An often-articulated vision of the world, which Thomas Sowell called unconstrained and I have labelled rationalist, holds that the mass of people are weak, foolish, and easily led astray by powerful, selfish interests. We the people, to behave correctly, need an adult in the room: a class of intellectuals who treat moral and political problems like mathematical equations, to be solved with an application of reason.
This perspective immediately collides with the ideals of democracy and equality. Democracy, to a rationalist, can be legitimate only when it elects the rationalist elites to office, and endorses their policy prescriptions. Otherwise it gives a bunch of yahoos the right to deny that one plus one is two.
Equality, in the rationalist vision, gets projected to the indefinite future, when the rest of the human race will catch up with the the enlightened few. Until that golden age arrives, however, the rationalist’s burden is to lead us human donkeys by persuasion if possible, but by force if need be. One would not debate the fine points of survival with a child about to step in front of a speeding car, after all.
Usually, the rationalist veils his contempt for his fellow-citizens behind populist bromides and ferocious attacks on targeted villains like the health insurance companies. Yet in recent weeks the veil of discretion has been pushed aside. The rationalist suddenly stands exposed and unashamed. He will have his privileges, his special dispensation, and we the people must either follow or be damned.
Case in point: Thomas Friedman. Here is a man whose likeness, chins and all, should be carved on the Mt. Rushmore of rationalist self-esteemers. While surely an intelligent person, he has no discernible qualifications to speak on any subject. His job is to vent opinions for the NYT. His style alternates between the axiomatic and the opaque, offering little in the way of persuasive evidence. In fact he doesn’t wish to persuade at all, but rather to pound and pummel the reader into submission.
What he writes is important because he is Thomas Friedman. It is also beyond discussion, for the same reason.
Three weeks ago, Friedman gave up on democracy. For those who think this is an exaggeration, here are his own words: “There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.” Friedman, like most rationalists, prefers tidier top-down political systems, among which he finds a golden ideal in the mafia now ruling China:
One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.
“Politically difficult but critically important”: another way of saying “opinions I hold which will never fly with the vast majoritarian rabble.” Friedman’s policy prescriptions are (by definition) correct, because he is Thomas Friedman. He loathes hearing them debated by lesser beings, and looks longingly to those men who, when they were called into question, gave us the enlightened massacre of Tiananmen Square. One feels Friedman would like to run a few tanks over the Republicans in Congress, who against all reason keep acting like an opposition party — leaving us a “one-party democracy.”
Case in point: Roman Polanski. Let us skip over the sordid details of his case. All that matters is that Polanski acknowledged his guilt, then fled before he could receive his punishment. He’s a fugitive, a wanted criminal. That he is also a movie director would appear, to most people, a matter of no relevance.
Yet the intelligentsia in Europe and the U.S. reject this line of reasoning. It’s who Polanski is that matters: an artist, an enlightened member of the elite, a moral guardian and teacher to the people. Given his privileged estate, what Polanski did is (by definition) acceptable and possibly even admirable.
A petition originating with that old busybody, Bernard-Henri Levy, has been signed by dozens of famous writers, artists, and intellectuals. It demands that Polanski be released, accepted, and embraced, because he is who he is, and they are who they are. The wording fairly hums with wounded majesty and disdain; in Friedmanesque fashion, it provides neither evidence nor arguments on Polanski’s behalf. His crime? “An episode that happened years ago.” The law? “A politico-legal imbroglio that is unworthy of two democracies like Switzerland and the United States.” And so it goes.
Democracies are worthy if – and only if – the people understand the difference between their betters and themselves. Here is the first great beatitude of the rationalist creed. Moral worth depends on one’s cleverness and ideology, never one’s actions. This explains how a sleazy poseur like Norman Mailer could get away with stabbing his wife, and a moral derelict like Ted Kennedy can enjoy, on his death, an apotheosis worthy of St. Francis. They were made of higher stuff than thee or me.
Alas, the people will never understand. Americans aren’t about to amend the Constitution to appease Thomas Friedman and bring us closer in line with the People’s Republic. Even in France, the intellectuals’ frenzy of self-righteousness on behalf of a child molester has left a bad taste with the populace. That is the cross the rationalist must bear, the source of his unending heartburn and frustration: to be, like God himself, invariably right, yet always scorned, ignored, or rejected.