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Fools with tools are still fools

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

This piece was originally published in Nuntium, the Journal of the Pontifical Lateran University, in June of 1998.

According to American folk wisdom, "fools with tools are still fools." The force of these words may be difficult to fully translate outside the idiom of U.S. English. But in their blunt, simple irony, they teach an important lesson: Tools may give us power over our environment; but they do not give us the character and prudence to use them well. A fool with a factory or a computer or a gun, or a thousand guns, is still a fool. Power is not its own justification. That must come from somewhere else. To behave otherwise is as dangerous as it is ignorant.

I am speaking these words as the likelihood of a U.S. attack on Iraq seems to fade. I believe such an attack would be a serious mistake, both as a violation of justice and as bad international strategy. But whether such an attack actually occurs -- now or in the future -- is irrelevant to the following fact: The projection of U.S. power worldwide is not primarily a military affair. Real U.S. power is exercised through the global export of habits, symbols, ideas and attitudes deriving from its economic power, which in turn derives from U.S. dominance of the information revolution sweeping the planet. Moreover, this will continue, and may even increase, no matter what the outcome of the armed confrontation with Saddam Hussein.

I would take it a step further. Despite the fact that it is, today, the world's only superpower, the United States is seriously overestimating what military power can accomplish. In his book The Transformation of War, Martin van Creveld argues that all of today's big-power military establishments were created to fight in a world that no longer exists. He's right. Carrier battlegroups in the Gulf make great "news video" for the public back home. But they are drastically inadequate to inflict the kind of damage necessary to break Iraq. Nuclear weapons might accomplish that, but their use is excluded both by world censure and the fear that such an attack might trigger a third-party response, and spread.

In other words, what made the United States powerful during the Cold War -- the threat of massive nuclear deterrence, along with hi-tech, mainline military and naval forces -- is now largely useless in regional, ethnic and religious conflicts, which are the face of the future. At least on the battlefield, America risks becoming the only remaining Goliath in a world of determined Davids.

Creveld's theme -- and futurist Alvin Toffler and others would agree with him -- is that the nation-state, as we've understood it for 300 years, has been undermined by fundamental economic changes. It's dying. Its forms and institutions still exist, but its influence is in decline. That will sound like good news to those who see the United Nations as a healthy successor to competing 20th-century national interests. But it's not that simple.

The United Nations itself is a creature of 1940s' big-power assumptions. It is the political equivalent of how science-fiction writers in the 1930s imagined the world of the 1980s -- through a glass, darkly. Despite some modest U.N. successes and many noble attempts, no superpower has ever let the United Nations stand in the way of its own perceived critical interests. And it will always be so, because political weakness is programmed into the organization's very gene code. Its architects designed it as a forum and arbiter among nation-states, not a serious policeman. So, predictably, superpowers either muscle it aside, or muscle it into conformity with their will.

Now let's return to what I believe is the real source of U.S. power -- economic influence rooted in a dominance of today's information revolution. Obviously, I'm speaking in very broad terms here, because all the developed nations contribute to the current rise of the information culture. But it's no accident that, just as koine Greek became the common language of commerce in the ancient Mediterranean world, English has become the koine of today's new knowledge economies. It is primarily U.S. technology, U.S. microchips, U.S. fiber-optics, U.S. satellites, which are building the neural network of the new global mentality. In fact, business analyst Peter Drucker argues that the United States is the first genuine "knowledge society" in history -- a society where information, not gold or oil, is the primary source of wealth. If we combine that fact with Francis Bacon's observation of 500 years ago --that "knowledge is power" -- we can begin to understand what the post-national terrain of the next century will look like.

It won't necessarily be a Pax Americana. We may see very little pax, and americana is unlikely to mean the same thing it did in the 1940s. Global information changes will drive global economic imbalances, which may drive more, not fewer, armed conflicts. And America, even as it creates the global information society, is losing control of it to other regions (such as Asia), supra-national organizations and blocs -- and blending into something quite different from its traditional, white, European, isolationist past.

But what America has indelibly imprinted on the emerging global culture is its spirit. And that spirit springs from the identity of Americans as the pre-eminent tool-makers in history. Americans are pragmatists; problem-solvers; innovators. They want results, and they've learned to create the tools to achieve them. Even their ideology -- the market -- is keyed to immediate, practical realities. Thus, in the end, Americans live simultaneously in two parallel universes -- the one, a universe of still-strong but fading religious sentiment associated with the nation's founding as an experiment blessed by God; and the other, a universe of deep utilitarian materialism which informs economic life. This latter, I suspect, is the face of the first decades of the 21st century -- and it is not good news for the weak, the handicapped and the "useless."

Augustine, writing at a pivot-point in history not dissimilar to our own, reflected on the unraveling of ancient civilization around him and discovered, instead of despair, a hope and joy rooted in the City of God. As Pope John Paul II has reminded us so many times and so wisely, believers in Jesus Christ have no use for fear. Our task is to be seeds, no matter how rocky the soil of the era, and to trust that God will bring in the harvest.

Fools with tools, after all, are still fools. Knowledge may be power; but it is not joy or love or hope or wisdom or fulfillment -- the essentials which sustain the human person. Only God can provide these . . . which is why Augustine wrote, "our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee."

 

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