From Liberty Street
Intelligence and Political Thought: The Contrast

John Turner

If you try to keep up with current politics and at the same time attempt to come to grips with a first-rate mind, as I have been trying to do lately with respect to Samuel Johnson, you run the risk of intellectual dissociation. The difference in thought and expression between a man like Johnson and the average U. S. Senator is so extreme it raises the question of whether they are members of the same species.

That truth was forced on me last week as I watched the hearing conducted by the Senate Armed Services Committee, which was investigating the legality of military commissions. The hearing had been made possible because the Supreme Court ruled that the president's current system of military commissions violates the Constitution. One procedure suggested by the Court was for Congress to approve a commission structure that would be legal. And, so, the Armed Services Committee was launched into action.

The witnesses were either current or former military lawyers. The procedure was for each member of the committee to ask them questions. But, as is usual on such occasions, these were questions in form only. In actuality, they were little speeches by the senators designed to evoke the appearance of assent from the military legal experts. The whole affair was a show whose purpose was to flatter the egos of all present and to establish support for the positions the senators knew in advance they were going to take.

The structure of the show could reasonably be called a protocol. All the participants knew how it worked and all were willing to comply with its prescriptions.

Had a man like Johnson been present, he would have smashed the protocol and scattered its pieces throughout the room. He could not have stood to let the participants talk comfortable nonsense. It would have offended his own understanding of sense too painfully.

There was, however, no pain on the faces of either witnesses or senators. They all appeared to find the experience thoroughly agreeable. The general tone was that all could be worked out with no disadvantage to anyone.

For example, on several occasions senators argued that affording detainees legal protections, which conceivably might produce acquittal, posed no danger to the United States because the defendants could then be classified as prisoners of war and returned to detention until the war was over.

We know what response this would have brought from the Great Cham: "But, Sir, the war as currently conceived can never be over. It is, by definition, an exercise in perpetuity. If the only result of being found not guilty is to be kept in gaol until you die, the trial has been a sham and the ideal of justice has been disgraced."

No one said that. No one even hinted at it. It would have been outside the protocol.

The thought experiment of placing Samuel Johnson in the hearing room shows us the difference between minds of the first order and those which subsist a considerable way down the scale of intelligence. These two categories of mind have not only different, but opposing, relationships to words.

In the one case, we have a mind which views words as vehicles of meaning. It wants to place words as close to things as can possibly be done, keeping in mind, as Dr. Johnson said, that things are the sons of God whereas words are the daughters of men.

The other mind, by contrast, cares little for meaning. It employs words, as it does virtually everything else, for advantage. It is also incapable of grasping that where meaning has been banished the idea of advantage becomes absurd. In other words, minds like those which direct the U.S. Senate rely vacantly on somebody else to maintain a structure of meaning which they, then, attempt to manipulate to their own advantage.

Once these two forms of mind -- I'm not sure we can call them both intelligences -- are delineated, we are left with the question of whether there can ever be progress in politics. Minds that seek only advantage don't seek to modify systems.  It is much easier to figure out how systems work and to worm one's way to the top of them than it is to modify them for the better. They can be improved only by those who can't bear the hypocrisy of the protocols, i.e., by minds devoted enough to the truth they can, at times, sacrifice immediate personal advantage. This is what used to be called political courage.

We know the cynic's answer to political progress -- it's impossible.

Politics by its nature is the seeking of advantage. To try to make it into something else is to expect a thing to be what it's not. That's probably true. But it still leaves open the kind of advantage a politician is going to seek.

There are advantages which accrue instantaneously and those which require a long period to show themselves. Men who concentrate completely on the moment are those most resolutely divided from the thought of a Johnson, or a Locke, or a Montesquieu. Those with the wit to take a more expansive view, who would enjoy more the thought of being remembered as a Thomas Jefferson than as a Thomas DeLay, can, upon occasion, reach out toward lasting advantage. And it is with such people, who now and them discern a glimmer of what history will applaud, that the possibility of political progress lies.

Let's face it. We are not going to elect Samuel Johnsons to the U.S. Senate. And in this day, not even Thomas Jeffersons.

While watching the committee hearing, I remained on the lookout for manifestations of the historical glimmer. But on that day, at least, none came through. I hope that wasn't a prediction of our political future.

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