Some time ago – a disgracefully long time ago, actually – I promised to nick some good thoughts sourced from around the internet, and post them here regularly, with my own commentary. The idea is simple: there are cleverer people than me around, but I am clever enough to spot stuff that deserves sharing. So I am sorry I have taken so long to come up with entry #2: my excuse is that I have been very busy posting on all sorts of other important topics.

My “steal” today stretches back into the past, to say something that is still utterly relevant to our world in 2012.”Only the wisest and the stupidest of men never change.” Confucius

A statue of Confucius, located in Hunan, China on the shore of the Dongting.

Confucius was responsible for a lot of good sense; for example, he espoused the well-known principle “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself”, an early version of the Golden Rule.

But he was also primarily responsible for instituting and codifying a love of authority that has, viewed from an historical perspective, condemned Chinese society to a limiting, claustrophobic respect for those in charge.

To this day, Confucian respect for those in charge – within a family, at a workplace level, in local government, and nationally – slows China’s development into anything resembling a pluralist society while simultaneously making it possible for the centralised Governmental system to drive their economy with little regard for human rights as the West would recognise them. It also encourages a ruling kleptocracy and lack of innovation.

But in this quotation, Confucius offers us a balancing thought we should all dwell on.

Rigidity of opinion is a common failing worldwide. And at its most extreme, it morphs into the horrors of civil war, inter-national conflict, racism, homophobia, colonial exploitation and many more nasties.

As I have grown older, I realise more and more that those things that I once saw as lay down misère* are rarely as certain as I once thought. As John Lennon once wisely said, “The more I see, the less I know for sure.” This is not an argument for some wishy-washy relativism, where nothing is certain, and excuses can be made for any opinion in the search for unity. No, it is merely a belated recognition, in my case, that there are not only two sides to most stories, but often many more than two.

Sadly, when rigid thinking is exhibited in politicians, it is often applauded. Politicians who evidence little or no doubt in their public prognostications are often called “strong” or “effective leaders”. They present with such certainty that we are often happy to delegate to them any need to think critically, while we busy ourselves with “getting on with life”. The problem, of course, arises when the “conviction politician” implements his or her convictions, and we all discover – too late, usually – that their much-lauded convictions were actually sheer nonsense.

The only substitute for this pattern of behaviour, which societies of all types and all eras repeat endlessly, is to consciously up our own level of interest. To read between the lines, and behind the front page, to educate ourselves, to criticise constructively and to demand answers to reasonable questions.

Some years ago, I called into Melbourne talk-back radio station 3AW, to the then Australian Prime Minister, arch-conservative John Howard. The second Iraq invasion was about to get underway, and I called him to point out that a leaked report from his own Chiefs of the Australian Defence Force had said that an inevitable result of any such invasion would be very high civilian casualties.

Howard brushed off my comment grumpily, simply saying “Well, that’s not my point of view.” I started to protest, seeking to point out that the advice came from his own advisers, and surely it was a relevant factor in his decision-making. The right-wing radio host sniffily cut me off, muttering “The Prime Minister has answered your question.”

To date, Iraqi civilian casualties of the war and the chaos that ensued thereafter are in excess of half a million people.

Half a million entirely innocent, civilian casualties. Men, women, and children. Young, and old. And still counting. Howard’s biography, written years later, virtually ignores the issue.

I am not so foolish as to think that if Howard had listened to me then that benighted war and those casualties could have been avoided.

But I do believe that if Howard, Blair, Cheney, Bush et al had not been so insanely gung ho – indeed, had they heeded Cheney’s own opinion from a decade earlier that a full-blown invasion of  Iraq would be a quagmire from which we would not know how to extract ourselves, and which would provoke a military and social cataclysm – then better planning might have been in place to deal with the immediate post-invasion chaos.

Around the world, millions of ordinary people feared exactly what eventuated. Their “folk wisdom” was better than the faux wisdom of the political leaders, relying, as they were, on tainted advice and their own self-confidence. If they had not been so damned obsessed with their own “convictions”, they might have been a deal more pragmatic, and many lives might not have been needlessly sacrificed – not to mention the Allied troops that have died or been horribly injured.

So perhaps, as Socrates said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

And why does such modesty in thinking matter?

Because simply put, as George Santayana noted, in his Reason in Common Sense, The Life of Reason, Vol.1, wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

For example, the way things are going, an attack on Syria or Iran (or both) are both live policy options for the West. Faced with such a nightmare scenario, the regimes in Damascus and Teheran become ever more brutal and belligerant. Their obduracy is met with yet more sabre rattling.

And so it goes, and so it goes.When will we ever learn?


*Misere
or misère (French for “destitution”; equivalent terms in other languages include bettel, contrabola, devole, null, pobre) is a bid in various card games, and the player who bids misere undertakes to win no tricks or as few as possible. This does not allow sufficient variety to constitute a game in its own right, but it is the basis of such trick-avoidance games as Hearts.

A Misere bid usually indicates an extremely poor hand, hence the name. An Open or Lay Down Misere is a bid where the player is so sure of losing every trick that they undertake to do so with their cards placed face-up on the table. Consequently, ‘Lay Down Misere’ is Australian gambling slang for a “dead cert”; a predicted easy victory.

Comments
  1. Richard Ember says:

    You might like to ask yourself why there has not been another Bali bombing? Why Terrorists are not running freely and out of control through major cities?? Naah, easier to repeat the old rhetoric.

    Like

    • A very long bow, Richard. World terrorism has its base in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the horn of Africa, it had only a tiny interest in iraq – until we created the conditions for it to thrive there for a while.

      Like

    • And I have to say, Richard, I would have thought my criticism of people swallowing the outpourings of politicians at face value would have been praised by you. If I had chosen an example of a left wing politician talking rubbish, would you then have given me a pass mark?

      Like

  2. Stephen, great analysis but you want us to learn? So long as the possibility exists for one group to stomp over another without consequence, I don’t think we will.

    Like

    • An interesting extention to the article Val – the question is, I guess, is where the dividing line comes between our freedom to express ourselves and the need to prevent the unreasonable over-powering of one viewpoint by another, to the detriment of good policy outcomes. What I really yearn for, I suppose, is a civilised exchange of views – not prissy, genuine – but but with both genuinely respecting the right of other well-intentioned people to express a contrary view.

      In that, I fear I may simply be being naive.

      Like

      • Not naive, if that were the case I think many of us are. I was told yesterday it was too late, we have lost our opportunity to stop the inevitable advancement of our complete loss of freedom in the US. I don’t believe that, I refuse to accept that premise. Yes, it seems propaganda has taken the place of truth, yet I still believe we can change this tide. I too desire a genuine exchange of ideas and the ability to compromise within our legislative process to reach the very best solutions for the most people, I believe it is possible if enough people stand up and are counted.

        Like

What do YOU think? That's what matters. Please comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s