Age and The Man

Much of the discussion about the U.S. presidential election has revolved around the question of Joe Biden’s fitness for office, and above all his fitness to serve a prospective second term. This narrative feeds all too well into the general tenor of our progressive late modernity with regard to the question of age, wherein it has become increasingly common and disturbingly easy to dismiss “the elderly” as wearisome and ridiculous humans who have outlived their social usefulness, and ought therefore to be ignored or, when necessary, actively swept aside, in favor of younger generations and the myth of “new ideas.” The ancient and not-so-ancient traditions of tribal elders, honored elder statesmen, and wise advisors in the manner of Nestor, have been reversed in our age of politically convenient and ideologically indoctrinated disrespect for all past ways and views, which we are incessantly told are antiquated, oppressive, or laughable, with no argument required beyond the trivial truism, “It’s old.”

Is Joe Biden too old to serve as U.S. President? No. He is too dimwitted and absentminded to be president. The cause of these deficiencies, in his case, is at least in part the effects of aging. But if he were thirty-seven and acted this way (which to a considerable extent Biden actually did at that age), he would still have to be judged too dimwitted and absentminded to be president. The problem that disturbs me here is that Biden himself through his stubbornness, along with the easy-answer critics who cite his age as the primary concern about his candidacy, are, by implication, unfairly branding all eighty-one-year-olds as incompetent and mentally deficient. This branding is certainly true of many eighty-one-year-olds. But it is also true of many thirty-seven-year-olds. Whether the proportion of mental deficients is higher among eighty-one-year-olds than among thirty-seven-year-olds (far from self-evident, given the scale-rigging effects of modern education) is quite irrelevant — just as irrelevant, and for the same reason, as is the fact that the average IQ score among black Americans may be lower than that among Asian Americans, when it comes to deciding whether this or that individual black person is more or less intelligent than this or that individual Asian person. Collective numbers or averages reveal nothing about any individual human being, and individual humans are the only kind that exist.

It would be fair to ask whether it is prudent, all things being equal, to elect an eighty-one-year-old to a four-year presidential term, on the basis of sheer physical health concerns. On the other hand, one could easily imagine many scenarios in which all things were not equal, which is to say scenarios in which other factors trumped the ordinarily reasonable questions about the likelihood of an eighty-one-year old remaining healthy enough to risk the four-year commitment to a physically demanding job that allows very little room for unplanned rest breaks or extended recovery periods. For example, if the eighty-one-year-old’s main electoral rival happened to be an alarmingly ignorant seventy-eight-year-old sociopath driven by a lifelong resentment of the wealthy elites who found him too crass and embarrassing to invite into their old boys’ club, and by an infantile vainglory that is able to conceive of no higher outlet than an embarrassing lust for mainstream adulation (ratings! winning!), then this would seem to mitigate any physical health concerns regarding the eighty-one-year-old. 

Queen Elizabeth II held onto her title for dear life until Father Time caught up with her at last at age ninety-six, standing with an admirable sense of historic duty, for as long as physically possible, as the only bulwark between the British crown and her morally and mentally deficient eldest son, twenty-two years younger than she, but also twenty-two times less the person. Age is a factor in life, but ultimately only in the sense and to the extent that death is a factor. In many cases, however, the approach of death, troubling though it may be, ought to be far less worrisome than many other outcomes that might also be approaching. All concerns must be judged in their full context and weighed against all other relevant matters. 

None of the above, to be clear, is a case for supporting Joe Biden’s re-election bid, since he is clearly unfit both mentally and physically. As for whether his chief opponent is mentally or, at age seventy-eight, physically fit for a four-year presidential term, all things being equal, I would say the case for the No side is at least as strong as it is with Biden. Mental incompetence takes various forms, and while Biden is more evidently in a state of permanent distraction and intermittent loopiness, Trump’s delusional narcissism, his habituated capacity for masking every act of cowardly betrayal as a great victory, and his petulant inability to accept or abide by real-world outcomes unfavorable to his ego would seem to be disqualifying liabilities on a par with Biden’s senility, and for similar reasons, namely the country’s national security, international credibility, and pressing need for sober, principled leadership.

It is odd that this moment, when average lifespans are at all-time highs, and the human race increasingly obsessed with longevity for its own sake, should be the moment at which the reputation of, and respect for, old age, is at its historic nadir throughout most of the civilized world. Or rather, perhaps we ought to say “the formerly civilized world,” since a people that sees in its most experienced elders only deterioration and obsolescence — or tolerates them only to the extent that they agree to remain immature and never to challenge our radical dismantling of the world they made — is a people without a sense of history, continuity, and established standards of greatness. Such a people constitutes no civilization at all — or to be more precise, it represents the absolute rejection of the basic criteria of civilization.

If it were not already too late, this would be an ideal moment for the appearance of an old man of sobriety and wit with the leadership skills and resilient character needed to cut through the progressive fog of popular perceptions and remind a lost and desperate humanity of the purpose and pride from which they have been separated. Instead, the nation upon whose fate the fate of the modern world rests has given mankind, for three consecutive election cycles now, the worst imaginable exemplars of old age: bitter clingers to power and anger, meandering ignoramuses who cannot complete a coherent sentence, and perennial toddlers addicted to fame and self-promotion, not one of them with a rational principle in his or her head, or a noble sentiment in his or her heart. 

In the not-so-distant past, many black Americans, including some very prominent and accomplished ones, decried the rise and popularization of vulgar thuggery in “black culture” (rap, hip-hop), lamenting the days of Nat King Cole, Jackie Robinson, Duke Ellington, and Sidney Poitier, when it was understood that the best rebuttal to the disrespect of the ignorant was to be, in the most brilliant and undeniable ways, everything the bigots claimed you could not be, and to be those things better than the bigots themselves could do it. In this respect, being a sober and responsible old man or woman in the West today is very similar to being a respectable black American seventy-five years ago. What must such men and women feel when they see themselves caricatured, on the biggest and most historically momentous stage, by the likes of Joe Biden and Donald Trump? They must feel exactly as men like Thomas Sowell feel about the “culture” of hip-hop and rap. 

Perhaps then, to round off this topic by bringing my theme and my final analogy together in a convenient fashion, we may conclude with a few remarks from Thomas Sowell on the effects of “black culture” and race politics on the fate of today’s American black population. This interview was conducted in early 2013, coinciding with the release of his new book of that year, Intellectuals and Race. At the time of the interview, Sowell was eighty-two years old. 

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