Saturday, March 24, 2007

Satire and Senior Issues

In satirist Christopher Buckley’s new book Boomsday, reviewed in the April 2, 2007, issue of Time, Cassandra Devine, a 29-year-old blogger, rants, "Someone my age will have to spend their entire life paying unfair taxes just so the Booomers can hit the golf course at 62 and drink gin and tonics until they’re 90. What happened to the American idea of leaving your kids better off than you were?" Cassandra’s solution is to promote "Voluntary Transitioning" by providing baby boomers with financial incentives to commit suicide at age 70.

I’m over 70, and although I don’t play golf or drink gin and tonics, nor do I have kids, I certainly do not advocate "Voluntary Transitioning." That’s generational warfare and self-sacrifice gone mad.

But don’t start writing your angry letters or making your picket signs, boomers and seniors. This is, after all, satire and fiction, and your reaction should be thought rather than rage. That’s what satire is for. Unfortunately, a lot of people probably won’t get it.

Back in the 18th century, some people did not understand Jonathan Swift’s "A Modest Proposal" (1729). The ultimate solution for Irish famine and other social problems? Kill excess babies and eat them. A horrible, sickening idea, right? Apparently some of Swift’s 18th-century readers, and some of my 20th-century students, didn’t get the serious point, stated but couched in irony: "Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: of using neither clothes nor household furniture except what is of our own growth and manufacture: of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming of our women: of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence, and temperance: of learning to love our country. . . of being a little cautious not to sell our country and conscience for nothing: of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy toward their tenants: lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shopkeepers." Anti-feminist humor aside, there are some valid ideas here, and they have nothing to do with killing babies.

In 1953, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451, an account of a fantasy society in which firemen no longer extinguished fires; their job was to burn down houses where books were hidden, sometimes burning up the inhabitants with their houses. Bradbury’s real targets, of course, were censorship and book burning and anti-intellectualism in general. In the F-451 world, thought and conversation and human interaction are discouraged through persistent, mind-numbing ads, fast cars, drugs, and wall-sized TV’s, among other things. How did it happen? Unemployed former professor Faber tells the main character, curious fireman Guy Montag, "I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths. No one wanted them back. No one missed them. And then the Government, seeing how advantageous it was to have people reading only about passionate lips and the fist in the stomach, circled the situation with your fire-eaters." Some of my students didn’t get it, but can’t you see a few connections to American life, even today? And note that the government was not the originator of all this.

I was also reminded of the 1973 movie Soylent Green, which brings me back to senior issues. Soylent Green is an early environmentalist film about "The System" as a corrupting influence on the people within it. Charlton Heston plays Thorn, a police detective assigned to investigate the murder of a Soylent Corporation executive. His older assistant, Sol Roth, is played by Edward G. Robinson, who died just nine days after completion of the film shoot. Sol is old enough to tell Thorn how life used to be.

The advertising " tagline" for the film was, "It’s the year 2022. People are still the same. They’ll do anything to get what they need. And they need SOYLENT GREEN." In this society, natural foods such as fruits, vegetables, and meat are extinct. The Earth is overpopulated, with forty million starving, poverty-stricken people living in New York City. The greenhouse effect has raised temperatures so much that country living is out of the question (think global warming; I’m sure Al Gore has seen this film), and people are required by law to live in cities. The Soylent Corporation feeds the masses with Soylent red, yellow, and the more nutritious Soylent green, but Detective Thorn discovers that there is a conspiracy by which the rich still have real food and live in luxury–with women considered as furniture, and other interesting details.

If you haven’t seen this film, do rent it and take a look, but the thing I remember most about it after all these years is an example of what Buckley’s character Cassandra would probably call "Voluntary Transitioning." It is Roth’s (Robinson’s) dying scene. He is in a suicide center, where you could "end your life in a drug-induced euphoria in a peaceful, isolated room, watching projections of beautiful natural scenes and listening to your favorite music." "Going Home" was played for Roth as he enjoyed visions of the Earth’s former beauty. I wasn’t old when I saw this, but the scene still made me cry.

I believe we need satire to make us think about the world’s problems. The issue in Buckley’s book Boomsday is not really "Voluntary Transitioning" or senior suicide, but the less fascinating issue of responsible management of Social Security. I haven’t read this book yet, but I plan to do so. Buckley, age 54, has, according to the unsigned Time review, "an endless facility for mimicking the glossy rhetoric of political spin in a way that lays bare its atrocious underlying hypocrisies." Swift and Bradbury and the author of Soylent Green had this facility too, each in his own way.

Update 11/13/07: See my April 22 post for my reaction after reading this book.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

No comments: