Vanity thought #1021. Failure of intelligence

Yesterday I talked about Donald Rumsfeld and there was one point I forgot to convey and I don’t feel comfortable not discussing it.

He is a very intelligent man, I can’t find reliable data but, apparently, IQ-wise he falls into 0.01% percentile of the population, that is one in a hundred thousand people, which means that most of us never ever meet a person of comparable intelligence. Does it help him? Does it help at all?

For one thing, he doesn’t spend his time chanting the Holy Name so his intellect is not up to the challenges of Kali Yuga. Normally, however, people might say that IQ score is a more reliable measure of intellect than our books. We’ve only got one word among eighteen thousand Bhāgavatam verses to claim that intelligence in Kali Yuga means chanting. We ourselves don’t judge it that way, but maybe we should.

Everyone chants in our community, or at least everyone knows the value of chanting, so we all ARE intelligent, by Bhāgavatam measure, yet it’s clearly not enough in our everyday life. We have a large group of devotees who love to debate and argue and most of the time these debates are about showing off the size of one’s brains. The more you know, the more ślokas you remember, the more books you read, the more languages you know, the better. On the downside, we can clearly see faulty logic in some people’s arguments and we never fail to point it out. They are clearly not as intelligent as we expect and we seek to censor their erroneous opinions for the sake of even less intelligent bhaktas who can be lead astray.

Whenever a contentious issue comes up, GBC issues a scholarly paper to address it and establish proper siddhānta. For most devotees, who are presumed less intelligent, these papers are then explained by local authorities in the ELI5 mode. Our opponents, OTOH, find numerous faults in GBC presentations and claim that our intelligence has been compromised.

There are also appeals to purity and fidelity to our ācāryas but appeals to intelligence are still quite prominent, intelligence matters to us. Should it?

Personally, I would keep it simple – anyone who knows the value of chanting is supremely intelligent as it is. Failure of our brains to pick up on subtler points of our philosophy is not a failure of our intelligence, it’s a failure of our material brains.

Sooner or later senility will descent on all of us, our brains might get literally destroyed but our intelligence, which is a subtle material organ, won’t, so, hopefully, we’ll keep on chanting even when we don’t remember our own names. I think separating common meaning of intelligence as a function of one’s brain and our meaning of intelligence as a subtle material element is a good answer to the problems we face in everyday life.

More intelligent are those who argue less and chant more.

That’s probably a good answer to questions about IQ, too.

Actually, it’s become a common knowledge that IQ tests are often meaningless, that higher IQ does not guarantee success in one’s live, often it’s actually the opposite. I think this is just sour grapes, people just want to diminish the value of something they don’t have. They are right in that IQ might measure things that don’t matter in many areas of our lives but in the areas that do, higher IQ is indispensable, most notably in grade school education.

Europe is moving away from standardized testing but in the US and Asia tests rule supreme and the easiest way to succeed in taking them is to have a higher IQ. Memory, mnemonics, test taking techniques might help, too, but they are secondary. Asians wipe the floor with white people when it comes to testing, that’s the reality. Does it matter? Not so much, because once they are out of the school they fail to capitalize on their academic credentials. Maybe it’s racism in the workplace but mostly it’s the disconnect between standardized education and real life.

So, that was one example where intelligence does not guarantee success, but I started this post with Donald Rumsfeld and his life demonstrates another kind of failure.

He is too smart for his own good and, unlike G.W. Bushes gaffes, his are pleasurable to read:

    “We do know of certain knowledge that he [Osama Bin Laden] is either in Afghanistan, or in some other country, or dead.”

Or, on the same topic:

    “[Osama Bin Laden is] either alive and well or alive and not too well or not alive.”

Logically, it’s iron clad, practically, it’s of no use. There are other, thought provoking quotes that people dismissed at the time but we would all do well to occasionally remember them. Take this one, for example:

    “Secretary Powell and I agree on every single issue that has ever been before this administration except for those instances where Colin’s still learning.”

We do have plenty disagreements on numerous issues, too, but we should remember that more often than not the correct, Kṛṣṇa conscious version, is one, and every other view is wrong. Variety of spiritual expressions in the spiritual world does not affect us, our variety is due to the influence of material gunas and so māyā inflected views should not be considered as equal to transcendental truth.

We should also remember that what makes sense to us is also legitimate, but only from our own perspective. When people decide on a certain way to enjoy their senses they usually achieve their objectives. Sex is pleasurable, alcohol is intoxicating, meat tastes delicious, and so on. We can say that they fail to take into account long term consequences of their actions but that is not entirely true – they consider long term effects as much as their knowledge allows them to do, and if they believed in reincarnation and karma they would take that into account, too. Point is – whatever they do, usually works for their limited objectives.

It becomes problematic when they increase their expectations beyond any reason. Some of us think, for example, that sex is not so bad for spiritual life, that it can bring us pleasure in this life and help in our spiritual progress, too. This needs clarification and so we can have disagreements on this matter because we are “still learning”, in Rumsfeld’s words.

We truly agree on everything except some things we do not have full knowledge of yet. It’s a great attitude to have when joining debates about Kṛṣṇa consciousness.

One more quote, a very sober one:

    “Needless to say, the President is correct. Whatever it was he said.”

That’s another example of great attitude and humility, even though Rumsfeld himself might not have seen it that way.

Still, on the value of intelligence, Rumsfeld saw its limits and, apparently, didn’t harbor any illusions about it:

    “Learn to say ‘I don’t know.’ If used when appropriate, it will be often.”

    “Now, settle down, settle down. Hell, I’m an old man, it’s early in the morning and I’m gathering my thoughts here.”

    “If I know the answer I’ll tell you the answer, and if I don’t, I’ll just respond, cleverly.”

I like this one, too:

    “I believe what I said yesterday. I don’t know what I said, but I know what I think, and, well, I assume it’s what I said.”

We somehow assume that what people say should stay that way forever and be used as evidence against them until the end of time. People quote and requote and double quote each other all the time, trying to nail their opponents for any inconsistency. Intelligent people do not change their minds, they assume. If one says one thing today and another thing tomorrow it means he doesn’t know what he is talking about.

Well, Rumsfeld here demonstrates that it’s not always so. Words that come out of our mouths might not always accurately reflect our thoughts and our thoughts might not always accurately reflect our positions and attitudes, so even with his high IQ errors like that are unavoidable.

We shouldn’t rush to judgment when we see something like this in other people, especially devotees. We should look for signs of their surrender in everything they say, not for signs of their imperfection.

Finally, reliance on one’s intelligence is not a wise way to go about spiritual progress or even material goals – however smart we might be, we will always make errors, and with higher stakes they might be even more costly. I have been programmed from my school days to think that with a little more effort, little more intelligence, I can solve any problem in front of me, but that philosophy failed me more times than I care to remember. I’m never smart enough to succeed in anything and the more I try the more obvious it becomes.

Intelligence is just like any other material asset in this sense – we assume that more of it would make us happier but it doesn’t, not in the long term. We should remember that, too.

So, it’s not a failure of intelligence itself that I am talking about here, it’s a failure of relying on intelligence to achieve our goals, both material and spiritual.

Vanity thought #1020. The Uknown Known

I just watched a documentary about Donald Rumsfeld who is best known as an architect of the US war in Iraq, not the best title in the world. Still, he is a fascinating personality that deserves a detailed look.

He served in various branches of US government for nearly fifty years and directly served under three presidents. He started with Vietnam war and ended with Iraq war, living through many defining moments of American history. The documentary briefly goes through his life but its main point is to let him present his own view on what had happened. Instead of interviewing twenty people talking about Rumsfeld, it’s Rumsfeld talking about himself, nearly thirty hours of raw footage.

The delicious irony of this film is that the filmmaker and his subject are on absolutely opposite sides of the political spectrum and that both are aware of this mutual antagonism and they exchanged quite a few barbs in the course of their conversation.

Rumsfeld was mostly presented through his memos, he is asked to read from them and then he occasionally comments or answers questions. His memos are his trademark, btw, he produces hundreds of thousands of them and they fill an entire storehouse. He would spent most of his day with a dictaphone in hand and speak his mind. They are not his diary, they are not his journal, they are, in his own words, “working documents”, each one had and served a clear purpose.

The film starts with Rumsfeld reading his famous “unknown knowns” memo, which also featured in one of his press briefings during the Iraq war.

    Subject: What you know

    There are known knowns.
    There are known unknowns.
    There are unknown unknowns.
    But there are also unknown knowns.
    That is to say, things that you think you know
    that it turns out you did not.

This reads like some zen poetry and when Rumsfeld used it in an answer to some question from the press it quickly made news around the world. It’s not very complicated, though. He speaks of two categories – knowledge and awareness. We might be aware of things but don’t know them in detail, like DNA, for example – that would be the “unknown known” in Rumsfeld parlance. You combine known-unknown with aware-unaware and you get all these listed combinations. Simple, really. The last line is about things you think you know but you actually don’t – something we all should watch out for even in spiritual lives.

Anyway, all those memos were called “snowflakes” because they arrived on white paper, there are lots of them, and each one was unique.

It needs to be said that Rumsfeld is clearly a man of great, incomparable intelligence. I still remember watching BBC show “Hard Talk” featuring Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s chief spinmeister. It was a similar situation to this documentary in that the host tried to nail down a man with clearly wrong beliefs and values and just couldn’t. Campbell always seemed to be two steps ahead of Tim Sebastian, the celebrated hard hitting host, he just outsmarted him on every front in every line of inquiry. In that show Campbell expressed his admiration for intellectual power of Rumsfeld and that’s when I first took notice of the man.

Question is – how could these people, clever as they are, back totally wrong views on such clear cut issues as weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or prisoner torture? I believe I got my answer now.

Perhaps I should start with “neocon” label used to describe this war mongering faction of US politics. It’s just a tad short of calling people Nazis. Their ideology has been totally discredited and once you evoke “neocon” code word the conversation is essentially over.

Rumsfeld wasn’t asked about this in a film but I bet if he was he’d refuse to classify himself in such a way. He sees himself as an American patriot whose mission in life is to protect Americans from all kinds of danger. He assesses all kinds of threats, prioritizes them, and develops strategies to contain them. He describes Pearl Harbor as a failure of imagination (unknown unknown) – of all the possible scenarios American military planners anticipated this one was totally out of the blue. Rumsfeld sees his job as to make sure nothing like this would ever happen again.

Of course there was 9/11 on his watch but this should explain rather than negate all his subsequent policy decisions. Idealists among us would always hope for the best but it fell to people like Rumsfeld to prepare for the worst.

He could have assigned low priority to detaining “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo, for example, but then he wouldn’t have been doing his job. It’s easy for people who do not carry any responsibility to offer best solutions in hindsight and disparage those who made wrong choices in real life conditions and Rumsfeld mentions this in documentary himself.

Time and time again he takes a dig at media, for example, for distorting the reality and blowing some parts of it out of proportion. Sometimes he explains why he thinks what he thinks and it makes total sense. The media, otoh, needs to present a news selling narrative and so their version makes total sense, too, as long as you are aware that they pursue different objectives.

At one point Rumsfeld is asked about Shakespeare – how come all his dramas were about personal failings of the men while Rumsfeld reduced political rivalry to people from different institutions having different perspectives, nothing personal. Come to think about it – who knows what Shakespeare would have written if he had CIA, FBI, UN, US, Iraq, world media etc to deal with in his dramas? Even politics weren’t institutionalized in his times, everything was personal.

Looking at Rumsfeld’s description of the events I see it more as a middle class failure to grasp the complexity of the situation coupled with their naive assumption that only their narrative is correct while all others are impossible. Rumsfeld isn’t part of a middle class, he see this failure for what it is – result of institutional media bias and prejudice. In his world, these middle class opinions matter very little, he can’t let his job be affected by half baked ideas of irresponsible people.

Does it mean that he is a man without faults? Not by any stretch. Despite feeling himself as being more aware of what’s going on and being more level-headed than general population he readily admits to making mistakes and not knowing all the answers. He expects people in his position to make such mistakes, it’s part of his life, his other duty is to make sure that costs of bad decisions do not outweigh benefits of good ones. It’s a very sober and humble attitude to the world around us.

At one point he was asked whether he thinks he can control the history or history controls him. He thinks about it for a second and then answers that neither is true. He failed to formulate it on the spot but what he probably meant that he is part of history, we all are, there’s no separation of controller and controlled. That’s another world view that unnecessarily antagonizes people, just like labeling them Nazis or neocons.

It’s easy to think in such black and white terms but the resulting mental picture would look nothing like the reality, just bear some resemblance. These easy to digest classifications make us feel smarter than we really are – we are unkown knowns ourselves.

Btw, there’s one combination there that didn’t come up until the very end of the movie – the unknown knowns where you actually know MORE about the subject than you are aware of. The initial reading is that you know less than what you think but you could just as well know more and not realize it. Rumsfeld pondered about it a for a moment, checked back with his original memo again, and said that the interviewer was chasing a wrong rabbit here – that is it’s a question for the sake of sounding clever rather than for illuminating the truth.

That’s a great conclusion – all knowledge must serve a purpose, learning things just for the sake of learning, or trying to figure out things just for the sake of understanding them, is useless. Rumsfeld looks at it from his Secretary of Defense perspective but we might just as well apply it to our spiritual lives – how many arguments we raise just for the sake of arguing? How many books we read just for the sake of accumulating information?

One more thing about Rumsfeld – when asked, at the very end, why was he even taking part in this documentary, he said that he didn’t know. Errol Morris, the filmmaker, later explained that he thought Rumsfeld was driven by vanity. Maybe, but even if it was so, he seemed to have been aware of that angle, too, he just didn’t consider it important enough to refrain from speaking at all – another wise decision.

If we stop trying to serve Kṛṣṇa just because we are imperfect, have ulterior motives, and we commit offenses all the time it wouldn’t do anyone any good. Imperfect or not, but we should always persevere, for the sake of our mission. If Rumsfeld can dedicate his life to serving his, why shouldn’t we be able to dedicate our lives to serving ours?