Friday, August 10, 2007


We often assume that achievement is fungible; talent in one subject provides a license to assert conclusions in areas unrelated to education, expertise or experience. Pronouncements from Rosie O'Donnell on the behavior of I-beams under intense heat comes to mind. Apparently the structural engineers on The View don't believe that fire melts steel, thus fueling another post- 9/11 conspiracy theory. Other examples would include a virtual legion of entertainers providing their unsolicited advice on foreign aid, diplomacy, war fighting and national strategy. In this group Bono and Sean Penn stand out. Why two Keith Richards clones think they are qualified to give advice on national security is a national mystery. More recently the speaker of the House of Representatives, heretofore known for her expertise on political pork, flew off to the Middle-East to launch a unilateral peace initiative with a tyrant, bypassing the National Security Council, the Department of State and the White House in the process.

Surely in a democracy everyone is entitled to their opinions no matter how ill informed. The real question here is not the players but the stage. Why do we provide the forums for celebrities to spout nonsense, embarrass themselves and insult public discourse? The short answer is a Media obsessed with arguments not answers. Enlightenment doesn't sell as well as food fights. There isn't much of a market for serious discussion of serious subjects.

And too often even serious people use their celebrity as a kind of omniscience. Socrates parlayed his celebrity as an Agora gadfly into an assisted suicide. Most of what we know of Socrates comes through a fawning Plato who didn't think we could know truth only half-truths. Yet some Socratic nonsense is still with us in whole measures.

First there's that infamous Socratic method; pedagogical interrogation. Learning by questioning the untutored, exposing their false assumptions. The modern version has has been reduced to "there's no such thing as a bad question". Surely there are bad questions large and small. Questioning freedom or democracy was then as it is today, a bad question. As Churchill might have said, considering the alternatives. Some questions are prudent and some are fatal. Socrates was tried for impiety, lack of faith (in democracy). He and his followers were questioning the very freedoms which made their debates possible, a tragic error in logic. On small issues, it is very unlikely that Socrates ever asked his wife if she was gaining weight, needed another pair of shoes or another handbag. Imprudent questions all.

Socrates also famously told us; "there is only one good - knowledge; and only one evil - ignorance". Had he the benefit of Aristotle's logic, Socrates might not have conflated knowing and acting. Good and evil are moral questions which require choice and action. Knowledge is a function of opportunity, access or experience. Ignorance is ethically neutral. We are all ignorant on some subject or other. As that celebrated Pentagon sage once said; "We don't know what we don't know". If there is a moral judgement to be made, it concerns ignorance and stupidity. Ignorance is simply the absence of knowledge; stupidity is the absence of judgement in the presence of knowledge. In another context Pericles nailed the distinction; "There is no shame in poverty. The shame is not trying to overcome poverty".

Socratics were notorious anti-democrats, no believers in the wisdom of crowds. Then as now, intellectuals couldn't see themselves ruled by plumbers or carpenters, people who didn't swim in a sea of abstractions. Plato argued for a state ruled by philosopher kings. Today's democratic oligarchy of lawyers is surely an ironic echo of the Platonic ideal.

Closer to our time, Albert Einstein wandered out of the academic cloister to advise us on strategy and then world government. First he was for nuclear weapons then he was against them. As an abstraction, nuclear explosions seemed to be an interesting project; the reality of bombs proved less savory. From the front lines in Princeton, New Jersey, Einstein also advised that world government would be impossible without American leadership. It is almost impossible to think that he didn't know that "world government" was the objective of Nazis and Communists, not the goal of democracies. The essence of democracy is free will, choice and competition; competing ideas, competing politics and competing industries. World government is the antithesis of freedom and surely would be the death knell of competition. A world of scoreless soccer is no world at all.

When intellectuals stray from experience or expertise, they often morph into idiot savants. Like many German refugees of his day, Einstein could reject Nazis yet admire Marxists - as if they were different creatures. The only significant different between National Socialism and Soviet Communism was that the first was chauvinistic and the latter was ecumenical.

Indeed Karl Marx, like the Socratics, constructed an elaborate circular argument, a snake devouring its own tail. The critique of capitalism would abolish the very marketplace that made the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution possible. Marx lacked both the expertise or moral credibility to dabble in economics or politics. Like Socrates and Blanche Dubois, he depended on the kindness of strangers for a livelihood. In the middle of the Industrial Revolution, Marx could or would not find employment to feed his family. Indeed, at least one of his children starved to death, sacrificed on an altar of abstractions. Likewise, Socrates sacrificed his own life trying to score debating points.

This is not to say that idiot savants are without influence. Words matter. The written word matters permanently. Beyond words, it's not hard to imagine what Bono, Einstein and Marx have in common. All proceed on a single false assumption; some kind of global village would be an improvement on the messy, fractious world we live in.

Einstein would have America lead the charge to Utopia. Yet he would ignore the centrifugal forces of world politics; the number of separate nation states has doubled since WWII. Today, Bono would redistribute wealth, North to South, from the developed to the undeveloped. All the while ignoring tyranny, corruption and incompetence. Indeed, in his zeal to save Africa, ignoring the euphemistic "troubles" in his own back yard. And finally modern Marxists (Chomsky comes to mind) and now radical Islamists still see democracy and capitalism as the two great evils of the world. It is no coincidence that political and religious extremists live by the same binary code - believe or die.

Bernard Lewis tells us that all extremists believe in democracy - at least once.

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