2 September 2005

Hastert and the intellectual function

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) recently stated that it "makes no sense to spend billions of dollars to rebuild a city that's seven feet under sea level." He has since done a robertson-180, quickly seeking to "clarify" (i.e., retract) his comments. Louisiana Democrats, like sharks smelling blood, have pounced on the statement as heresy.

In this case, I think the political squabbling is unfortunate. Hastert brings up an excellent point that should be discussed. I wonder if the residents themselves were all offered 20 grand for every man, woman, and child on the condition that they'd rebuild inland (saving the government the billions required to rebuild, properly fortify, and then maintain New Orleans) how many citizens wouldn't take up the offer. Or perhaps it's a bad idea. In either case, it certainly deserves careful consideration at this point.

The failure to rationally discuss issues such as this demonstrates a current weakness in American civil society. Leadership decisions require a certain decisiveness, but the debate that should lead to those decisions needs to be nuanced and rational. Contentless slogans and political games blind people to the complexities underlying domestic and international issues.

Umberto Eco discusses this in his article "Reflections on War" (on p.3 in Five Moral Pieces). In this article, Eco discusses the "intellectual function" (emphasis mine).

It consists of identifying critically what one considers a satisfactory approximation of truth--and can be done by anybody . . . intellectuals must not "play the piper to revolution." Not in order to shirk the responsibility of choice (which they make as individuals), but because the moment of action requires the elimination of nuances and ambiguities . . . , whereas the intellectual function lies in delving for ambiguities and bringing them to light.

In other words, the decision about whether or not to rebuild New Orleans will require the careful weighing of numerous pros and cons. The requisite debate can't be adequately represented by a PowerPoint slide with each parties talking points. And it isn't helped by bonehead politicians in the Democratic Party jumping on any substantial statement put forth by the opposition.

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