[I posted some of this over at Mano’s]
You’ve probably heard the parable (which is wrong, by the way) about boiling a frog in water, if you raise the temperature slowly. Allegedly, the frog keeps adjusting its notion of ‘acceptable’ as it gets hotter and hotter, until finally it dies. You’ve probably also heard of the “Overton Window” – the acceptable range of political discourse, which can be manipulated toward one side or another by normalizing new extremes or closing off others. This is all part of the parcel of “vague concepts” – concepts in which there is no clearly specified decision-point, e.g.: is there a specific number of hairs one needs to lose in order to be “balding”? Or is there one grain of sand more or less that constitutes “a pile of sand”? Is there a specific age or amount of physical or cognitive impairment that makes a president “too old”?
The philosophical gears are grinding pretty loudly over this topic, since the media is (finally!) starting to face the fact of Donald Trump’s cognitive decline. But that raises the equally grim spectre of Biden’s cognitive decline. In some democrat-heavy locales, just pairing those words together can get you flagged for “right wing talking points.” But, hey, in my opinion talking points are for the goose as well as the gander, and one of the essential techniques of philosophy is to ask, “if the situation were reversed, what would I think of it?” That’s an essential technique for evading some cognitive biases. So, consider the following:
[I do not expect you to watch the whole thing, just enough to get a feeling for how they speak today versus then]
That is Joe Biden 37 years ago.
That is Joe Biden recently. He’s clearly struggling just to read the teleprompter. His rhythm is not fluid – perhaps because he doesn’t see so well anymore, perhaps because he’s just not able to
lieread as fast anymore. We don’t know. But the difference is pretty profound, isn’t it? Of course he can still perform on a national stage, but he’s got to depend more carefully on his handlers helping him over the bumps and keeping him on track.
We do have a problem with authenticity if we want a leader to be able to speak extemporaneously, think on their feet, not fall down, spit their dentures, whatever. I did a series of posts on this topic back when I started out blogging here [stderr] and I haven’t changed my mind, much – although my mind has changed as a result of various brain injuries and whatnot that have reduced my memory and cognitive abilities. Am I more or less authentic still? Perhaps. There’s a gradation, isn’t there, between speaking extemporaneously, using PowerPoint, and using a teleprompter and a professional speechwriter. I really don’t like to think this but I’m afraid that Trump’s whirl-a-gabble speaking style is perhaps more authentic than Biden’s. Perhaps that tells me that my whole concept is wrong – or perhaps I’m engaging in a cognitive bias called “the sunk cost fallacy.” It really starts to hurt when you compare Trump and Biden to Barack Obama.
In my world-view, Biden was “presidential” 37 years ago and now he’s too old. At a point when you’ve got so much prep and handling, you’re more of a team effort or a special effect than anything else. I don’t believe that, as the big decision-maker, a president should be so checked out, mentally, that they need their handlers to intercept everything that is inbound. I know that was a problem with Ronald Reagan, republican superman. And every president has been surrounded by assistants and handlers to some degree, but “too old” is a vague concept but I think it also has teeth. I’m going to go a step further and say that if your reaction to the old Biden versus the current Biden was “he’s still capable of doing the job” you may have ceded my point: the fact that we’re asking the question is a form of answer to the question. It may not be “yes” but we’re discussing where a person is on the scale between “mature and in the prime of life” and “somewhat addled.”
Now, in the interest of bothsidesism: set the time machine for -37 years
As one of the commentariat(tm)(R) said, “he used to lie much more fluently.” And that is a point. Watching Trump’s speech mannerisms has become fascinating to me. Somewhere around 2016/17 he began speaking in “evangelical cant” – the tones and rhythms of evangelical preachers. Was that an accident, or deliberate? I have a theory based on no science at all that someone told him that if he sounded a bit more like a preacher, it would be more subconsciously acceptable to his fundamentalist base, who are used to listening to that kind of tones. Seriously.
I guess he’s not making fun of politicians that use teleprompters any more. I don’t want to start posting a lot of Trump stuff, but it’s interesting – I have spent considerable time around people with dementia (basically, everyone in my family tree has it to some degree, or died of it) and a lot of his speech mannerisms and other behaviors seem to telegraph dementia. Pretty advanced dementia, at that. For example, his puzzling reaction to the “boxes of secrets” crime is easily explainable as the well-rehearsed behaviors of a fraying mind trying to cling to a sense of normalcy and importance. [Also, consider Ronald Reagan, a professional actor, who fell back on his stage persona as the Alzheimers’ began to destroy him] In fact, if we’re talking about dementia, then long-term support for Israel might also be an irrational ingrained behavior.
In my opinion, both of these guys are too old to be president. I was OK with Biden’s first run (though I would have preferred a progressive who was less interested in reaching consensus with republicans) because I took him at his word that he wasn’t interested in 2 terms. I thought that he had done a good thing setting up a black woman (though I would have preferred a progressive) vice president, and that he’d give lots of camera-time to his heir apparent, setting her up for a 2024 run. Apparently, the democrats see Biden as “safe” and are going to run him again. Which is probably a good thing, because the alternative is horrible, but I still would prefer someone progressive who was interested in going to the mat with the republicans. That’s another disqualification for the “old fart” brigade – Trump and Biden ought to be out on some golf course arguing about who’s cheating at golf, not fighting over who has control of the nuclear “football.”
I am also unquestionably sick of American anti-semitic politicians who want Israel to succeed in order to trigger the end of days and other weird-ass christian genocidal shit. I realize that most of them don’t believe anything of that sort and that it’s more pro forma christian mouth-noises, but it’s still disturbing and makes me either a) doubt their sanity or b) assume they’re liars – either way, it’s bad. I am also unquestionably sick of American politicians who do not care a whit about what the Palestinians are subjected to. There is a term I encountered recently “Progressive except for Palestine” and, wow, have recent events made a lot of those folks haul aloft their banners and come charging out into the harsh light of day. Like the politicians, I’m stuck either doubting their sanity, their education, or their honesty. You know what I’ve learned in the last month? I’ve learned that American schools should teach a few semesters of philosophy. Because it’s a shit-show out there.