May 21, 2019

Twilight of the Racist Uncles

“THERE IS A FAMILY FRIEND, a man I’ve known for decades. A highly educated man with total financial security in his recent retirement. A man who always had a good story to tell or an interesting side of a conversation to hold up. Then, a few years ago, he got on Facebook. Reading his timeline became an exercise in watching a man’s descent into madness. Over the summer I was surprised to learn that he had purchased three very expensive AR-15 semiautomatic rifles. When I asked why, he said, “For the race war that’s coming” in a tone that suggested no further explanation would be necessary.

If you are under the age of fifty, the odds are that you have at least one older person in your life who has gone down this road in the last few years. If you are white, I am certain of it. Lamenting our older relatives’ journey down the rabbit hole of right-wing paranoia and vituperation feels, at times, like my generation’s version of having the big talk about putting Nana in a nursing home. “Losing a parent” has dual meanings for us after 2016. We’re dealing with the loss of people who are very much alive—but who have become such chaotic stews of anger, persecution complexes, racism, and half-assed conspiracy theories that they can no longer hold a normal conversation.

Intergenerational tension is hardly new; it dates roughly back to mankind’s mastery of fire. In this case, though, more than a typical generation gap separates us, thanks to a nearly irresistible system designed to draw in old white people and get them hooked on an outrage fix they end up needing every bit as much as their Lipitor.

Though Fox News binging is typically blamed for this phenomenon, viewership data doesn’t support the argument. Fox News tops cable news ratings, but cable news is a small, declining market compared to, say, televised sports, Netflix streaming, or anodyne sitcoms. The number of people sitting saucer-eyed in front of the TV all day watching News Corp render the arts of satire and parody moot is significant in Nielsen terms but quite meager compared to the audience of Monday Night Football.”

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