They were brilliant analytical minds.
But they were also incredibly illiterate, indifferent, frequently stupid and for the most part comfortable in their ignorance.
At one of the top American management consulting firms, I kept running to such Jekyll&Hyde-ian characters.
But the firm was not unusual – this seems to the the normal modern human mental condition and there appears to be no contradiction between the two states.
Jekyll and Hyde are indeed one!
As an adolescent, the American writer David Foster Wallace was a regionally ranked junior tennis player. He could have been a major athlete. However, luckily he choose instead to write. In his book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again David Foster Wallace describes his time with some of the lesser known players on the professional tennis tournament circuit.
He describes the grinding schedule, endless practice sessions and the tremendous talent needed to just be an ‘also ran’ at the professional level. The lives of those who compete here are completely owned by the schedules of the competition, the level of training and practice required, the constant focus on diet and health, the travel, and the singular mental and physical focus on nothing but the game and the body’s ability to perform it. As he writes:
If you’ve played tennis at least a little, you probably think you have some idea of how hard a game it is to play really well. I submit to you that you really have no idea at all.
To compete and succeed, even at a mediocre level, you have to surrender yourself to the culture of the sport, and disconnect yourself from the world around you. In tennis, as in the rest of the world today, success is assumed for the specialist – good at just one thing, that one thing that s/he has been working and preparing for since childhood.
But this has a price, and it is described best by Wallace himself as he spends time with the tennis professionals and notices that despite their obvious intelligence and skills, they remain largely vacuous and insipid:
But we prefer not to countenance the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so good at one particular thing. Oh, we pay lip service to these sacrifices…But the actual facts of the sacrifices repels us when we see them; basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up bovine hormones until they collapse or explode.
We prefer not to consider the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews, or to imagine what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think in the simplistic way great athletes seem to think.
The realities of top-level athletics today require…An almost ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to their one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child’s world, is very serious and very small.
Martha Nussbaum in her book The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, And India’s Future, describes a visit to the ‘dazzling’ Swaminarayan temple in Bartlett, Illinois – an enclave of the Gujarati community in the United States. She and her assistant are taken for a guided tour of the temple by a young man. As she describes it, he lectures them about the sect’s beliefs, telling them that the voice of the sect’s leader is the direct voice of God.
At one stage in the tour he points to a beautifully carved limestone and marble ceiling and asks them why they think that the ceiling if glowing? Nussbaum expects some sort of spiritual answer, but instead the man turns to her with a smile and says ‘Fiber optic cables! We are the first to bring this technology to a temple!’.
For Nussbaum this young man, member of a Hindu community that has supported the hate-filled and violent ideologies of Hindu fundamentalist groups like the HSS and the VHP, represents a very modern product of our modern education system – educated people with tremendous technological sophistication and an equally tremendous ideological [and i will add; intellectual] docility.
They lack a capacity for critical thinking, knowledge of the world, a compassionate imagination and the imagination of otherness as Nussbaum argues in her works. They are mechanical products, nearly machines, that are ‘programmed’ to excel at their tasks, but lack the thought processes and facilities to know how to think about the world around them, deal with its myriad social and political complexities and to retain a curiosity to explore it.
Dr. Ali Al-Tamimi, a Salafi Muslim scholar and a brilliant computational biologist captures well the chasm between the two ends of the brain that seem to increasingly be drifting apart in modern man.
Dr. Ali Al-Timimi was a brilliant man – a computational biologist, a Salafi Muslim scholar and most recently, someone convicted on terrorism charges.
Milton Viorst in his article on Dr. Timimi’s life, ‘The Education of Ali Al-Timimi’, quotes Dr. Timimi’s doctoral thesis advisor, Curtis Jamison at George Mason University in Washinton D.C. saying that Ali’s innovations in computational biology were at the threshold of a significant breakthrough in cancer research. While at the University Ali had published and co-published at least a half a dozen scientific papers.
In his introduction to his doctoral thesis, Dr. Timimi declares, while discussing Christian dogma and European scientific innovation, that:
This combination of an unwavering belief in a Divine ultimate cause…led to a type of rigidity of thought … It was only … the drifting away and then final divorce of Western intellectual thought from the Church that led to a sharp break from philosophical and theological notions of life. Emancipated from philosophy and theology, and coupled with the foundational discoveries of embryology … cell theory … and genetics … biology set on a new direction with the appearance of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
Here was a man of superior scientific and intellectual intellect, a man at the top of his field, and someone raised with a clear understanding and awareness of the need to maintain a healthy and necessary divide between faith and science – two endeavors with vastly different objectives and motivations.
In the Muslim community however Dr. Timimi was best known as a religious scholar. A Salafi scholar – purist and fundamentalist (I use this term to mean as those who wish to return to the base roots of a belief). And in his religious beliefs he remained profoundly fundamentalists. And saw no contradiction between his belief in science and the instincts of doubt that fuel it, and the certainty of faith. As Viosrt describes it, Ali is known to have told his congregation that;
We have the true source of knowledge, the Koran and the Sunna, something which is inerrant. And therefore, because of that true source of knowledge, our ability to think and our ability to interpret is more correct than theirs.
There is sufficient evidence to argue that the US Government case against Dr. Ali Al-Timimi is weak at best. But my interest is less in Dr. Ali Al-Timimi’s unfortunate run in with the US Government and it’s over zealous legal and secret service goons in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
(Aside: The travesty of justice that led to his life imprisonment, and the ruin that this has meant for his family, is yet another shameful legacy of the hideous Bush administration that has now thankfully passed us. I will write about this and other such cases in a separate blog post.)
I am more fascinated by Dr. Ali Al-Timimi’s ability to contain such brilliant rational and scientific skills and yet hold on so dogmatically to his unverifiable fundamentalist beliefs.
Here is a man whose entire professional and intellectual life was fueled by doubt and questioning and how it can liberate us towards greater truths and knowledge about the world around us. And yet, Dr. Al-Timimi remained a fundamentalist – someone who unquestioningly took as ‘truth’ all and any Islamic stories, histories, verses, phrases, rumors, rules, laws, and gossips that came down to him. For him, the belief that all this is an ‘actual voice of God’ was never to be examined or at the very least considered with an element of humility and doubt.
And I speak here not of a doubt that discards faith, but instead one that elevates it from mere rules and regulations, from chores and rituals, to the beautiful, spiritual and human.
He was creative and innovative at work, rigid and dogmatic in his faith.
It is a way of seeing the world in compartments, of using the human mind as a tool that uses certain skills towards certain tasks and other skills towards other, never allowing the two to influence each other and possibly inform each other.
A recent example of the power of dogma and the seduction of unthinking can affect the minds of otherwise intelligent people are the ‘entrepreneurs’ using modern technology to help the Jewish orthodox overcome the Kosher restrictions imposed on them by the Shabbat. Usually interpreted as a day ‘away from work’, it can also be seen as a beautiful requirement to step away from all worldly demands and to offer oneself towards the divine, towards contemplation and what Pieper called Leisure – see Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture.
A piece in the New York Times, typically unthinking and stenographic, called ‘Entrepreneurs Find Ways to Make Technology Work With Jewish Sabbath’, raises some troubling questions.
We learn from the article that:
(A firm has)… created the metal detectors used to screen worshippers at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, in a manner that uses electricity in a way not prohibited on the Sabbath. It also developed pens that use ink that disappears after a few days, based on a rabbinic interpretation that only forbids permanent writing, and Sabbath phones, which are dialed in an indirect manner with special buttons and a microprocessor.
Unprepared to engage their minds to question the fundamental modern day relevance of their ancient restrictions and dogma, a group of fine minds are producing toys that help them ‘fool’ the system, reducing the religious ideas to ‘tasks’ and ‘chores’, and cleverly avoiding perhaps the ‘intentions’ behind the restrictions in the first place.
So a lamp that has a top you can twist to block its light, so as to avoid ‘pressing’ the on/off switch since that is non-Kosher, has become a big seller amongst religious Jews. That ‘indirect’ dialing is Kosher. Actually this phone is really incredible; it dials all the numbers all the time all day in a sequence – to dial a number you pick up a pen and ‘interrupt’ it from dialing the number you actually want to dial. A sort-of negative logic here – I stop it from dialing the numbers that I actually want to dial – and the phone connects you.
Pressing a button is a violation of the Kosher law. Inserting a pen to block the phone number from dialing is not.
Am I missing something?
I spent a few years working at a major management consultancy in New York City. The firm recruited the best graduates from the best business graduate programs in the United States of America and Europe (how and why I made it in is the topic of a separate blog post).
These men and women went on to advise Fortune 500 CEOs on the fine points of strategy, competitiveness, market creation, product innovation etc.
They were young, confident of their right to lead, smart and ambitious. The best corporations would lure some of them into their management teams with massive salary and bonus packages.
Some were pulling in over a million a year before they were 40 and enjoyed business class travel, 5-star hotels, the best restaurants, limousine services, and anything else necessary for them to remain focused on their responsibilities and deliver to their client’s highest expectations.
I spent 3 years at the firm, struggling to keep up with the go-go-go attitude of my colleagues, many of whom surrendered all pretense at a personal and social life simply to impress the firm’s partners of their ‘commitment’ to the mission of the organization. The culture within the office could only be described as paranoid competitiveness – each step, gesture, posture and word could have implications for your success within the firm. It’s ‘up or out’ policy ensured that every one was constantly on edge, and easily manipulated into working long hours and weekends at the expense of everything else that life may offer.
It required every ounce of one’s focus to stay within it and survive, let alone progress. There was no time for anything else.
And that included any broader engagement with society, culture and politics, or the celebration of common intelligence, worldly knowledge, and a healthy dose of critical thinking.
In the offices, these creatures shone. Outside the office they were practically Neanderthals!
What mattered was the job and the office and the life the revolved around what took place there – there outcomes mattered, performance mattered, ideas mattered for after all we could measure them in terms of revenue, salary increments, bonuses, and privileges.
What mattered was not thought, but performance; not intelligence, but achievement; not critical thinking, but delivery.
What mattered was making the small world, the only world.