January 21, 2008
From Liberty Street

Intellectual Corruption

John Turner

Over the past two decades, I've grown strongly suspicious of either historical accounts or policy discussions that pay no attention to individual people or the specific events that affect them.  In fact, I've gone beyond suspicion and arrived at the conclusion that talk and writing that deals only with abstractions is the quintessential form of intellectual corruption.

I was reminded of that conviction yesterday, watching a Book TV program from the Wilson Center about Elisabeth Bumiller's biography of Condoleeza Rice. You would think that since the topic was a life story, the conversation would have been mainly about concrete incidents. But that wasn't the case. The panelists David Rothkopf and Walter Isaacson, along with Ms. Bumiller herself, dealt mostly with policies and how Ms. Rice related to them. And when it came to questions and comments from a fairly learned audience, the talk was exclusively about policies and assessments.

There was, for example, an extended conversation about who were the most successful secretaries of state over the past several decades. A consensus rapidly emerged presenting James Baker, who served in the office during most of George H.W. Bush's administration, as the best secretary of state in the modern era. There was virtually no explanation of why. And there was certainly no mention of who got killed and who didn't get killed because of actions Baker took or failed to take. What part did he play in the invasion of Panama on December 20, 1989, an action that took probably three thousand civilian lives (the U.S. Military would only admit to 200)? Was he for it or against it? I suspect that if the question has been raised at the Wilson Center, as pertinent evidence about Baker's greatness, the questioner would have been regarded as virtually insane. How could the petty issue of three thousand clearly unnecessary deaths even be considered when weighing the grandeur of a secretary of state? Big thinkers on diplomatic matters concern themselves with influences and pressures and forces.  What does it matter if some grubby Panamanians get wiped out?

The psychological effect of living for a long time in a culture of corruption is potent. And if you inhabit an intellectual atmosphere in which the violent destruction of individual lives doesn't much count because they don't get mentioned, then after a while you lose the ability to imagine the harm that you and people like you may be doing.

Let's suppose that when Walter Isaacson and David Rothkopf had been walking out of the Wilson Center together a man on the sidewalk in front of them had taken a large hammer and smashed the skull of the child beside him. They both would have gone home horrified by an image that wouldn't go away. They would have spent that evening and days afterward talking about the event.  Yet day after day, year after year, they sit calmly in comfortable rooms discussing the wisdom of policies that result in the smashing of thousands of skulls and I doubt that images of bloody heads with brain matter dripping out of them come readily to their minds.

We hear a lot of talk on TV about how politicians don't grasp the effect of their policies on real people's lives.  We denounce them for being out of touch. Yet, these too, are abstractions. We seldom press on to show exactly how they are out of touch, and who suffered because of it, and who died. The tight linkage of specific events to policy positions, and the ability to follow chains of responsibility are skills which have faded from our public discourse.

The chasm between a wealthy elite and the majority of the people makes this problem lethal. Remember how surprised the talking classes were to learn after the hurricane in New Orleans that there really were people living in conditions so bad they had no means to get themselves out of a city that was under threat. The reporters who went there afterwards were shocked by what they saw. They shouldn't have been. Anybody with an ounce of imagination knows there are people all across the nation living in desperate conditions. But the policy makers, being a part of the wealthy elite themselves, have lost the ability to bring graphic pictures before their mind's eye. It's a lot easier to talk about the wisdom of the market and free enterprise and national glory and other such tripe. Until we educate ourselves sufficiently to marry imagination to rational analysis, and thus see, actually, what's happening to people, we will continue to wallow in public thought that rarely rises out of the garbage dump.


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