Talk and Conduct: Montaigne Redux

Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth century essayist, noted the difference between “supercelestial talk and subterranean conduct.” While the difference was obvious in the Renaissance, it rages as a virtual definition of this moment.

The former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in high dungeon, says to Boko Haram “Let our girls [the 276 kidnapped Nigerian girls] go free.” Alas, there aren’t sane people who would disagree, but how do we bring about this result? Is there a strategy, a military prescription? Wailing to the gods of good feeling doesn’t do the trick. In fact, it is little more than supercelestial talk.

At the moment, a newly minted celebrity Thomas Picketty, with his rehashed version of Marxism generating ink in the West, tells us capitalism produces inequality – a point so obvious I find myself embarrassed to comment on it. Churchill made the same case when he said that capitalism distributes wealth unequally, while socialism distributes misery equally. Of course capitalism produces inequality. If free markets prevail some will succeed by dint of hard work, innovation, imagination, intrigue and luck. It isn’t always fair, but life isn’t always fair. What capitalism has also produced is the greatest explosion of wealth the world has known. If your desire is equality, then free markets must be controlled. And if free markets are controlled – to continue the syllogism – wealth will not be generated and people will be impoverished. Here too Picketty speaks from the heavens, but his words don’t resonate on the ground.

In Geneva and now in Vienna, the western powers have engaged in conversation with Iranian representatives over its alleged nuclear weapons program. President Obama contends “jaw jaw is better than war war.” (words attributed to Churchill) But suppose talk leads to war. Suppose as well, the celestial talk effectively accelerates the day when “break out” occurs and Iran has sufficient fissile material to produce multiple new weapons.

In fact, Shia leaders have made it clear that Iran’s desire for nuclear weapons cannot be forestalled. According to Ahmed al Baghdadi, jihad to conquer the world in the name of Islam “will be launched when Global Islam has weapons of mass destruction.” In addition, the Iranian government has publicly declared “death to America,” in effect genocide, thereby breaking rule number one of the United Nations. Yet we talk and talk hoping for a result that is impossible. What is it about the words “death to America” our leaders do not understand?

It is known within the Intelligence community that North Korea has altered its satellite trajectory so that a north-south path over the United States is now occurring. It is also known that North Korea or Iran or China or Russia or a non-state actor could detonate a nuclear weapon at high altitudes unleashing an EMP (electro magnetic pulse) that destroys the  grid leading to the paralysis of the nation and deaths to millions.

This scenario is quite familiar to the cognoscenti in Washington D.C. and has been discussed over and over again. Yet remarkably the few billion dollars needed to reinforce the grid have not been allocated. The legislation required to make this happen is stalled in Senate Committee. What does this suggest? Apparently, the survival of the nation is held hostage to talk. So immersed is national leadership in celestial conversation it cannot marshal the resources to deal with survival strategy for the nation.

Where is the contemporary version of Montaigne who points to the dangerous dichotomy between words and action. To be in love with words when action is called for is a prescription for disaster, just as false prophesy leads inextricably to absurd conduct.