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Gerontocracy



California Senator Diane Feinstein, may she finally rest, died in office on September 28. That’s how she wanted it. She clove to that office. As Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg clove to hers. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell cleaves to his. Tears and tribute have poured out from every quarter (a gift of fleeting unity such passings offer). The remembrances highlight the courageous, sometimes feisty, always practical trailblazer that Feinstein was throughout almost the length of her career — not the wheelchair-ridden, manifestly confused old woman she became in recent months. A senator largely in name, her diminishment interfering with signal national business during a crucial moment.


I realize it is gauche to highlight this glaring fact at this particular moment. But you can count on me to say the unsaid, even when it’s gauche.


What with the devastating effect of Ginsburg’s refusal to resign on President Obama’s watch playing out in one Supreme Court decision after another, and the image of McConnell struck dumb in the midst of press appearances, and President Biden’s arthritic hobble, comments on the American Gerontocracy have come thick and fast. Most focus on practicalities: mental acuity, likelihood of an ill-timed death, experience gap with the bulk of prospective voters, that kind of thing.


I’d like to raise a different issue: a societal one.


In pre-modern cultures, and in some places down to the more recent past, there was a recognized stage of life that we have abolished: elderhood. The phase embraced adults past their physical prime, but entering into the kind of wisdom and insight and broader perspective that only comes with varied experience and, typically, an episode or two of humiliation — which brings a kind of learning that can only come through failure. Entering this role often required a rite of passage every bit as challenging as the initiation rites that ushered age-groups of youth into full adulthood.


There is a gorgeous Seneca tale that treats of this life passage.


Earlier in the hero’s career, of course, comes the passage into manhood, and all its trials and labors: climbing Ice Mountain; reviving the bones of those who tried before him and slipped on its glassy slopes; killing the many-fanged witch; you get the idea.


But more striking to me is what happens later, when The Listener has grown thin of hair and a little stiff in the knees. He’s resting on his past laurels, clinging to his status as a great hunter. Then comes a test he was warned of way back in his youth. A little too sure of himself, a little too entitled, he fails, and his eyes fly right out of his head. Then a bitter time of dispossession arrives for the stone-blind old man. He stoops to hiring himself out as a scarecrow. (How low can you go?)


Eventually, however, The Listener manages to fashion a strange and magical bow and arrow. With them, blind as he is, he brings down a deer. He asks that the deer’s eyes be put in his sockets. And lo! He can see! But the world looks entirely different. It’s bluish. He seems to have gained the ability to glimpse what is happening behind his back.

When those eyes dim, he accepts other animals’ offerings of theirs.


That is, The Listener shifts perspective. And thus he becomes an elder: a man revered no longer for his feats of arms, but for his Sight.

I invite you to listen to the great myth-teller Martin Shaw perform this story. Here is the first of four parts, which opens at the very dawn of the hero’s career, as a turbulent youth. The later test, if memory serves, comes in Part Three. But all four are well worth the listen, including the discussion after each. You should be able to follow links from one to the other along the right hand side of the YouTube page.


Here, though, is the point I am trying to make. The Listener — and generations of elders like him — was revered in that particular and irreplaceable role: the role of those with sight. It is the role of councillor, the person situated a bit off to the edge of the ruckus of the society, who is sought out for the different or deeper insight they can offer. Elders are those who have dared to take on the blue-lit perception of the deer, the acuity and breadth of vision of the osprey, the sonic imagery of the dolphin. They then are able to offer such perspectives up to the prime-of-life adults whose hands are still on the levers, in the dough of daily decision-making.


Crucial here is this fact: among elders, the investment of ego in the details of the outcome is releasing. The wisdom is on offer, no constraints. No gnashing of teeth in frustration at being unable to make this or that thing happen.


We no longer honor this role. As a result, there is nowhere for our McConnells or Bidens or Feinsteins to go, where they feel their contribution to society has value and effect. And so they cling to the levers; they stay ferociously invested in the day-to-day effects of their actions; they keep their hands deep in that dough till the nerves fail and the skin flays, souring the mixture.


Meanwhile, the full-fledged adults who should be rising to leadership roles are left dancing attendance. Or, disgusted, they turn away from public affairs.


This is no way to run a society.


And this, to me, is the real problem with our gerontocracy. It’s not just the concern that elderly men and women who hold high office may falter and interrupt important work, or die — or fail to die — at really unfortunate junctures. It’s also that we have deprived ourselves of a crucial social role. We have deprived ourselves of the human capacity to hold our sacred collective knowledge and bring it forth when needed. And we have deprived our elders of the opportunity to fill that role, and to be honored for the unique gifts they have to offer, instead of sniggered at for their physical frailties and their stubborn self-delusion.

7 Comments


I had a difference between Western and Chinese views on this explained as....


Westerners give thanks to an all knowing and all seeing God, while Chinese revere and thank their ancestors, (going all the way back to the Xia) that carved an existence out of wilderness as being the providers. I kinda like that view.

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Yes, so true - just as we failed our society for years in excluding minorities and women from valuable roles, as our lives lengthen we deprive the older people and ourselves of their contributions. Idea: many institutions need "Wisdom Boards," those who have been there, done that, and can keep the faith alive in the institutions they formerly served. See:http://buddshenkin.blogspot.com/2021/05/the-case-for-professional-quality.html. But in addition, there are old-olds and young-olds, a Gaussian curve of elder abilities. I'd say, for instance, that given Biden's unexpectedly strong performance, he might be qualified to continue. See: http://buddshenkin.blogspot.com/2023/09/bidens-age-gift-or-burden.html

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David Grunwald
David Grunwald
Oct 01, 2023

Sarah does it again offering a refreshing ice drink in the desert of polarized America. The true cost of Gerontocracy is that the Senators will basically be political appointments as was prior to the 17th amendment when state legislatures chose the Senators with the expected result of mass corruption. California, arguable the most powerful or at least influential state in the Union now has a second Senator appointed by a Governor. Get the trend? Once appointed, the Party Machine goes into overdrive and assures the selectee the seat. I wonder during Feinstein's convalescence who really ran the affairs of the 20 millions entrusted to her leadership in representing them? Madison and the Founders struggled with the composition on the…

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Fred Albrecht
Fred Albrecht
Sep 30, 2023

It's possible that our national attitude towards aging derives from our national aversion to confronting our eventual deaths. Traditional cultures almost universally respect the aged. The Eskimo/?Inuit attitude toward death in the pitiless Arctic is covered in the book "Kabloona," by Gontran de Poncins. For a humorous evisceration of old people who learn little or nothing through their years, listen to the Austin Lounge Lizards "Old Blevins," available in many iterations on youtube. My personal belief is that a little more respect for elders would help our culture, but it's a double edged sword.

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Among the people I talk to about politics, it's the older ones (80s) who are most vocal about voting in younger leaders. I don't know what the solution is, but a mix of ages brings fresh perspectives to whatever's on topic. I'm in a recently formed group after our adult ed program's political science class ended, and the age range is 82 to 27. It's wonderful to hear the perspectives of everyone, and we're all eager to learn from each other. I know this is an ideal situation, not real-life politics, but it's a reminder we need to appreciate the good things the elderly Joe Biden is doing for this country, as he's steered us out of a potential disaste…

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