What Is Wisdom?

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

There is a report today (I think first offered in the Huffington Post) that David Brooks, the gifted New York Times columnist, has described Sarah Palin as a “fatal cancer” and part of a larger pernicious conservative trend:

But there has been a counter, more populist tradition, which is not only to scorn liberal ideas but to scorn ideas entirely. And I’m afraid that Sarah Palin has those prejudices. I think President Bush has those prejudices.

Brooks then praised the logorrhea of Joe Biden in his interview with theAtlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg as the proper antidote to Palin: [Biden] can’t not say what he thinks,” Brooks remarked. “There’s no internal monitor, and for Barack Obama, that’s tremendously important to have a vice president who will be that way. Our current president doesn’t have anybody like that.” Brooks also spent time praising Obama’s intellect and skills in social perception, telling two stories of his interactions with Obama that left him “dazzled”.

In truth I don’t quite know what Brooks himself was trying to say, inasmuch as Reagan was written off by intellectuals as a “dunce,” Truman was demonized by the Stevenson crowd as an intellectual embarrassment, and Ford reduced to a football-damaged jock in contrast to the “nuclear engineer” and social moralist Jimmy Carter.

But Brooks’ reflections about Biden, at least according to the reported transcript, are telling. We had a debate between the two Vice Presidential candidates. Biden was superficially the more impressive with his recall of facts, anecdotes (most of them not mysteriously with Biden at the heroic center), and broad assertions.

In contrast, Palin was direct and perhaps repetitive in her focus on lower taxes, less government, and individual responsibility (especially for personal debt) — and I suppose what Brooks would call populist in her vocabulary, tone, and Fargo-mode of expression. But when they were through, Palin proved the more truthful and pragmatic, inasmuch as the glib Biden turned out to have misled in almost everything he professed, from our own Constitution to Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon. Even the folksy reference to his hometown diner was inaccurate. And that raises the age-old Euripidean question, “What is wisdom?” or maybe those general Hesiodic warnings about the dangers of moral regress that sometimes can accompany intellectual progress.

Wisdom can be, but surely is not confined to, or even assured by, degree certification, rhetorical brilliance, or the ability to talk off the cuff about Niebuhr — or the wit to write Brooks and advise him about his own ethical conduct, which Obama did and which now impresses Brooks:

For the next 20 minutes, he gave me a perfect description of Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought, which is a very subtle thought process based on the idea that you have to use power while it corrupts you. And I was dazzled, I felt the tingle up my knee as Chris Matthews would say.

This is sad — since everything from the faux-seal with its vero possumuspretensions, the Greek temple backdrops, the efforts to speak at the Brandenburg Gate, the mantra “we are the change we’ve been waiting for,” the messianic idea that the seas and planet will likewise heel to His wisdom, and the inane ‘hope and change’ banalities do not suggest real wisdom at all, but a dazzling veneer that overlays a great deal of megalomania.

Nor does Brooks grasp that recall of Niebuhr apparently offers Obama little ethical protection from the close association with the virulently racist Wright or warns him not to talk after 2001 with the now boastful and proud ex-terrorist Ayers, and no judgement about the moral course in the earlier conduct of his disturbing Illinois campaigns, or principled consistency in his ideas about NAFTA, FISA, campaign financing reform, drilling, the surge, Iran, taxes, abortion, or capital punishment — or even the ability to distinguish between maintenance of proper tire air pressure and the need to expand American oil production. Perhaps salmon fishing or moose-hunting might have been of value in reifying the more abstract wisdom found in Niebuhr.

In the present financial meltdown, mostly caused by some of the brightest and most educated of our own on Wall Street and D.C., it is not anti-intellectualism to wonder what the Harvard Law School educated Barney Frank was doing, when, as a key overseer of Fannie Mae in a now much viewed House Banking Committee session, he pompously waved off his moral responsibilities and gave the disingenuous Harvard Law School educated Franklin Raines a pass to continue to milk the venerable institution on its road to perdition.

In regards to Bush, it is now the standard fare of the times to offer the appropriate put-down, and Brooks paints him with the usual yokel, anti-intellectualism brush. Yet those who once supported the decision to go to Iraq (many like Biden or Fukuyama dating back to the Clinton days), were among our most educated and brightest. But like a chorus of a Greek tragedy, almost all of them not merely abandoned their once zealous support, but (again, like Biden) at periodic intervals prepped their ongoing commentary on (always changing) perceptions about pulse of the battlefield. Bush, to his credit, went with Petraeus and thus Iraq was stabilized — but not by a President’s seeking out the convenient position of the hour, but by supporting the surge and its ancilliary tactics when few others in the Bush coterie did.

In this regard, the eloquent, sensitive philosopher Obama, despite his current protestations about Iraq and an insistence on his principled and long-standing and unflinching opposition to the war, during that brief euphoria over its elections and in his eagerness not to seem out of sync with the then Democratic mainstream, in July 2004 gushed, ““There’s not much of a difference between my position on Iraq and George Bush’s position at this stage.”

What then is real wisdom?

©2008 Victor Davis Hanson

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