Thursday, 11 August 2005

Democracy and Intellect

It's scarcely original to notice that dishonesty is a prerequisite for political success. One can try to blame "the system" for that, but really the fault lies with the vanity of the electorate.

"I have great faith in the people of our great [city, county, district, state, nation], to sort out the issues, and make the smart decision" is a typical winner's statement.

Yeah, right. Of course it would be politically foolish, if the winner has any future ambitions to insult the very people who voted for him or her. But usually even the best politicians must rely on the votes of people who misunderstand the issues in order to win a majority.

Let's face it, the majority of people in most jurisdictions don't have the intellect to sort out all the issues sufficiently to understand which candidate's election (or initiative position) is truly in the best interest of themselves, much less the whole of their city, county, district, state, or nation. That sounds so like an insult, but it shouldn't be. People have as much intellect as they have, and there should be no embarrassment associated with it.

People are vain about all sorts of things, notably their looks or abilities. But there is an unspoken suggestion that you really shouldn't be vain about looks, but it's OK to take pride in one's intelligence. Looks are external or superficial, but smarts are on the inside. But wait, that makes no sense! Smarts, just as much as looks, are an attribute that we only have minimal control over. Why then is it not just as frowned upon to mock "those idiots", even if they are dumb, as it would be to deride someone who is ugly or blind.

I was fortunate to be born with more than an average intellect, but I've always been sensitive to the truth I stated above, probably because of my mentally retarded first cousin, one year older than me, who was my childhood neighbor. Most people now get it that they shouldn't make fun of the developmentally disabled, and in fact most mature adults realize that it is mean to ridicule anyone for lack of intellect. But even if it is only quietly, otherwise decent people, myself included, are more likely to judge someone harshly for lack of mental powers than for lack of athletic ability, for instance.

In choosing our leadership, intelligence certainly is desirable. A dumb person can still be smart enough to realize that it makes more sense to choose a smart person to lead their group, just as a klutzy person can understand that it makes more sense to give the more athletic people on the team the most playing time. But the pride that is sanctioned with respect to intelligence poisons the democratic process, because there is such reluctance to admit to intellectual shortcomings, both on the part of the politicians and the voters. We all want to be smart and understand all the issues, even when we sometimes would be better off deferring to expertise that has been duly earned in a particular field.

Of course, there are complications with expertise as well. How do we know that claimed expertise is truly earned, or that the process of getting it has not been corrupted by power or nepotism? The more transparent the processes for accreditation, the better off we are. Democracy can work when power is balanced, secrecy is discouraged, and pride is not pandered to. But it is fragile, even in as powerful a nation as mine. Leaders need boldness and confidence and sadly a little dishonesty to actually lead and inspire their people, but I like to see a little humility as well, else I fear they will start believing their own hype, and become enamored of their own power and lose sight of the ideals we might aspire to.

Jimmy Carter remains the only President that I ever voted for, and I understand why I liked him, and why some of what I liked turned into shortcomings as a leader. Still I wish we could actually elect someone of his integrity and sometime soon. We have a growing integrity deficit, and if it gets any worse we could lose the best of what we still have as a nation. I remain hopeful, but not terribly optimistic. Our best hope will probably emerge outside but parallel to the political process. Martin Luther King, Jr. remains the best American model of recent history that I can think of. There are a lot of people out there - don't think it's not possible.

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