An Uncomfortably Clear Definition of Gerontocracy:
“A state, society, or group governed by old people.”
A Pronunciation Guide for “Gerontocrat”
Do not miss the guide to holiday gifts that appears at the end of this post!
Please take a look at a list, compiled by a Credible Gerontocrat, of new books in Western American history, written by gifted young scholars
Life in The Geezer Basin
Fifteen years ago, when I heard the Western writer Bill DeBuys tell a story about his visit to Yellowstone National Park, I underestimated the relevance that his story would come to carry for me and for my nation.
Walking along the boardwalks that lead through Yellowstone’s Geyser Basin, Bill found himself behind a pair—a father with a young son—who were evidently from an English-speaking nation with a different accent. The child was clearly enjoying every moment he spent in the company of the geysers.
“Oh, Daddy,” he exclaimed to his father, “I’d like to see more of these geezers!”
Overhearing this remark, Bill resisted the temptation to say, “That should be easy to arrange.”
Asking for forgiveness for using the unflattering term of “geezers,” though still steering clear of “codgers,” I take refuge in the familiar saying, “If the shoe fits, wear it.”
Every day in 2020, I find myself walking along the boardwalks through the Geezer Basin. While I move along in a manner and at a pace that fully meets the qualifications for the mildly irritating word “spry,” I am myself only five months from turning seventy. Meanwhile, in sectors ranging from the academic world to Congress, the Oval Office, and the Supreme Court, people who are my contemporaries—or even older!—maintain their grip on power. Gerontocracy rules.
Half a century ago, many members of my legendary Sixties Generation yearned to be in charge so that we could correct the errors and sins of our elders. Remember the words that Jiminy Cricket sang so poignantly, implanting them in the souls of baby boomers in our formative years:
When you wish upon a star,
Makes no difference who you are . . .
If your heart is in your dream,
No request is too extreme.
If that overly optimistic cricket experienced a moment’s qualm about what he was unleashing on the world, he could have forestalled a lot of trouble by adding a couplet:
Since your wishes might come true,
Please be careful what you do.
A Revolutionary Guessing Game
Guess which phrase did not appear in the Prologue to the Declaration of Independence.
We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, and set the stage for Democracy to evolve into Gerontocracy, do ordain and establish the Constitution for the United States of America.
You guessed right!
The dream that democracy would evolve into gerontocracy did not figure in the aspirations of the Founders.
But that dream came true anyway.
And, no, I’m not myself ready to rechristen the dream as a “nightmare,” but I can see why that might occur to some citizens.
The Ages of the Nation’s Leaders in 2020
Yes, a couple of whippersnappers (not always to be confused with “whips”) in their 50s infiltrated this list, but their trajectory toward membership in the gerontocracy is still clear.
Age 74: Current President: Donald Trump
Age 61: Current Vice-President: Mike Pence
Age 78: President-Elect: Joseph Biden
Age 56: Vice-President Elect: Kamala Harris
Age 78: Senate Majority Leader: Mitch McConnell
Age 59: Senate Majority Whip: Jon Thune
Age 70: Senate Democratic Leader: Chuck Schumer
Age 76: Senate Democratic Whip: Dick Durbin
Age 80: Speaker of the House: Nancy Pelosi
Age 81: House Majority Leader: Steny Hoyer
Age 74: President-Elect’s Nominee for Secretary of the Treasury: Janet Yellen
Age 58: President-Elect’s Nominee for Secretary of State: Anthony Blinken
Age 76: President-Elect’s Nominee for Cabinet-Level Climate Officer: John Kerry
Contemplating this list might make us wonder about the venerability of the nation’s Founders.
Because they lived so long ago, the Founders have lodged in our minds as aged and venerable figures guided by the wisdom derived from long years of experience and reflection.
This image demands recalculation.
The Age of the Founders in 1776
Age 44: George Washington
Age 41: John Adams
Age 33: Thomas Jefferson
Age 25: James Madison
Age 19: Alexander Hamilton
Yes, of course, longevity and lifespan were really different in the eighteenth century. But a 33-year-old permitted to write the immortal words of the Declaration of Independence? An even younger man staking a lasting claim on a place in American intellectual history as a central contributor to The Federalist Papers? Shouldn’t the elders of these young upstarts have pulled them aside and advised them not to get ahead of themselves and to wait in line for an appropriate generational succession, postponing their extreme ambitions until they reached a life stage of greater maturity?
By the standards of the twenty-first century, these men were simply too young to lead a revolution and found a nation.
They were certainly too young to anticipate—and to take precautions to minimize—the perils of gerontocracy.
But now try an invigorating exercise in Applied History.
Reverse the point of view, and by the standards of the eighteenth century, we are holding back progress by neglecting to embrace, respect, and unleash the energy and bravery of young people.
Maybe Time for a Call to Action:
But What Action?
Many of my recent conversations with young people—and with some older people—have given me the impression that a gerontocracy is not proving to be everyone’s idea of the best possible allocation of power and influence.
So what are the options for the discontented?
- Give up in resignation since, metaphorically speaking, the horse of gerontocracy is surprisingly spry, and it is out of—and now actually quite distant from—the barn.
- Express resentment and anger, and demand that the elders yield their power.
- Find inspiration in the example of people like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and try to age as rapidly as possible in order to claim a place in the gerontocracy.
- Look for humor in the strange shift from the Revolution led by the youthful Founders to the current regime led by gerontocrats.
- Recognize that many of the current gerontocrats are good-hearted souls who are trying to be helpful by serving their nation even when drinking herbal tea and reading a good book would carry greater appeal (and we’ll get to the “reading a good book” part soon!).
My own gerontocratic vote goes for #4 and #5, though it is entirely understandable why others might cast their ballots for #1 or #2 (though probably not #3). And, since I have five-and-a-half months before I cross over into the 70-and-over cohort, I am going to exercise my waning power to put forward my own vision: first, of the inherent comedy in one aspect of gerontocratic behavior, and, second, of the power of gerontocracy to work in good causes.
History Is Going to Decide that I Was Completely Right,
And Everyone Should Have Listened to Me:
The Unintended Comedy of Certainty
In the year 2020, everywhere we look, we encounter older people who are claiming to know the judgment that history will reach in assessing the people and events of our time.
The phrasing can vary considerably, but it is omnipresent. To take part in this sport, you make it clear what you think about the people and events of the early twenty-first century, and then you invoke the authority of future judgment—a.k.a. history—to support your opinion: “history will find;” “history will conclude;” “history will declare;” “history will not be kind;” “history will be kind;” “history will celebrate;” “history will condemn,” etc. A particularly popular option is to configure history with two sides: some people are going to land “on the right side of history,” while other people are going to land “on the wrong side of history.”
At least history is no longer the enterprise of human inquiry that is stuck waiting around to get picked last for the team.
Whatever the exact wording they use, and whatever “side” they champion, public figures predicting how history is going to judge our times hold one conviction in common: history has every intention of ratifying and validating what these figures themselves believe. Decoded and translated, these statements display a blinding certainty: “History will validate what I think and make it clear that I was right all along.”
Why does this open the door for finding humor in the behavior of gerontocrats?
The people today who are most inclined to declare that history will confirm their wisdom seem unaware of their own position in time: they register in a demographic that will not be around in, say, 2040 or 2050, when historians arrive at deep and grounded understandings of the dramatic changes of the early twenty-first century.
As senior citizens will sometimes do, I will now repeat my statement of what strikes me funny: few of the people who are now telling us what history will say are going to be there to listen when history gets around to declaring its considered judgment.
It is my great privilege these days to spend time on Zoom chatting with young historians who will be at mid-career in the 2040s. Since I am constantly impressed by the originality and vigor of the minds of these young folks, I never go for more than a few hours without thinking to myself, “I have no idea what these young folks are going to write about the period we are ricocheting and catapulting through at the moment.” Moreover, a lot of water will have passed under the bridge before these appraisals get written, and I do not have the slightest idea what “data set” the passage of time will provide to the historians of the future. Equally important, it is very unlikely that historians of the future will be of one mind and speak with one voice.
In theory, since I usually cheer when people who are living in an amnesiac nation make references to history, I should be very happy that so many of my contemporaries are dropping history’s name into their commentary on the present. In truth, I sometimes agree with a good share of the opinions that these folks hold about the present. But assuming the role of ventriloquists for the historians of the future, these commentators make their statements with a certainty of prediction that I cannot begin to share.
Thus, a doubled request:
- Let’s chuckle—and, every now and then, guffaw—when we hear people say that history is going to agree with them.
- Let’s take this opportunity, and hundreds of similar opportunities, to remind gerontocrats that they could be quite a bit more convincing if they scaled back their certainty and moderated their self-esteem.
Which brings us to the topic of gerontocracy in the academic world.
How Gerontocrats Behaving Badly Taught a Person--Who Was Once Disruptively Young—
A Lasting Lesson on How to Age Well
When it comes to inter-generational relationships, few institutions can match higher education in the majesty of paradox. The two parts of this paradox, I want to say at the start, did not come into being through schemes, plots, and machinations.
Higher Education Paradox, Part One: The mission of universities and colleges is to welcome young people into adulthood and then launch them into the world, prepared to conduct themselves in ways that will guide them to satisfying lives and position them to benefit the world around them.
Higher Education Paradox, Part Two: The process of training and hiring young scholars places a great deal of power in the hands of a gerontocracy of tenured professors. In their role as gatekeepers, established scholars exercise enormous authority over the appraisal of the work of young people, determining who has succeeded, who has failed, and who has landed in the middle with uncertain prospects for success.
I have always loved and been proud to be associated with Paradox, Part One. But my relationship to Paradox, Part Two has been not entirely peaceful, even though it got off to a very good start.
In junior high, high school, college, and graduate school, I had an unbroken run of good fortune. My teachers and professors in the 1960s and 1970s were unfailingly kind. Maybe nostalgia is distorting the accuracy of that statement, but memory records that nearly all my elders treated me with generational grace, rarely taken off course by the fact I was a very eccentric young person.
And now for what will seem a strange redirection of my expression of gratitude: while I am very appreciative of the kindness I received from my elders, I am also very appreciative of the unkind treatment I received from a small group of gerontocrats in the field of Western American history. These crabby folks gave me an intensive orientation in how to age poorly, setting me up to choose an opposite course from theirs. They taught me how to age well, delivering satisfactions and rewards that steadily escalate.
Here’s what happened.
In 1987, I published a book called The Legacy of Conquest, which positioned me as a standard bearer for forceful challenge to conventional thinking in the field.
At that point, as a movement emerged and got christened as “the New Western History,” a number of gerontocrats went batty.
In the academic world, it is a ritual to declare that we welcome fresh ideas that unsettle established ways of thinking. Indeed, when The Legacy of Conquest came out, many older scholars lived up to that ideal and responded to my disruptive presence with grace and generosity, or at least tolerance.
Others, not so much.
A few gerontocrats went after me with nothing in the way of diplomacy. One older Western historian characterized the New Western History as fascist, Stalinist, and deconstructionist, three qualities that only a person with a very nimble mind could maintain simultaneously; not only could I not maintain all those seemingly incompatible positions, I never actually experimented with one of them. Another alarmed defender of the status quo wrote a critique with the title, “The New Western History: The Latest Whore on the Block.” My all-time favorite attack was delivered by a gerontocrat who told me, “I said everything you have said long before you said it,” and, then—within seconds!!—added, “Everything you said is wrong.”
Having been treated for years with wondrous kindness by my elders, I was set up for a shock when these gerontocrats-in-distress went after me.
And now the important question: How much injury did their fevered and frenzied attacks inflict on me?
Their fury and turmoil completely defeated them.
Rather than challenging me with strategy, foresight, and aim, they fumed, fulminated, and ranted. This produced significant injury—to their own reputations. In repeated spectacles, I got to watch as agitated gerontocrats performed at the highest level in that peculiar sport called “shooting yourself in the foot.”
So as a person in her mid-thirties, I was treated very badly by a few of my elders, with a result that I treasure: I came out of the fray saying to myself, “On the unlikely chance that you become a major figure in the field of Western American history, please remember to welcome young scholars who may or may not agree with you, to encourage them, to coach them to go even further in their rebellion, and to take every opportunity to celebrate the vitality they are contributing to a field of study that is the center of your life.”
How To Be A Better Gerontocrat
In the extent of human existence, widespread longevity is quite a novel twist, requiring adjustment and adaptation that is not always easy to achieve.
Evolving into a gerontocrat was not in the game plan for many human beings in the past. Long before Covid-19 came into our world, there was no justification for the complacent assumption that every person would have the better part of a century to figure out who she or he could be in life.
Maybe now more than ever, we are called to go toe-to-toe with the question, “What should we do to make the most of our time on the planet?”
How to be a better gerontocrat?
My experience as an established elder in the field of Western American history has permitted me to practice a five-step plan that permits me to “be the best gerontocrat that I can be.” I know that many people in other professions and occupations (maybe even in national politics!) have arrived at the same plan, but here is my version.
Think of all the people you know who are younger than you are. Of course, the recognition—that nearly everyone is younger than you are—may initially freak you out, but moving onto Step Two will quickly relieve that discomfort.
Think of the young people you know who have knocked your socks off (a figure of speech which, in itself, establishes your seniority and venerability) with something they have said or written or done or designed or built or proposed or invented.
Contact a few of those young people to find out what they are doing now. If you think you already know, get in touch anyway and pretend at first that you are contacting them to make sure that you haven’t missed any new developments; then, later in the exchange, you can admit that you mostly wanted a pretext to enjoy their company and conversation. If you see a path that could lead them to enhanced success, by all means, point it out—or, better yet, maneuver them into discovering it for themselves.
Use whatever you have in the way of your own visibility—access to a podium or platform or microphone or chain of connections or circle of influence—to call attention to what these young people have done and are in the midst of doing. Reconstitute yourself as a primary producer of endorsements or recommendations or references.
Treat yourself to a moment of satisfaction, but then think about all the impressive young people you should have mentioned. Return to Step Three and repeat the sequence for as long as you are on the planet and in possession of gerontocratic authority that you can put to good use.
I can testify to the trustworthiness of this five-step program because I have been field-testing it for years, and because the field of Western American history has presented a constantly replenished talent pool that will always exceed my capacity to keep track of it.
And Now to Show the Five-Step Plan in Action
Here is a list of ten books that I urge you to consider as gifts to friends who are interested in the history of the American West.
But a couple of warnings are in order.
University press books are often more expensive than trade books, but the purchase price supports a good cause.
Sometimes a book with very compelling historical findings has had a rough run through the gauntlet of outside reviewers, some of whom may have been stick-in-the-mud gerontocrats who demanded a surrender to an orthodox style of academic “sophistication.”
I don’t think that this is the case with the books on this list, but I am still making a “Satisfaction Guaranteed” Offer.
If you buy one of these books and you (or the person you give it to) do not take to it, I will buy the book from you. In the manner of a humane society taking in unwanted pets who actually have a lot going for them, I will find a better home for the book that was not a right match for you. Yes, in Covid-19 times, transferring custody of the book and arranging for reimbursement may pose a challenge, but I swear I will figure out a way to deliver on this offer.
Recent Publications in Western American History,
Written by the Talented Young,
and Listed in Alphabetical Order by Author
(Note Links Providing More Information)
- Alice Baumgartner, South Toward Freedom
- Liza Black, Picturing Indians
- Geraldo Cadava, The Hispanic Republican
- Jon Coleman, Nature Shock
- Maurice Crandall, These People Have Always Been a Republic
- Alison Jefferson, Living the California Dream
- Manu Karuka, Empire’s Tracks
- Farina King, The Earth Memory Compass
- Erika Perez, Colonial Intimacies
- Thomas Richards, Breakaway Americas
This is a very good list, but it is barely a beginning. So, from time to time, I plan to post additional lists of ten. It would be nice if reader enthusiasm made it possible to herald the return of this “Not My First Rodeo” feature as “Back by Popular Demand!” But it would be perfectly OK if I have to label it “Back by a Gerontocrat’s Arbitrary Preference!”
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