Saturday, July 28, 2007

Revenge on the Grandma-Snatchers

-- by Sara

The story of Rick Perlstein's poor Billowashed grandmother has struck a plangent chord with a lot of us who have been looking at our beloved elders and wondering: Who Ate Grandma's Brain?

Perlstein's article has prompted a flood of comments, here and elsewhere, from anguished progressives whose mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, and grandparents once instilled them with their liberal values -- but are now estranged from their families and lost to the right-wing airwaves. It's as though, while we weren't looking, the body-snatchers snuck in through the pipe and made off with their votes, their brains, and (occasionally) their money.

As I wrote in the comments to Dave's post below, the sad fact is that this kind of media fearmongering that preys on American retirees has a long and tragic history. My mother's Aunt Muriel, who retired from Connersville, IN to Sun City, AZ in 1965, spent her last years mostly barricaded in her house because the local Phoenix news stations worked the "if it bleeds, it leads" style with a vengeance starting in the early '80s. Those last ten years, you could hardly get her to go downtown, because she was so convinced something awful would happen to her. She knew it was a bad and dangerous place: she'd seen it all on the news, every night -- without any positive information coming in to balance that view.

My paternal grandmother, on the other hand, fell into the grasping paws of televangelists. She'd have Pat and Jimmy and Jerry running at full Grandma volume 24/7. She even slept on the couch, so she'd have their company when she woke up in the middle of the night.

And one thing you can say for Billo: At least he doesn't ask for the old folks' money. Televangelists get ahold of these people and drain their life savings and pension accounts. Pat Robertson (no, wait, it was Jimmy Swaggart) was at one point touting a "retirement community" where you handed over all your assets to him in exchange for full housing, food, and care until you died. Grandma seriously considered going for this until Dad put his foot down (and a good thing it was, because when Heritage USA went down, Grandma's retirement money would have gone with it) but, as it was, her contributions to these guys totalled a hefty five figures over the years.

America's elderly have been frightened by media fearmongers for as long as there's been TV -- and possibly (for those familiar with Father Coughlin), for as long as there's been radio. This is a fine old tradition, the natural outcome when the elderly are left alone too many hours each day with only a box for company. But it's not inevitable. There are things we can do about it.

Obviously, we need to start by giving them something else to watch. This is an overlooked but critical reason why we need to keep working to expand the liberal presence on traditional media. If Grandma and Grandpa are going to listen to whatever's on while they're going about their daily business, we need to make sure they have better options that broaden their worldview and understanding, and give them the intellectual tools to resist the emotional lure of the hate talkers.

To the extent that we've already done this, it's already working. This came home to me sharply last week while I was visiting my mother in Southern California. On Wednesday morning, she and I drove from Ventura County down to San Diego for a funeral -- a three-hour freeway cruise. On the way, while searching for a traffic report, we came across Thom Hartmann on the LA Air America station. She'd never heard of him, and I think he surprised her. She finds most political talk these days -- especially radio talk -- too strident to bear; but Thom's mellow, even-handed style suited her nicely. We caught one of his frequent segments where he brings on conservative guests and treats them respectfully. Mom was really impressed by that.

The next morning, back in LA, she invited me along to her weekly Thursday morning breakfast with eight or ten of her 70-something girlfriends. Over the best breakfast burrito I'd had this year, I mentioned that I'd introduced Mom to Thom Hartmann the day before. There was great approval around the table -- a chorus of cooing and happy noises. "Oh, yes! Isn't he great! I love Thom Hartmann!" Mom was genuinely surprised so many of her friends listened to him -- but really valued the strong affirmation from her clique that I'd turned her onto something good. That validation is the first step in turning her into a regular listener.

Mom and her friends are at the age where they're starting to rely far more heavily on the media to keep them in touch with a world that they're no longer as engaged with as they once were. They're still loyal voters and political contributors; however, though they do use e-mail, they don't grok blogs at all. Instead, they've had a lifetime of training that leads them to trust what they hear on the radio and see on TV; and they're going with what they know. (I'm constantly surprised at how popular Stewart and Colbert are with my mother's set; and how religiously they watch PBS' Friday night lineup of political shows as well. If you build it, they will come.) If we want to keep them with us, we need to be there with them.

My experience with Mom also highlights another point: the elders in my family, at least, are considerably more dependent on the opinion of their peers than they were during their working years. A lot of the old guys who spend their days with Savage and Beck spend their evenings down at the Legion Hall or the lodge, and their Sundays at church. Their wives are down at the senior center or the women's club. In all these places, they're surrounded by peers who listen to the same shows, and eagerly validate what they've been told by them. This echo chamber amplifies the messages; and there's not much in their lives (except their concerned children who, as Perlstein agonizes, look increasingly like The Enemy) to contradict them. Any strategy to get these senior voters back on our side of the line needs to address the ways in which their social networks reinforce their beliefs, and talk to these groups as groups.

It's not inevitable that old liberals become raving conservatives in their twilight years. However, shoving die-hard Billoheads back up into the reality-based world once they've fallen through into the all-spin zone is an uphill struggle. On the other hand, preventing our favorite retirees from getting sucked into that vortex in the first place may be easier. It's just a matter of catching them young (the first few years after they retire), and keeping them continually plied with better sources of information.

When my dad was alive, I kept his subscription to Jim Hightower's Hightower Lowdown current (Hightower's strong rural populist perspective and short, pithy writing style really appealed to Dad), and eventually got him a subscription to Mother Jones as well. And I kept him supplied with books that gave him ammo to use when his Rush-addled fishing buddies (mostly retired teachers who should have known better, but succumbed anyway because there was nothing else on the local radio) started spouting their noise. He appreciated that; and I appreciated being able to discuss this stuff with him whenever I came to visit. And (I like to think) as a direct result of this, he grew more liberal, not less, through the years. (Though he never gave up his NRA Life Membership, and I never would have asked him to.)

Finally, I think it's also important to remember that the youngest members of "The Greatest Generation" are now 80 years old; well over half that generation has already passed on. One of the strongest characteristics of the GI cohort was its extreme team-mindedness and conformity to common norms -- a trait that may have contributed to the extremist group-think Perlstein finds so unnerving. But those coming up behind -- those who are now in the 60-to-80 age range -- are members of the Silent Generation, which is (in general) far more inclined to seek balanced viewpoints, and to be turned off by extremism in any form. As group, they do nuance better than we do, and are deeply interested in justice (remember, this was the generation that brought us the civil rights movement). Their unique generational history and character endows them with some better angels that we can invoke and try to speak to as we try to keep them out of the right-wing hate media's clutches.

Most of us are very cautious and circumspect about leaving our children's developing minds to the tender mercies of the media. Those of us who care about the elders in our families might be equally vigilant about their media diets as well. We do not have to take the political hijacking of our seniors lying down, or assume that's just the way it is. We just have to do what we do with our kids: make sure they've got consistent access to appealing, age-appropriate media that gives them hope, confidence, and truly balanced ways of seeing the world.

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