Let me bring you up to speed. Friday’s column elicited a remarkable outpouring of rage from usually friendly readers. You see, I danced the Lambada. Oh no, wait, that’s the forbidden dance. I wrote, apparently, the forbidden column. In it I brought up the taboo — but incandescently obvious — fact that being poor is less preferable than being not-poor. For this transgression, I spent a chunk of the weekend wading through indignant missives from people calling me a Nazi, an aristocrat, a heartless bastard, a fool, and a super-super sexy stud (alas, this last category was actually spam from porn sites, but sometimes when my self-esteem is down I like to think TiffanyXXX121 and MeganLuv69 and their sorority sisters really do like me).
Despite the fact that the column was punctuated with numerous hints that I wasn’t being too serious about the whole thing (including subtle phrases like “just kidding” and “my only serious point”), lots of people spluttered Diet Coke onto their computer screens in rage over it. Some even said I was being “Kinsley-esque” — which could be a great compliment, if intended as one. It wasn’t. Other people thought it was a fine or even damn funny column.
This was one of those rare columns which seem to split my friendly, conservative readership on two sides of a fissure I didn’t know existed. Of course, I’m used to the griping of my masochistic liberal readers. And I’m accustomed to hearing “boo!” from libertoids and “wahoo!” from conservatives. But this column divided readers in a totally surprising way. Don’t jump to conclusions; income, personal background, and social status seem to have nothing to do with it. I’ve heard from the once or currently impoverished saying “amen” or “that was hilarious,” and I’ve gotten plenty of e-mail from rich folks calling me a “jerk.”
I think the split — or at least the interesting one — was between people who place a lot of or too much importance on personal experience and those who do not. Most of the thoughtful people who really disagreed with me, said “You were never poor! You can’t understand” or something similar (for the record, I was never rich either, though I hope to remedy that someday). And this kind of thinking just so happens to be a personal peeve of mine
Fetishizing Experience It’s bedrock conventional wisdom that personal experience is more useful than abstract knowledge or “book learning.” And just because it’s conventional wisdom, that doesn’t mean it’s not true. We don’t hire wilderness guides who’ve never been to the woods. Few of us want a surgeon who’s never operated on anybody. Waiters, writers, priests, rabbis, lawyers, assassins, engineers, teachers — to name a few — all become more valuable as they gain on-the-job experience.
Indeed, the only exception to this rule I can think of is sex. There’s a fairly hardwired cultural bias against people, particularly women, who’ve been around the block more times than someone looking for parking in midtown Manhattan at lunch hour. After all, Osama’s suicide bombers don’t kill themselves in order to receive 72 really sleazy middle-aged tramps. And hookers — I’ve read — generally advertise what they’re willing to do, not how many times they’ve done it — for a reason.
Anyway, that’s a subject for the evolutionary psychologists and feminists to discuss. My point remains. Personal experience is really important and only a fool would say otherwise.
The Trouble with Being There But it isn’t everything.
Take war. More than in any other field of human endeavor, we place incredible emphasis on personal experience. Who’d prefer a general, let alone a sergeant or second lieutenant, who’s never fired a shot or had a shot fired at him? The military produces so many successful politicians in part because it produces impressive people. But their success is also due to the fact that we — like most societies — have a unique esteem for great military leaders.
Few people would dispute this. What’s much more controversial is the notion that we civilians, in our soft liberal society, can “judge” people in the military.
Remember when the Bob Kerrey “war criminal” story broke last year? It was reported that Kerrey might have shot a bunch of “civilians” in a free-fire zone in Vietnam. Immediately, the chattering classes got themselves into a tizzy about whether or not we could judge him since “we weren’t there.” If we weren’t side by side with him in Vietnam, dozens of pundits declared, it would be very difficult to comment on what happened that night. And, the further away you were from his experience — if you never served or never saw combat — the less “right” you had to judge him. “Unless you walked a mile in his shoes, who are you to say what he did was wrong?” went the familiar argument.
This has always struck me as ludicrous. According to this logic, we should get rid of the jury system. After all, if proximity to the alleged crime bestows the right to judge, and distance from the event strips you of the ability to judge, then why have an objective and impartial panel sitting in judgment? As things are right now, if somebody was at the scene of the alleged crime, let alone a participant in it, we would call that person a “witness” or maybe even an “accomplice” — not a juror. Judges and lawyers, too, are routinely disqualified from judging people if their personal experience might make them feel too close to the events in question.
The desire to say “I wasn’t there, I can’t judge” is not born of logic. It is born of guilt. People — like me — who didn’t serve in the armed forces tend to feel guilty and/or grateful about those who did. This is only natural; other people risk or sacrifice their lives in order to protect the liberal order we have here at home. This is a much-discussed tension. In order to maintain a free society at home, you need an unfree institution — the military — to protect it. The culture of the military is based upon a profoundly different set of assumptions than those held by civilian leaders it defends.
The political scientist Samuel Huntington captured the essence of this dilemma in The Soldier and the State in 1957. “Magnificently varied and creative when limited to domestic issues,” writes Huntington, “liberalism faltered when applied to foreign policy and defense.” Liberals are concerned with how humans deal with each other in a system based on the rule of law and inalienable rights. The professional soldier is concerned with outside actors, primarily states, who have no such respect for the rule of law — and who are hell-bent to deprive liberals of their inalienable rights, starting with the right to life. The liberal consensus stops at the water’s edge, and the soldiers take over.
This is why Huntington argued, rightly, that liberals must carve out as much space as they can for the soldier or else the liberal society may become extinct. In turn, the culture of the military must maintain its respect for the often silly excesses of the liberal society. That is why Huntington revered West Point, an institution which transmits precisely the right culture to military professionals. It “embodies the military ideal at its best . . . a bit of Sparta in the midst of Babylon,” he wrote. (For more on this, I cannot recommend enough Robert Kaplan’s wonderful profile of Huntington, to which I am indebted.)
This might sound like a defense of civilians who say “I wasn’t there; I can’t judge.” But it isn’t. Democracies must be in charge of their militaries or else their militaries will dismantle democracy. Civilians who say “I can’t judge” don’t say it because it’s impossible to understand; they say it because it’s too hard. Or, worse, because they are fundamentally unwilling to accept that our nice, soft, free society needs tough men (and they are mostly men) to do very unpleasant things to protect us. Saying “I can’t judge” is really a substitute for admitting, “I won’t judge.”
Putting your hands over your ears is not an argument, it’s a surrender. It’s hard work trying to understand and condone actions that we would rightly find reprehensible here at home. But that doesn’t mean we should never try. When the state — or anyone else — kills the wrong person here at home, it is a moral scandal. It isn’t when the state does it during a war overseas. That is what soldiers sometimes have to do to protect the rest of us. But that doesn’t mean we have to condone everything soldiers do in the defense of our liberties. It simply means we have to be grown-ups about it. This is particularly important to keep in mind as reports begin to trickle in from Afghanistan about the accidental killing of noncombatants.
One quick example: Consider John Keegan. He is arguably the most influential living military historian in the English-speaking world. His The Face of Battle was described by C. P. Snow as “the most brilliant evocation of military experience in our time.” Anybody who’s read it would have a hard time disagreeing with that. Well, here’s how Keegan begins chapter 1: “I have not been in a battle; not near one, nor heard one from afar, nor seen the aftermath.” And yet, despite that, he is not only quite capable of judging conduct in war, but he’s so good at it he was a senior lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst — Britain’s West Point. There’s nothing keeping those who haven’t served from speaking intelligently about war, let alone becoming expert on the subject. Nothing, that is, except for some hard work and hard thinking.
Authenticity Is King So what does this have to do with me allegedly making fun of poor people? Well, a bunch. Maybe it’s been part of our culture from the get-go. Or, maybe it’s because people don’t read or think as much as they used to, relying instead on the more emotional “arguments” of movies, TV, and a People-magazine culture. But it seems to me that we put too much emphasis on personal experience. I touched on this in my “outrageous” column on Friday: We elevate “concern” over analysis as if the passion one feels for a subject were more important than the ideas which stem from that concern.
Similarly, lots of people take it as an article of faith that being poor or having been poor, or simply hanging around poor people — or even merely being “concerned” about poor people — makes you more expert on what to do for or about poverty. I think this is absurd, and I think the evidence is on my side. If it’s true, let’s chuck the Constitution — which was, after all, written by rich white guys.
Welfare workers, community activists, and socialists of varied stripes are immersed in poverty and among poor people every day. Some of them, I’m sure, have very good and sensible ideas about how to combat poverty. But I’m just as sure that many of them — perhaps even more of them — are total and complete idiots on the subject.
For example, in the 1960s and 1970s the National Welfare Rights Organization went around with clipboards signing poor folks onto the welfare rolls. Their motto was: “Welfare is a Right, not a Privilege.” These activists knew lots of poor people. Many of them had probably been poor, though I suspect quite a few grew up in suburbia and went to Bryn Mawr or Smith. But their views were not merely idiotic, they were cruelly counterproductive — encouraging a large segment of the lower classes to become permanent members of the underclass.
I can say this with metaphysical certainty: If I’d been around at the time and argued with one of these pigtailed socialists, her response would have been, “What do you know about poverty!? I spend every day with poor people. You don’t know what it’s like!” — or something similar.
Being poor, like being in combat, gives you specialized experience, for sure. But it doesn’t necessarily make your insights any better than those of somebody who hasn’t had the experience. There are knee-jerk peaceniks who’ve seen war, and there are warmongers who’ve never even seen a gun up close. And vice versa. There are self-made men who are morons about economics and there are poor folk who can’t catch a break who are 100 percent correct on tax policy. Good ideas, and the arguments which support them, require intelligence — and, more important, wisdom. These qualities are distributed poorly enough as it is; we need not limit their expression by gagging anybody who’s not an “authentic” spokesmen for them.