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“An elderly man with a poor memory.” That’s what the report by Special Counsel Robert Her said about Joe Biden. It’s been endless fodder, instantaneously, for everything from the absurd to the predictable to the asinine. Cue op-eds in the New York Times breathlessly demanding Joe Biden step down. Presto, articles about invoking the 25th Amdenment to force Biden out of office, on grounds of mental incompetence.
Let’s take a deep breath, and understand what’s really going on here, which is sad, pathetic, and ugly.
There are many, many reasons not to like Joe Biden. Especially right now. Just 15% of young people approve of his handling of what’s happening in Gaza. Minorities are shaking their heads and walking away, baffled, while the Democrats suddenly tack hard to the right, shattering their fragile progressive-center coalition. Don’t like him? Fair enough, I’m not here to persuade you to.
But. We need to be clear about our grounds. There’s a difference between a substantive grounds for breaking a coalition, fair enough. And a flimsy one, that only plays into the hands of the hard right.
There’s a big difference between age and ageism, in this case.
America’s a brutal, indifferent society. And one of the ways in which it’s so is that it’s profoundly ageist. You don’t notice this, entirely, until you live elsewhere. And then suddenly you realize that in America, elderly people are effectively disappeared. You barely see them in everyday life, if at all, whereas in most of the rest of the world, from Asia to Europe, there they are, going about their business, because, after all, they exist too.
When I was really young, growing up between continents, this struck me so intensely that I’d follow old people around in America when I saw them—curious, perplexed. Where did they go? Why didn’t I see them nearly as often as everywhere else?
Ageism is a norm, and it’s one that’s to be expected from a hypercapitalist society. As your “utility” and “productivity” diminish—or, worse, are thought to diminish—so too your place in society disappears. You no longer have the right to exist, socially, morally, culturally. And in America, we can see this norm in operation everywhere. In the corporate world, 40 is now considered “old.” Looking for a job after 50 is considered to be a dicey affair, that’ll provoke looks of pity, crossed with scorn. You leave your age off your CV after you cross your 30s, nervously hoping that recruiters and “human resource” managers won’t piece the puzzle together. You pretend to be young.
Young and perfect. And this norm has accelerated, sped up, turbo-charged, in recent years. Who do we pretend to be on social media? Not old and wise. YouTube face is a sardonic expression of youthful naïveté. Wow, Mom, I’m amazed! I’m gawping in awe! On Instagram, beauty standards for women have crossed the point of caricaturing youth, and become grotesque, provoking a backlash even amongst the young.
Who does America lionize? Americans are told to revere figures like boy geniuses—Zuck. Middle-aged billionaires—the creepy guy who bought Twitter. And so on. Ageism and patriarchy go hand in hand. Go gray, and your career’s in peril, whether artist, singer, tycoon. If you’re a woman, the price is exponentially higher. Stay young at all costs is the message, and it’s received loud and clear, in the form of plastic surgery, fillers, enhancements, endless workouts, the appearance of youth—not just superficially, but in its deeper values of energy, enthusiasm, and positivity—everywhere, all the time.
Ageism is bad for us. It’s bad for all of us. There is absolutely no link—none whatsoever—between youth and, in this case, good political leadership. Take a hard look at Europe’s rising far right. It’s led by relatively young people, for politics—in their 40s, often. Shall we say that just because someone is younger, it makes for a better leader, then? Surely only a fool would conclude that.
Ageism is a form of bias, in this sense. But what form of bias, in particular, in this context?
The reason that the far right is rising is because people are seeking safety, security, and strength, in an age of chaos, ruin, and fracture. So they’re turning to strongmen, as the turn of phrase goes. Strongmen. Strong-men. Strong…men.
What image does that conjure up in your head? Muscles. Manes of hair, maybe. Virility. A bellowing tone of voice, perhaps. It doesn’t matter—we all know what the cliche of male power is. It’s exemplified, of course, by one Donald Trump. Just a few years younger than Biden—and yet his image management, as crude as it is, works wonders, to a media as feckless and gullible as America’s. He shouts and roars and jeers and taunts and whines. He dyes his hair and combs it over his bald spot. He wears oversized suits to hide the decades of ill-health.
Miraculously, or whatever the opposite of miraculous is…all this crude manipulation of an image works.
Works…in his favor. Because there’s an ageist, patriarchal bias. And so by portraying this incredibly crude image of male power, Trump becomes the strongman. Even though he’s also an elderly man, in far poorer health, most likely than Biden, and if mental acuity is really the test here, well, whose finger would you prefer to hold the nuclear trigger? Are you kidding? Comparing the mental acuity of a figure like Joe Biden—as problematic as he is—to someone like Trump, who just said out loud that Russia should happily attack NATO countries…is beyond absurd. Past ridiculous. It’s grotesque and obscene. Trump’s out there giving Putin license to start World War III…and Biden’s the one with mental issues?
This is how ageism warps us. Our judgments. Biases make us stupid. In this case, rather than seeing Trump for who he is, he’s able to portray the image of a strongman, using, like I said, the incredibly crude tools of hair dye, oversize suits, jeering-whining-shouting, and belligerence plus aggression. That’s what male “strength” is, or at least the caricature of it, to a patriarchal system, and in that system, too, age is a burden and a liability, so even the king must appear to always be virile, manly, and not just “powerful”, but more precisely, all-powerful.
Ageism makes us stupid in that way. We’re unable to see Trump as the pathetic moral weakling that he is, at least enough of us, dazzled by this dollar store Hitler he’s portraying. Trump’s two decade older than Hitler, though, if you see my point, which is that the manipulation works, because the bias is there to fool us into believing a lie.
Age and ageism. What is it that makes us so…mean…to old people? In a sense, the answer’s obvious. We hate them. For reminding us that this terrible malady is coming for us, too. And there’s not a thing we can do about it. We must all endure this curse together. We must all endure this curse alone. We will age. Our bodies will wear out. Our minds will slow. The ache in us will grow. We will burn out like candles. No part of us is permanent. Every single day, we live in denial of this fact, bought with stuff, purchased with status, given to us by our children. And yet the inescapable truth remains. Time turns us all to dust. Hooded fate watches us, holding his scythe, preparing for the threshing.
We hate old people for reminding us. Not just of our mortality. But of what’s even deeper than that. Our powerlessness over it. The ways in which we will become weak, and the despair and loneliness of it. The certainty of it, and the finality of it. We hate them with a bitter, cruel vengefulness, and their existence itself warns us what awaits us, which is why we disappear them.
But there are gifts, too, that come with age, and only with age. Wisdom. Grace. Truth. As we age, so, if we live well, our capacities to love, to hold, to see, to know—all these ripen, and suddenly unfurl, exploding into the fullness of what human possibility really is. Is a man or woman weak because they can barely walk anymore—or are they incredibly strong, because they can teach us how to love and what to cherish and what matters in every moment? Is a person weak, because they can’t recall what they had for breakfast yesterday morning—or are they wise, because they can trace the patterns of history, and reveal the meaning of grace?
Every human heart is broken. Only as we age do we really understand this fully, well, truly, and appreciate the beauty in it. We take the time to contemplate all our regrets. The failed relationships, the broken marriages, the lost loved ones. The ways in which our lives didn’t work out. Through this process, and only through this process, do we understand the universality of human suffering. The inescapability of it. The follies of the lesser sins of egotism, narcissism, selfishness. The destructive power of the greater ones, of vanity, greed, and hatred. And through our broken hearts shines the light of creation itself, in this way, embracing all, in the spirit of love and truth and goodness.
Age doesn’t equal maturity. Trump is old, but he’s a man-child, who never matured. Biden? He remains the problematic figure that perhaps he was destined to be. Count that against him if you must. But what’s certain is that a lapse in memory here or there is no mark against maturity. The human heart, like the mind, comes to be full, as it ages. Full of so much. Regret, remorse, mistakes, misjudgments, could-have-beens. Maturity transforms that lead into gold. Through this pain the ego surrenders itself to the universal, and in that precise instant, love is born. The highest kind. Not just that of the mother for the newborn. But that of the first mother and father, for all the children who ever were.
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