In Letters to a Buddhist Jew, Rabbi Akiva Tatz writes many very profound things about bina and da’at, two different kinds of knowledge. Bina is the logical, analytical type of knowledge – knowledge of things external to our self. Da’at is intrinsic, inner knowledge – wisdom. Shortly after I had finished that book and was still reflecting on this difference, coincidentally, my young (having recently turned 40, I feel I can now call a college student “young”) cousin Melanie posted this on Facebook: “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad,” which helped clarify, for me, what Rabbi Tatz had written. (Thanks Mel!)
Yesterday it came to me that this difference explains much that is currently wrong in our political system in the US. In the past 15-20 years there has been an explosion in the amount of knowledge available, but our level of wisdom has not kept pace. Now, we have 24/7 “news” and anyone with an internet connection can disseminate any information they want (ask me how I know). But we have not yet developed the ability to mentally absorb this great quantity of information: to sift out the true from the false, the relevant from the irrelevant. And so, in our governing of ourselves, we are putting a lot of tomatoes in our fruit salad.
Good governance requires wisdom, not just knowledge. According to my understanding of The Constitutional Convention by Edward J. Larson and Michael P. Winship, the delegates to that convention, in 1787, chose to establish our nation as a democratic republic over a participatory democracy to avoid this exact problem. Over the course of the 11 years between the colonies’ declaration of independence and the convention, they had seen disastrous results in Massachsetts where the population as a whole had too much control over every governmental decision. We can see it for ourselves, now, in California, where since 1978 certain tax decisions have required a 2/3 majority of the popular vote, which many say has contributed significantly to that state’s bankruptcy.
When our constitution was written, communication took days or even weeks. People had time to reflect on information and develop wisdom about it. Policies had time to be evaluated as to how well they were working. Elections provided the means of feedback as to whether constituents were pleased with a representative’s work. Now, that feedback comes on Twitter. We are hyperreactive. With our abundance of information and instant communication (which I’m not saying are inherently bad), people immediately know more about more issues and because of that, they wish to have direct influence over every government decision rather than leaving the decision to the elected representatives, as our system was designed. Each individual vote is now considered a “win” or “loss”, and people immediately stop paying attention to the actual outcome of the vote – whether it achieves its intended goal, whether it has unintended negative consequences – and start the battle for the next vote. Politicians are judged now on how they vote, rather than on the quality of the legislation they produce. This has dramatically reduced their level of attention to doing good work and, equally, increased their incentive to write bills that polarize public opinion and gain publicity thereby.
This is because too many people lack sufficient wisdom to make appropriate decisions on such matters. It is a reaching for a level of influence which is beyond one’s present capability, which leads to far more negative consequences. (Rav Kook explains this mechanism of overreaching leading to societal regress rather than progress, as related to moral matters, in his essay, “A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace”.)
Technically, I see three ways out of this situation: (1) we all increase our wisdom to correspond to the amount of information available, (2) restrict the amount of information available, or (3) place further restrictions (in addition to the present minimum age requirements) on who can hold office so that at least those making the decisions have the necessary wisdom to do so. However, the second is unacceptable to our ideal of the right of free speech, and the third is unacceptable to our ideal of equal representation. Therefore the solution will have to be the greater development of wisdom among all members of our society.
I view the present difficulties as a necessary stage in a universal process toward all of humanity developing more wisdom (which also comes from Rav Kook’s essay). The questions are, how exactly does that happen, and is there anything we can actively do right now to contribute to moving that process along?
(…to be continued, if I have any ideas… ) Comments?
Update: One answer is now the subject of my next post.