I had planned to do an end of year “In Memoriam” for the heroes and villain who departed the scene in 2017, but you’ve already see a dozen such lists. They tend to be top heavy wth pop culture figures, especially if they air on TV which favors pictures over words and ideas.
So Mary Tyler Moore, Hugh Hefner, Chuck Berry, Don Rickles, Tom Petty, Judge Wapner, astronauts and athletes got most of the attention. Next came people associated with issues, like gay rights and abortion litigants, people in politics like Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Roger Ailes, a war hero from the Band of Brothers, movie directors, playwrights, and tycoons, from David Rockefeller to the founder of Waffle House.
Farther down the list were Nobel Prize winners for economics, medicine, and literature you never heard of. And, if you scroll through “notable deaths” for the year, you quickly learn how provincial the lens is through which we all view the subject.
Just pickling a month at random, September 2017, we find an Italian alpinist, a Czech actor, the 10th Duke of Richmond, an Indian poet, a Chinese architect, a Filipino engineer, a Russian particle physicist, a New Zealand chemist, South Korean author and Mexican boxer. And that’s just the first six days.
In this big, old, crowded, varied world, 55 million people die every year, 105 a minute, and very few make the evening news in their home country. Most, as the poet says, are flowers “born to blush unseen” and die forgotten without a legacy. Yet many might have been Milton’s (or alpinists of particle physicists) had not “Their lot forbade.”
Fame, fortune and accomplishment, that is, can be a matter not just of innate gifts but of the luck of the draw, especially the luck of the opportunities available. Warren Buffett, who is if nothing else rational and unsentimental in his analyses, freely admits that he was able to use his gifts because he was “a member of the luck sperm club.”
By this he means that the intellectual kink in his head that made him so skilled at investing would have done him no good if he’d been born in a time and place that had no stock market, or not to a white middle-class American family in the mid 20th Century, but black in the Jim Crow South, or in a communist economy, or among Amazonian subsistence farmers or Mongolian nomads.
While 55 million individual persons die each year, 150 million are born. Among them what genius, talent, gifts are waiting to be given an opportunity to flourish? Perhaps the Golden Ages of art and literature and science occur not when an especially fertile crop of geniuses is born, but where an average crop of humans is lucky enough to be born. Those with the gifts valued, for a few years, by an Athens, Florence, Vienna or Tang Dynasty get a chance to develop and express what they have in them.
In places plagued with war, famine, pestilence and death, racial, gender, and ethnic discrimination or repressive regimes, an immense waste of such possibilities is the rule. In most places the children of illiterates will probably be illiterate themselves, of peasants to remain peasants. That’s terrible, but even worse is a place such as ours — by historical standards astonishingly prosperous, safe and blessed — that fails to develop the human capital it possesses.
Shouldn’t it be a national policy, not just a slogan, to behave as if a mind is a terrible thing to waste? A potential Einstein will never discover his gift if he isn’t exposed to science and mathematical training, a Michelangelo or Vermeer if they never see a sculpture or a painting and learn how they are made, a Buffett if he is unfamiliar wth economics, capital, profit and loss. And yet, how unfairly, unevenly, unimaginatively opportunities to learn are distributed. Pretty much by zip code or net worth.
In a hyper-competitive world, to fail to exploit our most valuable natural resource — talent and brains — is folly. We are wild to drill and frack and mine very atom of fossil fuels that our country possesses, but too many of the brains that will fuel our future are left undeveloped because it is our national policy to protect our haves from the burden of educating the have-nots. This is a short-sighted plan since invention is as likely to spring from a provincial nobody like Edison as from the heir to the fortune who matriculates at the finest schools because Daddy bought it a building.
We have forgotten what the Founders knew. Jefferson writing to Adams said, “I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents…There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature.”
But he thought the talented needed to be nurtured, and an artificial aristocracy of wealth and birth to be guarded against or it would rig the game in its own favor. In particular, it should be considered “a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendancy.”
How’s that working out?