I would imagine that at one time or another, most of us have pondered that eternal question "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it does it make a sound? Hard as it may be to believe, that question has, over the years, attracted the attention of some pretty serious thinkers -- philosophers, physicists and garden-variety ponderers.
Jim Baggot, a well-respected British professor and author of, among other works, The Quantum Story: A History in Forty Moments, opined that "The answer depends on how we choose to interpret the use of the word ‘sound’. If by sound we mean compressions and rarefactions in the air which result from the physical disturbances caused by the falling tree and which propagate through the air with audio frequencies, then we might not hesitate to answer in the affirmative."
I guess some folks just can't resist the temptation to "complexify" where others would see the need to simplify. In all fairness to professor Baggot, he is truly a marvelous writer and teacher; one endowed with sufficient genius to take things which are inherently complex and esoteric -- like quantum physics and the nature of reality -- and make them eminently understandable. It takes a lot of brains to simplify that which is complex . . .
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the folks who take things which are inherently simple and somehow make them seem as complex or esoteric as quantum physics. From time to time, President Obama, I am sorry to say, falls into this category.
Case in point, his recent use of the term social Darwinism.
The other day, the president was speaking about the House Republican budget plan -- the one Governor Romney termed "marvelous." The plan would save millionaires a minimum of $150,000 a year in taxes while gutting Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, transportation, child nutrition, college aid and almost everything else average and lower-income Americans depend on. Where former Labor Secretary Robert Reich attacked the plan -- created by Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan -- in rather simple terms, calling it ". . . the most radical reverse-Robin Hood proposal propounded by any political party in modern America," the president took the "complexifier's" path, stating, "Disguised as deficit reduction . . . it is really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It is thinly veiled social Darwinism."
While what President Obama said hits the nail on the head -- the Ryan plan does smack of "social Darwinism" -- it is a statement which sadly, very few people will understand. Case in point, the arch-conservative who just the other day demanded that I explain to her, "How in the hell can Obama accuse Governor Romney of being a Socialist?" I tried to explain that "social Darwinism" has nothing to do with Socialism, and next to nothing to do with the Theory of Evolution -- which in any event, a huge number of Americans -- herself included -- don't subscribe to.
Indeed, as correct and trenchant as his assessment of the Ryan Plan may be, President Obama really should avoid using a term like "social Darwinism," which few people have ever heard of. "Social Darwinism" is a 19th concept that originates with sociologist William Graham Sumner. Sumner (1840-1910), who taught social and political science at Yale for nearly 40 years, argued that laissez-faire economics is justified by the theories of Charles Darwin. In numerous essays, he argued for near-absolute individual liberty and staunchly opposed all forms of business regulation, labor unions and public welfare. Accused by his critics of being hard-hearted, Sumner wrote, "The sociologist is often asked if he wants to kill off certain classes of troublesome and bewildered persons. No such interference follows from any sound sociological doctrine, but it is allowed to infer, as to a great many persons and classes, that it would have been better for society and would have involved no pain to them, if they had never been born."
Sumner -- like modern day Republicans -- treated the market the way Darwinians treat natural selection — as the sole natural and correct mechanism for distributing rewards. He saw the free market as a moral arbiter, not merely a tool for creating wealth. This attitude was in perfect step with America's Calvinist tradition, which from the time of the Pilgrims understood wealth to be a tangible sign of Divine approval, and poverty an obvious sign of Divine rejection. Those who received their college educations in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, likely learned about this from reading the late Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought.
Greg Mankiw, one of Mitt Romney's key economic advisors put the Republican allegiance to social Darwinism (even if not specifically called that) rather starkly when he wrote, "People should get what they deserve. A person who contributes more to society deserves a higher income that reflects those greater contributions. Society permits him that higher income not just to incentivize him, as it does according to utilitarian theory, but because that income is rightfully his."
As much as conservative writers like David Brooks, Geoffrey Norman and the above-referenced Greg Mankiw might disparage Barack Obama for "smearing" them with the term "social Darwinism," the president was speaking the truth. Unfortunately, truth -- like the tree which falls in the forest without benefit of a set of ears -- may make a sound, but if it comes wrapped in words or phrases that the majority does not understand, can be neither appreciated nor apprehended.
If I could give the president and his campaign advisors a bit of advice, it would be this: please, ladies and gentlemen, do a better, less complex job of explaining. The fewer the syllables, the less the academic terminology -- regardless of how correct it is -- the greater the chance you have that the voting public will conclude that indeed, you know what you're talking about.
It's just that simple.
As simple as a tree falling in the forest.
©2012 Kurt F. Stone