In search of honest, smart, independent people

A country can absorb a certain number of pure ideologues. But beware if they hold important positions of leadership.

Columnist and former Bush administration speechwriter Michael Gerson on Sept. 29, 2016. RNS photo by Mark Silk

America is in need of honest, smart, independent people. Our future is grim unless we can find some, in a hurry.

We have plenty of dishonest, ignorant, ideological people. It is hard to know which should come first in that list. Are people ideological because they are ignorant, or are they dishonest because they are ideological, or are they ideological and therefore lose the capacity to be either smart or honest?

By ideological I mean completely captured by their partisan loyalty or worldview. Add to that a desperate hatred of the partisan loyalty and worldview of the other side. Add to that a commitment to win each day’s battle by any means necessary. We are good, they are evil, and the stakes are ultimate. Facts inconvenient to my side gaining victory must be obfuscated or brushed aside. When in doubt, shout louder.

After awhile, the pure ideologue becomes incapable even of processing data contrary to their worldview. In this way their ideology robs them of whatever intelligence and independence they might once have had. They have been assimilated into the Idea or the Party, never to be seen again.

A country can absorb a certain number of pure ideologues. You can find them on editorial pages, in policy shops, and even in government. (Not to mention religion.) But beware if they actually come to hold genuinely important positions of leadership. Beware if the health or survival of actual people or of institutions comes into their responsibility.

I grew up in northern Virginia. My father worked as a policy analyst for the Congressional Research Service, one of the jewels of the U.S. government civil service. The CRS exists to offer, honest, smart, independent, nonideological policy analysis to assist the Congress in writing good laws. The CRS still exists, doing its thing — but where is the Congress that might actually make laws based on the work of honest, smart, independent research?

Many of my friends’ parents worked in the national security and law enforcement bureaucracy: CIA, NSA, DOD, FBI. They were honest, smart, independent people doing their best work for the sake of the country. There was a time when I shared left-liberal worries about the national security state. Now I sense that these well-trained, patriotic civil servants may be our last, best hope.

I honor honest, smart, independent people. Because I am liberal, I will name four conservative Republicans who are impressing me right now: Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, William Kristol of the The Weekly Standard, Michael Gerson of The Washington Post, and Peter Wehner, now writing for The New York Times.

I will surprise friend and foe by also naming James Comey of the FBI, now hated by everyone. I believe he is an honest, smart, independent civil servant doing the best he can in excruciating circumstances. One day I suspect that his choices will be vindicated.

Religion should provide an independent vantage point. Religious people are supposed to be loyal to God, and to values that transcend ephemeral ideologies.

That makes it all the more pitiful when religious folks surrender their honesty, intelligence, and independence. I believe that when all is said many Christians will be embarrassed by their current capitulations, either to the ideological left or right. Sad!

So here’s to honest, smart, independent people, who read, think, reflect, learn, and grow, who are not ideology’s captives, who have not been bought, and who cannot be intimidated. We need them today more than ever.

Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!