Friday, May 13, 2016

The Narcissism of Youth

For awhile in early April, the Twitterverse was steaming over a satirical poem in the New Yorker by long time contributor, Calvin Trillin, a man widely known for his opinions on barbecue.
The subject of the doggerel was the popularity of Chinese cooking by province among trendy foodies. But never mind that.
The uproar was over racism.
Mr. Trillin is eighty years old and white. His record as a writer is long and distinguished and carries with it no hint of racism.
But the Tweeters don’t know about the comet’s tail. All they see is the leading edge of today’s burn. And they see it through the lens of their own, quite sharp, prejudice.
Against old people.
Ah, the narcissism of youth. Could we have a society without it? Could we go to war in any corner of the planet at a moment’s notice without the supreme belief of youth in its own immortality? Could ISIS find an endless stream of suicide bombers without young people willing to die before they have lived?
Youth values its own preferences, inflates the accuracy of its own perceptions, magnifies its own power for change and the purity of its vision. All this even though the human brain doesn’t reach maturity until its possessor is 25.
Through the lens of narcissistic youth, an old white man is by definition racist. Just as he is by definition entitled. (Except for Bernie Sanders, who gets a pass on both, for some reason.)
Racist is an easy epithet, with an infinite capacity for expansion as the actions it can be applied to multiply. Institutional racism is hard to see by those it doesn’t affect. Small wonder those who are affected feel the need to point it out. And they should. No argument, there.
Even Mr. Trillin’s defenders say that someone his age just can’t “get” the complexities of today’s vastly different world.
But don’t the young always think their world is unique? Didn’t you and I think that? Don’t we reinvent the world with each generation?
It’s true that gender is parsed now into variations my cohort could scarcely imagine at twenty, much less name. It’s true that technology creates what feel like miracles while suggesting possible nightmares to come.
It’s true that human beings grow up carrying the scars of mistreatment so subtle and pervasive that the people dishing it out often don’t realize what they’re doing. And older people are among the worst at failing to realize this. After all, we remember separate water fountains and Selma, Alabama in the present tense. Racism, for us, was segregation--and lynchings.
We have husbands who were shot at in wars they were drafted to fight. Children like us sheltered under our 3rd grade desks, practicing for the day nuclear war began. Sexism was the shape of reality.
No human being, anywhere, faces a life or world without challenges. Removing institutionalized injustice is a worthy goal, a lifework. But it’s no excuse for casual ageism in the process.
Older people can be partners in change. After all, they can see the issues unfurling, mutating over time. They have perspective and, often, considerable sympathy, although they may not say the right words to convey it. Sensitivity to today’s terminology is hard to come by once you leave academia.
Our president addressed the problem recently, when he counselled a campus group against oversensitivity to verbal slights.
Finding anti-Asian racism in doggerel that pokes fun at New York foodies smacks of the very oversensitivity Obama talked about. Among other things, it siphons off the energy needed to confront real wrongs. And there are more than enough of them.
As for ageism, most of us AARP-eligible folks just want to be seen as the people we are, not a stereotype. We want our work judged on its own merits, without reference to age.
It’s hard for a writer like Trillin, or, indeed, any writer to find humor in the midst of today’s fractionalized consumer culture and polarized political atmosphere. But one thing we older people know about life is that you’ve gotta, at least, try.
(You can read the poem for yourself at

(This column ran in the Fayette County Record on April 29, 2016.)

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