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Book Review / Non-Fiction

Calling on Senior Citizens to Be the Fulcrums of a New Society

AMERICA THE WISE: The Longevity Revolution and the True Wealth of Nations by Theodore Roszak; Houghton Mifflin $25, 272 pages

September 25, 1998|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Theodore Roszak stands in the long line of idealistic American reformers wanting to build a new and better society. From the Puritans to the abolitionists to the Progressives to the New Dealers, the drive toward social improvement is embedded in the republic that itself promised a revolutionary method of governing human affairs.

Roszak, a professor of history at Cal State Hayward, came to national attention with his "The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition," in which he sympathetically analyzed the causes of the worldwide youthful rebellions of the 1960s.

In a spate of later books, both nonfiction and fiction, Roszak argued for the integration of science with other modes of consciousness, including mysticism and aesthetics.

Now, at age 65, and after a serious brush with death, Roszak has found a new cause in "America the Wise." It lies in the rapidly growing number of older Americans. More and more people are living longer and longer. In these "New People," as Roszak calls those from 50 to 100 and above, he sees the possibility of creating the compassionate and creative society he now ruefully acknowledges he once, when young, thought lay only in the power of the young.

Now, Roszak says, he has come to understand that "to believe that change comes from ideological fervor, that history is made by imposing bright, untested ideas on life, is a sad, though all too common, misunderstanding--whether the ideas are liberal, radical or conservative."

"It takes some growing up and some growing old," he continues, "to learn that life-affirming and enduring change comes not from theories or principles ('headtripping,' as we used to call it) but from a wisdom of the heart--by which I mean truths people learn from a full and well-examined life."

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The recognition of this platitude does not crumble, however, as it has for so many other people of his once leftish bent, into conservative or reactionary codgerdom. He simply remains an idealistic radical under a new banner. "Longevity," he proclaims, "is here, it is inevitable, it is good."

Those years we live longer than our parents and grandparents did, he argues, we should think of as a "cultural and spiritual resource reclaimed from death the same way the Dutch reclaim fertile land from the waste of the sea."

"During any one of those years," he continues, "somebody who no longer has to worry about raising a family, pleasing a boss or earning more money will have the chance to join with others in building a compassionate society where people can think deep thoughts, create beauty, study nature, teach the young, worship what they hold sacred and care for one another."

The strongest part of Roszak's book lies in his argument for a "compassionate economy," in which older people are perceived not as a drag on the rest of the nation but as a resource worth tending and supporting.

He scorns those who would curb Social Security and Medicare. He says the high cost of medicine is the result of better medicine and, therefore, is a common good to be paid for without quibbling. He is contemptuous of those who, like former Gov. Dick Lamm of Colorado, speak of a duty to die. For most of us, life is much better as we age than it used to be; we don't want to die, he quite sensibly says, unless we are in intractable pain or despair. In short, Roszak is calling for a welfare state more generous than the one we have now, which is so much more generous than it was 50 years ago.

The weakest aspect of "America the Wise" is that he gives no indication of how, politically or economically, the society he wishes for can be brought about. But he is, after all, an idealist, not a politician, and not an especially rigorous thinker.

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