By Selywn Duke
People use many words today without fully knowing what they mean – or should mean. “Tolerance,” “gender” and “truth” come to mind. But then there is one that rears its head every campaign season: “experience.”
We’ve heard this word a lot lately during discussion of latest GOP frontrunner Herman Cain. Many have warned that while he may be appealing and engaging, he lacks the experience to take the helm of the world’s only superpower. Some of these critics say that Cain’s supporters are making the same mistake Barack Obama’s did in 2008: they’re choosing a greenhorn based only on a cult of personality. But the mistake is on the critics’ part. Because whatever Cain may or may not be, inexperience is not his problem. In fact, I’m going to shock you.
It never was Obama’s.
If all we care about is “experience,” note that Benito Mussolini had a tremendous amount of it in 1939. Moammar Gadhafi had even more after his 42-year rule, but we nevertheless helped author his demise. With his half century of service, Fidel Castro is the most experienced non-royal leader of modern times. And next November, Obama will have more presidential experience than whoever will be running against him. Is he any better a statesman now than he was in 2008?
So what are we really talking about – or what should we be – when we speak of “experience”? Is it just a matter of time spent? Or, is there some quality we’re hoping might have been distilled from that time spent?
Well, I’ll pose of few questions. When the matter is that great king from the Bible, do we hear about the “Experience of Solomon”? If the most well-known ancient Chinese sage is to be quoted, do we cite him as “experienced man Confucius”? If we’re going to offer some clever apocryphal advice, do we say “An experienced man once said….”? Obviously, what belongs in the place of experience(d) in these questions is wis(e)(dom).
And this is precisely what belongs in its place in our discussion of candidates.
Some may now roll their eyes and say that this is just semantics, as a definition of “experience” is “knowledge or practical wisdom gained from what one has observed, encountered….” But note that this is the fourth definition in the linked source, and many people associate the word with the second definition: “the process or fact of personally observing, encountering, or undergoing something…” And, as the saying “Wisdom doesn’t always come with age; sometimes age just shows up all by itself” indicates, wisdom doesn’t correlate very closely with actual time-spent experience. Some people have more experience after 1 year than others do after 10.
Is there any way to compensate for a lack of wisdom (resignation comes to mind)? Some will say, when defending a politician they like, that inexperience in an area such as foreign policy doesn’t matter because their man will surround himself with the right people. This may be true, but, if so, what is being said about that person? Well, when discussing the importance of wisdom in the classic work The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli said that if a leader didn’t possess the quality, it didn’t matter if he was surrounded by sages because he wouldn’t be wise enough to listen to their counsel, anyway. And we can go a step further: the foolish flock to other fools. For instance, Barack Obama can have access to the world’s greatest minds, but instead he has given us a “professorocracy,” that governance by “the whole faculty of Harvard” about which William Buckley warned.
Don’t get me wrong, there is practical knowledge only experience can impart. The point, however, is that experience isn’t the central quality a leader must possess. For how do you put knowledge to good use? Knowledge without wisdom is like a rocket without a guidance system.
Why did we, long ago, stop talking about wisdom? I believe it’s for the same reason why we no longer speak of “virtues” but “values,” “sin” but “psychological problems,” “holiness” but “self-fulfillment”: It is an imperative of the Lexicon of Secularism. That is to say, a virtue is a good habit; a sin is a violation of the good; holiness is conforming your life to the good; and wisdom, properly defined, is knowledge of what is true or good. Yet what is good? We cannot say there is such a thing unless there is a yardstick of the good – Absolute Truth – with which to judge good and evil. Otherwise, the Left is right: it’s all a matter of “perspective” and who is to say? Note that the term “good” is derived from the Old English word “gōd,” and “goodbye” is a contraction of “God be with ye.”
In contrast, “values” are an invention of man; we can feel self-fulfilled even if there is no goodness to be filled with; and even if we’re just soulless organic robots – some pounds of chemicals and water – our software or circuitry can deviate from the norm (hence “psychological problems”). Likewise, even if there can be no wisdom because there is no “good” to have knowledge of, “experience” is still real because we certainly spend time doing things. And we’ll impute something positive to it, even if implicit in our world view is the idea that negative and positive are just a matter of perspective. After all, fully coming to terms with the implications of atheism would rob our lives of all meaning.
Getting back to politics, if I were running for president and someone questioned my experience, I think I’d have a good answer. To wit: “You’re right. I have no experience raising taxes and fleecing hard-working Americans. I have no experience creating tyrannical laws that rob people of freedom. I have no experience stifling productivity with burdensome regulations and mandates. I have no experience crippling American manufacturing with trade deals that benefit foreign countries. So you’re right – I have no experience. Vote for the other guy.”
Whether or not Cain is the best man for the job next November, there is a bigger issue here: the fact that we tend to choose our candidates using the wrong criteria. We have to stop talking about “experience,” that poorly understood, water-muddying term, and start talking about wisdom. Will America finally elect a wise leader? Given that Americans don’t even talk about the quality, I’m not very optimistic.