On Left and Right

“So why is it so hard to tell whether you’re on the left or on the right, Magundi?” Mr. Bates asked, for once with no sign of hostility.

“Because I’m not—and that, incidentally, makes me one of the privileged and powerful among us ordinary citizens.

“I will tell you what the difference between the left and the right is. The right believes that the golden age is in the past—that we can solve our current problems only by returning to the wise principles and moral behavior of days gone by. The left believes that the golden age is in the future—that we can solve our problems only by moving away from the darkness and superstition of the past and forward to a society based on enlightenment and benevolence.

“Nature has somehow provided that there will always be roughly equal numbers of people who believe in the golden age of the past and the golden age of the future, and these people will reliably vote for the parties that represent their prejudices. But there is also a third group—those of us who believe that, in this fallen world, there never was a golden age, and there never will be a golden age. We are free to decide that this policy or that policy is likely to be to our advantage, however temporarily; and so we may swing wildly from left to right, according to the conditions we see in the world, or according to the personalities of the politicians, or according to what we ate for breakfast. As voters, therefore, we are the ones who actually choose the leaders for the rest of you.

“So if you are a politician on the left or the right, my advice to you, since I am a member of the only group of voters who can actually decide the election, is to give me a splendid pancake breakfast, with the best sausage, none of that frozen stuff, and fresh strawberries for the pancakes.”

On Conspiracy Theories

“But I’m just not sure the government is that smart,” Mrs. Bowman concluded.

“I think you’re right,” Mr. Magundi agreed. “The conspiracy theorist pays his imagined enemies the extravagant compliment of supposing that they are almost as clever as he himself is. That is probably why I can never be a proper conspiracy theorist: I have difficulty believing that people in positions of great power are even remotely near to being as clever as I am. The only really intelligent people I know all ride the Red Line streetcar to work every morning, which people in positions of great power would not do. Or at least that’s what they would like you to believe.”

On Nelson Mandela

“But I don’t see why everyone seems to have forgotten that he was a communist,” Mr. Bates was saying. “Sorry if I can’t join the party.”

“I think it’s a little foolish of us to assume that a man was exactly the same when he was young and angry as when he was old and presumably wiser,” Mr Magundi replied. “But no matter; I agree that the tributes of the past couple of days have mostly missed the point. The single thing that made Mandela a great hero, the George Washington of his country, was the fact that, when he died, he was not president. It would have been terribly easy for him to say to himself, ‘At this time of transition and crisis, the country needs strong and stable leadership. It is necessary for the good of the people that I should remain as their leader.’ Like George Washington, he must have seen with absolute clarity that, if he stepped aside, he would be succeeded by a pack of the usual political idiots. How could George Washington look ahead to a Jefferson administration with anything but dread? How could Mandela sit still for Mbeki?

“Yet, when the decision came, he was wise enough to see that the democratic principle was more important in the long run than the question of which idiots would be elected in the short run. He could have been Fidel Castro or Robert Mugabe, but instead he decided to be Cincinnatus.

“Our own Washington had plenty of less-than-admirable qualities. He was a greedy real-estate speculator; he could be imperious and aloof; his administration was full of bickering. Even as a general he was perhaps more lucky than clever. But he proved that he loved his country more than he loved power. Nelson Mandela did the same, and he will be remembered the way Washington is remembered. And his faults deserve the same sympathetic oblivion we grant to Washington’s.”

On Strategy and Tactics

“So she asked me to ask you,” I explained, “because she thought you might have an interesting opinion on the difference between strategy and tactics.”

“It’s very simple,” Mr. Magundi said. “‘Strategy’ is the business of deciding how many people must die to reach our objective. ‘Tactics’ is the business of figuring out exactly how to kill them.”

On Wisdom and Knowledge

“I was trying to explain the difference between wisdom and knowledge to Derek,” Mrs. Bowman said, “but I don’t think I really got through to him.”

“The difference is simple,” Mr. Magundi replied. “Knowledge is progressive, and wisdom is static. We improve in knowledge with every passing generation, and indeed with every passing day; but we have not improved in wisdom since the first man thought it might be a fine idea to eat that fruit after all. We pass our knowledge on to the next generation, by oral tradition or in writing. On the other hand, an individual can grow in wisdom, but for some paradoxical reason, no matter how desperately he tries to pass it on, no matter how many volumes he writes or fine speeches he makes, his wisdom dies with him, and the next generation must discover wisdom for itself.”

On State Lotteries

“But it does benefit senior citizens,” I said a bit timidly, knowing exactly what I was getting into.

“State lotteries prey disproportionately on the poor and credulous,” Mr. Magundi replied. “Our lottery takes bread out of the mouths of the very people it supposedly benefits, and gives some of them a few state-funded programs in return. They lose far more than they gain.

“But worse than that, the lottery involves us all in a dreadful moral contradiction. We send thousands of people to jail every year for breaking laws against gambling, but we put up billboards in the poorest neighborhoods saying ‘Don’t forget to play every day.’ If gambling is not a vice, then why are people in jail for it? If gambling is a vice, why is our government begging us to indulge in it?

“Now, think how much better off we all would be if that money stayed in the neighborhoods, instead of going to Harrisburg to feed a vast bureaucracy. Neighborhood stores might flourish, so the old and helpless would have some place to buy their bread; more pedestrian traffic in the neighborhood business district would make crime go down, and would encourage more businesses to fill empty storefronts. Money spent locally makes everyone a little richer. And that’s why I say we need to take the numbers racket away from the state and put it back in the barber shops where it belongs.”

On the Inadequacies of Other People

Brielle had been telling us about one of her art-school friends. “But all she can talk about is, like, he was all like this, but I was like that, and he like did this, and he should have known better, and can you believe what an idiot he is. And after a while I just have to like tune her out.”

“Yes,” Mr. Magundi said, “it’s surprising how much we love to talk about the inadequacies of other people. While you’re on the streetcar, or walking down the street downtown, listen to the conversations around you, and you’ll be shocked by how many of them are about the failures of third parties not included in the conversation. And then imagine yourself as a stranger walking by this very streetcar stop at this very moment, and tell me what you hear.”