I'm older now but still runnin' against the wind. ~ Bob Seger and The Silver Bullet Band
Did you ever go to a class reunion and feel everyone in the room has moved on except you?
Recently, on separate occasions, I met with old pals, mainly guys, who like me have gone through the sixties sex-dope-'n'-rock'n'roll scene and its street-fighting politics. Once, we marched, fought neo-Nazis hand to hand and hurled ball-bearings at police horses riding us down.
We're middle-class, now; some comfortable, some not so. But what strikes me, painfully, is how, with age, several have moved to the right, grown conservative or war-hawkish or both. They've matured, while I seem to be stuck in the same old boring groove.
The so-called aging process, plus a steadier income, which wised them up, just makes me dig in my heels. I'm still way too in touch with the irresponsible teenager I used to be -- who ran around with Crayola scrawling on the windows of St Agatha's church and B'nai Shalom Israel synagogue and Chicago Tribune, "BANISH CAPITALISTS FROM THE EARTH AND GODS FROM THE SKIES!"
I hate ruining friendships over politics. But there are only so many "dangerous" subjects you can avoid, no matter how hard you try. It really does get sticky. Examples: the English Labour stalwart who's gone apeshit at "the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism", and also thinks that student protesters, of which he was one once, should get "kettled" and spanked. Or the ex-socialist writer who gets into my face with the "not rising, but risen tide of Islamic jihadism!" Or the former Israeli leftwing kibbutznik who's now a fanatic Milton Friedman free-marketeer. The ex-student organizer who thinks Julian Assange should be shot at dawn. A former civil rights hero who's become a Zionist triumphalist. And so it goes, especially on the third rail of American politics, Israel.
With E.M. Forster, I believe friendship vastly more important than ideology, so backpedal, cowardly, from fights. Anyway, who am I to talk? Over time, I've grown incredibly more cautious and conservative. Don't talk to me about violent street crime or "Call of Duty" video games (street crime by proxy) or rap lyrics ("Me So Horny, Put Her In The Buck!") or ear-blasting public noises in general. I've even wobbled on capital punishment -- though, in light of California's over 700 inmates on death row, have returned to my younger self who identified with the caged criminal not the robed judge. On the other hand, I've no problem about US special forces tracking and killing American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, or wherever he is, urging jihadists to murder us.
What was it Emerson said about consistency being the hobgoblin of small minds?
In general, I'm talking more about my male than female friends, who -- I could be wrong about this -- have stayed the course more resolutely or stubbornly or blindly, depending on your bias. It seems to be a male thing, this turning. Sorry examples of once feisty types getting crabbed and conservative in their later years include Kingsley Amis, John Osborne and John Braine, as well as Saul Bellow.
In his January 2008 inauguration speech, Barack Obama quoted scripture, urging us to "put aside childish things" (Corinthians 13:11). We now know he meant we should do the adult thing and run like hell from full-frontal confrontation with those who intend doing us great harm, like corporate outsourcers, White House job-killing economic advisers, CitiBankers, hedge-fund speculators and Paleo-Palin Republicans. Conceding the high ground even before it's contested is Obama's signature move, even more than his famous basketball layups. I guess he was asleep in Bible class (Judges 15:8) when Samson slew the Philistines "hip and thigh".
Picasso once said, "It takes a long time to become young." It seems so counter-intuitive not to harden yourself and become "realistic" as you grow up. To be a youthful radical is forgivable, to be a flaming red in middle age merely embarrassing. We're not living any longer in grubby, anything-goes communes, where Jimi Hendrix once reigned supreme. There are social obligations, the family unit, polite gatherings where you're expected to fit in and not make unruly noises. You let guests get away with murder because, well, why make unnecessary waves?
Worst of all is the amnesia. The old, vibrant, militant frame of reference dims and grows mentally muzzy. It becomes difficult to identify with the new because so much of it seems puerile and... juvenile. Mark Zuckerberg? Katy Perry? Vampires? In one form or another, we've been there, so the young must learn what we learned: you compromise, go easy, make deals, settle for less. That's life.
But is it?
I don't much believe in role models, in the same way I don't believe in head coaches or offensive coordinators instructing their quarterbacks via the helmet radio. Quarterbacks should make their own decisions, and we should make our own way in the world by screwing up and learning from our blunders. But sometimes, when my stomach turns queasy at yet another retreat from life, which gets tagged "bipartisan compromise", I call upon examples of intransigence like Pete Seeger and the much-missed bombardier-professor Howard Zinn and Daniel Ellsberg -- no spring chickens -- who stubbornly, awkwardly, stayed young.
Obama might do worse than linger over his next Bible class and re-read Ephesians 6:12-18, as I've very slightly updated it:
For we wrestle... against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places... against those who would destroy social security and a living wage.
This post appeared first at The Guardian.