“Cleverness is not wisdom.”
— Euripides, the Bacchae
At the height of the sophistic age in classical Athens, the playwright Euripides asked an eternal question in his masterpiece, the Bacchae: “What is wisdom?”
Was wisdom defined as clever wordplay, or as the urban sophistication of the robed philosophers in the agora and rhetoricians in the assembly?
Or instead was true wisdom a deeper and more modest appreciation of unchanging human nature throughout the ages, which reminds us to avoid hubris, tread carefully, always expect the unlikely, and distrust the self-acclaimed wise who eventually prove clever fools? At the end of the play, a savage, merciless nemesis is unleashed on the hubristic wise of the establishment.
Euripides would have appreciated the ironies of the 2016 election.
Millions of Americans, far from the two coasts, kept largely quiet. They either did not talk much to pollsters or they politely declined to reveal their true feelings. They tuned out talking heads and ignored blue-chip pundits. They did not listen to the shrill bombast of President Obama on the campaign trail or pollsters who ad nauseam declared Hillary Clinton the sure electoral-college winner.
They were not shamed or much bothered by the condescension they receive from the media and the Washington elite, who proved wrong or biased or both in their coverage. They believed that free trade was not worth much if it was not fair trade, that illegal and politicized immigration was as subversive as legal and diverse immigration was valuable, that real racists were those who used race and ethnicity to encourage others to break the law for their own political and elite interests, and that it was stupid to trust their job futures to those who never lost their own jobs while often losing those of others.
So, to return to Euripides, what really is wisdom in the 21st century?
Is it to be judged according to the values of those who inhabit the Podesta WikiLeaks archive? Is being smart defined as being on lots of corporate boards, having an impressive contact list of private cellphone numbers, name-dropping one’s Ivy League degrees, referencing weekends in the Hamptons or on Martha’s Vineyard, or being ranked in the top 100, 1,000, or 5,000 of some cool magazine’s list of go-getters and “people to watch”?
Is there not wisdom in being able to drop an 80-foot pine tree with a chain saw within a foot of the mark, or to take apart a hydraulic ram in an hour, or to steer a bulldozer on a narrow uphill road? Can MSNBC news reader Brian Williams tell the truth any better than the Michigan lathe operator? Is Lois Lerner, formerly of the IRS and now enjoying a multimillion-dollar retirement, more likely to file an honest tax return than the Wyoming rancher, or would you feel safer knowing that Press Secretary Josh Earnest was working on a high-voltage wire outside your front door?
Or is wisdom sometimes gained by losing the polish on one’s hands? Is the wrinkled man’s face as trustworthy as the thirty-something’s peach fuzz or the Botox grin of the middle-aged metrosexual on the evening news or the pollster who assures you that the election has already been decided before the voting?
In this year of weariness with the elite and their definition of success and wisdom, lots of such questions are being asked.
Where is John Podesta today — who was a master of the universe two weeks ago? Is the Podesta name a stamp of honesty and sobriety? Do obsequious media still seek the latest gossip from Cheryl Mills or Robbie Mook, the boy wonder from Columbia who was to oversee the inevitable landslide victory? Do our demigods in Silicon Valley ever grasp that even their cosmos is a fragile and fickle place where yesterday’s wise are rendered today’s fools? Is doing all the “right” things often a guarantee of ensuring the absolutely wrong things?
Will President Trump learn from the wise-fool President Obama that hubris always incurs nemesis, and that there is an all-knowing power who waits in ambush for us once we deem ourselves gods? Is David Brooks still critiquing the crease in the president’s pants leg, or are our historians still wedded to the idea that Obama is a “god” and the smartest man to have entered the presidency?
Is David Brooks still critiquing the president’s crease in his pant’s leg, or are our historians still wedded to the idea that Obama is a ‘god’ and the smartest man to have entered the presidency?
Ramming down Obamacare by lying about its provisions did what exactly, and for whom? Did untruth ensure that a simple Affordable Care Act website would work? What was the wisdom or good of presidential guarantees of reasonable premiums, deductibles, and choice to the insured? Did it make Americans feel more secure in their health care? Did the sterling résumés of Jonathan Gruber and Ezekiel Emanuel prove to us that Obamacare was both fair and smart?
What good did grifting for all those hundreds of millions of dollars do for the Clintons in their sunset years? Do they look healthier and haler for their frenzied pursuit of lucre? Did they gain greater respect and acclaim, the richer they became, or are they resting in peace with the assurance of lives well lived? Are they finally deemed successful for scamming that last $50 million in their pay-for-play scheming?
Did daily fibbing make Hillary more virtuous? Can a Yale law graduate make a mockery of the law in way a tractor driver from Mendota cannot — given the greater power to do good or evil that is a dividend of greater education and status? Did Barack Obama’s prize-winning Harvard professors teach him about the constitutional limits of the presidency? Or, instead, does moral regress sometimes come with material and intellectual progress?
Size up the 2016 campaign, and our self-acclaimed wise — defined by their ubiquity in the media, their glib ability to assert that up is down, and down up, their tony school brands — often became utterly foolish. A garish Donald Trump did not need to hire supposedly brilliant politicos to defeat supposedly brilliant politicos on the other side.
What good did all the Russian experts in his administration over the last few years do for Barack Obama?
Trump is criticized now that he might be too soft on Putin. Perhaps. Yet it was not Trump, but the Ivy League Trinity of Obama, Clinton, and Kerry who “reset” George W. Bush’s reset sanctions against Putin, who canceled already-planned missile defense with the Czechs and the Poles; it was Clinton who pushed a ridiculous plastic reset button; and Obama who in a hot-mic quip stealthily promised Dmitry Medvedev that he would be more reasonable with Vladimir Putin after his reelection, who invited the Russians into the Middle East after a 40-year hiatus, who mocked Mitt Romney when the latter suggested that Russia was a threat to America, who loudly announced faux “step-over” line ultimatums to the Russians; it was Clinton who in pay-for-play greed opened up North American uranium resources to the Russians, and Obama who personally mocked Putin as an adolescent school cut-up even as he appeased Putin at every turn.
For now, Donald Trump has proved that the animal cunning necessary to survive in the jungle of Manhattan real estate — duplicitous and venal politicians, all-powerful unions, incompetent and vindictive regulators, fair-weather bankers and investors, and dozens of special-interest crusaders — trumps the definition of traditional political wisdom: finding a young hip graduate from the right school with the right résumé to hire the right people to run the right sort of campaign.
Trump instinctively sensed that to win, Republicans would have to recapture the Rust Belt states, and to do that, he would have to campaign on illegal immigration, jobs, trade, and the economy. He sensed that populism was a state of mind and speech, not necessarily net worth. What good did it do for pundits to insist that a billionaire could not appeal to the horny-handed when the billionaire in fact talked and connected with the horny-handed? What good did it do to deplore the loud vulgarity of Trump if one’s own polish and sobriety could not hide the vulgarity of the carnival grifter, glib plagiarist, and loquacious fabulist? Is the local town paper in Wisconsin more or less fair in its coverage than the New York Times? Did the fact that well-spoken Fareed Zakaria snickered at the crudity of Trump suggest that he was not himself a Harvard-trained plagiarist?
For now, Donald Trump has proved that the animal cunning necessary to survive in the jungle of Manhattan real estate trumps the definition of traditional political wisdom.
If “Make America Great Again” is not to end up like the banal “Hope and Change,” if the Republican Congress of 2017 is not to wither away like the Democratic Congress of 2009, and if the glitzy promises of 2016 are not to prove as empty as the deceptions of Obamacare, the Iran Deal, the stimulus, and “balancing the budget,” then Trump will have to reflect on the nature of true wisdom: Trust instinct as much as conventional wisdom, never forget who elects the politician, remember that cheap praise is fickle and transient and those who traffic in it disappear in extremis, quietly do what is promised to those who were promised a change, ignore the venom of critics, and do not gloat over successes — and move silently, quickly, and, above all, modestly.
Do all that, and Trump would prove wiser than the more erudite who hate him.