The Wisdom of Old Curmudgeons

The bad reputation of elderly curmudgeons is well known: angry guys raging at the declining world, their failed, decadent society, the younger self-centered generation, the crooks elected to public office, and the local trash pick-up dictatorship forcing the sorting out of bottles and newspapers. At the risk of being outed as one of those guys, I have some comments to make: maybe those aspiring curmudgeons of our age now need to pay more attention to the future than the past.

I first got interested in generational comparisons when I was in high school. I was friendly with a man who was born about 1883. He complained about the decline of reading among children, no doubt responding to a new competitor at that time, television (this was 1948). I wasn’t impressed. My friends and I read a lot. Abe Lincoln’s reading selection–Shakespeare, the Bible, and great classics–was probably better than his. I once asked my mother, born in 1895, whether she thought life was better or worse than it was in her era. She instantly answered with “better now.” That was in 1940 and I never heard her explain why, but I can guess.

Consider the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries with which my mother overlapped. It was the era of the robber barons, great economic inequities, continued lethal segregation in the south, and considerable poverty and squalor in many places. The nastiness among politicians was even worse than ours. Stephen Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, made a compelling case that violence has gradually declined over the centuries. Global poverty is decreasing. Good progress has been made on seven of the eight 2005 United Nations Millennium Goals, including literacy and women’s rights, and reducing hunger and child mortality.

While every diligent curmudgeon can find something to complain about and harken back to earlier days, life has probably become better in more rather than fewer ways; at the least it is a draw. The future is a different story, and the wise curmudgeon–always looking for something to grouse about–should turn his eyes in that direction.

 The one area where the U.N. Millennium goals have not shown progress is climate control, steadily getting worse not better. While not Millennium goals, the same trend is true of global food and water resources, chronic illness, and obesity. No assured way out is envisioned for any of them. In the sphere of foreign policy, no good pathway ahead is seen for the Middle Eastern countries, caught up in ever-escalating sectarian and political clashes. Who foresees at the moment a satisfactory solution to the Israeli-Palestinian clash? Then there is China and the U.S., and one does not have to be of a hawkish temperament to see a troubled future gathering steam. Russia under Putin is not a comforting thought either.

But at a more domestic level I have my own grumbles about current trends, likely to dominate the future. Three of them stand out: a decline of community, the growing economic inequality, and for want of a better phrase, good taste. By the decline of community I mean a growing insensitivity to poverty and welfare needs. Two currents are coming together. From the conservative side it is market freedom and distrust of government. From the liberal side it is the right to live the unencumbered kind of life one desires with ethical values of one’s choosing. It is not a good combination. It is destructive of social solidarity and the understanding that life with others is one of chosen captivity to the need of others, many of which require the sacrifice of our liberty for the good of others. Marriage is one of those captivities, raising children is another, taking care of elderly parents, and a willingness to pay high taxes for the well-being of others is still another.

Inequality is my second complaint. It is not just the fact of income inequality, but the embrace of it as an economic and community benefit. It is said to be good for people to be free to make as much money as they like, an expression of a self-chosen life. It is good to have such people in our midst, a model for the young on getting ahead and depending only on oneself to make it. We celebrate celebrities, the entrepreneurial billionaires, the highly paid corporate CEOs. My local paper, The New York Times, nicely mixes in plentiful stories about them with no less plentiful stories about the unemployed and the homeless.

But at least the Times does not allow too many four letter words in its pages, though it has more than it did a decade ago. But utter crudity of language is now pervasive on regular TV and even more on cable channels. It is now thought cute to have children speak as much potty talk as adults. Soft porn is now the norm as well. All this comes from the cohabitation of the market (it sells) and liberalism (an expansion of free speech is always a good thing).

I do have some nostalgia for the days of yore when it was still possible to talk about “good taste,” that grey area between ethics and etiquette. We middle class kids were taught to have it. Nice men treated women in certain ways, just as we all were taught to respect the old. Good table manners were expected, and we were informed that one should not interrupt others when they are talking. No T-shirts at funerals. If you are not sure quite sure what I am talking about, you may be part of the problem.

Darn it, as we used to say, I have probably succeeded in persuading you I am an old-fashioned curmudgeon. We always talk too much.

Daniel Callahan, 83, is co-founder and President Emeritus of The Hastings Center and an editor of Over 65.










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