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Biden's SOTU: "Old ideas" talk back to an old man

By Selwyn Duke
web posted March 11, 2024

Joe Biden"Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes," noted G.K. Chesterton a century ago. This is brought to mind by the modern obsession with "new ideas," typified by Joe Biden's implicit touting of them during his State of the Union address.

The issue "isn't how old we are; it's how old our ideas are," he said last Thursday evening. He's right, too.

And, usually, the "older" the ideas, the better.

There's an irony to Biden's appeal: He doesn't want to be dismissed out of hand over age.

But he does want ideas dismissed out of hand over age.

(Though there's a contradiction here. More on that momentarily.)

Neither should be done, of course. When I needed a certain kind of physician some years back, I purposely chose an 81-year-old man still in practice precisely because, good profiling informed, he was more likely to be imbued with "old ideas"; as examples, I was thinking about virtues such as Diligence (which relates to conscientiousness, dutifulness) and Prudence (which meant he was less likely to fancy that you can change sexes at will like some science-fiction shape-shifter). I was not disappointed.

The problem with Biden is not that he's old. The problem (aside from the lack of cognition) is the same thing that could be an issue with a person of any age or, in fact, an idea of any age: He has repeatedly shown himself to be lacking and to have little relationship to Truth.

Biden proceeded to say in his address, "Hate, anger, revenge, retribution are among the oldest of ideas…." Well, so are their opposites: Love, Patience and Forgiveness. Should we dispense with those "ideas," too, because they weren't disgorged from Berkeley last Thursday?

Ideally, one should have a child's heart and an old soul; you then have both wisdom and whimsy. It's those with an old heart and a childish soul who mindlessly tout "new ideas." Ecclesiastes informs that "there is nothing new under the sun." With many, many millennia of human civilization and striving behind us, of inventing and innovating and originating, do you really think a political/social-sphere "new idea" (or new mistake) isn't almost as rare as a unicorn?

In reality, virtually everything, if not everything, we most treasure is old. Pizza, reputedly children's favorite food, dates back approximately a thousand years. Basketball and bike riding, respectively kids' favorite sport and activity, both originated in the 19th-century. So did acetaminophen, Americans' most commonly used pain remedy. (Hey, why not use an untested drug instead? It'll be new!) Then, do you like refrigeration, indoor plumbing, flush toilets and other basic conveniences? They're all now fairly old.

In fact, people sometimes grumble when seeing on a product "New and Improved!" as it may just mean different and less palatable. (How did "New Coke" work out?) People are, personally and in practice, creatures of the status quo — otherwise known as "conservatives."

What's more, having universally "old" status is far truer of ideas than of products and technology; the latter of which, especially, is often new and sometimes scary. Artificial intelligence is a great example, and we have yet to see if it will write man's next chapter or his last. And if it does author our demise, it won't be because it operates based on a new idea, but an old mistake.

In reality, when a would-be leader trumpets "new ideas," employ an age-old method that can save you from him: rejection. For such a person is either running a con or running his mouth, which is at least one step ahead of his brain.

A case in point is that Biden also insisted Thursday that "you can't lead America with ancient ideas…." Yet what he has repeatedly vowed to perpetuate and defend, "democracy," is an ancient idea. It dates back about 2,500 years to ancient Athens and 508 B.C.! Also ancient is being what we actually are, a "republic."

So the real question for a civilization — and in our upcoming election — is not whether to choose "new" or "old" ideas, especially since new ideas, for the most part, don't exist. The real question is what old ideas to embrace (just as our choice in candidates involves what old man to elect!) Yet to understand this properly, we must correct our terminology: Men get old, and also wise or just wizened.

Ideas get proven true or discredited and, unlike with people, it's silly to mainly conceptualize them as "old." For there are only two types of ideas: good ideas and bad ideas.

Or, we could say, erroneous ideas and eternal ideas.

The Founding Fathers did not say, "We hold these old ideas to be self-evident…" or even "We hold these ideas to be self-evident…," but, "We hold these truths to be self-evident…."

A truth, properly understood, is an eternal idea. It's not old or young because it's not of this age or that age, but is ageless (even if it was just recognized by man 200 years ago). That microscopic organisms can cause disease was only discovered relatively recently in history, but it was always true.

Likewise, that murder (correctly defined as the unjust killing of a human being), rape and theft are wrong — and that a virtuous people's freedom is better than tyranny — are always and everywhere true.

Speaking of confusion, Biden followed his assertion that you can't govern a country with "ancient ideas" with the warning that they "only take us back." Now, if we're to use these concepts of "backwards" and "forwards" to describe civilizational change, note that "going back" is often beneficial. Just as a sick man wants to go back to his former state of robust health, so did we want to go back to fuller employment after statist governors destroyed millions of jobs with misguided COVID lockdowns. But, of course, Biden was alluding to the notion of "progress" (and its antithesis).

As Chesterton also put it, however, "Progress is a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative." That is, progress implies movement toward a goal. Insofar as we're unsure of the goal (i.e., as confused relativists will be), we'll be unsure of the progress. Of course, though, only discerning Truth can ensure that the goal is worth progressing toward to begin with, that it involves the actuation of an eternal idea.

So beware anyone who would sell you on destroying the "old" status quo in favor of the "new." For this idea — tearing down statues, monuments and institutions as the cultural landscape is denuded — is also not new. The French revolutionaries did it, attempting to restart history with their new calendar (1792), just as Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in 1960s China and the Khmer Rouge had their "Year Zero" in '70s Cambodia. They all promised a new tomorrow. But all they did was replace old ideas, and often eternal ones, with another old idea: tyranny.

In truth, the Truth never gets old. In November, you'll be picking an old man and old ideas; just make sure it's the old man who can endure and the old ideas that are eternal.

For those who disagree, well, don't vote — for suffrage is now a very, very old idea. ESR

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