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Opinion Column
For the week of August 30 through September 5, 2000

Rudy of ‘Survivor’ fame gives older people a bad name

Commentary by JOELLEN COLLINS


I reluctantly found myself hooked this summer, along with millions of fellow viewers…I’d like to pretend that I watched ["Survivor"] for only the "right reasons," not as a voyeur responding to the basest of human machinations and intrigue. Unfortunately, I have to admit that it was just plain old good TV and a perfect summer idle pastime for an hour a week.


By now even the most die-hard fans of "Survivor," the summer TV sensation, are probably tired of hearing sociologists, psychiatrists, commentators and even comics pontificate on the meaning of the series.

I reluctantly found myself hooked this summer, along with millions of fellow viewers. I’d like to think that it was because I was using the material to make fascinating connections about the state of our society. I’d like to pretend that I watched the show for only the "right reasons," not as a voyeur responding to the basest of human machinations and intrigue.

Unfortunately, I have to admit that it was just plain old good TV and a perfect summer idle pastime for an hour a week.

I once asked my English students at Santa Monica High School in California to write about an entirely hypothetical situation where they would have to choose the people who would leave an overcrowded bomb shelter. As it was based on a suggestion in the National Council of Teachers of English journal, I had some backup when one of the parents complained that I was teaching my students to be "turncoats"—to betray their comrades.

The idea of the composition was to stimulate young writers to think about the human qualities they most valued—certainly provocative, but, I hoped, in the best sense of that word. I had also provided an alternate assignment for those students too squeamish to imagine conditions under which they might banish their fellow survivors. Well, guess what: I was ahead of my time, for that is what this recent TV make-believe exercise in survival of the fittest did.

I’m not going to join all the voices analyzing our penchant for ruthless victory in a quest for riches or any other possible lessons of the series. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to comment on one aspect of the island experiment about which I’ve heard very little.

I understand that we only glimpsed snippets of each island dweller. Without truly knowing Rudy, the elderly Navy Seal who made the final four, and without disparaging his recorded heroism in military service, I must register my anguish that he is being touted as an example of older Americans, akin to John Glenn.

I would hope that all the cliches we have held about aging aren’t reinforced by Rudy’s example of absolute inflexibility, narrow-minded bigotry (only on this show could someone use the words "queer" and "fag" so often and not be derided), selective memory lapses from a lack of interest rather than brain cells, and defensive and judgmental postures. Being old doesn’t mean that one has to be a crusty curmudgeon. Being old doesn’t mean that one has a right to be insensitive, prejudiced or nasty in one’s dealings with others.

Rudy gives people over 60 a bad name. Just as many "Generation X-ers" resent being labeled as such, I am reluctant to be viewed as the kind of person Rudy is merely because of my date of birth. I would hope that the qualities I admire, those of broadmindedness, acceptance, civility, tolerance and kindness, would have been exemplified in someone chosen for the spotlight as a representative of Rudy’s generation.

The most wonderful older citizens I know are not narrow-minded. While they may have formulated certain philosophical beliefs from long examination and experience, they have learned from the lessons of life to accept other viewpoints. Certainly being raised in the 20th Century has taught most of the "seniors" I know to be flexible, to roll with the punches. Otherwise, they could not have transitioned into the digital, computer chip world in which we now live.

Rather than dwelling on constant comparisons of the "good old days" with today, healthy elders remember their lives fondly but embrace the challenges of our current world. For example, we didn’t all walk miles to school through snowstorms, and many of us realize that we would find today’s curriculum requirements much more stringent that were ours.

Actually, I am several years younger than Rudy, so I don’t know why I’m feeling so uncomfortable with his being such a stereotype of grumpy old men. But then again I’m not in my 30s either, and I think people might lump me with his generation. So I guess I am just issuing a rejoinder.

When we allow racial and gender-based epithets to be bandied about because they are only the words of some "old" man, I think we are in dangerous territory. Should we applaud the person holding such views simply because he’s survived long enough to "get away" with stating them?

The book "When I Grow Old I Shall Wear Purple" posits a blessed time in life when, as old people, we are allowed to dress as we choose and be as impolite as we please. While I might buy the dressing part, I reject the uncivil accompaniment. I hope I never use age as an excuse to demean segments of society unfairly or give myself permission to be cranky. I hope, however old I grow, that I will be receptive to change, to keep an open view of the possibilities of life and people.

When I grow old I may wear purple, but I plan to still smile at, and with, the people I meet.

 

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