Coronavirus Diary (2): Against Ageist Fascism

I shouldn’t have to make this point in this, our post-Auschwitzean age, but just a quick PSA, FYI: age-based genocide (or even malice or discrimination) is immoral. And PS, a pandemic is not the time to be wishing death on the elderly. Call me crazy, but there’s no good time to be wishing death on anyone. And yet I’ve seen more than one instance, on Facebook and elsewhere, of people’s expressing genocidal or near-genocidal sentiments about the elderly. Genocidal sentiments aside, there’s been no shortage of ageist malice for “Boomers,” or “old people.” Paraphrase of a rant I saw in the comments section of a local newspaper:

The Boomers raised our rents, gouged us on tuition, saddled us with debts, dragged us into unwanted wars, pay us crap wages, and vote the wrong way: so good riddance to them; may they all drop dead.

Substitute “Jews” for “boomers” or “the disabled”  in rants of this sort, and you have the logic of the Final Solution-by-viral-proxy.

No, I’m not exaggerating:

Ben Heslop was, until recently, a Facebook friend of mine, not that I know him all that well (and not that I want to). He made abundantly clear in the conversation that followed this post that he wasn’t joking. No, he’s entirely serious: he thinks the elderly are, on the whole, politically right-wing; given that, it’s legitimate to wish death on them en masse via the coronavirus. I don’t know whether the factual assumption he makes here is true or false (i.e., that the elderly are on the whole right-wing), but the further inference is a repulsive non-sequitur, one that merits being called out in public. A person who wishes death on millions of people can hardly complain if his reputation suffers as a result.

I generally don’t unfriend people on Facebook or single them out on my blog over purely ideological disputes, no matter how extreme. That includes people who have views at odds with mine on military and medical issues, as well as on issues of law enforcement and the like. I’ll talk to hawks and doves, advocates of M4A and advocates of MSAs, cops and anarchists, anti-abortionists and pro-choicers, vegans and meat-eaters or animal experimenters, climate activists and climate change skeptics, etc. People sometimes hold views on these subjects that I regard as perversely wrong-headed or even delusional, and in some cases, that strike me as likely to cost innocent lives and freedom. But I also grant that I may be wrong about what I take to be true. And even if I’m right, it doesn’t follow that my interlocutors are culpably wrong. Even if they’re culpably wrong, it need not follow that our disagreements are reason enough to cut ties with them, or to cancel, boycott, or dox them.

Not that I’m against cutting ties, canceling, boycotting, and doxxing when need be. One eventually has to draw the line somewhere. I draw the line at anyone’s calling for the deaths of or wishing death on the presumptively innocent for aims that are gratuitously disproportionate to any conceivable offense on their part (whether true or false), obviously indiscriminate in effect, and/or proposed (or engaged in!) in a way that takes pleasure at the prospect of innocent death. People who use a pandemic as the occasion to call for their version of the Final Solution deserve to be called out and have their reputational faces ground in the dirt until they sincerely recant.

An article by Tomas Pueyo about coronavirus is making the rounds online. Here’s the crux of it:

The coronavirus is coming to you.
It’s coming at an exponential speed: gradually, and then suddenly.
It’s a matter of days. Maybe a week or two.
When it does, your healthcare system will be overwhelmed.
Your fellow citizens will be treated in the hallways.
Exhausted healthcare workers will break down. Some will die.
They will have to decide which patient gets the oxygen and which one dies.
The only way to prevent this is social distancing today. Not tomorrow. Today.
That means keeping as many people home as possible, starting now.

I’ve italicized the seventh and eighth sentences because they have a certain personal poignancy. Within days, my brother and sister-in-law,* both physicians in north Jersey, will be on the front lines of this war. As I sit at home in comfort, teaching online classes, they’ll be driving themselves into exhaustion and risking contagion (and in principle, death), to save the lives of strangers.** They won’t be saving progressive or conservative lives, or Republican or Democratic lives, or libertarian or socialist lives, or Millennial or Boomer lives. They’ll be saving human lives, without asking after the sectarian designations or demographic descriptions of their patients. I’d like to think that they won’t have to make the kinds of age-based decisions that the Italians are now contemplating–the stuff of nightmare scenarios out of bioethics textbooks.*** But they might. The difference between them and the Ben Heslops of the world is that triage would in their case be a very last resort taken in the worst throes of crisis, not a grotesque source of celebration for the elderly lives lost to it. 

We can’t expect medical laypersons literally to save lives, except in the indirect sense of trying our best not to spread the coronavirus. But we can expect them to acknowledge the moral value of others’ lives at any age (or level of physical or mental ability), and to respect them accordingly. People unwilling to take that perspective on others–people who go out of their way to express contempt for the elderly or disabled–are neo-Nazis, whatever they call themselves, and whatever “progressive” sounds they seem to emit.**** We have to combat the coronavirus, true–but part of combating the coronavirus is combating them. Without indulging in the luxuries of malice and rancor, we systematically have to push these newly-emboldened neo-Nazis of our cultural milieu to the margins of social existence. We have to flatten the curve they represent in our political life, and create the social distance from them that justice demands. I don’t know if that will save lives, but it’s the only way to preserve a culture in which life is worth living.

Thanks to Alison Bowles and Michael Young for conversation that helped in thinking this through. Thanks especially to Alison to sensitizing me to the frequency with which ageism gets a free pass in common discourse. (Thanks also to Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals for doing the same thing.) Hat-tip to Susan Gordon for some of the links.

*And at least indirectly, any number of friends. And a cousin. And another friend. And another. Apologies to all the people I’m forgetting, or couldn’t find online. And thanks to people offline who have recounted stories about the work that their friends and family members in health care are doing to prepare for combat. When I get the chance, my hope is to write up some profiles of health care professionals, somewhat on the model of Chris Sciabarra’s famous 9/11 series at Notablog.

**Already two (American) emergency room physicians are in critical condition, one of them in Paterson, New Jersey. One doctor is in his 40s, the other in his 70s.

***Thought-experiment: what ethical judgment do we render on one of these people if (or when?) their actions result in the mass death of the elderly? Should we then stigmatize or stereotype their whole generation, and wish a plague upon it?

****I don’t happen to call myself a “progressive,” but I don’t take Heslop to be typical of progressives, and don’t take myself to be making a comment about the left, or progressivism.

13 thoughts on “Coronavirus Diary (2): Against Ageist Fascism

  1. “I don’t know whether the factual assumption he makes here is true or false (i.e., that conservatives are on the whole right-wing)”

    I think “conservatives” is a mistake there?


  2. This morning, I disagreed with a young woman on the issue of whether it was appropriate for a member of our group to offer to take over the care of a Ragdoll cat in need of a home provided that she would not be charged a fee for the animal. The young woman took on an unpleasant tone, insisting that it was inappropriate to suggest that she not pay for the animal.

    I told the young woman that I thought her tone was unnecessary because I didn’t think it an unreasonable proposition in the slightest. After all, the woman was offering to take the cat for free, she would then be paying for the cat’s food, litter, and medical care, all of which adds up. Were I in the position of trying to find a good home for Hugo, I would be very grateful to anyone who would take good care of him. I certainly would not need any money. Her tart response was ”You don’t give a ragdoll away for free.“

    I said I would do so. By itself, this negated her assertion. Her response to me was “OK, Boomer.”

    This person was, judging by her Facebook page, a woman in her early to mid 20s. I could ascertain that she was a Bernie supporter. Beyond the obvious hypocrisy here, she felt it necessary to make reference to my age as if that had to do with anything that we were talking about. It was clearly meant in the pejorative.

    Nobody ever says this — “OK boomer“ — to Irfan. One has to assume that this woman looked at my Facebook Paige, saw that I am a 50 something-year-old white woman with blonde hair and blue eyes, and felt it OK to make reference to my age in response (as if that had anything to do with anything). Besides my age, I don’t know what other assumptions she made about me as a human being.

    But I get treated like this all the time. I deal with young clients who attempt to cheat me, who don’t want to pay my relatively reasonable rates, who don’t care to honor signed cancellation agreements, don’t honor attendance policies, and who, in their work with me, say some fairly outrageous things about the older generation.

    The reason my husband had to be sensitized to this is because it never happens to him. Nobody says “OK Boomer” to him. Yet, he’s only five years younger than I am. What’s the difference between us? He’s a man, I’m a woman. I don’t know, let’s think about it, but who of the two of us do you think is more easily devalued in our society? He is also younger than I am. Again, who is more easily devalued in our society?

    I only wish others could place themselves in the shoes of older women who have to constantly deal with the profound lack of respect displayed by the younger generation. Let’s face it, one generally never stops being a woman (emphasis on generally).

    There’s a limit to how much one can take, and I think Irfan is realizing just how common this position is. I’ve known for quite some time.

    Although I’m not happy about how he is learning this, it helps to know that he is aware of what I’m dealing with.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, I’ve never denied that there is ageism out there, or made excuses for it. Also never participated in any generational war against anyone. But yes, its virulence, frequency, and shamelessness is a shock. You’re not the only person who has brought this issue to mind, incidentally. My dissertation director, Alasdair MacIntyre, was the first. The issue of disrespect for the elderly a major theme in one of his books. It’s also something that my colleague Awilda Perez has brought up, and some others as well.

      But I’ll admit that it’s been a steep learning curve, similar to the one I had to climb in order to learn the significance of cat-calling. It wasn’t until several different women in several totally different contexts–New York, New Jersey, Italy, Palestine, Pakistan–brought it up in the same way that it really gelled in my mind. Some things are hard to believe. Growing up in a Pakistani milieu, and with my maternal grandmother in the house, the idea of “Americans’ disrespect for the elderly” seemed like some kind of ethnocentric myth my parents had cooked up. Since I’d never seen cat-calling happen in front of my eyes, it seemed hard to believe that it happened as often as it did if you took me out of the equation. But then, you’re talking to the guy who, when he was 12, had trouble believing that poison ivy could possibly be poisonous. So I found a patch of it, and rubbed it all over my body to “see what would happen.” I figured it out! (I also wondered what would happen if you grab a snake’s head. Turns out you get bitten.)

      Correct, no one has ever said “OK, boomer” to me. I find it such a childish way of speaking that I have trouble believing that anyone could mean it in a serious way. But evidently they do.

      What I don’t think anyone should do is retaliate against one kind of ageism with another kind. We don’t need to replace “OK, boomer” thinking with some anti-Millennial or anti-some-other-generation variant. What we need to do is to insist that ageism is a bigotry on par with racism, sexism, homophobism, etc. Then we have to insist that it be treated the same way. A generational war is as pointless and irrational as a race war or a class war–or most wars. We seem to have lost any sense in our politics that human beings share common interests and have to advance them through in the political arena. That’s why we find ourselves fighting ourselves while COVID-19 advances on us. I find it strange that the country entranced by “Game of Thrones” can’t figure out what’s happening here. The White Walkers are a week away. Meanwhile, assholes like Ben Heslop are obsessed with who gets to sit on the Iron Throne. No throne can save us, you assholes. It’s the lust for thrones and power that put us in this predicament, waiting in dread for creeping death.


      • I don’t disagree with you. In fact, I’ve been pretty clear that most of the time I’ve found this attitude typical of Bernie supporters or those who consider themselves “woke“ or the radical left, not all young people. This is why I have been rather disgusted with the Democratic Party. I went out of my way on Facebook to complement my cousin’s daughter, Lexy, precisely because she doesn’t behave this way. And I made clear in that post, which I think you read, that I don’t believe all young people behave this way. If I did, I’d be making the same error they are making. Unfortunately, if one works in New York City, one encounters a lot of them.

        I should make clear in the event I haven’t that I have plenty of young clients who do not show me this type of disrespect. And so when I become angry at members of the younger generation, I’m not speaking about ALL of them, but a particularly nasty subset. What is unfortunate is that they don’t appear to be a small subset. Or, perhaps they are just so vocal that it seems there are more of them than actually exist. I couldn’t say.

        You know that I am a big admirer of today’s young figure skaters. If I generalized my reactions to ALL young people, I would not be so complimentary nor would I pay much attention to this other group of young people. My focus is often on their achievements, on how inspiring I find those who work as hard as Nathan Chen or Bradie Tennell or Yuzuru Hanyu. They clearly understand that life is a competition and they have to earn their way, that nobody is there to make it easy for them. They clearly understand that it’s up to them to work hard. Additionally, it also appears that they like to work, and don’t appear to mind earning their way. They don’t feel entitled to gold medals; they feel entitled to compete for gold medals. And they show nothing but respect for each other and for the older people they work with. Nothing is more admirable in my opinion. It is young people like this who are our future.

        We could theorize as to what has happened to this other subset of young people, and ask ourselves what has made them so hostile to the elderly, but we would need to be specialists and neither of us are. All I can do is react to what I’m dealing with and when it’s particularly unpleasant and disrespectful, I do my fair share of ranting. It would be nice after having paid my dues for so many years to have some end to the disrespect I suffered as a young woman simply walking down the street minding my own business. But it seems that when one is a young woman and pretty, she gets one form of disrespect in the form of cat-calling and the like, and then when she gets too old to “deserve” cat calling, it becomes a different form of disrespect and devaluation. Neither of these is pleasant to endure on a daily basis. It does have its effect on one’s psyche.

        And you know – – without me going into personal details – – that I have been very generous and complimentary of young people in my personal life who I respect and admire. The idea that I am at all generalizing about an entire generation of young people is not consistent with my behavior.

        I hope this clarifies my position to your satisfaction. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

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  4. This “kill the elderly” (and by implication, “kill those with illnesses that predispose to disability or death from COVID-19”) trend seems to be getting worse, not better:

    Putting aside the strictly moral issues here, it’s remarkable how the earlier wisdom, especially among right-wing scoffers, of not trusting epidemiological models (heir to “don’t trust climate change models”) has now been replaced by a completely unargued faith in the predictive value of economic models. From “don’t trust the climate scientists’ doomsday scenarios about global warming” to “don’t trust the epidemiologists’ doomsday scenarios about COVID-19,” we’re now being asked to trust the economists’ doomsday scenarios about the economic consequences of rigorous social distancing (or physical distancing, or whatever one wants to call it). How is it that economics has managed what climate science and epidemiology allegedly have not? What has changed between 2008 and now that warrants that inference? I don’t have the expertise to comment intelligently on any single one of these disciplines, but if caution is warranted on climate change and COVID-19, then surely caution is warranted on predictions of economic collapse.

    Vernon Smith:

    I believe the economy today lives in suspense, not free-fall. The pandemic will pass; public health institutions have been a model of forthright dissemination of information on the spread of this disease and sanitary procedures to minimize its impact. It’s the citizenry that has been unruly for a time. Supply chains will refill and stabilize quickly, as the pandemic passes, securities markets will recover, and growth will continue to reduce poverty everywhere. Homes are more valuable than ever as a haven of safe and secure living. Provided that we continue to buy them with some of our own money, homes will be part of a secure future.

    I don’t have enough expertise in economics to know whether that’s right or wrong, but given the source, it certainly deserves as much consideration as the views of some of the fascist assholes now pronouncing on the topic.


  5. Pingback: Coronavirus Diary (17): Geriatric Oncology during COVID-19 | Policy of Truth

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