Smooth Criminal

[Kepler’s] greatest service to science was in impressing on men’s minds that … if they wished to improve astronomy … they were not to content themselves with inquiring whether one system of epicycles was better than another but that they were to sit down to the figures and find out what the … truth, was. He accomplished this by his incomparable energy and courage, blundering along in the most inconceivable way (to us), from one irrational hypothesis to another, until, after trying twenty-two of these, he fell, by the mere exhaustion of his invention, upon the orbit which a mind well furnished with the weapons of modern logic would have tried almost at the outset.
—C.S. Peirce. “The Fixation of Belief” Popular Science Monthly, Nov. 1877.


If MTV’s “Video Music Awards” are remembered in the future for any reason (and at this point, despite what I’m going to write, that’s pretty unlikely), it will be for one sentence: “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you and I’mma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time.” The sentence was spoken at the 2009 edition of the awards show by the rap artist Kanye West, who objected to Taylor Swift’s win over Beyoncé in the (badly named) category of “Best Female Video.” Afterwards West was widely derided: even President Barack Obama, then in his first year in office, called him a “jackass.” But then, there was a backlash to the backlash. To Ann Powers of the Los Angeles Times, for example, the incident suggested hidden racism: “Maybe,” Powers wrote, West “was miffed that this young black pop queen’s heels were being nipped at by a blond Ivory Girl whose fans tend to look quite a bit like her.” What interests me about this affair is not however Ms. Powers’ judgment that what motivated West’s critics was racism (which I think was largely correct), but instead what it tells us, not about Obama’s presidency, but about why Hillary Clinton’s candidacy will fail.

Instead, what’s of interest about the affair now, at the end of Obama’s term, is how limited that judgement was: the actual crime West committed, I submit, wasn’t that he reminded his audience of the structural racism that prevents artists like Beyoncé from engaging in a fair contest with artists (?) like Swift, but instead simply that he was reminding people of the idea of fair contests: that somebody has to win and somebody has to lose. That crime, in turn, not only suggests just why it is that Barack Obama’s presidency will be judged by history as a failure, but also just why Hillary Clinton is having such difficulty securing the Democratic nomination: because Obama had, at least at the beginning of his presidency, a spectacularly wrong theory of both wisdom and democracy—and insofar as Clinton is attempting to follow his path, so does she. That fundamental problem with both “centrist” Democrats is that that Obama did not, and Clinton does not, acknowledge that wisdom is lumpy—as the greatest of their predecessors did.

Clinton is having difficulty, in other words, because her campaign is—as it must be— premised on a continuity with the Obama administration, and Obama’s administration was premised on a bad idea. And although Obama did express that bad idea in reaction to Kanye West’s clowning at the VMAs, it’s more readily visible during a seemingly far more serious event: namely, the widespread Republican victories during the 2010 midterm elections. In response to that event Obama said, in a statement meant to be conciliatory, that “no person, no party, has a monopoly on wisdom.” It’s an apparently innocuous statement; a sentiment with which, likely, most people might agree. Compromise, we are often pietistically informed, is what it means to inhabit a democratic government.

To say so however is, fundamentally, both to misunderstand not only wisdom but also democratic government—as the predecessor Obama recently acknowledged as the better president during his last State of the Union speech well knew. “It is common sense,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in a 1932 campaign speech, “to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another.” The main thing, FDR said, was to keep going: “above all,” the great president said, “try something.” By contrast to Obama’s theory of wisdom—in which “everybody’s got some”—Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s theory of wisdom recognizes that, in the real world, whatever is thought to be “wise” is always, and always must be, relative—relative, that is, to some other policy or person. What that means is that whatever policy or person is chosen has, by definition, a “monopoly on wisdom.” Wisdom is lumpy because it is always engaged in a contest with other policies or people.

The point can be further explicated by an anecdote related by Senator Elizabeth Warren in her book, A Fighting Chance: “He teed it up this way: I had a choice. I could be an insider, or I could be an outsider,” Warren writes there about a 2009 meeting she had (some months before the VMAs) with Lawrence Summers, Obama’s economic adviser, concerning the new consumer advocacy bureau she was instrumental in constructing. “Insiders,” Summers told Warren, “get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas,” while “people on the inside don’t listen” to outsiders. The difference, Summers further informed Warren, is simple—“insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.” It’s a rule that sounds modest enough, even somewhat kindly; it even  sounds somewhat like the idea that motivates democracy: just because someone disagrees with you is no reason, as previous theories of government had it, to put their head on a pike and disinherit their children. But notice that Summers’ theory is also Obama’s theory of wisdom, and also what the president saw as what was wrong with what Kanye West did: c’mon, Summers is saying, all you have to do is quiet down a bit …

President Obama’s theory of wisdom then is wrong on both counts. “Wisdom” is a not a quality that everyone shares equally, but instead is defined by being a monopoly. In fact, to say that “no one has a monopoly on wisdom” is essentially not only to deny the existence of wisdom but also the very possibility of representative, democratic government. As a statement about the world it is just not true that “everyone has some wisdom”: it is just simply not so that on any given issue I have, say, thirty percent of the available wisdom and you have seventy percent. On the contrary: on nearly all questions it will be so that you have all of the wisdom and I have none, or that I have all the wisdom and you have none. Obama’s statement in short imagines that “wisdom” is “smooth”; i.e., that it is spread around. But in reality—as FDR’s statement says—“wisdom” is lumpy: in some, and likely most, cases, somebody is going to know the most about the relevant subject. True democracy is not about “sharing wisdom,” or some other sentimental (and ultimately corrupt) nonsense, but a machine for getting the relevant authority on the relevant subject in charge—and then getting the hell out of the way so that person or party can go to work.

In reality then, democratic government is entirely based on the proposition that one person or group does have a monopoly on wisdom, at least during the transitory moment of their term in office. (That is why one of the surest signs of despotism is that the leader is elected for life.) Restating the point doesn’t mean suggesting that we return to the medieval method of executing the losers—a method, it bears reminding, still being used in many places today—but it is to point out that this proposition is after all the entire point of having elections. As the (notoriously racist) Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp said in 1965, “that’s why we play the game.” Obama won his election in 2008—nobody voted for him in order that he should bow down to the people who lost.

That in turn gets us back to Kanye. (Remember Kanye? There’s an essay about Kanye.) As I mentioned, Kanye’s real crime at the VMAs wasn’t that he reminded people of the likely biases that caused Swift to win over Beyoncé. (Indeed, Beyoncé ultimately won the award for best video of the year—of either gender.) Kanye’s real crime was that he offended against “decency” or “civility,” of the kind that Larry Summers, and at the end of the day Obama, represent. Kanye reminded people that there have to be winners and losers: or to put it another way, he committed the ultimate sin of a “celebrity” these days, the sin that Hillary Clinton is (wrongly) so desperate to avoid.

He reminded us of reality.


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