The aged population of America has one over on the rest of us. Criticize them, and you're being ageist and disrespecting your elders (even if you are a fully formed, tax-paying, law-abiding adult yourself). But by virtue of being old, America's elderly seem to get a pass on respect for the rest of humankind. After all, they may be fully formed, tax-paying types themselves, but they're a product of another era!
And so it is this week with Martin Harty, the New Hampshire lawmaker who has admitted to telling a concerned constituent that he has a major problem with "all the defective people, the drug addicts, mentally ill, the retarded -- all of them ... If we had a Siberia we should send them to this and they would all freeze and die and we will be rid of them."
He's angered much of New Hampshire, and much of the world, with his blatant advocating of eugenics and disturbing take on a large portion of his constituency. So how has Harty retained his seat and supporters? Because he's got age on his side. As House Speaker William O'Brien told The Concord Monitor:
As someone who served in General Patton's Army in North Africa and Italy against dictators like Hitler and Mussolini, he has given far more to our country and our ideals than most of us ever will ... While at age 92 and with the amount of time and effort he has given us all, he has earned the right to say what he thinks, he needs to appreciate that, as a Representative, he will be held to a higher standard.
It's a semi-apology. But only semi, and that's almost as disturbing as what Harty said. Essentially, we're being told that because Martin Harty is almost 92, he's outlived expectations to treat fellow human beings with respect. To borrow a phrase from another fight, that sounds an awful lot like reverse ageism. And it begs the question: when does it end? When do we stop giving people a pass?
I remember as a child listening to my grandmother, a white woman living in a tiny suburb of New York City, often refer to "that colored fella." I cringed, and sought my mother's counsel. Being raised in the '80s, when the idea was to teach your children there was no difference between black and white (a path to today's teachings that everyone IS different, but that's something to embrace), I wondered why she was allowed to say that. The irony was not lost on me that despite her racist terminology, she lived in a town that boasted some highly successful black Americans (Eddie Murphy among them). My mother's answer, of course, was along the lines of "do as I say, not as she does." She was old, I was told, raised in a different time.
She never said it, but to me as a child, it couldn't have been more clear: "Your grandmother doesn't know any better. You do." It was a remarkable thing to a child, to be armed with the knowledge that I, the kid, knew better than the adult. It was freeing and depressing at the same time, and gave root to a social liberalism that extends even further than that fostered by my parents.
Generally we find that each generation is more liberal than the last, each generation knows more than their parents and grandparents -- and all that is for the betterment of society. But for all that each generation adds to society, we struggle because none has yet knocked down the tired doctrine of the infallibility of the elderly. The young may realize old does not equal wise, but we're hog-tied by this notion of automatic respect, by the idea that they have done so much for us that we don't dare voice it.
And so we end up with the Martin Hartys of the world in office, spewing disgusting tripe about eugenics and allowing the differently abled to freeze to death. Martin Harty is an old man, but what he said proved he's not a nice one.
He reminded us all that respect is not an age thing, it's a "quality of the man" thing. Martin Harty doesn't deserve a break because he's a veteran or because he's old. To show he's earned our respect, he needs to respect the rest of America.
Do you think America's elderly have too many excuses made for them? Or do they earn a special respect in your eyes?
Image via Horia Varlan/Flickr