Politics & Policy

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.

‐Once, an executive in the music business accosted me about politics. She was ranting and raving, and was very . . . let’s say, underinformed. Politics is my daily work. If I feel like talking about politics, I’ll turn to Michael Barone or Rich Lowry or Bill Kristol or Bob Costa — or their counterparts on the left. (You ever talk to Barney Frank about politics? Very, very worthwhile. Much more worthwhile than putting him in charge of American housing.)

As it happened, I wanted to know about a particular issue in the music business — the health of some singer, something like that. And I said, “Let’s talk about something you know.” I didn’t mean it to come off snidely; it was lighter than it was snide (I believe). And the executive happily told me about something she knew.

‐We all learned in kindergarten, “Everyone has a right to his opinion.” (Do you know the expression “Everyone has a right to my opinion”?) And that is certainly true: Everyone has a right. You also sometimes hear, “All opinions are equally valid.” Um — not so sure. Sometimes a deference to authority is part of wisdom.

What about when authorities disagree? Well, you listen to a variety of opinion, and try to figure out what seems nearest right. I have a memory of the Microsoft-versus-Netscape case. All the legal types I respected were on Microsoft’s side — except Bob Bork. That was enough to make me think it was a close call. (Both companies asked Bork to speak for them, as well they might have — he is one of the leading antitrust scholars in the country. Bork looked at the facts and concluded that Netscape was right.)

‐In the months following 9/11, some conservatives said, “The Left is joining hands with radical Islam. They will work against Western civilization together.” I thought this seemed a little extreme. But some of the conservatives made a good case. And, over the decade, the evidence has burgeoned.

This brings me to Ken Livingstone — “Red Ken,” the former mayor of London. He is not a Red, officially. He is a Labourite. And he is again Labour’s candidate for mayor (in the next election, 2012).

Livingstone is also an employee of Press TV, the Iranian government’s propaganda arm in English. It was launched by Ahmadinejad in 2007. Among Press TV’s achievements is to have defamed Sakineh Ashtiani, the woman sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery and murder. (She is innocent, of course.) Writing for the Telegraph, Toby Young says, “I cannot see any meaningful difference between Ken Livingstone and Lord Haw-Haw.” Iran supports much of the Iraqi insurgency, with which Britain is at war.

Now, you can understand how the Left gets peeved when you say that many of their number are allied with radical Islam. Yet — what do you do with cases like Livingstone’s? What do you do with Cynthia McKinney when she appears on al-Jazeera wearing an Islamic headdress? I think we can say that, where the anti-Western energy goes, there goes the Left. So it was with Communism. So it is now.

Is that too harsh?

‐The State Department, you may have heard, has upgraded the PLO mission in Washington from a “bureau” to a “general delegation.” This affords the PLO boys diplomatic immunity. It also allows them to fly the PLO flag — which they have. Rep. Allen West, the freshman Republican from Florida, pointed out that Taiwan does not have this privilege. “By allowing this flag to be flown, the United States is extending a diplomatic right that we refrain from offering to even our own allies, like Taiwan.”

Maybe if the Taiwanese tried terrorism?

‐Milton Babbitt, the American composer, died over the weekend (at 94). He was both a mathematician and a composer — one brainy sumbitch. I know that some understand, and even enjoy, his music. They are a remarkable breed.

If I can get political on you for a second, he was a conservative and an anti-Communist — and actually had the stones to sign up with Midge Decter’s Committee for the Free World. You think this made him rare in the artistic set? Oh, baby.

‐For my “New York Chronicle,” in the just-issued New Criterion, go here. I range over an assortment of (musical) performances.

‐A couple of words about Palo Alto and Stanford, where I was seeing Sowell, Bob Conquest, and some other outstanding souls. A thought occurred to me: Palo Alto = Ann Arbor (my hometown) with better weather.

‐One thing I didn’t like: a street sign that said “SENIORS.” It was near a nursing home. It was a sign like the ones warning you that children are at play — so you’d better slow down. There are such signs for the blind or deaf, too. I’m sure there are good reasons for that “SENIORS” sign. Still, it made me wince — the condescension, the indignity, of it.

‐Ignat Solzhenitsyn reminded me that his father spent a “crucial summer” at the Hoover Institution — in 1975. I was thinking of the contrast between the Soviet Gulag, and the Soviet atmosphere generally, and sunny, free, easygoing California. Could there be a greater contrast?

As you will understand, the Hoover Institution holds a special place in the heart of the Solzhenitsyns.

I remember something René Pape told me, in a public interview, conducted in Salzburg. Pape is the great German bass who was born and raised in Dresden, under Communism. He described the first time he came to Salzburg, from dingy, dire East Germany. Everything was beautiful, and alive, and prosperous. The young man felt like he had emerged from a place of darkness into a world of color and light. And there was so much food.

Thanks for joining me, y’all — see you later.




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