Some 80 years ago, George Orwell wrote: “The illiteracy of politicians is a special feature of our age—as G.M. Trevelyan put it, ‘In the seventeenth century Members of Parliament quoted the Bible, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the classics, in the twentieth century nothing’—and its corollary [Orwell added] is the political impotence of writers.”
This is a rather sad commentary on higher education in the democratic world. Neither the Bible nor the classics play a significant role in what passes for “liberal education.” More “relevant” are “ethnic” studies, “feminist” studies, “gay” studies, and the like. “Higher” education has become increasingly politicized, steeped in trivia and transience. Relegated to insignificance is the literature that adorned Western civilization.
So what can one expect of university graduates who become politicians? Since their mode of thought is superficial, their public statements are likely to be inane if not pernicious, which inevitably affects their public policies. Nowhere is this more evident than in Israel. Let me cite Israel’s last three prime ministers.
Ehud Barak, while engaged in a fund-raising in the United States, said: “If I were born an Arab, I too would have been a terrorist.”
Ariel Sharon, while Jews were being reduced to body parts by suicide bombers, declared in a Ha’aretz: “My son taught me not to think in terms of black and white.”
Ehud Olmert, while speaking to a New York audience, declared: “We are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies …”
No, I have not forgotten the guru of Israeli politics, Shimon Peres, whose puerile utterances are legion. Israel’s “elder statesman” is in a class of his own. I recall his justifying withdrawal from Judea and Samaria on the grounds that Israel would then have more PhD’s per kilometer! Yes, and more idiots per kilometer.
Still, what is there about politicians that blind them to facts obvious to many ordinary private citizens? Why did so many Israeli politicians fail to see that Oslo would lead to calamity? Indeed, why, after 13 years of Oslo’s 10,000 Jewish casualties, do these politicians persist to this day in supplying arms and money to Arab terrorists? Are Israeli cabinet ministers simply stupid? Do they all subscribe to Shimon Peres’ idiotic (and egoistic) statement, “I have become totally tired of history, because I feel history is a long misunderstanding”?
Apparently, the architect of Oslo, never learned that the policy of “territory for peace” enabled Germany to conquer Czechoslovakia and led to World War II. But what about Peres’ colleagues? Were they also so obtuse as to be incapable of seeing that bringing PLO chief Yasser Arafat into Gaza would lead to war? Didn’t they see that the PLO Covenant is simply an abbreviated version of Mein Kampf?
But what about British prime ministers during the 1930s? Surely they were cognizant of Mein Kampf. Couldn’t they see that tolerating German reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 would encourage Hitler to go further? Couldn’t they see, as Orwell saw, that allowing Germany and Italy to dominate Spain would constitute a strategic threat to England and hasten another world war?
In 1943, a friend of Orwell asked him: “Don’t you feel that any time during the past ten years you have been able to foretell events better than, say, the Cabinet?”
Orwell’s answer is profound. “… where I feel that people like us understand the situation better than so-called experts is not in any power to foretell specific events, but in the power to grasp what kind of world we are living in…. I have known since about 1931 … that the future must be catastrophic. I could not say exactly what wars and revolutions would happen, but they never surprised me when they came. Since 1931 I have known war between England and Germany was coming, and since 1936 I have known it with complete certainty.”
Orwell profoundly understood the kind of world he was living in because he saw in the literature of his time the moral decline of Western civilization on the one hand, and the sudden ascendancy of Communist and Fascist totalitarianism on the other. Consider Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”; and T.S. Eliot (of whom Orwell was quite critical): “We are the hollow men, we are the stuffed men.”
Like any thoughtful writer, Orwell saw in human history periods of spiritual greatness, but more often—as in his own time—periods of intellectual flimflam, political chicanery, and sheer barbarism. No student of the Bible or of the classics would take the blessings of civilization for granted, as do legions of sheltered academics that deny the enormity of evil and close the minds of students to the good, the true, and the beautiful. What can one expect of those who become politicians?
But as Orwell discerned, it is precisely the paltry mentality of politicians that accounts for the political impotence of thoughtful writers.