources they named, I had heard of only two: Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and The Colbert Report (both of which I had watched for a few minutes before flipping the channel to something that seemed a little more promising).

As the semester progressed, it was apparent to me that most of the students had a pretty good idea of what was going on in the world, combined with a fairly poor idea of where anything in the world is located and an even worse idea of what happened in the world before last Tuesday. With a few exceptions, their general knowledge of history and geography seemed to range from mediocre to abysmal, but they did seem to be acquiring fairly good information about current affairs. It’s just that their sources were mostly unfamiliar to me, just as my sources were unfamiliar to them. While somewhat discouraged by the general lack of knowledge about history and geography, I could at least feel encouraged that they were not consuming the deeply biased reportage that one finds on Fox News and MSNBC, although they were consuming the strange blend of reportage and entertainment that one gets on the Comedy Central programs. All things considered, I think I came away from the experience somewhat less alarmed by the younger generation than many people my age—I was born in 1945. On the other hand, I did not manage to convince many of my age peers that there is no reason to be alarmed by how uninformed today’s college freshmen are. (I learned it did not help at all to remind people of how ignorant and uninformed we all were when we were eighteen and nineteen, way back in the early 1960s. I can still recall, albeit with acute embarrassment, that when I, at the age of 18, picked up Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, I thought the story was unfolding in Africa. Perhaps I thought that because the novel is about, among other people, Sikhs, and the only Sikh I had ever met came from Uganda. It is now almost beyond belief to me that I ever could have been so abysmally ignorant of geography that I thought Pakistan might be in Africa, but I am guessing I was not alone in my generation in my general level of geographical ignorance. It is easy to forget at the age of 60 that one knew considerably less at the age of 20.)

While I am not particularly worried about the quality of information that the younger generation in particular is consuming, I continue to be alarmed at the very poor quality of information readily available to Americans of all ages. It is increasingly difficult for anyone of any age to sort information from spin, fact from prejudice, news from entertainment, and programming content from commercial advertising. American culture, not to mention the many cultures influenced by Americanism, has long been venal and consumerist. It is difficult to assess whether it is becoming more so than it was in the nineteenth century, but it certainly is not becoming less so. There has been considerable advancement in technology, but very little if any advancement in sophistication, culture or civilization. Collectively we remain imbeciles with ever smarter toys.

The second social trend that I’d like to comment upon, the one that is (or ought to be) troubling to everyone is the increasing refusal of Americans to age gracefully. Physical conditions that have always been associated with aging—lower libido and decreased fertility, slower metabolism, a general decline in the efficiency of all body parts, including all the internal and external organs—are increasingly being seen as diseases. They are given names such as Low Testosterone, Erectile Dysfunction, benign prostatic hyperplasia, and the names are abbreviated to easily pronounced phrases such as Low T, ED and BPH, and for every one of these conditions there is a raft of pharmaceutical products (most of which, as noted above, are advertised on the evening news), all of which have side effects that are arguably more serious than the “diseases" they are designed to cure, side effects that are written in print so tiny that no one over the age of 40 can read them, or spoken of so rapidly and in such soft tones that no one with any degree of hearing loss can understand them. American has produced a generation of elders that have replaced wisdom, perspective, experience and sagacity with a neurotic phobia of gray hair, white whiskers, baldness, wrinkled skin, sagging chins, baggy eyes, flaccid penises and dry vaginas.

People get old (except for those who die young). That is what happens when they stay alive for several decades. And as they get old, their bodies change. Instead of accepting and even celebrating those changes as an intrinsic part of life, American culture has chosen to revile those changes and turn them into opportunities to sell yet more unnecessary products. And then we complain that the younger generation does not respect us. Why should the young respect the elderly, when the elderly do not gracefully accept the natural occurrences of old age? As Confucius said, “If you would be respected by others, you must first respect yourself."

We saw above what Confucius said about the course of his life. That was how old men in China saw things twenty-five centuries ago. The modern American septuagenarian says, “At 15, I was prescribed Ritalin. At 30 I was given Prozac. At 40 I began using Grecian Formula. At 50 I began Botox treatments. At 60 I required Enbril. At 70 I followed my heart’s desire with a little help from Viagra."