Ted Roszak gave a book reading at Cody's tonight, well attended by cronies of his from way back. He’s about my age but in better shape. This is the first time I’ve ever seen him, though his fame came just before I was leaving Berkeley for Toronto. That popular book, The Making of a Counterculture, has been followed by about eighteen others, all of them less catchy. He couldn’t get a US publisher for this one, World, Beware!, which was published in Canada. I could see why American publishers considered it old news. It was an outburst of anger against the Bush Administration, and was written not for an American audience, but to the rest of the world, proposing that the other countries join together to stop the United States. He didn’t say tonight exactly how this might be done.
As he recognized explicitly, he lives in Berkeley, and Berkeleyans are entirely different from most Americans. Much of this book evidently consists of an exasperated examination of these political differences. He cannot understand the conservative position that accepts American triumphalism — a term that he uses instead of “neo-conservatism,” since it is not conservative at all but profligate in “burning money” so that the liberals cannot get it and spend it. This “burning of money” consist primarily of the war in Iraq, which he says is being done intentionally. He attributes total irrationality to the government policymakers and almost as much irrationality to those American citizens who obey their decisions – even policies that are contrary to their own interests.
This mentality certainly requires an explanation. I want one too, though I cannot come up with any plausible theory. Roszak’s explanations satisfy me no more than those proposed from the audience. His explanation harks back to Adorno’s authoritarian personality typology, which refers to the tendency toward fascism on the part of people who desperately crave more structure in life. They want to obey the rulers and want to force the rest of the world to do likewise. He quoted George W. Bush as saying, “They hate us. They hate our freedom and they want to destroy us for it.” (To this, Osama bin Laden famously replied, “If that were the case, I’d have attacked Sweden, not America.”)
Despite the liveliness of his writing, Roszak’s analysis lacked originality — with the exception of one novel observation toward the end. He said that he finds the basis for some hope in the aging of the world’s population, especially in the industrialized societies. Within a few decades, these countries will reach a demographic distribution unlike anything ever seen before on earth; the proportion of people over fifty will be larger than those who are younger. The baby boom will become a “seniors’ boom,” but the Bush Administration is alienating the elderly. Ted thinks that’s where the new opposition will come from.
It’s an intriguing idea, but I don’t know of any evidence to support it. Naturally, I rushed to my computer to look up new papers on aging and political values. Nothing showed up. I’ll need to search academic political journals, if I care enough to look — which I don’t. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone argue that people become more liberal as they age. As I recall the research on the subject, age per se makes no difference at all. Instead, one has to think in terms of generational cohorts. Whatever values you have as a youth you'll probably have throughout life. If your cohort is a big one, its predominant values will win elections, but there’s no way to predict what those values will be.
Several years ago I remember hearing one of the radical sixties celebrities on TV. (It wasn’t Roszak himself, I’m sure – maybe it was Timothy Leary before he died. I forget.) Anyhow, he predicted that there would be a new period of dramatic social change during the 1990s. Why? Because the radicals of the sixties had become parents and had raised their children to be rebels too. As soon as those kids hit college age, they too would be in the streets protesting. Well, it didn’t happen. And that’s the last prediction of its kind that I believe I’ve heard until tonight. I’m predicting that Roszak will also be wrong. The elderly are no nicer or wiser than anyone else. We’re just older.
His other proposal was more promising: Organize the rest of the world to stop George W. Bush. It’s a great idea if anyone can figure out how to do it.