Sunday, December 07, 2008

Where' s The Genius?

Genius is both objective and subjective. According to Harvard University Prof. Howard Gardner, a person can have genius for one thing, but not another. Albert Einstein had genius for conceptualizing solutions to physics problems, but might never have been a jet-pilot. Michael Jordan had genius for basketball but not for baseball. So is genius objective?

Jordan bulldozing over the opposition to score with those dazzling flights and dunks. Points rung up on the board. His genius could be measured. Einstein thought of a formula, designed a reaction, and then assisted as a bomb was constructed based on the theorem. The bomb was an objective fact.

Genius in art, however, is subjective. What one person finds beautiful, another finds repulsive, witness the two sides of the argument about modern art; or rock music versus classical music. Would primitive tribes in the Amazon find Michelangelo’s David beautiful? Would the snooty upper East Side New York society ladies and their spouses find stretched lips and mutilated ears of African tribeswomen beautiful, or disgusting?

Then there’s luck. Napoleon, was said to prefer a lucky general over a good one. Bill Gates, when he was working in his father’s garage tinkering with a new operating system, got lucky when IBM signed on to run the system without demanding to buy the exclusive rights to it. Had they done so Gates would have wound up an employee of IBM, and Microsoft would never have been born.

Recently, a top literary agent from Manhattan related a conversation with a top Hollywood studio head. The studio chief said, at the end of the year he’d made 100 decisions about films, choosing fifty out of a hundred to go into production. The studio head then surprised the agent by saying, had I chosen the other fifty rather than this fifty, the year-end income results would probably still have come out the same.

So what of those people in the fifty projects he turned down. Subjective decisions that influence a life, but not the big picture.

Then there’s the West Bank of the Jordan River. Recent statements in its annual report, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) pointed to "extremely worrisome trends at the center of which are violations of the most elementary human rights."

The report also noted that the situation in the occupied West Bank, between Israeli settlers and the local Palestinian population, was "reminiscent, in many and increasing ways, of the apartheid regime in South Africa."

The ACRI noted that since the foundation of Israel, the country's Arab citizens have been discriminated against though legislation and allocation of resources. officials have stated that Israel practices apartheid in that area.

Does that mean Israel actually does practice apartheid, or is it simply the subjective opinion of the person making that judgment call? ACRI has long been criticized as anti-Israeli pro-Palestinian.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said the same thing last May. One would have to go deeply into the definition of apartheid and see if it applies only to situations in S. Africa, or see if indeed the term also fits the West Bank. Again, this is a subjective judgment since no empirical facts exist that can be checked off in a list.

NATO has floated the idea that a multi-national force deployed in the West Bank may be the best solution, but according to the Israeli media, Israeli security administrators would rather keep foreign armies out of the West Bank. They point to UNIFIL’s poor performance containing Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the history of the UN voting against Israel, or pulling out, rather than digging in, at the Egypt-Israel border when war was about to break out. Fleeing, rather than attempting to affect some sort of de-escalation of tension. About NATO, one Israeli source said that no foreign army is going to risk their lives to save either Arabs or Jews. That in fact NATO would only get in the way.

Israeli security officials claim that Israel’s consistent and constant battle against terrorism in the West Bank is what has kept that area relatively quiet. Israel routinely goes into Arab villages and towns and cities, conducting raids against “wanted terrorists.” Not a month goes by without notice of a “wanted terrorist” killed or arrested.

Is this apartheid? Perhaps it is. The S. African army routinely raided the black townships searching for activists who wanted self-rule. But is this the same as Israel’s search for “wanted terrorists?” Did the self-rule activists in S. Africa also wage terror campaigns? Strap on suicide belts laden with explosives and blow themselves up in the midst of crowded civilian centers? The comparisons are easier to make in a glib fashion than in empirical application.

Subjectively, from the activists on the Arab side, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Al Quaida, are freedom fighters. , Israelis and many on the West would see them as terrorists. How then will the newly appointed U.S. Secretary of State deal with the issue of the West Bank? And why, given all of the trouble in the world today, would solving the problems of the Middle East, specifically Israel and the Palestinians, be of primary importance? Is it because progress in the Middle East makes the history books? Leads to a Nobel Prize?

And who says the Nobel Prize is so important? Some prizes are given based on objective standards, the discovery of a gene that can lead to cancer; the formulation of a theory that influences the world’s finances. But what of three men shaking hands, making peace in the Middle East? When the peace fell apart did anyone ever ask that the prize handed to Yassir Arafat be returned? Was the prize given subjectively or objectively?

In a recent discussion with a CEO of a high- tech company, the issue of the US financial meltdown was a hot topic. The CEO said it would be the grandchildren of today’s Americans who would pay for the bailout. The American government had borrowed from the future to cover the debts of the present. On a subjective level, this seems a good decision. Without a solution to today’s problems, there might not be a tomorrow. The market can continue to plunge until there is no market. The employment picture can continue to turn dire until there is no work. The economy can turn so far down that the United States is no longer united. An apocalypse could occur without a rocket ever coming out of Iran, or Russia.

But what of that future? With the US economy in a deep recession, who is to say that there will be a future for the grandchildren of tomorrow? The US ability to produce and manufacture has slipped steadily since 1956 when 75% of all goods were manufactured in the USA, until today when that number is in the teens and only income in the abstract seems possible: profits from commissions on the sale of commodities and goods produced somewhere else. By providing so well for America’s workers, the unions and the workers destroyed their own jobs.

Can these trends be reversed? Can the US become a competitor in the manufacture of automobiles once again? Or will the designs be drawn up in Detroit and executed in Shanghai? Will President-Elect Obama’s plan to provide government-subsidized jobs to the unemployed break this downward cycle?

American genius has been in designs, widgets that became an integral part of modern life, from the light bulb, to the Model-T, to the computer chip. Without the development of new ideas that generate jobs and money for America, the power of America seems to be on a downward spiral, so much so that in a generation or two when today’s debts have to be paid off, there won’t be enough left of the US economy to make the payments.

Like the burden of the pensions on the auto industry, the burden of those debts will so cripple the economy of the next two or three generations that America as we know it will not longer exist. Russia, striving mightily to regain super-power status, along with China and India, will be in the ascendancy. Russia because of her surfeit of oil, China and India because of brainpower and masses of factory workers.

What America seems to need are big idea men, women with Amazon-sized concepts, all with brains twice that of Einstein, conceiving of, developing and manufacturing things the world needs. Not abstract profits from speculation in the stock market, but products that generate capital. Objective evaluations based on empirical evidence, not subjective guesses that seem right today, like Alan Greenspan’s guess that the financial sector would self-regulate, that turned out to be wrong tomorrow. There is no longer room for those mistakes. Americans have mortgaged our grandchildren’s future, and it is up to Americans to lay the solid foundations so that those future generations can make the payments. What America needs is to allow genius to flourish, and then hope there’s a lot of luck to go with it.