Bobo has decided that it’s time for him to give us all a lecture. In “Suffering Fools Gladly” he babbles that this phrase is often used to excuse the rudeness of those deemed too important to stoop to lower mortals. He thinks maybe we should take a look at our own foolishness first. In “Battles of the Budget” Prof. Krugman suggests we put the cliff deal, which was part of a larger class war, in perspective. Here’s Bobo:
Recently I was reading a magazine profile of a brilliant statistician. The article mentioned, in passing, that this guy doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
I come across that phrase a lot. I’ve read that Al Gore and former Representative Barney Frank don’t suffer fools gladly. Neither, apparently, did Steve Jobs, George Harrison, Pauline Kael or even Henry David Thoreau.
The phrase originally came from William Tyndale’s 1534 translation of the Bible. In it, Paul was ripping into the decadent citizens of Corinth for turning away from his own authoritative teaching and falling for a bunch of second-rate false apostles. “For ye suffers fool gladly,” Paul says with withering sarcasm, “seeing ye yourselves are wise.”
Today, the phrase is often used as an ambiguous compliment. It suggests that a person is so smart he has trouble tolerating people who are far below his own high standards. It is used to describe a person who is so passionately committed to a vital cause that he doesn’t have time for social niceties toward those idiots who stand in its way. It is used to suggest a level of social courage; a person who has the guts to tell idiots what he really thinks.
Sure, it would be better if such people were nicer to those around them, the phrase implies, but this is a forgivable sin in one so talented. The actor Ed Harris’s “penetrating gaze signals that this is a serious, somber man on a singular quest,” a writer observed in The Toronto Sun. “He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, if at all.”
This sounds fine in the abstract, but when you actually witness somebody in the act of not suffering fools gladly, it looks rotten. Once I watched a senior member of the House of Representatives rip into a young reporter after she nervously asked him an ill-informed question.
She was foolish about that particular piece of legislation, but, in the moment, he looked the bigger fool. He was making a snap judgment about a person with no real information about her actual qualities. He was exposing a yawning gap between his own high opinion of himself and his actual conduct in the world. He was making the mistake, which metaphysical fools tend to make, that there is no connection between your inner moral quality and the level of courtesy you present to others.
Smart people who’ve thought about this usually understand that the habits we put in practice end up shaping the people we are within. “Manners are of more importance than laws,” Edmund Burke wrote. “Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in.”
In his extremely French book, “A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues,” the contemporary philosopher André Comte-Sponville argues that “politeness is the first virtue, and the origin perhaps of all the others.” Politeness is a discipline that compels respectful behavior. Morality, he writes “is like a politeness of the soul, an etiquette of the inner life, a code of duties, a ceremonial of the essential.” (I told you it was very French.)
Jane Austen is the novelist most famous for advocating this point of view. In her novel “Emma,” the lead character is rude to a foolish and verbose old woman named Miss Bates. Emma’s friend George Knightley rebukes her.
If Miss Bates were rich or smart or your equal, maybe this rudeness would have been tolerable, Mr. Knightley tells her, but “she is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed!”
I don’t give myself high marks on suffering fools. I’m not rude to those I consider foolish, but I strenuously and lamentably evade them. But I do see people who handle fools well. Many members of the clergy do, as do many great teachers. In my experience, Midwesterners are more likely to treat fools well. Natural politicians do so, too. Joe Biden is effective because he loves humanity in all its shapes and sizes.
G. K. Chesterton had the best advice on suffering fools gladly. He put emphasis on the gladly. When you’re with fools, laugh with them and at them simultaneously: “An obvious instance is that of ordinary and happy marriage. A man and a woman cannot live together without having against each other a kind of everlasting joke. Each has discovered that the other is a fool, but a great fool. This largeness, this grossness and gorgeousness of folly is the thing which we all find about those with whom we are in intimate contact; and it is the one enduring basis of affection, and even of respect.”
Putting up with the foibles of your spouse doesn’t mean you have to politely ignore the fact that one of the 2 political parties in this country is led by raving fanatics hell-bent on tearing the social fabric apart. Here’s Prof. Krugman:
The centrist fantasy of a Grand Bargain on the budget never had a chance. Even if some kind of bargain had supposedly been reached, key players would soon have reneged on the deal — probably the next time a Republican occupied the White House.
For the reality is that our two major political parties are engaged in a fierce struggle over the future shape of American society. Democrats want to preserve the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — and add to them what every other advanced country has: a more or less universal guarantee of essential health care. Republicans want to roll all of that back, making room for drastically lower taxes on the wealthy. Yes, it’s essentially a class war.
The fight over the fiscal cliff was just one battle in that war. It ended, arguably, in a tactical victory for Democrats. The question is whether it was a Pyrrhic victory that set the stage for a larger defeat.
Why do I say that it was a tactical victory? Mainly because of what didn’t happen: There were no benefit cuts.
This was by no means a foregone conclusion. In 2011, the Obama administration was reportedly willing to raise the age of Medicare eligibility, a terrible and cruel policy idea. This time around, it was willing to cut Social Security benefits by changing the formula for cost-of-living adjustments, a less terrible idea that would nonetheless have imposed a lot of hardship — and probably have been politically disastrous as well. In the end, however, it didn’t happen. And progressives, always worried that President Obama seems much too willing to compromise about fundamentals, breathed a sigh of relief.
There were also some actual positives from a progressive point of view. Expanded unemployment benefits were given another year to run, a huge benefit to many families and a significant boost to our economic prospects (because this is money that will be spent, and hence help preserve jobs). Other benefits to lower-income families were given another five years — although, unfortunately, the payroll tax break was allowed to expire, which will hurt both working families and job creation.
The biggest progressive gripe about the legislation is that Mr. Obama extracted less revenue from the affluent than expected — about $600 billion versus $800 billion over the next decade. In perspective, however, this isn’t that big a deal. Put it this way: A reasonable estimate is that gross domestic product over the next 10 years will be around $200 trillion. So if the revenue take had matched expectations, it would still have amounted to only 0.4 percent of G.D.P.; as it turned out, this was reduced to 0.3 percent. Either way, it wouldn’t make much difference in the fights over revenue versus spending still to come.
Oh, and not only did Republicans vote for a tax increase for the first time in decades, the overall result of the tax changes now taking effect — which include new taxes associated with Obamacare as well as the new legislation — will be a significant reduction in income inequality, with the top 1 percent and even more so the top 0.1 percent taking a much bigger hit than middle-income families.
So why are many progressives — myself included — feeling very apprehensive? Because we’re worried about the confrontations to come.
According to the normal rules of politics, Republicans should have very little bargaining power at this point. With Democrats holding the White House and the Senate, the G.O.P. can’t pass legislation; and since the biggest progressive policy priority of recent years, health reform, is already law, Republicans wouldn’t seem to have many bargaining chips.
But the G.O.P. retains the power to destroy, in particular by refusing to raise the debt limit — which could cause a financial crisis. And Republicans have made it clear that they plan to use their destructive power to extract major policy concessions.
Now, the president has said that he won’t negotiate on that basis, and rightly so. Threatening to hurt tens of millions of innocent victims unless you get your way — which is what the G.O.P. strategy boils down to — shouldn’t be treated as a legitimate political tactic.
But will Mr. Obama stick to his anti-blackmail position as the moment of truth approaches? He blinked during the 2011 debt limit confrontation. And the last few days of the fiscal cliff negotiations were also marked by a clear unwillingness on his part to let the deadline expire. Since the consequences of a missed deadline on the debt limit would potentially be much worse, this bodes ill for administration resolve in the clinch.
So, as I said, in a tactical sense the fiscal cliff ended in a modest victory for the White House. But that victory could all too easily turn into defeat in just a few weeks.
I think we can pretty much depend on Obama to fold up like a cheap card table.