The Practical Limits Of Knowledge

The Aspen Ideas Festival begins with a few of the invited guests standing up to propose a "Idea" which they think would move the country forward. Wisconsin GOP Rep. Paul Ryan, was one of the guest invited to speak this year. His idea was to attack the deficit, and not pass on debt to our kids. It all sounded noble and well--Who likes the idea of passing on debt to children? But what really struck me was how ill-equipped I was to evaluate anything he was saying.

This happens all the time, to me. Someone will be opining about Israel, cap and trade, or health care, and I'll understand the arguments, but really be in no position to argue. I can smell blatant dishonesty, but the subtleties are harder for me. When I first got this gig, people would ask me to speak on a broader range of topics, and to be more aggressive in my objections. I understand the impulse. The Atl blog-roster isn't lacking for conservatives, and there's always a hunger for someone who make the Fox News pundits look stupid.

But I distrusted the whole game. Intuitively, I wonder about the honesty and proficiency of writers who opine on everything from Iran to education to drug policy to health care to cap and trade to race. Perhaps these people simply have more brains than me, but the catch-all nature of punditry, the need to speak on every policy topic as though one were an expert, is exactly what I hope to avoid.

, I'm a liberal in large measure because, in my time, liberals have been about the business of expanding the national consensus, of including of voices, of attempting to reconcile past wrongs. I don't think all of those attempts have been successful. But given the choice between that and an ideology that condones Willie Horton, condones Bob Jones, condones discrimination against gays, for me as a black man, there simply isn't much of a choice.

This holds for other issues outside of race--faced with a group that asks its bureaucrats to censor science, that asks its presidential candidates to deny evolution, that employs phraseologists when faced with the challenges of the environment, I know which one I'll pick. But even as I say that, I can see the limits of my own thinking--maybe if I had more than an informed layman's knowledge of the health care debate, I'd think universal health care was a terrible idea. My politics are as much based on trust as they are on actual knowledge--I simply trust liberals more.

I've been reading Drew Faust's This Republic Of Suffering, a kind of cultural history that looks into how the Civil War altered our impressions of death. Faust's book is great, and has the added advantage of doing an excellent job of including the perspectives of African-Americans. Early in the book, Faust talks about how atrocities perpetrated against black soldiers altered their perspective on killing. It occurred to me the other day that no one was ever brought up on war crimes for this fact. Faust also talks about how black soldiers, after the war, were integral to the effort to reinter the bodies of Union soldiers. It occurred to me that there is no memorial or tangible recognition of this fact. I thought back to David Blight's argument that the first Memorial Day was actually held by freed slaves, shortly after the War, and that very few people are familiar with that argument.

The fact is that, until I went on this intellectual journey, I didn't know any of this. Now, I like to think of myself as intellectually curious guy, and yet even in my chosen specialty, there are gaping holes of knowledge. But when you are black, you have a deep sense that of having been wronged. It hangs over your community, it infests the family lore, it's there when you cut on "Leave It To Beaver" and are forced to consider what your lot would have been in that time.

White people don't really have that sense, mostly because it's not foisted upon them. To the extent they understand how much white supremacy has shaped this country, it's learned, intellectual, and empathetic. I don't know that one is better than the other. Whites may, in the main, be blissfully unaware. But blacks don't really know the details of our pain. We simply seethe, and we know it goes beyond water-hoses and "Lift Every Voice." There is something deeper at work, something that we don't really know enough to name. But, again, we feel it.

There is a part of me that believes that all American citizens should be forced to study the Civil War. There is another part of me that would inveigh against white ignorance of white supremacy, that would moralize about how power affords amnesia, and skewed understanding of this country. But I am chastened by Paul Ryan. He may well be lying through his teeth, but the very idea that I can't evaluate his claims stills the moralizing tongue.

I remain deeply critical of the would-be-polymaths. I didn't even read George Will's take on Ricci, because I simply don't expect Will to be sincere or intellectually honest. But I wonder about how much we can know. It will make you crazy to understand, in any detail, the history of black people in this country. It will make you even crazier to consider how much of that history will almost certainly be forgotten. It will make you crazier, still, to consider that it isn't just being forgotten because of intense efforts to bleach history, but because of the limits of humanity, itself.