Magazine | October 20, 2014, Issue

Threescore Years and Fifteen

I want to live forever. Or, if that’s impractical, as long as science can keep me operational. Now, obviously, this means elevating my game — more salubrious foods, calisthenics, steering clear of second-hand smoke and what have you. But if my efforts fall short — and I’m inclined to believe that at some point they might — I expect technology to pick up the slack. If this entails replacing my limbs with bionic parts, so be it. If it necessitates pumping me full of experimental pharmaceuticals or plugging me into contraptions that keep vital organs functioning properly, go for it. Nanotechnology? Whatever that is, I’m all in. And, if all else fails, please upload my consciousness into a freshly grown clone — though, if it’s not too much trouble, let’s make this one more athletic.

In his now-infamous Atlantic essay “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” Ezekiel Emanuel, 57, subtly disparages people like me as “American immortals.” I take no offense. Emanuel, after all, is the director of something called the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. He also finds time to run the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. Or, in other words, there are people blessed with dazzling intellects who strive to unlock the secrets of the universe or devote their careers to making life more tolerable for the weak, sick, and elderly. And then there are people who crunch numbers to concoct arbitrary human expiration dates.

Old age, says Emanuel, leaves us faltering, declining, feeble, ineffectual, pathetic, and uncreative. Without even a single Ph.D. to my name, I’ve arrived at a similar conclusion. Growing old sucks. It can be depressing for the individual. A heart-wrenching burden for many families. And, also, better than most alternatives. This is why we humans have initiated a successful sweeping project to lengthen the Third Act — one of our most meaningful and moral undertakings, actually. This disturbs Emanuel, who claims that though proles live longer these days, they do not live more fulfilling lives. And while this might be true (though I doubt it), the most problematic part of Emanuel’s contention is his failure to answer the most vital question raised by his proposition: What kind of life is worth living?

Why am I alive? Maybe it’s an evolutionary need to be a father or maybe it’s an intellectual need to mock people who are by every calculable metric a lot smarter than I am. I don’t pretend to have the answer — probably because everyone’s answer is unique. What I think I do know, however, is how not to quantify life.

Life, for example, is not about being a cog in the collective. This is the basic rationalization Emanuel offers for his deadline — complete with a chart that plots the purpose of human existence. If you’re a productive person with high creative potential, your “first contribution” (interning at a nonprofit, perhaps) will be made in your mid 20s. Your “best” contribution (running for office or working for the Department of Zzzzzz) will be made in your late 30s. And your “last” contribution (authoring a memoir celebrating a life in public service) will be made in your early 60s. After that, well, what’s the point, right?

There are outliers, of course — Abraham didn’t father Isaac until he was 100, and Ronald Reagan wasn’t elected president until he was nearly 70 — but we should concede that research proves the older you are, the more likely it is that you’re engaged in piddling digressions such as visiting your grandchildren or binge-watching Murder, She Wrote. The chances of your authoring a white paper on a carbon tax or engaging in undertakings deemed beneficial by technocrats is rather low. Thank God.

Emanuel also advances the ugly idea that an uncomfortable life is not a life worth living. Half of Americans over 80 will be saddled with some functional limitations, he points out. A third of Americans over 85 will suffer from Alzheimer’s. Hips will hurt. Memories will fade. This is often tragic. But don’t millions of Americans live their lives with physical and mental limitations? Is their earthly existence worth the same as that of a 76-year-old — nothing? Emanuel says his proposition is a personal one, but if he believes his life — one we imagine he values more than most — isn’t worth extending past 75, what about others who fail to meet his criteria? This question goes unanswered.

Emanuel denies his piece is a stealth proposal to “save resources, ration health care, or address public-policy issues arising from the increases in life expectancy.” The stench is there, though. For decades an ugly Malthusian compulsion has infected the Left, leading it to think we should measure the value of life by its impact on the environment or its productivity. The implication is stupefying, anti-humanist, and immoral.

Emanuel preemptively claims that there will be spiritual reasons for people to reject his pseudoscientific trolling. Well, even skeptics who believe that existence is happenstance, that life serves no grand purpose, and that there is no afterlife to look forward to should be insulted. I’m reminded of an interaction in one of the most underrated Woody Allen films, Love and Death, in which the character Sonya asks: “But, if there is no God, then life has no meaning. Why go on living? Why not just commit suicide?” Woody Allen’s doppelgänger, Boris, retorts, “Well, let’s not get hysterical. I could be wrong. I’d hate to blow my brains out and then read in the paper that they found something.”

There’s no need to cash out on Pascal’s wager too early, especially when we don’t know what sort of technological developments are on the horizon. My selfish hope is that we make tremendous strides in this department in, say, the next 30 years. If I don’t become a supercentenarian, it’ll be the fault of society. Mostly of people like Ezekiel Emanuel.

– Mr. Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist.

David Harsanyi is a senior writer for National Review and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

Mind Not the Gap

It is no exaggeration to say that Republican politicians and strategists are obsessed with the gender gap. Unfortunately, they almost never think clearly about it. For decades, American women have been ...
Politics & Policy

Forget the Alamo

Senator Ted Cruz is a bright man with a bright idea: Conservatives have no power because their leaders have no principles. Rediscover the latter, he says, and we will recover ...
Politics & Policy

When Liberalisms Collide

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s thrice-elected prime minister, dominates his country’s politics. Recently reelected with a two-thirds parliamentary majority (for the second time), he has a claim to be the most successful ...

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

A Leviathan That Works

There aren’t enough bureaucrats in Washington. That’s the argument of John J. DiIulio Jr., a political scientist and former Bush-administration official. Before you laugh: President Eisenhower’s federal government spent, in ...
Politics & Policy

Old School

The year is 1993. The big Oscar-season movies are Schindler’s List, which makes a grave Hibernian named Liam Neeson famous, and Philadelphia, in which Denzel Washington tacks another critical success ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

Eliot Comes Home Thanks so much for that eloquent and thoughtful essay by Kevin D. Williamson on T. S. Eliot and his attachment to his hometown of St. Louis (“Looking for ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ The only Justice Department consultations Al Sharpton should be involved in concern state’s evidence. ‐ NBC New York reported that after nine months, the Justice Department investigation into those lane ...
Athwart

Java Jive

A faded sign on a hotel wall in Fargo, N.D.: “Just a cup of coffee to you, but a reputation to us.” I always appreciated the fear in the sentiment. ...
The Long View

In Re: Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky

Wilson & Sterling A professional corporation IN RE: CLINTON/CLINTON CONTINUATION-OF-MARRIAGE AGREEMENT 2000, AND ADDENDA, UPDATED OCTOBER 2014 Dear Steve: Many thanks for your phone call yesterday. I received your e-mail proposal this morning and ...

Most Popular

Elections

Diversity Panic Hits the Democratic Field

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. An Asian guy, two black guys, three white women (one of whom spent much of her life claiming to be Native American), a Pacific Islander woman, a gay guy, a Hispanic guy, two elderly Caucasian Jews (one a billionaire, the other a socialist), a self-styled Irishman, and a ... Read More
Elections

Diversity Panic Hits the Democratic Field

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. An Asian guy, two black guys, three white women (one of whom spent much of her life claiming to be Native American), a Pacific Islander woman, a gay guy, a Hispanic guy, two elderly Caucasian Jews (one a billionaire, the other a socialist), a self-styled Irishman, and a ... Read More
Law & the Courts

The FBI’s Corrupt Cops

White-collar criminals should hope for one thing this Christmas: that they get to live under the Horowitz rules. Michael Horowitz has testified that he found no evidence of political bias on the part of the decision makers who, under the Obama administration, relied on hilariously implausible “evidence” ... Read More
Law & the Courts

The FBI’s Corrupt Cops

White-collar criminals should hope for one thing this Christmas: that they get to live under the Horowitz rules. Michael Horowitz has testified that he found no evidence of political bias on the part of the decision makers who, under the Obama administration, relied on hilariously implausible “evidence” ... Read More
White House

Is Trump the Only Adult in the Room?

Donald Trump certainly is mercurial at times. He can be uncouth. But then again, no president in modern memory has been on the receiving end of such overwhelmingly negative media coverage and a three-year effort to abort his presidency, beginning the day after his election. Do we remember the effort to ... Read More
White House

Is Trump the Only Adult in the Room?

Donald Trump certainly is mercurial at times. He can be uncouth. But then again, no president in modern memory has been on the receiving end of such overwhelmingly negative media coverage and a three-year effort to abort his presidency, beginning the day after his election. Do we remember the effort to ... Read More