Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Beware the Brilliant Fool

In prior articles, I have wrestled with how we regard the everyday concept of “intelligence” when a person who apparently has a lot of it makes terrible decisions. I have speculated that because a very prominent person – our President – fits this description, it might cause people to think about “intelligence” in a new way.   (See here and here.)
In one way it is a futile inquiry, because intelligence has many definitions. Can’t beat the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry on the topic: “Intelligence has been defined in different ways, including the abilities for abstract thought, understanding, communication, reasoning, learning, planning, emotional intelligence and problem solving.”

Well, there’s one answer right there. A person may have vast capacity for abstract thought, but poor understanding. One can still fall within the definition because a crackerjack abstract thinker, but still be defective in understanding; that is, intelligent, but wrong.

I know this isn’t any brilliant insight. Think of any issue that divides large numbers of people – for example, whether there was a conspiracy to murder John Kennedy. There will be people on both sides that we would think of as highly “intelligent,” as we mean that word in daily use. But some of those very intelligent people have got to be wrong.

In the November 2011 issue of New English Review, British writer and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple published an essay about a prominent biographer, Isaac Deutscher, who was a Marxist. I was struck by this passage (emphases are mine):

"His language was clear, but his thought was not. He was what might be called a dialectical equivocator, made dishonest by his early religious vows to Marxism. This made him unable to see or judge things in a common-sense way. His unwavering attachment to his primordial philosophical standpoint, his irrational rationalism, turned him into that most curious (and sometimes dangerous, because intellectually charismatic) figure, the brilliant fool. He was the opposite of Dr Watson who saw but did not observe: he observed, but did not see. He was the archetype of the man, so common among intellectuals, who knows much but understands little."

I’m guessing that if any one of us spent an afternoon in the private company of Newt Gingrich, or Barack Obama, or Mitt Romney, or Nancy Pelosi, or Rush Limbaugh, or Al Franken, just shooting the breeze on topics unrelated to their public policy positions, we would come away thinking that we’d been in the company of a pretty smart person. Perhaps even brilliant.

The brilliant Junior Samples

So what? So . . . people can be brilliant but very wrong. Some of them have stupendous knowledge and experience but no judgment; some are subtle analysts but select incorrect or thin information; some, as Dalrymple suggests, are in the grip of ideology – they apply their brains to deceive others, but mainly themselves, in the service of what they regard as a higher truth.

Most of us, most of the time, can spot the unreliable smart person. The high-IQ person who you would not trust to advise you on your day to day choices, or to be a leader of any polity to which you belong. We generally get the leaders we deserve, although not enough people saw through the brilliant fool who’s running the show now. We can debate the reasons for that another time. (Hint: the usual culprits – media bias, liberal racial guilt, a deceptive campaign, class resentment, weak opposition, disgust with the incumbent, and, truth to tell, a magnetic persona and charming manner.)

And there’s the lesson: We encounter gifted minds throughout our lives. The first time many of us are overwhelmed with the brilliance of a particular individual is college, when our professors present an image of learnedness that is absolutely genuine. And yet, faculties are overwhelmingly liberal Democrats and worse.  Strongly redistributionist, politically correct, and believers in enforced equality of result. Theories that have never worked in the history of mankind, at least not in any free society (and the unfree societies that have enshrined them have declined and even failed, some very recently and very dramatically).

Most adults understand that many of these academics are brilliant fools, but the unformed barely-post-adolescent mind daily exposed to brilliantly foolish instruction does not, and so we end up with things like The Sixties, the McGovern candidacy, and

Some of us shake it off when we start working, raising families, and paying taxes.

Some of us don’t.

Some of us think we have done so, but can still be wowed by the singular, eloquent, attractive intellect without regard to whether he or she is selling something that simple observation of the world would tell us is quite unlikely to be correct. 

And brilliant fools are everywhere, wanting our votes, our investments, our time, and our hearts and minds.


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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

I Googled "Execrable" and "Paul Krugman" and Got 81,800 Hits

I’m in favor of civility in public discourse. We need more of it on both sides of the aisle.

It’s one of the reasons that as little as I care for President Obama, I always try to find a little something nice to say about him, and to avoid all name-calling and ad hominem characterizations except under the most extreme provocation.

In Paul Krugman’s case, I’ll make an exception.

Prof. Krugman is the Nobel Prize-winning economist and Princeton professor who contributes to the New York Times Op-Ed Page. He is very liberal; a leftist, I would judge. He does not believe government spends, or controls, nearly enough. He also holds forth, way left, on political and social matters, although to my knowledge he has not received any awards in this area. (His Nobel was awarded for his work in explaining patterns of international trade through consumers’ desire to chose from a variety of products, not a subject that will nourish a lot of Op-Ed pieces.)

He recently unburdened himself of some rather brief thoughts on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, in his New York Times column “The Conscience of a Liberal.” Here it is, in its entirety, clipped here without permission:


The Years of Shame

Is it just me, or are the 9/11 commemorations oddly subdued?

Actually, I don’t think it’s me, and it’s not really that odd.

What happened after 9/11 — and I think even people on the right know this, whether they admit it or not — was deeply shameful. The atrocity should have been a unifying event, but instead it became a wedge issue. Fake heroes like Bernie Kerik, Rudy Giuliani, and, yes, George W. Bush raced to cash in on the horror. And then the attack was used to justify an unrelated war the neocons wanted to fight, for all the wrong reasons.

A lot of other people behaved badly. How many of our professional pundits — people who should have understood very well what was happening — took the easy way out, turning a blind eye to the corruption and lending their support to the hijacking of the atrocity?

The memory of 9/11 has been irrevocably poisoned; it has become an occasion for shame. And in its heart, the nation knows it.

I’m not going to allow comments on this post, for obvious reasons.


This brief insult is so full of nonsense that one hardly knows where to begin.

(1) “Are the 9/11 commemorations oddly subdued?” What could that question possibly mean? Of course they were subdued.  Thousands of people were horribly murdered and our nation was awakened to the threat to it from fanatic religious totalitarians. What did Krugman expect, so that it seemed “odd” when he observed how subdued it was? Celebration? Riots? Expressions of joy? Has he ever been to a memorial service? While there, did he perhaps observe that it was subdued?

(2) He immediately realizes how fatuous that question is, so he answers himself – but even his answer is gibberish. “I don’t think it’s me, and it’s not really that odd.” Now think about that. First he says “I don’t think it’s me,” which means that he believes that his observation that the commemorations were “oddly subdued” is shared by others, validating it. But in the second part of the sentence he says, “it’s really not that odd,” which can only mean that his observation that it was “oddly subdued” was really not that correct. This isn’t just bad thinking – it’s bad writing.

(3) He then proceeds to assign his belief in the reason for its lack of oddness: “What happened after 9/11 . . . was deeply shameful.” Where was Krugman living in the days following 9/11? The nation and its leaders were at some pains to ensure that this Islamist crime did not result in our own jihad against Islam. The public’s reaction was moderate, patient, and careful. The nation’s reaction, and that of its leaders, was measured outrage. It was a proud period for the United States, not a shameful one.

(4) But he goes on, explaining that leaders transformed it into a “wedge issue.” In what respect? When the source of the terror became apparent, there was enormous support for the punitive expedition to Afghanistan. The strategy eventually employed there and the subsequent invasion of Iraq can be and were vigorously debated, but even that debate was not motivated by any “shame” in the goals articulated. To the extent the public didn’t like what the Bush administration or “neocons” did, they made their feelings known on Election Day 2008.

But even that isn’t evidence of a 9/11-justified “wedge.” Just how little of a “wedge” was “what happened after 9/11” is demonstrated by the fact that the Obama administration, beloved of Krugman, has generally continued the policies of the Bush administration in these matters, has committed even more troops in Afghanistan, and, if anything, has pursued individual terrorists with even greater heat. (The President’s shutdown of military operations comes nearly at the end of his term – coincident with a the elections, can you believe it?) Candidate Obama repeatedly said that victory in Afghanistan was essential, and stated that his administration would reverse the gains of the Taliban insurgency. Corrupt?

No, the voices calling for decreased vigilance are few and faint. The most serious “wedge” Krugman has experienced since 9/11 is the one he probably experiences when they search him at LaGuardia.

(5) Finally: To what “corruption” did “professional pundits” turn a “blind eye”? Again, there are legitimate criticisms to be made about the conduct of the Afghanistan and Iraqi wars, and pundits have made them at length almost from the outset. But in what sense is any of what took place “corrupt”? The professional punditry in this country was overwhelmingly anti-Bush both before and after 9/11. If our leadership really used 9/11 as a mask for “corruption,” wouldn’t you think that these pundits, a large number of whom are Krugman’s colleagues at The New York Times, would have their Pulizter-hungry mitts all over it? No less a liberal than Robert Kerrey, in commenting on the intelligence documents on the runup to the Iraq invasion, said that while they did not show a significant al-Qaeda connection, they did show that Saddam was “a significant enemy of the United States.”

As you sit there now, can you think of a single instance of political corruption – which Wikipedia defines as “the use of legislated powers by government officials for illegitimate private gain”? What personal, or even political, gain did any of those individuals receive? Bernard Kerik, one-time New York City Police Commissioner? He was found to have violated various laws unrelated to 9/11 and went to jail. How did things work out for “fake hero” Rudy Giuliani? George Bush? The last was re-elected in 2004, but to call that a result of corruption is to rob the word of any meaning. And by 2008, he was so widely reviled that his party suffered one of its worst electoral defeats ever.

And let’s not forget that America’s reaction to 9/11 was largely mirrored in Congressional support for the 9/11-related foreign and domestic policies during a time when the Democrats had a narrow majority in the Senate. The most dramatic reaction to 9/11, the Patriot Act, was passed in 2001 – and President Obama and the Democratic Congress has supported an extension of its most controversial provisions, and many of its provisions have survived or been extended by other legislation.

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No, The only credible syllables in that entire piece are those that concede that the reasons for disabling comments are “obvious.” I myself would like to stifle reaction when I broadcast something inane.

There is a place for the contrarian, for even the provocateur, in American opinion. But most writers of that ilk at least convey the impression that they believe what they write. Krugman does not, could not. No other American, no other human, could have experienced any of the 9/11 commemorations and concluded that the proceedings today are somber because we are ashamed of how we reacted ten years ago.   I’m proud of how America reacted. We have bent over backwards to give Islam the benefit of the doubt, possibly more than it deserves, while working diligently – and successfully – to keep domestic terrorism to near zero.

This column is academic elitism at its most odious. Krugman is jabbing a stick at through the cage bars at the lovers of freedom he scorns as unsophisticated yahoos imprisoned by their naivete and ignorance. He patronizes them -- us -- from his Princeton perch whenever he can. To him, average Americans with average reactions to murderous assaults on the very freedoms that the 9-11 Islamists cannot abide, the very freedoms that allow Krugman to make a jackass of himself, are reactionary rabble. He knew this column would anger those people on the very day of their saddest recollections, and it did. It was a small, mean, act by a small, mean man.

As I said, I’m in favor of civility. But Paul Krugman is a putz. When I read bilge like this, or listen to interviews with his oh-so-entitled philosophical children now “occupying” various patches of our fine cities, I think that we have less to fear from fake heroes than from fake intellectuals.

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