My Father, the Boomer

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My dad’s an interesting guy. I like him for the most part, but we’ve had our rough spots over the years as any kid would with their folks. But sometimes we end up talking politics (I know, I know); sometimes he initiates, sometimes I do, sometimes it just happens as I try to make small talk about my future as a person who was never issued bootstraps to pick themselves up by. (The Gen X-ers got the last of ’em.)

He doesn’t see this as small talk, though, which is really the fundamental difference between our generations, I think. For a Millennial, chatting about unemployment and being up to our eyeballs in debt is normal and casual conversation. To a Boomer, it’s TMI. I either get pity (instead of sympathy) or I get unwanted advice (often incredulous).

These two broad categories of reactions are expressions of the fundamental experience of being a Boomer. Namely, that they are both extremely hierarchical ways of looking at people and at problems. Pity and sympathy do not mean the same things. I like this explanation from in response to someone wondering what the difference is:

Sympathy and pity have a synonymous convergence, but also diverge in some respects.

In addition to its meaning of pitysympathy can refer to a special kind of understanding that two or more people share.

“I had a special sympathy for Martha’s desire to excel in math, since I too loved math and wanted to see someone from our family do well.”

See? No pity involved. The word actually comes from the Greek for “with feeling”. It means to resonate emotionally with someone else. It can also be an acoustic term. Push down the sostenuto pedal on a piano and make a loud shout, preferably singing. You will hear the piano strings resonate faintly. This is called “sympathetic vibration.” That is a direct physical analogue to the emotional resonance I’m talking about.

That resonance, that quality of similarity and understanding, is key to what sets sympathy and pity apart. You can’t sympathize with someone regarding an experience of theirs that you have never had, but you can definitely pity them for it.

The unwanted advice is, to me, more straightforward. First off, giving advice when it’s not being asked for is just plain rude, especially if someone’s venting to you about their frustrations. What you, in effect, are doing there is disregarding their feelings and focusing on the circumstances of their situation that you position yourself as being better equipped to fix and seeking to validate that feeling. In other words, it’s a self-important reaction to have when someone’s just trying to talk to you as an equal. The uncomfortable stratification this creates is even further emphasized when the advisor is older, more monied, or just benefits from more privileges than the advisee. (F’ex, a white person trying to give a black person advice on how to cope with racism. Not cool, right?) In my case, it’s my extremely financially stable father trying to tell me how easy it is to find work; the implication here is that his assessment of the job market is correct and mine is wrong, so I need to do something different… i.e. not be lazy.

But it’s when we start talking about economics and the environment (they’re completely interdependent, remember?) is when things get kind of funny. And I sometimes find myself, well, pitying him.

Being a Boomer and a conservative (most Boomers are, anyway), he is fully on-board with the “greed is good” doctrine. Yes, he’s a fan of Ayn Rand. To him, a financial system without greed isn’t just impossible, but he literally cannot wrap his head around how such a thing would work even in theory. Greed (monetary gain, to be more specific), as far as he’s concerned, is the only thing that has ever motivated any human being to do anything.

“But people do things for no money all the time.”

He never knows how to respond to this. It’s such an obvious part of existence–doing things because its the ethical thing to do, the pleasurable thing to do, the healthy thing to do, etc–and yet he can’t see it when it’s shoved in his face. Entire non-profit and volunteer organizations cease to exist when he starts talking about this fantasy Rand-land of his. His hobby, too, ceases to exist– after all, nobody pays him to hike up mountains and yet he still does it for some reason?

Greed, by its very nature, stratifies. It positions the self at the top and everyone else at the bottom. End of. I tried talking to him about the feasibility of small-scale horizontally structured societies of the like that anarcho-syndicalists talk about, but he was promptly distracted by a strawman. He can’t even imagine a world where there is no top and bottom. It’s a logical fallacy to him, and a debate can’t continue unless this concept ceases to exist even hypothetically.

We talked about developing countries, too, and the worldwide rate of open defecation, which is something close to 50%. “Can you imagine having to poop on the ground outside all the time?” he asked, eyes wide as though he were asking me to imagine something actually fantastical like elves and dragons.

You can tell when someone is completely unequipped to talk about the reality of the near-future where energy is due to become scarce again, like it has been for the vast majority of human history. When you can’t imagine yourself without constant access to running, potable water? I’m sorry, but you’re fucked. If you can’t imagine it, you can’t normalize it. If you can’t normalize it, you’re going to go your whole life trying to stay as far away from it as possible, always to be the reality for someone else. It’s not “no one should have to live like that”, it’s “aren’t we so lucky we aren’t them?” And should you suddenly find yourself to become that someone else, that “them”, it’s a crisis of tremendous magnitude. Not a fact of life.

He kept conflating anarchism with communism, which was very silly, but I asked him what he thought of Revolutionary Catalonia anyways, and he didn’t have an answer. He’d never heard of it.

“It’s just outright collective lunacy to me to think that we could have infinite growth on a finite planet.”

“What do you mean by “infinite growth”?”

“GDP? Debt? Credit? Fiat currency? Inflation?”

“Those things have always been around.” His use of the word “always” here is an obvious misnomer.

“Oh come on. Capitalism as we understand it has been around for barely a century or two. All the world’s previous economies were understood to be made up primarily of goods, not assets.”

He got distracted by a strawman again at that point.

But he also contradicted himself, I can see now. He claimed that the environmental, governmental, and financial problems the world is beginning to run into have always been around; that they are a product of natural societal cycles. But at the same time, he fails to recognize that civilization collapse was also part of those cycles, and somehow believes that capitalism, which has not always existed, is capable of saving us from such a thing. So are we, or are we not, just going ’round the wheel here?

I told him, too, that I want to get to a point in my life where I’m living debt-free. I want to get out of the system, and I want to stay out. I want to see how far cash can take me in life. He couldn’t understand this either, trying to convince me that investing and gambling and making my money “grow” was just the logical, natural, 100% free-range, organic thing to do. I just want to pay off the debt I have right now and never be in over my head ever again, I said. He looked at me like I’d grown another head. Fuck credit, I thought to myself.

That’s my dad, though. Completely unable to comprehend a society without hierarchy, without class, without poverty and crippling debt. After all, somebody’s gotta be in charge, right? And somebody’s gotta be there at the bottom who the rest of us can exploit, right?

I read a blog post the other day, while searching for a little information about the existence and production of organic bananas, written by someone who is ardently anti-organic and pro-big ag. Reading the author’s reasons for avoiding organic produce and hormone-free animal products was like being transported to a dream-world where up is down and 2+2 is 5.  Logic like “America is the best country on earth”, “pesticides are a good thing”, and “rBST is natural”. Who the hell is this person? The daughter of a Kansas cattle rancher, indoctrinated since birth to trust the the government, the GMO lobby, and the beef industry like a blind person with a service dog. The offspring of a midwest conservative Boomer. Point out to me where it says in the bible that God made greed and saw that it was good?

What people like my dad and this random blogger have in common is one very important thing: they are the average USian. Their opinions reflect a starling majority, shaped by decades of propaganda, “rugged individualism”, and blissful apathy. Born in the early 1900’s, they would have been right at home. But it’s 2015, and now they’re just that Looney Tunes character who has run off a cliff, held aloft only by the power of their ignorance.

Maybe someday soon they’ll be forced to look down at the air under their feet and only then will they start to fall.