Context Lenses

Some people live in a special world. When Richard Nixon won a landslide victory in November 1972, some people hardly knew anyone who voted for him. Pauline Kael, the film critic, was quoted by the New York Times as saying "I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don't know. They're outside my ken. But sometimes when I'm in a theater I can feel them."

A political consultant once told me that a lot of Americans spent less than ten minutes every two years figuring out who to vote for. Insofar as certain individuals are concerned, it turns out that he's right.

Lowell Turpin was arrested last week after he glanced at his girlfriend's Facebook page and saw a picture of another man -- a clean-cut, white dude that he knew for sure wasn't him. Instead of calmly asking her about the mysterious man, the 40-year-old allegedly grabbed her laptop, smashed it against a wall, and hit her in the face, according to news reports.

Turns out that romeo in the photo was Romney, you know the guy who is running for president.

Maybe to a man like Turpin any man is a threat. But it only goes to show that you can't always assume that people know what you assume you know. Take Joan Juliet Buck, the Vogue writer who interviewed Asma Assad and wrote the glowing piece on her stylish lifestyle. Interviewing people is Buck’s job, but she's a fashion journalist, not a political commentator. So there is some excuse for her argument that she wasn't aware that the Assads were who they were.  In the Daily Beast she expresses her regret at writing the Vogue article.

I should have said no right then.

I said yes.

It was an assignment. I was curious. That’s why I’d become a writer. Vogue wanted a description of the good-looking first lady of a questionable country; I wanted to see the cradle of civilization. Syria gave off a toxic aura. But what was the worst that could happen? I would write a piece for Vogue that missed the deeper truth about its subject. I had learned long ago that the only person I could ever be truthful about was myself.

I didn’t know I was going to meet a murderer.

There was no way of knowing that Assad, the meek ophthalmologist and computer-loving nerd, would kill more of his own people than his father had and torture tens of thousands more, many of them children.

In December 2010, there was no way of knowing that the Arab Spring was about to begin, and that it would take down the dictators of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.

There was no way of knowing, as I cheered the events in Tahrir Square, that I would be contaminated because I had written about the Assads. There was no way of knowing that this piece would cost me my livelihood and end the association I had had with Vogue since I was 23.

Now it is no crime to interview someone. That is what journalists are supposed do. And fashion journalists usually interview people about clothes and lifestyle, not politics. But still it's astounding to realize she didn't have a clue that the Assads were dictators. Yet in her defense, why should Joan Juliet Buck be fired from Vogue when Hillary Rodham Clinton in March 2011 said something equivalently astounding -- so astounding that the Washington Post highlighted it in an article titled “Hillary Clinton’s uncredible statement on Syria”

“There’s a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”

–Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on “Face the Nation,” March 27, 2011

Buck was a fashion journalist, but Hillary Clinton is the Secretary of State. She gets briefed by agencies with three letter initials. She was First Lady, a US Senator, and is now America's top diplomat. How does she wind up thinking Assad is a reformer? Maybe the same way Buck thought that Mrs. Assad was a nice lady because she wore nice clothes

The moral of the story is that if you're a fashion journalist, you only get to screw up once. If you're Secretary of State, you get as many chances as you want.

It’s a times like these when you begin to wonder whether special people truly have a privileged point of view or whether, as so many have noted, they only sound smart when they're talking about stuff that we are personally ignorant about.

Maybe that's why democracy, for all its defects, is better than rule by an "elite".  There is greater safety in the breadth of statistical wisdom than there in reliance on prestige. Some of the people are fools all of the time. All of the people are fools some of the time. But not all of the people are fools all of the time.


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