Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Sam Smith

Obama and his aides have been repeatedly praised for their intelligence. Unfortunately, intelligence is not all that useful an indicator of good leadership. After all, Larry Summers, Robert Rubin and Tim Geithner are quite smart and look where that's led us.

As Jonathan Alter put it, "Obamaworld is loaded with . . . policy wonks who have experienced little in life but sound unfailingly articulate and confident about their elegant economic models . . . One senior Obama official says he feels a bit inferior. He went to Harvard Law School, but his undergraduate degree is merely from Georgetown."

Go back a few decades and you have the Bay of Pigs disaster being inspired and bungled by intelligent people of the likes of Jack Kennedy, Richard Bissell and Allan Dulles. And Vietnam had more Harvard intellectuals making disastrous governmental decisions than at any time in our history.

The problem is that intelligence is just a skill, not unlike a good backhand, which can either be used to whop an old lady and steal her purse or to win a tournament at Wimbleton. Talent is only as good as the purpose to which it is put.

Lyndon Johnson once described the CIA as being filled with graduates of Yale and Princeton whose daddies wouldn't let them into their brokerage firms. Why? No doubt because of the huge difference between the exam at the end of the semester and the endless tests of life.

To work well, intelligence has to be joined with things not well taught at universities, things like judgment, wisdom, understanding of other people and cultures, and, at the top of the list, honor.

Honor and integrity are critical because without their direction and restraint, intellectuals easily become just professional wrestlers of the mind, bright bullies getting their way at the expense of others.

In the end, such people can even add themselves to their list of victims, because they have placed so much trust in the strength of their mind that they have no warning when it is leading them drastically astray.

Such thoughts occurred as I read Obama's scary arguments in defense of preventive detention and as the debate on torture becomes stripped of moral context as though we were arguing over Coke vs. Pepsi. In both cases, arguments have been based on a logic that assumes we no longer care who we are, individually or as a country, only how we might win a particular contest.

In fact, even the proposed course in these cases is pragmatically faulty, but what is truly frightening is that those pressing torture or preventive detention have no more moral grounds for their behavior than did, say, Bernie Madoff. For example, all you have to do with Obama's argument for preventive detention is change a few words and you can dismantle our whole justice system.

Of course, Madoff knew he was doing wrong; the Obamas of the world get trapped by their training in the art of argument without honor, losing the ability to see the dangers of their own logic.

Worst, the media and the public tend to be impressed by such arguments and so we drift quietly further and further from what intelligence is meant to help us achieve: a decent society for all its members.

This drift from honor started well before Obama and no end is in sight. But precisely because current mythology declares him a particularly moral man, Obama's indifference can actually be more dangerous than that of a George Bush and Richard Cheney. If either of them had suggested preventive detention, Democrats and the media would have been immediately up in arms. With all too few exceptions Obama has gotten a pass.

Sadly, it is people like Obama who can make evil or injustice seem reasonable. And when they move on, the bad laws and precedents remain, and the next crowd may no longer be interested in even the appearance of decency. This is what happened when liberals sat quietly as Bill Clinton opened the door for Bush's excesses in support of financial deregulation and against civil liberties.

We have been taught that authoritarianism comes with bombs and guns. But it can just as easily come incrementally and without violence - through a constant and subtle rearrangement of our own view of what's right, fostered by a system that seeks such a change.

This was true in even Hitler's violent Germany as movingly described by Milton Mayer in his book, They Thought They Were Free. Mayer quotes a college professor:

"The crises and reforms (real reforms too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter. . .

"To live in the process is absolutely not to notice it -- please try to believe me -- unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, 'regretted.' . . .

"Believe me this is true. Each act, each occasion is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.

"Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven't done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we did nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. . . Too late. You are compromised beyond repair."

Rosencratz, before disappearing and dying, says something similar in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildernstern Are Dead:

"What was it all about? When did it begin? . . . Couldn't we just stay put? . . . We've done nothing wrong! We didn't harm anyone. Did we? . . . There must have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said -- no. But somehow we missed it.. . . Well, we'll know better next time."

For us, there still remains that moment; we are near enough the beginning that we can still say no. And a good place to begin is to reject arguments without honor.