November 9, 2004
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Yeats was not thinking of the United States when he said "That is no country for old men," but his words do describe us. I don't know any other country whose history and beliefs have been so shaped by the virtues and flaws of young men. The qualities we most admire are young men's-risk-taking, individualism, cockiness, and disrespect for tradition and authority.
Like the man of la Mancha, Americans have been brought up to dream the impossible dream. Our motto has been that of the Construction Battalion, "The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer."
This is not surprising, since this country was settled by so many young men who left their homelands and families forever to seek their fortunes where the future seemed limited only by their own abilities.
It took young men -- Jefferson 33, Madison in his 20s -- to cast off the dead weight of the past and say to England, since you govern us badly, we will govern ourselves.
It took the energies of young men to turn forests into fields, to fight the natives who already possessed the land, to explore and map the territory -- Meriwether Lewis was 29 when he set off for Oregon.
It was reckless young men who drove our expansion by pushing into lands that were owned by the French and Spanish and Indians, then fighting wars to keep the land they'd claimed. Their greed for land and gold powered our westward expansion, and our move from farms to cities, and from cities to suburbs.
It was the "why not?" of young men's imaginations that pushed our technology (Edison got his first patent when he was 17). It was young men's preference for what COULD BE over what IS that turned deserts into air-conditioned cities, and rivers into complexes of lakes and dams and irrigation systems.
It was young men of daring who tested out our planes and rockets. The shoot-em-up imaginations of young men have stocked our movie and TV screens with action adventures and fantasies of other worlds, while other bright young men have been rewriting the rules of journalism, using weblogs, discussion lists, and streaming media to turn it into what Dan Gillmor calls We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People .
But our faults are also the faults of young men -- their unwillingness to ask directions, or clean up after themselves. Because they are impatient, and want solutions NOW, they will do a quick fix, but won't bother to ask whether it worked. When something doesn't work out, they don't stick around to do the hard, patient work of fixing it; they just light out for the territories.
Our rugged individualists, so good at seeing immediate advantage for themselves, are not so good at recognizing the consequences of their actions for everybody else. Seeing our soil and water and forests not as a common heritage but as sources of profit, they muck it all up and walk away.
Throughout our history, clever young men with an eye to the main chance have been quick to see opportunities to make money preying on the weak. Our folklore is rich with half-admiring stories about sweet-talking young scoundrels, the Yankee peddlers, snake oil salesmen, riverboat gamblers, whose ranks have now been joined by unethical stockbrokers, predatory lenders, and peddlers of get-rich-quick schemes. The anonymity of telemarketing and the internet has given con-men a dual gift: almost infinite opportunities for fraud and almost no chance of being caught.
Even ethical young men who have made it big with the work of their hands and imaginations have scant sympathy for those who remain resolutely poor, believing that it must surely be their own fault. So the lame, the poor, the halt and the blind, as well as their children, are often ignored and pushed aside.
That's why our history has also been characterized by a rearguard action of the old, who have created laws to restrain the wildness of young men, and voluntary societies, foundations, and government programs to assist their victims, like the folks who lost their life savings to the savings and loan con-men. Our elders, who can think beyond the next quarter's profits, have worked hard to preserve the air, water, and public land for future generations,
If America is the most vital, creative country in the world, it is because of the driving energies of young men, and the freedom we give them to dream big dreams. But it is worth remembering that though daring young men seized our country in the first place, it was women and older men who built the schools and churches and communities to pass civilization on to our children and to the future. The public resources they created -- schools, libraries, universities, roads, dams, the internet, a legal system that protected their patents and contracts -- gave these young men the tools they could not have succeeded without.
In our history, the balance between the daring young men and their wise and temperate elders has see-sawed back and forth. The unbridled greed and exploitation of the Gilded Age gave way to the progressive era and New Deal reforms that provided security against the occasional failures of capitalism. The balance seems to be shifting back now, which is worrisome.
Because we now have to contend with problems like global warming and our worsening competitive position in global markets, that have no short-term solutions. Worse, we face other nations' daring young men, who hate America and don't much care about the long-term consequences of their actions. We could use a little wisdom as we figure out how to deal with these problems.
If we are to survive, I believe we must continue to temper the ambition, individualism, and heedlessness of our young men with the connectedness of women, the long-term thinking of the elderly, and the understanding that our children have a right to a future.
This is an updated version of a column I originally wrote for Fox News Online that appeared on October 28, 1998.
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