The humility of the knowledgeable, &c.


I’ve noticed something the last few days — something that gives us a human lesson, I think: Those who know the most about the Middle East are saying the least, when it comes to the turmoil in Egypt. Or they are speaking most cautiously. They’re quickest to say, “I really don’t know. I don’t know the exact nature of this, or how it will turn out.” They seem to be humblest, about what can be known, now.

I’m talking about Bernard Lewis, David Pryce-Jones, Amir Taheri, Fouad Ajami — people like that. These are men who have spent years and years in the Middle East, studying its politics, peoples, and languages, taking in everything possible. Those who know less speak in far more confident tones. They are even cocksure. I’m not sure we should trust anyone who speaks in those tones, just now.

You’ve never known me to be cocksure, have you, dear readers? (That was a joke.)

It occurs to me that Lewis started to learn about the Middle East in the 1920s. That was when he began the study of Semitic languages, plus related others.

Pryce-Jones first encountered the Arab world as a boy. He was pushed into North Africa during World War II. Some years ago, in my presence, an excellent and well-known scholar of the Middle East went up to him and said, “I never understood the region until I read your book.” (The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs.)

The cynical position is the easiest one: “Oh, nothing good will come of the unrest in Egypt. It all leads straight down the tubes” — which it may. But maybe not. And can’t any pleasure be taken in the fact that millions of people have at last lost their fear? Are publicly expressing, for the first time in their lives, that they wish a better, freer, more decent life? Are saying that they want the kind of life that you and I may take for granted? A life in which one can work and worship and marry and raise children? A life in which one can voice concerns about government and society without having to worry about a midnight knock on the door?

Very, very few people wish to live in a police state. I think that can be said.

Speaking of the knowable and not-knowable, and the danger of a “little learning”: That sheriff down in Tucson committed many offenses. But one of the things that most got me was his statement that he knew the mind of the killer: because he, the sheriff, had taken a psych course or two in college. Or was it high school?

I am a big popper-off (as regular readers do not need to be told). But now and then I’ll put a lid on it. Not long ago, a television booker called to ask whether I would comment on a particular issue. I said I could not, because I did not know enough about the issue — not enough to enlighten a TV audience. Maybe enough to jive with a friend at lunch.

The booker was silent for a moment. Then she said, “I can’t believe you said that.”

Sometimes, someone will ask me to talk about — oh, a piece of legislation moving on Capitol Hill. And I’ll say, “Sorry, I’m working on the crackdown in Belarus this week. That’s what I know best at the moment. Would you like some comments on that?” Uh, no.

Of course, there are general sages who can talk about anything and everything — your Malcolm Muggeridge types. Your Bill Buckleys. But they are very few.

The other week, I was at the Hoover Institution, talking to Thomas Sowell. (One of those all-purpose sages.) A piece on him appears in the forthcoming National Review — available, in digital form, tomorrow. Anyway, he said that, for some time now, he has had the luxury of writing only when he has something to say. And he doesn’t always have something to say (which is semi-hard for me to believe).

He recalled being in the doctoral program at Chicago — the program in economics. You didn’t have to take classes for credits and grades. You could just take them to learn stuff. Eventually, you would be tested for your Ph.D.: and either you knew, for example, monetary theory, or you didn’t. It would be quickly discovered.

I think I heard him correctly.

Sowell didn’t want to write papers on subjects about which he had nothing significant or useful to say. When he became a professor, he didn’t like to assign term papers to his students — because he figured they had, really, nothing to say.

When he relates this, he doesn’t do so meanly. He’s not putting anyone down. He’s just speaking candidly. And he holds himself to a higher standard than he does anyone else.

I remember something David Tell told a group of us. He was a colleague — brilliant — at The Weekly Standard. He had been to the home of some liberal Democrats for dinner. They started pontificating about health care. They didn’t know very much about health care. But they were so sure of what they said. David thought, “I study this minutely, day in and day out. And I’m not sure. How can they be so sure?”

Beware those who seek the “fundamental transformation” of the United States and are absolutely sure they know what they’re talking about. Are absolutely sure of what will follow the fundamental transformation they effect.


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