Ignorance's colourful bloom
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 26 March 2005)

In a certain way ignorance has always had a good press, even though everyone agrees that civilization depends on fighting it. It's part of our heritage, as the Bronfman Foundation would say. A Chinese proverb claims that the more you learn, the more you see your ignorance. In youth I felt abysmally ignorant, but in fact had no idea just how far my ignorance extended. Now, after decades as a devoted reader and researcher, I can just about glimpse the depths of it. Maturity (it turns out) depends on understanding one's lack of maturity.

But while ignorance sometimes benefits those who know they are ignorant, it can prove deadly to those who refuse to recognize and respect their own shortcomings. For instance, the Schiavo "legislation" appears to have been rushed through the U.S. Congress and approved by politicians (including the President) who didn't know the medical record, didn't know what they wanted to see done, and didn't have even the slightest idea what the U.S. Constitution might say about what they were up to.

All they knew was that they wanted to do something, anything, to please some distraught, frenzied and expertly organized constituents. Whatever your views of the core issue, that late-night session of Congress was an unhappy moment for American democracy, a florid display of blind naivete. It was to ignorance what the Cannes Film Festival is to movies. As Charles Krauthammer said, a legal travesty.

Ignorance of another kind has found a strange popularity among corporate executives accused of crimes. Bernard J. Ebbers, former CEO of WorldCom, depicted himself in court as the biggest fool who ever made the big time. Charged with conspiring to falsify WorldCom's accounts, he claimed he had no idea what was going on down the hall. He operated like a basketball coach, he said. He chose the best players and sent them on to the court. After that, who knew? He seemed pleased with this approach. "I know what I don't know," he said. His testimony reminded me of a line I came across recently in The Book of Shadows, by Don Paterson, a British poet: "He was a man of such wide-ranging ignorance ... it had real subtlety, depth, reach."

The jury found Ebbers guilty anyway, and in June he'll likely be sentenced to years in prison. But Richard Rhodes, who worked at WorldCom in strategic planning, has written a remarkable piece for MSN Money claiming that, no matter how appalling it seems, Ebbers was just as ignorant as he claims. He was a figurehead and a deal-maker, "street smart and very charismatic," a leader loved by employees. But he didn't want to hear about financial details. Though he might sometimes ask, "How's it going?" his curiosity went no farther. Moreover, says Rhodes, "He did not access his e-mail often, if ever. The e-mail he did see was vetted by his secretary."

If the ignorance defence has lost its value in American courts, it remains alive in Ottawa. Several Cabinet ministers will no doubt survive the sponsorship scandal by saying they didn't know and didn't ask. This might not have convinced anyone a few decades ago, but in recent times most of us have accepted that many Cabinet ministers are unaware of what their departments do. We now realize that Yes, Minister, the British TV show in which civil servants scrupulously maintained the ignorance of their ministers, was a documentary, not a comedy. A good civil servant agrees with the line that Oscar Wilde gave Lady Bracknell: "I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone."

We who don't run gigantic enterprises tend to assume that those who do are smart. (Otherwise, how did they get there?) Often they aren't that bright, but a widespread if mistaken faith in their wisdom sometimes creeps upward, even to the level of the CEOs themselves. They may often wake up and find themselves astonished to be where they are, but eventually they accept the popular view of their competence. (Business journalists, who are always naming someone or other a great entrepreneur, contribute to these delusions.)

The other day a Vancouver publication, HoweStreet.com, defined the process: "As you go from the immediate, small, private events of our personal lives to the large, abstract, mass events of public institutions, ignorance increases by the square of the distance ... and the cube of the scale." No, I don't know what that means, exactly, but I believe it.

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