Wednesday, April 23, 2008
The Age of Reason
Question of the day: When did Western culture shift from privileging age to privileging youth? Socrates takes it as a given that "the elder must govern, and the younger be governed" (Republic 412c). But look at the discourse surrounding Barack Obama (and Kennedy before him): He's young; he's HOPE FOR AMERICA! (The most common criticism of him, of course, is that he's inexperienced, but that gets lost in the shuffle.) When did youth in and of itself become a positive?
I suspect it was during the Romantic era, with its elevation of childhood, or else during the 1960s, when age became a signifier of The Man. You can't trust anyone over thirty, after all.
This continued and expanded in the popular culture of the 1980s and '90s. Michael Medved (whom I usually can't stand) points out in Hollywood vs. America that films of the era--particularly children's movies--feature kids who are far more noble than their parents. Think about Disney's The Little Mermaid, in which Ariel is intelligent and open-minded, while King Triton is an unpleasant bigot who opposes interracial marriage. Family sitcoms of the era feature an idiot father and his brilliant kids, The Simpsons being the worst offender. (The only post-Cosby Show counterexample I can think of is King of the Hill. Hank is clearly the most level-headed and intelligent character, and his son needs a good deal of guidance.)
(When we discussed this earlier today, V. pointed out that most sitcoms are now vehicles for male comedians, who play up this boneheaded angle. But Cosby was a comedian, too, and he was never dumb on his show--he was silly, but he was a great father figure, the kind of father most of us would appreciate. I suspect part of that was that because it was a "black" sitcom that featured upper-class African-Americans, he felt he had to be an example.)
Asian cultures, we're told, esteem and revere the elderly. I wonder if this system is changing in Japan with the influx of American pop culture. The fact of the matter, though, is that age doesn't make you The Man and that authority is not necessarily a bad thing. I'd definitely rather be sixty than nineteen, which, as the Old 97's tell us, "is not the age of reason." No offense to the nineteen-year-olds reading this (and I know a good deal of intelligent and thoughtful nineteen-year-olds), but it's the age of confusion, the age of incompetence, or at least the age of inexperience. Plato was right: Let's let the aged lead us, and let's stop making youth something to hold onto forever.
Old 97's, "Nineteen"