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"Sheep Amidst Wolves : George Bush and the Cunning of Reason" by Lee Harris

There are two ways of approaching a great thinker. If you are reading Plato and you chance across a remark that strikes you as foolish, you may either conclude that Plato is being stupid or that you are. And if you decide that you are-which is always a safe bet-then you will dig deeper, reflect harder, and try to penetrate to the wisdom carefully hidden beneath the apparent folly.

On the other hand, when dealing with people we already regard as fools we feel absolved from the duty of digging much deeper. Our hermeneutical principles do not require us to offer a rigorous analysis of their inanities, and we sensibly conclude that it would be pointless to pursue a deeper examination of their motives. This is because stupid people's motives are normally quite self-evident, and we tend not to suspect them of cunning or duplicity in their designs.

Usually we are more than justified in this approach.

But it is by no means obvious why this should be so. After all, why couldn't a brilliantly Machiavellian mind adopt stupidity as a strategic device to lessen the chance of having his subtle designs being detected by those upon whom he was working these very designs?

At the level of abstract theory this does in fact seem perfectly plausible. Yet the world does not offer many cases of such a device being adopted by the cunning. And there is a reason for it.

It is the tendency of those with intelligence to be afflicted with that disease of the ego, amour propre-that boundless, almost hormonal narcissistic lust to outshine all rivals and to outrank all peers--although, in this case, what at the individual level may be a curse at the collective level proves a boon; and thus another instance of Mandeville's maxim, Private Vices, Public Virtues. For the vanity of the brilliant neatly prevents them from simulating stupidity, and thus protect us from the staggering power for mischief this masquerade would potentially put into their hands. If a man has a brilliant enough mind to conceive of subtle designs, he will almost certainly have the psychological drive to demonstrate the brilliance of his mind by revealing-or indeed trumpeting-the very subtlety of those designs that he would be far better off concealing.

For what brilliant man will consent to being considered stupid? Even stupid people find this a trial. And this is my way of warning the reader that what he is being invited to ponder is something little short of a violation of the natural order. But, so advised, let us proceed.

When the current President of the United States, George W. Bush, was running in the national primaries, he is reported as having said-in Missouri, I believe--that Jesus Christ was "his favorite political philosopher." This was, by any imaginable standard, a simply extraordinary statement. And, upon hearing it, I at once sat down, my mind benumbed, and asked myself, "Could he possibly have meant what he said? And if he did, could he really have understood it?"

Had Bush attended a small religious college in the mid-West at the turn of the last century-or, no, not that last one, but the one before that, when William Jennings Bryan was running for the Presidency-I could have made some sense of the remark. But this was a man who had attended both Yale and Harvard in the post-modernist age. And this meant that, unless Bush had an amoeba's immunity to the intellectual influences of his immediate vicinity, he must certainly have known how such a remark would be bound to be treated by those of us had have the slightest clue as to what constitutes a real political philosopher. Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx-these were your political philosophers, and this was something "everyone" knows. For Jesus, no matter what else you might think of him, was not known for his theoretical speculations about the origins of civil society or his ideas on the nature of political sovereignty.

This left me with two options: The remark was a cynical and clumsy effort to curry the favor of dim-witted fundamentalists. Or else that Bush was a simply a transcendentally stupid man.

Yet, after Bush became President I found it difficult to believe that he could be quite that cynical and clumsy. Indeed, he struck me as being quite decent and candid. And this left me with only one way of explaining the remark-and this was, of course, the stupidity theory.

One day, however, a verse from the Gospel of St. Matthew suddenly popped into my head. It was Jesus' injunction to his disciplines: "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." Was that what Bush meant?

Let us begin by reflecting on Jesus' injunction. The Biblical serpent is not merely wise, he is subtle-"more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made," or so we are reliably informed in Genesis 3:1. And subtlety is a useful asset to have, especially if you are a sheep surrounded by wolves.

Now since sheep are not generally famous either for subtlety or cunning, the injunction has a surprising, but quite unavoidable consequence: If you wish to survive in a world full of wolves, and yet also wish to be harmless as doves, then it is necessary for you to act like a sheep, even if you are not. And this means that you must go to whatever trouble it takes to convince the wolves that you are a sheep-and yet, at the same time, you yourself must be devising and scheming, exactly like the serpent. And this means you must be devising and scheming ways to defeat and baffle the wolves, while at the same time continuing to pursue the agenda of a dove.

In other words, you must act stupid so that those you are trying to outwit will never suspect that you are trying to outwit them. But this means you must also actively encourage other people-not just your enemies!-- to think you stupid as well, lest they accidentally blow your cover. And you must make absolutely no effort to change their minds by showing that you are in fact less moronic than they take you to be. And, indeed, the logic of the situation means that your power over your enemies will increase in direct proportions to the contempt with which they view your claims to intellectual competency. In short, the dumber, the better. Is this, I wondered, what George W. Bush had meant when he said Jesus was his favorite political philosopher?

Naturally, it all sounded wonderful in theory. But once again we run into the question. Can an intelligent person really learn to master the vanity of his ego to the extend of willingly suffering others to think he is dumb? Can the imperative promptings of our amour propre be subdued by sheer will power and self-discipline?

It was difficult to believe. And yet I had seen it happen once before in my lifetime. And the person, curiously enough, who had performed this miracle of self-mastery was the current President's father, George Herbert Walker Bush.

After t

Captured by MemoWeb from on 9/16/2004