WickedEye's Quotient

10/19/2007 at 01:33

Chess and not baseball

I am lucky that the popular sport in the Soviet Union was chess and not baseball.
-Garry Kasparov

Garry Kasparov is running for President.

For those of you who don’t know who he is, Kasparov is a Grandmaster and was World Chess Champion (the youngest ever) for 8 years running. He’s won every major chess tournament in the world, and on every one of the three scales used to rate chess players he is the highest-rated chess player of all time.

He is, in a other words, a smart guy.

While there have been (you’ll pardon the phrase) idiot savants who are capable of playing chess at very high levels, none of them has reached the level that Kasparov- or indeed any World Champion- has. Chess is a game that requires at its highest levels not only innate talent but a fierce, profound, and disciplined intelligence.

Kasparov is, not to put too fine a point on it, a genius. Indisputably. Indelibly. And not just a genius in his own time. The moving finger of time has writ his name in the books of every country in which chess is played- which is to say, in every country in the world- among the greatest chess players in human history.

He retired from chess in 2005 and has since 2003 built a literary reputation as a chess historian
; and now he wants to go into politics. More precisely, he has already gone into politics, and now wants to participate in international politics as Russia’s chief officer.

I find this incalculably fascinating.

I find it fascinating because, as an observer on the sidelines of subjects from political science to history to physics to literature to mathematics, I’ve seen a general consensus among intellectuals that politics is the domain not of intellect but of ‘cunning’ and ‘common sense’. They are not mutually exclusive, of course; one may have all to varying degrees. But one of the few constants of almost every political discussion I’ve ever had is the idea that being intellectually brilliant will get you nowhere in politics- and may actually be a handicap.

I’m not sure what causes this sort of thinking. Certainly some of it is stereotype- the wily, cunning, powerful politician as opposed to the intelligent yet politically ineffectual intellectual. I’m nearly certain that some of it is hypothesizing on an observed phenomenon- ‘there are no pure intellectuals in politics, so there must be a reason why’. I’m positive that some of it is mutual dislike and distrust between the intellectual and political spheres and a desire to dismiss the importance of the other.

Assuredly there have been politicians who were incredibly intelligent (Bill Clinton’s Rhodes Scholarship comes to mind). But I cannot summon a single name of a person, living or dead, of Kasparov’s intellectual stature who participated in politics at a high level.

Well, no. I can summon one name: Benjamin Franklin.

One of the most brilliant men of all time, certainly the intellectual giant among the Founding Fathers, and quite possibly the greatest polymath this country has ever produced. (And also, not so incidentally, a personal hero.)

The dimensions of my fascination are becoming more obvious now, aren’t they?

The fact is that Kasparov’s run is unique- even Franklin never held the top office of his country, nor did he try. Other intellectuals have held ruling positions, it’s true, but they have either been born to them (like Cosimo de’Medici) or have gained reknown and only then had intellectual talents acknowledged as having been responsible (like Napoleon and Alexander). Kasparov, if he wins office, offers a chance that has never to my knowledge come down the pike in recent (meaning in the last 2,000 years) human history: the chance to see what a man who has proven himself over and over to be a genius- in a field entirely unrelated to politics- will do with the problem of running a country.

Here’s the rub: The idea that human political and social interaction is too complex to be analyzed and navigated systematically, rather than on an idiopathic ad hoc basis, is one of the most persistent and pernicious dismissals of human brainpower that I have ever encountered.

And it is- pay close attention here, folks- untested.

I am, as many of you know, an empiricist: do not state something as a fact to me unless you have observed data to back it up.

How can we dismiss overwhelming intellectual power as an effective means to political rule if it’s literally never been tried?

We can’t. This is our chance to collect data on this phenomenon. And if Kasparov wins, those who consistently discount the role of disciplined brilliance in running human affairs may have a hard time continuing to do so.

That is, in any case, my ideal- but we’ll see. At least, I hope we will.

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