I am obliged to confess," said William F. Buckley, Jr. in 1963, "I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University."

Buckley, of course, was a Yalie, but this wasn't standard Yale Harvard-bashing; this was raising an eyebrow at what America has persuaded itself is a meritocracy, where going to the correct schools and learning the appropriate talking points is considered good enough to elevate you into the upper class. The idea, it appears, is that those of us who for whatever reason did not accomplish those things should be grateful that we are guided by those that did; Buckley found that notion risible, and being Buckley, he said so. And saying so did not get Buckley barred from the seats of power and the homes of the powerful; you're allowed a certain amount of leeway, provided you don't do horrible things like speak glowingly of NASCAR or eat pork rinds.

Now there are rather a lot of people who are way smarter than I am, some of whom you'd never hear using an awkward-sounding colloquialism like "way smarter." Several have earned doctorates, by which I am duly impressed, given the fact that I have spent less time in school, in the purely-chronological sense, than almost anyone I know; my God, the endurance they must have! But generally, they have a sense of their own limitations, that the things they know are far outnumbered by the things they don't know, that their verified expertise in Field A doesn't confer any particular advantages upon them when discussing Fields N through R. William F. Buckley, Jr. wouldn't even object to having them in charge.

Which brings us to the present day, and this situation:

Do we even want our leaders to be vastly smarter than we are? Can't remember where I saw it, but some very passionate Obama-backer was saying Hell Yes! I don't want my leaders to be like me, I want them to be better than me!

Out here in the real world, we see a lot of problems with that.

If the leader is smarter than I am, and this is to present us with some kind of advantage, that would necessarily mean sooner or later there is a decision coming up on which the leader would make the right choice and I would make the wrong one. Now, perhaps what follows next doesn't apply to those who lust after these "smart leaders," but — my fate, every single day, depends on my ability to make wise decisions.

And, inevitably, on his ability to learn from having made decisions less than wise. "Good judgment," said Will Rogers, "comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment." I can attest to the wisdom of this statement, particularly that last clause.

I can vouch for this as well: being the smartest guy in the room isn't all it's cracked up to be. At the very least, it suggests I need to find a different room once in a while. More to the point, I don't think of myself as having the proper temperament for leadership; Central Casting would never accept me as the Hero, but they might buy me as the Hero's Best Friend. Lateral, rather than top-down, influence. On the other hand, if we drafted people into positions of power, the way we draft people into jury duty, I have perhaps just enough confidence in myself to believe I wouldn't do any worse than the next guy, particularly if the next guy is into this brand of denial:

To recognize reality as it really is, and to adjust one's emotional profile in response to the reality so that it is unconditionally cheery, are two mutually-exclusive goals. It may not seem to be the case when reality happens to be pleasant. But when reality is unpleasant you can choose to wrestle with it to whatever extent is required to fix a problem, or you can choose to ignore it in order to keep your emotions on a high and even keel.

Which is not to say I'm immune to this sort of thing. I can dither for several minutes over "Paper or plastic?" I admit that there are times when I try to generate enough of an anti-reality field to insulate myself from a feeling of impending doom. Sooner or later, though, the bullet gets bitten, because the alternative ultimately proves to be worse.

I do occasionally get reminded that I don't know everything. (This is, incidentally, why I didn't get bent out of shape when Barack Obama ducked an abortion question by saying it was "above his pay grade." While I don't share his particular viewpoint on this matter, I prefer to refer this question to a Higher Authority.) I hope I have enough sense not to take umbrage at these reminders.

Ultimately, of course, all this proves nothing, except that I'm a relatively normal 20th-century American who has gotten one-tenth of the way through the 21st without acquiring delusions of grandeur. It doesn't necessarily mean William F. Buckley, Jr. would endorse me for office — unless, of course, I moved to Boston, got a listed land line, and changed my last name to "Aardvark."

The Vent

  1 March 2010

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