A Not-So-Fine Whine

Sherwin B. Nuland, a self-described octogenarian socialist, writes in The New Republic about “Fitness and Outrage.” Nuland opens with this:

One evening a few months before my eightieth birthday, I found myself addressing an audience of approximately a hundred men and women on a topic to which I have devoted considerable study during the past decade or so. My subject was the process of aging, and the ways in which current gerontological research is teaching us to deal with it….

During the course of my talk, I focused—as does much of the recent scientific, clinical, and general literature—on the optimistic. I stressed the role of determination and conscious effort in combating certain of the ravages that nature inflicts on those of us in the latter decades of life. I spoke of the importance of physical exercise, the creativity that comes with continued intellectual exploration, the critical importance of a personal sense of closeness to family and the surrounding community. Such essential patterns of living are easily explained, and they were more or less familiar to the upper-middle-class audience of friends and benefactors of the university medical center to which I had been invited….

So far, so good. But at the end of Nuland’s talk, which is applauded by all but one member of his audience, the holdout confronts him:

But then a hand shot up, whose owner was a red-faced, chokingly angry man in the first row who appeared to be about sixty years old and to have deliberately disregarded the instructions on the event’s invitation that gentlemen wear business attire…. I cannot recall the exact outpouring of words that he more spewed than spoke, but they were very much like the following, if a bit less organized: “What you’re saying is all very well, but don’t you realize that it applies only to men and women of means and education? The vast majority of the elderly don’t know about these things, and couldn’t afford them in any event. They often live alone and friendless or in some publicly subsidized care facility. Your ideas are suitable only for the more favored of older people. Society neglects everyone else and doesn’t care about them. Maybe you don’t, either.”

This bit of whining irrelevance is followed by Nuland’s long apology that not everyone has the wherewithal — financial, emotional, and physical — to age gracefully. Nuland ends with this:

Regardless of [his] studied outrage and air of sanctimony, … the fulminating fellow who engaged me at the medical center deserve[s] the gratitude of the rest of us, who might otherwise continue in our own form of self-righteousness without stopping to consider that privilege has its responsibilities. Paramount among those responsibilities is to support the sweeping societal changes without which the bodily benefits accruing to us are unavailable to men and women who have not had our good fortune.

And thus the sense of entitlement that has swept over the land since the advent of Social Security and Medicare marches on. The fact that some persons are able to live out their years in relatively good health and sound mind is now cause for complaint that not all persons are able to do so.

It is as if everyone must be equal in all respects, and that those who fare better in some respects are guilty of something. What that something is, I don’t know. It isn’t theft. It isn’t fraud. It isn’t coercion or deception. It is nothing but good genes (a matter of luck, not theft, fraud, or deception) and the hard work that’s required to earn a decent living and stay healthy.

Why is it self-righteous to enjoy one’s old age if one can do so? Where is the privilege in taking advantage of one’s own good genes and one’s own efforts? Are we contestants in some lottery, in which the number of good genes and the amount of effort is limited, so that there are winners and losers? Is it the responsibility of the “winners” to give some of their “winnings” to the losers? This kind of fallacious, zero-sum thinking is typical of redistributionists of Nuland’s ilk.

Nuland has journeyed to the depths of envious egalitarianism. And he can stay there.