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the age of ageism

We went to see a friend of the family in downtown Cairo and I was shocked at how she had reinvented herself as a younger woman. She’s 71- and nobody commented anything about ‘acting your age’. The old get to do what they want- including being younger in appearance- none of that subtle tyranny of teenagers here.

Ageism is in reverse in Egypt- everyone is desperate to be grown up and an adult. There is no advantage in being genuinely young at all (as opposed to looking 'younger' ie. healthier)- you just get kicked around and can’t be trusted to work. And you get paid nuts when you do get a job. You have to be polite to your elders or you get a smack on the head. Being young sucks.

Except amongst the tiny westernized ‘elite’ who speak English and mimic the sentiments of the ‘decadent’ West – I live in a ‘posh’ (ish) neighborhood- it’s the only place in Cairo I’ve seen vandalized cars and ‘ghetto’ style spray painting. In a real slum people are far too sensible to waste money on expensive aerosol spray paint.

Ageism is several things conflated which makes it a confusing subject. First there is the unavoidable fact of physical aging. It happens to everyone and that’s that. However it also provides external signs which can be used as a badge of seniority or, the reverse, a sign of being ‘not young’.

This has relevance to the notion of ‘being looked after’. In the ‘undeveloped world’ where there is poor state provision of health and schooling, people most commonly want to grow up and be competent and strong. In our world, where there are brilliant (by comparison) schools and hospitals, people (to generalize) still yearn to be looked after. This desire can appear as its reverse- so it’s confusing.

Young people 'reject' society, but this is a symbolic rejection (a real one would be going off and starting a new life somewhere else) rather like the 7 year old who packs his suitcase preparatory to 'leaving home' after an argument with dad over TV watching. The rejection serves in reality to more clearly designate 'the parent figure'. Our desire in the West to make parenting less authoritarian results in some kids 'pushing' their mum and dad until they get the angry authoritarian response they desire- the one that means Dad's in control, I needn't worry.

The James Dean rebel without a cause posture- new in the 50s, fairly familiar now, is set up conventionally as a boy rebelling against authority. But in fact the childish games of james are really a reflection of the immature need for a strong father to ‘take care of him’. He seeks out Buzz- who might fill that role- and then himself becomes the pretend ‘father’ of the girl and the scooter kid when they hole up in the deserted mansion. The funny thing is, this film seemed really lame when I saw it aged 16, but later viewings grip me much more strongly.

Why is prison so popular these days? Someone takes care of you. I envisage a new kind of prison where men are sent out alone into a vast area of the tundra after having been on a survival course. Those that make it are released…I jest...

Back to ageism. Rejecting those of a different age group- be they younger or older reflects this covert desire to set up a group designated: ‘parents’. Parents are usually older so the two- aging and parenthood get conflated- except they are different.

The desire to maintain this mythical ‘parent group’ long after you have left home is a sort of cult behaviour. Instead of embracing equals, co-conspiritors and brothers one seeks to orientate oneself towards the group who will look after us.

Except it doesn’t exist. Not even a wonderfully eloquent new president who looks and sounds like the ideal modern dad can make it exist. He’s winging it just like the rest of us.

(Tip for a man entering politics: project the image of ‘brilliant dad’ and watch the punters vote for you. This must explain the success of early Blair and Boris and the failure of Brown.)

I am fascinated by ageism, attitudes to age and ageism throughout the ages. What’s so bizarre is that it’s the one indisputable fact about all of us- we will get older and die. But for something so indisputably part of life- a huge number are in denial about it. Imagine people pretending they didn’t have to eat…eating in private and giving people who munch in public a hypocritical hard time. Imagine people pretending they never go to the lavatory. I suppose the nearest we get to this strange denial of aging in ourselves is the Victorian denial of sex. The closest a ‘young’ person comes to acknowledging they will age is to admit it happens to others. I use ‘young’ in inverted commas because when I was younger I always thought youth TV, youth books, youth mags as incredibly trivial and insulting. I wanted to grow up and be like all the other grown ups in history! I still do!

Yet the most annoying aspect of ageism is being co-opted by ones age equals into the game of ‘being old’. My friend Steve is brilliant about this. When I attempted a humorous line about deteriorating eyesight he brought me up sharp, “That’s old talk man!”

My main theme, here, is, however, the great insight provided by Arthur Deikman MD (The Wrong Way Home- Beacon Publishing) which is: that ageism is actually an infantile urge to want to remain ‘looked after’.

This insight hit me, in the words of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, ‘like a diamond bullet between the eyes.’ (I will return to this film reference in a minute): in the developed West a good number of us want to be ‘looked after’ for ever. The simile used by Deikman is the feeling of being on the backseat of the car being driven home by mom and dad in the evening – you are sleepy and totally trust them to get you home. But wake up and smell the coffee, or the burning oil- there isn’t anyone driving! You’re not a kid anymore. And never ever will there be someone taking care of you. This fantasy is so deep rooted we unconsciously seek out authoritarian figures even if we have to misbehave (insult a cop today) in order to get reminded of it. We seek out corporations to take care of us- in return we sacrifice our marriages, kids, independence- for what? All these are instances of cult type behaviour- which may find its most extreme form in people who want a cult to take care of them and be like a family, but actually it is all around us in the simple refusal to accept that life is about growing up so that you can take care, not only of yourself, but of others if you have to. I often think of an off the cuff remark by the Russian philosopher Gurdjieff- a real man can support 15 others…

Remember Dennis Hopper as the journalist in Apocalypse Now (knew I'd get back to that film)? “He’s a big man, I’m a little man,” he says of Kurtz. But that is part of the same fantasy as ageism- that somehow we can abdicate being fully human and dream of being ‘looked after’ by the ‘big men’. Even nice big men like Barack Obama.



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