Fox Geezer Syndrome
Some fascinating and thoughtful comments on the Andrew W.K. thread from readers who point out that Andrew W.K.’s advice to his letter-writer — telling him to get over himself and tolerate his annoying right-wing father — does not consider that there are cases in which elderly parents and other family members are simply impossible to be around, because they will not shut up about politics, and are confrontational. Call it Fox Geezer Syndrome. Here’s a sampling of what readers said on that thread.
Love doesn’t conquer all. If the father is like a lot of people 65-80 today, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, or something equivalent is on in the background practically every waking hour. The programming is specifically designed to agitate the emotions, scare older people, promote mis-representation.
I’ve seen this: the older person drops a bon mot into the middle of the conversation, usually irrelevant. No one reacts at first (because it’s usually really absurd.) Escalation follows, with the older person imitating the exact verbal style of the TV commenter – which means getting louder and sounding more angry.
Meanwhile everyone else is side-eyeing each other and looking for an escape. If you engage, it turns into a highly unpleasant situation. If you don’t engage, it just goes on (“What about Benghazi?” “What about the knock-out game?” “What about Planned Parenthood’s [latest abuse of the week]?”)
The problem is, someone who’s a “mostly every waking moment” conservative-media consumer is not going to be satisfied to talk about football or the latest movies. They are genuinely being scared by what they hear. The action IS the reaction.
And the underlying tension the letter-writer mentions is real. There’s a certain kind of older-person selfishness that seems to be completely oblivious to the kinds of responses they invoke in other people. They literally don’t see how their behavior affects others. When it becomes all one-sided (“We have to humor Grandpa or he goes off on one of his ‘old man yells at clouds’ episodes”), family interactions become highly strained.
It does alienate people over time. Even if the letter-writer isn’t real (and I suspect most advice-columnist letters aren’t), the bad family-dynamics situation it describes is very real. And a lot of elderly grandparents and older parents are going to find that if their choice is yelling along with Bill O’Reilly vs. having a relationship with their children or grandchildren, well, it’s a choice they’ve made.
I can certainly sympathize with the letter writer’s position. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and the Obama years have turned my 80-year-old parents into far more militant (I hesitate to say) conservatives than they used to be, particularly my mother. The last time we tried to discuss politics (fueled by a bit too much wine), my father told me I’d been brainwashed and we ended up in a screaming match. My mother seems to think it’s some kind of deep family shame that I vote for Democrats although I’ve been doing so openly for the past 30-some years; nonetheless, it embarrasses her. Both of them are amazingly angry and fearful that everything they have, and they’re quite well off, will be taken away from them. They have driven friends, both Republicans and Democrats, off with their anger. At a time of their life when they should be enjoying the fruits of their labors, they’re awash in rage. It’s hard and rather sad to watch. Both my sister and I wish we could get them to turn off the Fox News or at least limit it to an hour or so a day, as all it does is elevate their blood pressure.
I’ve gotten pretty good at deflecting political discussions with them these days. Life is simply too short and I don’t want my last years with my parents to be marred by pointless political arguments. I don’t begrudge them their opinions and have no desire to convert them over to my views; that would be an exercise in futility. I’d like for them to do the same for me but they can’t seem to help themselves. I doubt it would be as much of an issue if our political climate hadn’t gotten so ugly and divisive over the last couple of decades. But when political differences are reduced to good and evil, life and death, the stakes are all that much higher. I can almost appreciate their desire to make me see the light, their hope that one more reading of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged or Frederich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom might get me there. It won’t.
I have some relatives that retired and now spend their days and nights parked in front of the TV watching Fox News, except when they’re in the car running errands timed to listen to Rush. Each and every conversation/remark is instantly politicized (“Great weather we’re having for August, aren’t we?” “Absolutely. Completely disproves those global warming libtards. But they’ll keep spewing their nonsense to all the low information voters out there, same as they do about Benghazi and immigration. Speaking of immigration, did you see what Odumbo and his lackeys are trying to do now–thank God we’ve got great Americans like Ted Cruz working to preserve our freedoms and protect our rights, especially my right to own whatever damn guns I want to…” And they’re off and running… And EVERY, absolutely EVERY, conversation with them is like that. You can’t even talk about the weather without it being completely political with them; don’t even try to ask them about their health (ObamaCare), movies, TV, books, or newspaper/magazine articles (lame stream media liberals ruining what used to be a moral society) or grandkids (we’re handing them a dying country and they don’t even recognize it because those liberal college professors are brainwashing them).
These aren’t the only ones. Check out the original thread.
I recognize the Fox Geezer Syndrome these readers identify. This is what happens when conservatism becomes an ideology instead of an approach to life. It indicates an extremely unconservative temperament, frankly. I’m not deploying the No True Scotsman fallacy; these Fox Geezers may well be conservative in their politics, right down the line. What they’re doing, though, is allowing politics to consume their minds and their entire lives, such that they are making impossible the kinds of things that true conservatives ought to be dedicated to conserving: that is, the permanent things, like family. I have been around Fox Geezers before, and I see absolutely no difference between them and the kind of self-righteous loudmouths on the left that make reasonable discussion impossible, because all problems are reduced to a conflict between Good and Evil, and decided in advance.
The tragedy — and I think it is exactly that — is that the elderly often have great wisdom to share with the younger generations, to say nothing of the fact that it is they who have the long view, and who ought to understand how important it is to nurture bonds among family members, especially across the generations. Yet in these cases, it is they who behave like teenagers and twentysomethings, full of piss and vinegar and a toxic certainty, plus a radioactive impulse to crusade. What they lack is the principal conservative virtue: Prudence. I have some strong views too, as you know, but I strive never to let them come between myself and the people I am given to love. If I want them to tolerate me for the greater good, then I must extend the same grace to them.
And you know, I don’t even find this to be an imperative that’s difficult to observe. I don’t usually want to talk about politics, because I find so few people, on either the left or the right, can do so with a presumption of good faith all around. Every political discussion turns not into an exchange of ideas in which both parties state their views and argue dispassionately, but into opportunities for moral one-upsmanship. Fox Geezers are among the most egregious offenders, but by no means the only ones. If you ever go slumming in the comments section of New York Times op-ed columnists, you see what that kind of thing looks like on the left.
UPDATE: Reader Mark Perkins offers an interesting observation about how his conservative parents’ views didn’t change when they became addicted to Fox, but the intensity with which they held them did:
I grew up watching very little television. Then when I was in ninth grade we started looking to buy a new car. I promise that’s not a non-sequitur.
It turns out that the new Dae Woo dealership in town had a promotion: test drive one our cars, get a free Dish Network subscription for a year. My dad did the drive, and we got the Dish.
Over the course of the next year Fox News slowly took over our house. For a while, the main thing we watched was the O’Reilly Factor, which became appointment viewing each night. But it expanded from there. When the following summer came around–and I was home during the day–I was shocked by how much my mom watched during the day. Again, we rarely watched TV before this, and now my parents were watching 3, 4, 5 hours of TV a day, and that was almost exclusively Fox News.
It’s hard to exaggerate what effect the transition from major network news to Fox News had. It’s not that my parents’ actual views changed… Though never fundamentalists, they’d always been more or less part of “the Religious Right,” and my parents would always grumble about the liberal bias of mainstream media.
What changed was the intensity with which they held those views. Politics went from a significant but not at all central part of daily discourse to the overwhelmingly #1 concern. The amount of time my parents spent talking (and, presumably, thinking) about politics skyrocketed. As did the level of frustration and anger and vitriol. My parents seemed constantly angry about things over which they had zero control, bitter about matters that had nothing to do with them.
A few years later–recognizing that it was not a healthy influence–my parents got rid of the Dish. At some point my mom remarked that her stress levels had considerably lowered since she stopped watching Fox News. Since then they’ve gone back-and-forth with Dish or cable–one year they’ll have it, the next year they ditch it. But they’ve never returned to binge-watching Fox News.
They still watch it sometimes, and their political views are largely the same. And sometimes they can be angry and bitter about politics. But it’s not constant anymore. It’s not the regular state of being. I think the spell has been broken. They recognize at least some of the limitations of Fox News–they laugh at how ridiculous Sean Hannity is, for instance–and they do a somewhat better job of avoiding being completely sucked into things that have no relevance to their lives.