Thursday, October 7, 2010


"To be stupid, and selfish, and to have good health are the three requirements for happiness; though if stupidity is lacking, the others are useless."

These words of 1846 are from Gustave Flaubert, a very smart man, of uncertain selfishness and health. In other words, what we have here is a piece of irony. Or if you prefer, a very unhappy man commenting on the necessities for happiness. And maybe this is the right way to look at it, as an example of expert advice.

If to be happy as it is usually understood means to be inhuman, then we should not conclude that happiness is impossible, but that happiness that comes from inhumanity is the wrong idea of happiness.

All of us these days receive expert advice of this quality. The expertise comes at the cost of humanity, and yet seeks to advise what is good for humanity.

Now people are talking about a distinction between network communications, and deeper person to person community ties. Networks allow fast large scale communication, but don't really convince anyone they must act on the communication. Personal ties convince people to act. That's the theory, at least, of the experts.

Take for example Ralph Nador's novel published this year, seven hundred pages, sales of eleven thousand copies. Billionaires get together to save the American Democracy, using person to person organization to make voters understand that politicians are hurting them in real and practical ways, hurting them financially, in their health, and in their safety. The internet and social networks are tools used to make that organization more effective.

Note that Ralph Nadar is not stupid, selfish and healthy. He is smart, aging, and unselfish. Nevertheless his book is going unread and is not going to bring us happiness.

The problem is in the writing. It is bad. It is too personal. Too person to person, you could say. It is the expression of a fantasy, however well intentioned. It is unrealistic, repetitive. The dialog does not respect the requirements of speaking in public to strangers. In other words, it is not suited to network communication.

The personal nature of the book reveals itself most importantly in its failure to be realistic about public life. It fails to recognize that billionaires are people completely unlike the author. They are selfish, healthy, and stupid.

Stupid? How stupid? Like this. We have a very smart, youthful president who, a newly published book by the journalist Bob Woodward tells us, goes to war carefully, studying all the factors, taking all views into consideration. Yet our allies, the recipients of billions of our dollars, are also allies of our enemies. Our smart president knows this. What else does he know? He knows that his own country is weakened and saddened by recession, unemployment, poverty, disgust at politicians. And he knows that in his country corporations are making so much profit and care so little about that unemployment, poverty, sadness, are so completely unafraid of public disgust, they instead of investing in new business and hiring use their surplus billions to buy back their own stock. Cooperative regulators in government have seen to it that interest rates are so low that banks also have the same problem of too much profit, and have so much money on hand they need to get rid of it by passing out million dollar bonuses to their executives.

So a very smart president goes to war, making the most cautious, considered decisions on how to fight a war, where unfortunately our allies are also the allies of our enemies. Our own country, which as it is said to be "ours" is assumed to be something in common between us people, is in the same state of confusion. Government, the friend of the people, is the friend of business which is the enemy of the people. Enemy of the people because what the government helps business do clearly and directly harms the people.

So again, our president. Smart guy? No. Selfish, hearty, and stupid. Elected, like other recent presidents, on images of community, on his ability to seem to be talking person to person.

Communication, smart communication, does not have to be person to person. Rather, smart communication benefits by being public, between both strangers and friends, as it forces us to look past what is local, insignificant, mere habit, without larger meaning outside our own particular lives.

As Ralph Nador's book shows us, to make person to person communication effective, network communication, writing books for example, must be truly happy. Happy means mature, unselfish, and smart. Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" was all of these, and was read by one of every seven Americans at the time of our country's fight for independence. That's networking.

P.S. "He felt very happy, very much amused, very curiously preoccupied. The feeling was a singular one. It partook of the nature of intellectual excitement. He had a sense of having received carte blanche for the expenditure of his wits. He liked to feel his intelligence at play. This is, perhaps, the highest luxury of a clever man." (From Henry James, "Confidence".)