There has been considerable fallout of late regarding world-renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking’s refusal to attend Israel’s Fifth Presidential Conference this coming June, on the grounds of Israeli malfeasance toward the Palestinians. Whatever one’s view of the Jewish state, there should be little doubt that the physicist’s decision to boycott the event is both intellectually indefensible and morally suspect, and raises the question of how mental agility and moral folly can co-exist in the same person.
As several commentators have indicated, his position is intellectually indefensible since Hawking evinces no knowledge of the history of the Middle East, ludicrously compares Israel to apartheid South Africa, and seems wholly unaware of the provably fraudulent nature of the Palestinian narrative. Palestinian revisionism has falsified the historical record in practically every conceivable respect. The data are readily accessible and no genuine scholar or thinking person can deny them and still retain a modicum of integrity. At the same time, his attitude is morally suspect owing to the fact that Hawking, who suffers from motor neuron disease, would have been rendered mute without the advances and advantages of Israeli medical breakthroughs. Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, director of Shurat HaDin–Israel Law Center, called Hawking’s boycott hypocritical. “His whole computer-based communication system runs on a chip designed by Israel’s Intel team. I suggest that if he truly wants to pull out of Israel, he should also pull out his Intel Core i7 from his tablet.”
In a stinging article for FrontPage Magazine, Ari Lieberman points to the sharp distinction between the benefits and gifts that Israel has lavished upon mankind in science, technology and medicine and the deficits and depravities that are the legacy of the Arab world: barbarism, cultural regression, ignorance, religiously sanctioned violence and terroristic savagery. It is a distinction, we should have thought, that a world-class scientist like Hawking—who, incidentally, has visited Iran without uttering a single criticism of that rogue state—should be equipped to make but is clearly unable to do. One recalls his most celebrated theory, namely, that black holes leak radiation, but he cannot, it appears, register the lies, obsessions and hatreds that routinely leak from the black hole of the Islamic world—perhaps “gush” would be the more accurate word. (Of course, we need to make an adjustment here in the interest of precision: what are emitted from the Islamic world are not photons but, say, crepusculars, not particles of light, as in the original theory, but particles of darkness.)
Hawking, then, can countenance the retrograde policies, Jew-hatred and terror-sponsorship of Iran, a country to which he has granted legitimacy with his approving visit. But when it comes to the democratic nation whose medical and technological discoveries have given him a new lease on life, he engages in facile and politically correct posturing. “One cannot really argue with a mathematical theorem,” Hawking asserts, but one can surely argue with a political assumption—and Hawking’s is defective at best and invidious at worst.
Hawking’s profound failings as a social and political thinker are a subset of a much larger syndrome—the naivety or ineptitude of the acknowledged genius when he (or she) proceeds to pontificate on matters beyond his specialized field and insists on addressing the affairs of the world in general. It appears to be an occupational hazard that plagues a substantial number of such cynosures. This is not quite the same thing as the infirmity that afflicts the “expert,” insofar as an “expert” can be frequently relied upon to botch, mishandle, degrade or obfuscate the very area in which his “expertise” presumably applies. The maladroit “genius,” on the contrary, is one who is lambently at home in his domain, though not outside of it.
In a second article for Frontpage, Lieberman touches on the notion of the idiot savant, who “typically lack[s] normal social communication skills but possesses an abnormally high skill in such isolated disciplines as mathematics or art,” a personality that is “very easily manipulated.” Lieberman dismisses the idea in Hawking’s case, but I would not be so hasty. I tend to regard Hawking as, let us say, a useful idiot savant, for by his determination to boycott the Israeli symposium, he has not only stigmatized Israel but has reinforced the convictions and sentiments of antisemites and anti-Zionists (often one and the same thing) around the world and across the disciplines. In any event, the category of specialized and selectively brilliant incompetents remains intact and boasts a prestigious membership. To mention just a few as illustration:
Bobby Fischer, arguably the greatest chess player who ever lived, was consumed by absurd conspiracy theories and irrational hatreds. Einstein was a political naïf; if he could have had his way, Israel would never have been born (and Hawking wouldn’t have profited from the microprocessors that permit him to communicate). Richard Dawkins, a renowned biologist, has little understanding of the moral universe. It all comes down for him to the power of the genes and the absence of the Lord, a thesis that empties the human world of moral choice and freedom of the will while dictating ex cathedra to the mystery of the Creation. It is inappropriate for a scientist to assert that God does not exist since that statement can be neither proved nor falsified. It is equally an act of pure hubris.
Martin Heidegger, considered by many the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, was an unrepentant Nazi. Bertrand Russell urged Britain to surrender to the same regime that Heidegger supported; in The Flight from Truth: The Reign of Deceit in the Age of Information, Jean-François Revel cites a 1937 speech in which Russell declared that “Britain should disarm, and if Hitler marched his troops into this country when we were undefended, they should be welcomed like tourists and greeted in a friendly way.” In his essay Reflections on Ghandi, George Orwell records the Mahatma’s answer to the Jewish predicament in the 1940s: “Ghandi’s view was that the German Jews ought to commit collective suicide, which ‘would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence’… When, in 1942, he urged non-violent resistance against a Japanese invasion, he was ready to admit that it might cost several million deaths.” Ghandi was a leader of the Indian National Congress and a promoter of independence from British rule, in other words, a domestic politician, but had no compunction in advising the Jews trapped in the European slaughterhouse.
Similarly, many Nobel Laureates have dismal and even reprehensible track records. One thinks of the ferocious antisemitism of José Saramago and the petulant and sophomoric anti-Americanism of Harold Pinter. Mikis Theodorakis, though not a Laureate but a candidate for the 2000 Nobel, may be a musical genius but he is also a gutter antisemite. Economist Paul Krugman, who is much in the news, may know his Keynes but he certainly does not know how the real world works, arguing for increased government debt and the immateriality of deficits because “we owe what we have borrowed to ourselves.” But as it happens, we also owe it to China, and owing to ourselves makes little sense in an interconnected world without which we could not be our economic selves. This lionized resolver of our fiscal ills will not rest until the nation goes bankrupt, or in the words of William Anderson, a member of the Austrian School of Economics, “his central message is this: internal bond finance of government trumps scarcity.” Scarcity is a fact of the real world that impinges on the life of real people, not a conceptual fancy that exists inside a theoretical construct. Former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu would win a prize for world-class buffoonery if one were instituted. Chu, who was awarded a Nobel for his work in laser cooling, is a great fan of glucose and termite guts to reduce the world’s dependence on oil, and has recommended painting roofs and roads white to reflect sunlight and save money on air conditioning. Nonetheless, he was also a chief promoter of the Solyndra fiasco, costing the American taxpayer over half a billion dollars. The list could be extended indefinitely.
“Great men” may be great in their professional endeavors but, all too often, when they range outside the borders of their specialties they manifest either as downright silly or positively dangerous. These are very smart people, but they are hawking dubious wares. High intelligence counts for little in the sociocultural realm when it is confined to the narrow if intricate space of a singular curriculum or specialization, when it is not leavened by common sense and moral clarity, or when it considers itself, by virtue of its disciplinary eminence, as authoritative in pronouncing on complex and recalcitrant questions outside its particular field of study. As for Hawking, a representative figure of this strange breed mantled in adulation, he may be a great scientist and a suffering human being, but he is also, like many of his congeners, an ignoramus and a moral imbecile. Why should we be surprised?
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