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There is No “Collective Wisdom”

June 22nd, 2007

At the Brussels Journal yesterday, George Handlery discusses the Iranian nuclear question. What he has to say, particularly early-on in his essay, is a great analogy of democracy as the fable of the Emperor’s new clothes:

We like to assume as we idealize democracy that common sense and officially accepted wisdom interrelate. Alas, this relationship can frequently be a negative one. What is generally accepted can and will often make no sense…

What is meant here by accepted wisdom? It is the gamut of assumptions made into commands by a largely self-appointed élite – celebrities, professors, reporters and the “beautiful people” – self-authorized to think in our behalf. In the debate about public affairs, common sense equals the child’s cry, “The emperor has no clothes”. In the fable, accepted wisdom is represented by the crowd that saw what it saw but still pretended to believe what it was told.

As if he were channeling Mill, who cautions that, “The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful, is the cause of half their errors. A contemporary author has well spoken of ‘the deep slumber of a decided opinion’” Handlery makes a case for there being too much self-reinforcing “accepted wisdom,” and not enough “common sense,” and on this issue I wholeheartedly agree. Accepting the “collective wisdom” is a denial of one’s fallibility. Would that there were far less of that brand of accepted wisdom. It’s worth a read, although I’m unfortunately rather convinced that Handlery was drunk by the time he concluded it, because a few sentences are grammatical nightmares. Either that, or he ran it back-and-forth through babelfish.

So what about Iran? According to Handlery, accepted wisdom perverts Pascal’s wager; suggesting that nothing can be done, and even if it could, it wouldn’t be enough. On the contrary, common sense tells us: “Don’t do nothing!” – or to be grammatically correct, “Do something.”
I don’t know what to do, but it wouldn’t involve invasion.

Now, it’s imperative to apply the common sense/accepted wisdom test to pretty much everything you hear from any so-called authority: if you’re going to challenge the conclusion, you need to examine the premises, too. I’d suggest starting with the notion that “democracy” is something to be idealized in the first place, because common sense will prove to you that it is not – but I digress. Handlery limits this test to the policy recommendations of self-styled authorities and petty-dictators. I’d include “politicians” in that mix – collectively these people are often inventing or revealing the very problems they aim to resolve in the first place! How do we even know the problem is real? If they don’t know how to solve the problem, isn’t it possible that it’s not been properly diagnosed to begin with? And then what?

It’s hard to believe anything about international relations or foreign policy these days, so here’s a wager of my own: even if Iran isn’t a threat, she’d be portrayed as one anyways.

Because it’s not about destroying Iran, or ending despotism, or seeding democracy in backwards countries – it’s about control.



  • Dan Z says on: June 22, 2007 at 12:28 pm


    As I said before in one of my posts, it is debatable that they are even close to producing nuclear weapons, their concealment could be hiding failure and even the US “intelligence” agencies peg them as three years away. No invasion is necessary as they pose no threat to us, the guise of the threat will be the same used with Iraq which was flawed. If I was Iran and knew that militant Israel had nuclear weapons, I woul dhave to be an idiot not to develop them. AS you said this does come down to control, we have no right to pick and choose what countries can have nuclear weapons or power. In the past our choices make no sense, and wont, lest we all forget that the United States began the Nuclear program in Iran in the 1950’s and our coup and installation of a US friendly govt is what caused the harsh rhetoric from the Iranian govt that we are so afraid of.

  • Dan Z says on: June 23, 2007 at 1:11 am


    I just noticed your suggestion that politicians often invent or reveal problems they aim to resolve and while my previous post indicates this is the case I think it is also key to note that the United States is the largest producer and supplier of arms on earth. It is without a doubt that we have created the vast majority of the problems we seek to solve, at this very minute we are arming sunni militias in lebanon to fight hezbollah. This occured with disastorus results as the militas are now figthing the government army, yet again a problem we have created.

  • David Z says on: June 23, 2007 at 1:14 pm


    Did you ever see “Lord of War” with Nicholas Cage?

  • Dan Z says on: June 23, 2007 at 10:19 pm


    I never saw it but the premise is that he is an arms salesman isnt it? Its been on HBO a couple times, but they only give me shitty Showtime which never has anything on.

  • Francois Tremblay says on: June 24, 2007 at 2:26 pm


    But Showtime has the best show ever made for the telly!

  • Dan Z says on: June 24, 2007 at 8:20 pm


    What show is that? I have found one thing watchable on that since I have had it. To make it worse I still get showtime with my current package, but they have taken away my NFL network.

no third solution

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