Passing the Torch

I went to bed on the evening of March 3rd with the radio tuned to the BBC World Service. I’m a light sleeper at best, so from time to time, I heard snippets of the Super Tuesday results. Biden won Virginia, Sanders won Vermont: these were not shocks to me. I drifted off. Around 4 AM, I heard that Biden had won a plurality of the delegates on offer. I was surprised that he won Massachusetts. I was more stunned that he was leading in Maine. It’s been a good night for the former Vice President; the campaign has crystallised into a competition between him and Bernie Sanders, and then with Donald Trump.

In many ways, this is a profoundly depressing set of events. America has never been more diverse than it is now. There are plenty of young people with world-changing ideas; I think the success of the American economy has more to do with this attribute than any tax cut bill that Washington has passed. Yet, the political system is churning out leaders who are probably more acquainted with the hits of Ethel Merman than Beyoncé. All three, Trump, Biden, Sanders, are septuagenarian white males. No matter who wins, the White House kitchen will likely need a supply of prunes and glucosamine. All three are part of high-risk groups for the coronavirus, particularly Trump, whose recent trip to India punctuated by healthy vegetarian cuisine could only provoke a chuckle at the thought of him being made to consume lentils.

I am not speaking from a position of cocky youth: I’m middle aged. My tired knees make a tearing sound sometimes when I ascend the stairs. The hair on the top of my head is long gone; however, this has been replaced by a thick forest of it in my ears. The mornings are more difficult than they used to be and require more coffee. Going to the gym is harder and more painful. Modern music often sounds to me like a car crash involving a van full of electronic instruments. I have caught myself saying on occasion, “Kids these days…”

But it is precisely these qualities that clearly tell me that people like me and older should loosen our grip if not let go of it entirely. The future should belong to those who have more of it ahead of them. Perhaps one of the most inspiring speeches ever made was by President Kennedy during his inauguration in 1961; a particularly memorable line was his statement that the “torch had passed to a new generation of Americans”. It felt like when Obama triumphed in 2008 that this had happened again. But in 2016, it was promptly handed back to the previous crew: this would have happened even if Hillary had won, but it was significant that it went back to an old, white male, a living, breathing symbol of the anger that many white males presently feel.

If anything, this retrograde step has become more pronounced since 2016. Much of the so-called “populist” phenomena is to do with older white males and what they want. They feel the world has slipped away from them: in their memory, or rather that of their fathers, they recall a world in which one income, derived from the man, could support a family and a middle class lifestyle. That man didn’t necesarily need a college education. That man could expect to work for the same company for 40 years and retire with a comfortable pension. There were darker sides to it, such as the treatment of minorities, the subservient role of women in the household, the veneer of hypocrisy covering all manner of sins including domestic violence. Also, much of that world was based on the consumption of cheap oil, an unsustainable state of affairs.

However, when white males marched in Charlottesville, they demanded a return to these fictional halcyon days. They believe that the diversity of today and those who dare speak its name are obstacles to overcome to get back to that era. Some of these white males, such as the extremist who murdered Jo Cox and the one who ran down Heather Heyer, don’t care if people are killed in the process. It is notable that they also tend to deny climate change.

Lest I be accused of describing a phenomenon solely on the Right, it says something that major figures on the Left in recent years are also of the same generation. Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders differ in many significant ways, but generally speaking they want a return to the social democratic consensus of the 1960s and 70s, in which state ownership was common, higher taxes and public spending prevailed, and less of the globalisation which has taken a wrecking ball to the stable working patterns of the 1960’s and 70’s. There are elements of high-tech glitter around the edges of their respective prospectuses, but the underlying principles remain the same. Because we are so far removed from this era, it seems thrilling and new to people who have no recollection of having such security in their lives.

To clarify, it is not always bad to hark back to the past: in general, I agree with Sanders and Corbyn that greater social protections are needed more than ever, particularly in a world which features the gig economy and high tech labour. Nevertheless, the past seems to linger like a miasma floating around our political systems, threatening to choke democracy as it puts power in the hands of people who are disconnected in time and status from those it puports to represent.

Perhaps the clearest symbol of the disconnect of the generations is Greta Thunberg. I am inspired by her. I think it’s wonderful that a young person is taking such a vital interest in ensuring the future of the planet. I am glad to see that there are more young people stepping forward who are just like her. I believe she and her generation will undo a lot of the damage that my generation and previous ones have done, if only we let them.

However, many older white males are enraged by her. An oil company in Alberta made her the subject of an extremely offensive cartoon. Trump has trolled her. This makes no sense. How is the most powerful man in the world, how are supposedly tough oil workers, threatened by this wisp of a teenage girl?

The reason, I believe, is that she reminds these men that the future doesn’t belong to only them or even mainly them. Youth will have its say, and she points out the fundamental truth that we are operating in such a manner that may not leave a future for youth to inherit. The angry responses are one long “how dare she, the world is ours”, laced with a lot of profanity. She merely brushes them off, often times with a humour beyond their comprehension. Perhaps she knows she is wiser than they. Perhaps she also knows that theirs is the reaction of someone who has been reminded that they are no longer young, and thus their horizons are limited.

Quite frankly, speaking as middle aged white male, I’m fed up with us. Perhaps we need to be reminded that we are not all or even mostly geniuses nor gods, and the best legacy we can leave is the good we do for our families, our neighbourhoods and our friends. An equally positive legacy would be to yield to youth and accept that change is inevitable. When that acceptance comes, perhaps some of the populist nonsense and its resulting hatred and violence will fade. Perhaps then, we would also leave a legacy of tolerance and wisdom. If not, it’s worth remembering that we are all on one long walk towards sunset; youth will have its say, even if it has to wait until twilight.

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