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Ageism is getting old

Memo to fellow Dems: Respect our elders

Jeffrey Denny

As fake legend goes, in the 1440s, the Spanish “conquistador” Juan Ponce de León set sail for 5,000 nautical miles to find a paradise now disrespectfully called “Florida.”

Juan’s wooden galleon lacked the luxuries and lavish buffets of today’s Grand Princess cruise ship quarantined offshore due to coronavirus, but did offer more hardtack and scurvy.

His quest was not to discover/exploit the New World, but something more self-caring: To spa in the fabled Fountain of Youth.

Juan never got there, of course. But at least he inspired the Ponce de Leon Springs State Recreation Area northwest of Tallahassee, where we can relax and rejuvenate with birding, hiking, picnicking, swimming and snorkeling.

We also have a $500 billion cosmetic industry with galleons of products and promises to keep us looking smooth and dewy well into our dotage. The $80 billion fitness industry helps us deny the undeniable reality of aging, especially if we actually go to the gym.

Wanting to be forever young like Jagger never gets old. But don’t we also want to be old someday? I do. As the old They Might Be Giants song goes,

I think about the dirt/that I’ll be wearing for a shirt
And I hope that I get old before I die

Which makes me ponder:

How can “woke” Gen Z and Millennials openly grump about the gramps who would be president, freely expressing ageism? While cancel-culturing anyone uttering any hint of racism, sexism and other -isms?

Why are elders still fair game for stereotyping and ridicule?

Among countless examples, in a March 5 piece by the wunderkind Atlantic staff writer Derek Thompson headlined, “Sanders is too old. So is Biden. Trump too,” he writes:

When Joe Biden climbed to the stage in California to celebrate his Super Tuesday comeback in the Democratic primary, three things happened in a matter of minutes. He basked in the thunderous applause from the crowd. He mistook his wife for his sister. And he delivered the sort of confusing, intermittently slurry, and occasionally indecipherable oration that has defined so many of his recent public appearances. [bold-face added]

If this depiction of Biden doesn’t sound wrong, substitute the “he” for “she” or any other marginalized people. Yeah, it’s wrong.

Ageism not OK, Z

When Elizabeth Warren dropped from the 2020 presidential race, a crestfallen fan, 24, told the Philadelphia Inquirer she would only reluctantly back Sanders.

“I just don’t see why we need another old white guy who’s out of touch and who has never experienced any real kind of systemic hardships,” she said.

Bless her heart if she didn’t realize that “out of touch” is an ageist slam, and that Sanders, Biden and most older people have endured plenty of hardships in their lives.

Similarly, while the quip “OK Boomer” is an ageist condescending sneer against the 55–75 set, it’s tossed off blithely without question or sanction, often with a smirk.

But ageism is just as wrong as the other -isms.

“Ageism is the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of their age,” the World Health Organization says. “Overlooked for employment, restricted from social services and stereotyped in the media, ageism marginalises and excludes older people in their communities.”

The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act bars U.S. agencies from hiring, promoting, paying or firing on the basis of age. Legislation is pending to apply to companies and nonprofits. So, as a friend, 60, recounted, a job interviewer couldn’t say, “Aren’t you getting close to retirement age?” And another friend, 54, wouldn’t have to delete early jobs from her resume that while showing her experience and expertise, might age her.

Oddly, young Democrats sometime seem more ageist than their hated Republicans when it comes to presidents.

Yes, the liberal young love Bernie, 78, and many backed Warren, 70, while carping that fresh young candidates never had a chance. It’s complicated.

Meanwhile, Republicans, including their youth, freely love Trump, 72. Reagan, elected at 69, left the White House at 77 with declining acuity but even more respected — even deified.

In 2008, Republicans nominated the late John McCain at age 72, and Mitt Romney at 65 in 2012. Bob Dole was 73 when picked in 1996, making him the oldest first-time presidential nominee in history. Dole would have been the oldest president to take office.

Meanwhile, Democrats have picked the three youngest presidents in modern history, JFK, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.

The Trump young doesn’t care if “He stumbles, slurs, gets confused, is easily irritated, and has trouble synthesizing information, not occasionally but with regularity,” as a former aide recounts and everyone knows.

In the GOP, respecting elders and their proclivities seems par for the course. The GOP is, after all, the Grand Old Party. Why can’t Dems be better?

I get the complaints about the lack of diversity in our 2020 presidential choices.

Warren deserved a better shot. Older women have earned the greatest respect for what they had to overcome to achieve their recognized greatness.

Look at the latest Forbes World’s 100 Most Powerful Women,” with the lioness share of women over 65, and what they endured.

My all-time favorite leader, President Bill Clinton’s Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, won a U.S. House seat from Miami in 2018 at age 77, making her one of the oldest first-term Congress persons ever.

I also accept the narrative about how old white men have caused every bad thing that has ever happened since the dawn of white male humanity, so we’re long overdue for comeuppance.

Picking on grandfathers is especially acceptable if pops is barking about the dag-nabbed Democrat socialists and their brown immigrants while glued to the constant stream of Fox/Trump dreck from his broke-back Barcalounger. Not to stereotype, even if it’s definitely true.

But let’s also respect, reflect and recognize how the 65+, across race and gender, fulfill their democratic duty. Far more than the young do, as Bernie Sanders, who inspires and depends on youth enthusiasm, has acknowledged. On Super Tuesday, the under-30 turnout ranged from 10–15 percent. Even as the collegiate class complains that voting is too hard, more than 60 percent of people over 65 managed to cast ballots.

If the young have a problem with “out of touch” older people running the country, perhaps they could start with putting their passion and smarts to casting a ballot.

Ageism is a funny thing.

If you’re a racist, chances are you’ll never be a person of color, unless your Ancestry.com results have an ironic surprise.

If you’re a misogynist, chances are you’ll never be a woman, unless you go through the difficult transition process.

If you’re a nativist who hates immigrants, chances are you’re white and smug that your family got here from Europe “the right way.” Unless you recognize your bigotry and open your heart to the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning.

Most haters will never be the people they hate. That’s what makes hating easy.

Ageism is the -ism exception.

When the young slur the old, they’re daring fate, karma or the irony gods because someday, if all goes well, they’ll be old. Someday, maybe Atlantic’s wunderkind writer who freely slurred Biden for slurring will have the chance and humility to look back with embarrassment.

If we’re lucky, ageism eventually gets even.

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer.

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