Sunday, July 18, 2010

It’s All How You Look at It

“No, and I don’t want to,” said Frodo. “I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.”
“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

— J.R.R. Tolkein, The Fellowship of the Ring

Peggy Noonan launched a cruise missile of sorts in her Wall Street Journal Declarations column this weekend, entitled “Youth Has Outlived Its Usefulness.” In an age where youth ascendant seems to be the chief aim and value of our private and public culture, this does seem rather a (minor) declaration of war. Certainly, her characterization of “young bloggers” as “hyenas” and “trash-talking rage monkey[s]” is guaranteed to get her removed from the electronic Christmas card lists of hundreds of underannuated prognosticators.

Too bad her essay is one of the more scattershot and confused efforts she has penned, for it addresses an interesting state of affairs in our polity. Confused, for she seems to bewail the absence and wish for the return of, sequentially, old men, father figures, wise men, mentors, and grown-ups. Scattershot, for she jumps from politics to business to journalism to politics at a word.

Setting aside whether her explicitly male models of good judgment and advice reflect some deeper flaw in her worldview or not—being male I (naturally) have no problem with this1—I do have to say Ms Noonan seems to confuse several very different things. For one thing, age is no guarantee of wisdom. If there is one thing we should have learned from witnessing the maturation of an entire generation of Baby Boomers into full-fledged, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, materialistic emotional and intellectual teenagers with age spots and dentures, it is that.2 For another, the common association of age and experience with wisdom and good judgment is and always has been weak at best, if not downright misleading. I know plenty of old people whose judgment I would not trust to order an ice cream cone. (And I’m not talking about dementia.)

This is particularly true among the great and good—from whose serried ranks Ms Noonan would presumably like to draw her consiglieri—because so many of them have risen to ranks of position, power, influence, and reputation on an uncommon mix of luck, skill, and patronage, if not downright nepotism. (Never underestimate the potency of the Lucky Sperm Club.) Why should we trust a man—let’s say—who made a huge success of himself running an important business line within Goldman Sachs to give us good advice on the running of the war in Afghanistan or diplomatic relations with the Chinese? Why the fuck would he know anything about that? I’d trust him to give effective advice on running an important business line within Goldman Sachs, but not much else. His capacity for wise counsel in other things is and should be, in my humble opinion, very much up for proof and debate. The size of a man’s bank account, and the number of hits of his name on Google, are no measure of his intelligence, much less an indication of the quality of his wisdom.

For another, being a father myself, I am highly skeptical that fatherhood itself—even that sadly too-infrequent form which entails sustained attention to and engagement with one’s progeny and the conscious assumption of what are commonly known as fatherly duties—is any strong recommendation for handing over the metaphorical keys to the nuclear arsenal. It is true that an important element of fatherhood as it is traditionally defined includes the father attempting to impart to his children what are known as the unpleasant facts of life. That is: that no-one in the world outside of your mother will give you unconditional love (and even she is no certainty); that most people alive couldn’t care less whether you live or die; and that naked power, selfishness, fear, aggression, and hate are deep and puissant elements of human society in any age, and that you cannot ignore them or wish them away. In this the engaged father does indeed impart some form of wisdom, if only the negative kind to counterbalance the potentially misleading love and sheltering offered by a mother.

But this is not what Ms Noonan identifies as what she wants from her father figures. She wants them waiting through the night at the side of the hospital bed, like Atticus Finch, or providing safety and security by their very presence. But, while emotionally powerful and probably universal, this view of the father is that of a child. Which adolescent among us has not discovered the feet of clay and the lifetime membership card to the Universal Guild of Imperfect Humanity in his or her father’s clothes one sad day? Who among us has not had to swallow the bitter pill that all-powerful Daddy can in fact not protect us from life or our enemies when we most need him? The bittersweet fact of a good father is that he can and will throw himself in front of a speeding car or a charging lion to protect his children, even if he cannot save them. But that is not wisdom. That is love. Let us be clear-eyed enough to distinguish the two.

It is no disrespect to Atticus Finch to say his midnight vigil over his wounded child was the result of love, and perhaps even guilt that his principled defense of his client put his own child in mortal danger. Love and guilt are powerful things, and they can inspire wonderfully selfless behavior, but they are not wisdom. I do not want a counselor who loves me. I want one who is wise.

* * *

So let us talk then about wisdom.

It is an old saying, but true nonetheless, that the wise person is certain of little but his or her ignorance. A wise man is wise enough to know what he does not know. He believes the world is too multifarious, changeable, and miraculous a place to put much trust in feeble humanity’s ability to comprehend and control it as we would wish. Therefore, a wise man counsels caution, and encourages us to pay attention to our ignorance—what we do not and cannot know—as we make our way through life.

A wise man does not provide answers. A wise man asks questions, and encourages us to ask questions of ourselves. For this reason, Peggy Noonan’s implicit identification of the Best and Brightest as “the wise men” of the Vietnam era is flat wrong both chronologically and conceptually. JFK’s whiz kids were a bunch of brilliant, arrogant young Turks, not a collection of grizzled old veterans of the Second World War or the Korean War. And they did not have or offer any questions at all: in contrast, they had all the (in retrospect, wrong) answers. They didn’t offer wisdom. They offered an agenda.

But here’s the rub, Dear Readers. If our beloved wise men, wherever we find them, cannot or will not provide the answers, then we must come up with them ourselves. We may value their sage counsel and radical skepticism concerning the source and security of our own apparent knowledge and opinions, but we’re gonna have to make the difficult decisions ourselves. Wise men counsel caution and care; we the living cannot help but act. If we are truly listening, our wise mens’ counsel will only make those decisions and actions harder to take.

Which is not to say we should not find them, and employ them, and value their advice. But we must understand that cultivating the path of wisdom does not lead to the answers to life—if any such childish fantasies exist. It merely allows us to test and practice our courage in the face of the ineluctable Unknown.

Never forget: every wise man started out a simple fool like you or me. He learned wisdom by questioning, by learning, and by doing. There is no secret stash of wise men waiting at WalMart for us to purchase.

It is time we manned up and learned to become our own wise men.

Note: In addition to my firm belief that it is a shamelessly beautiful painting and a seminal contribution to the development of modern art, my illustration of this post with Henri Matisse’s 1914 masterpiece “Goldfish and Palette” actually does have a point larger than an impulse triggered by my recent viewing of it in New York. The painting is a fierce and violent reimagining of a small, unimportant slice of reality through the lens of artistic vision. The artist truncates, distorts, and shapes what he sees in support of his aesthetic (and hence philosophical) purpose. All of us do this, in ways large and small, every day of our lives, whether we know or acknowledge it or not. And yet Matisse’s lies, his distortions, are beautiful, and thought-provoking, in a way a (purportedly) more “honest” representation of the scene—say, a photograph—would not be. But at the same time, the artist is scrupulously honest about his presence, his explicit intermediation of reality, by drawing attention to his thumb, arm, and palette at the right of the painting.
“I am here,” he announces to us. “I am lying to you. Do you like it? Do you find it beautiful? Do you find it true?” If only the pundits, would-be philosophers, and politicians braying in our ears and eyes could be half as honest and thought-provoking about their own pitiful efforts.
1 Exempli gratia: I am here. I am lying to you. Do you like it? Do you find it beautiful? Do you find it true?
2 Being arguably on the tail end of said generation myself, I am allowed to say such things. Prove me wrong.

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