Should there be a 'Secretary of Thought'?

Should there be a 'Secretary of Thought'?
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It’s a new day in America. Several weeks ago, the New York Times published an opinion piece proposing a “Secretary of Food.” As President-elect Biden was rounding out his Cabinet picks, José Andrés, chef and World Central Kitchen founder, argued that the overwhelming food needs of Americans require an individual to advise the president how to address hunger and nutrition in many parts of the population so that we can “streamline food policy under a new Cabinet-level Secretary of Food and Agriculture, with a seat on the National Security Council and a mission to improve our nation’s sustenance.” An intriguing idea, to be sure. But, really?

It got me thinking. What other advisory positions should there be? Yes, the president has different Cabinet and non-Cabinet-level advisers who address important aspects of individual and societal life and communicate valuable insights in the fields in which they have advisory responsibility. Still, none addresses “thought.” I am not talking about an Orwellian Ministry of Truth, or even a Philip K. Dick Minority Report regime. I suppose history will tell us, but there doesn’t seem to be a modern-day American Aristotle, John Locke, John Stuart Mills or even Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite to give ethical guidance on things universally worth considering — what might, or should, appeal to and potentially provoke “thought” for the individual and national betterment. The aim would be healthy dialogue for the body politic, particularly in the wake of the awful Jan. 6 events in Washington and the hyper-partisanship that lay at their foundation.

Now, it just may be that we are too polarized and divisive at this point in time. One might think that infectious diseases czar Dr. Anthony Fauci could be, in different times, such a figure. But despite his overwhelming popularity with many Americans — or maybe because of it, or his willingness to speak out — he receives physical threats from those who opposed face masks and lockdowns during the pandemic.


How about Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaO.T. Fagbenle to play Barack Obama in Showtime anthology 'The First Lady' Gillian Anderson to play Eleanor Roosevelt in series on first ladies Obama, Springsteen launch eight-episode podcast MORE? Even before she became increasingly political in aggressively seeking to help defeat President TrumpDonald TrumpSouth Carolina Senate adds firing squad as alternative execution method Ex-Trump aide Pierson won't run for Dallas-area House seat House Oversight panel reissues subpoena for Trump's accounting firm MORE in his elections, and despite her unrivaled popularity, large segments of America’s population dislike her and her viewpoints. When she said in 2016, “When they go low, we go high,” the remark was not given universal applause, even though her statement was just the kind of sentiment most parents ideally would want to impart to their children. (Perhaps it was because it was pointedly critical of Donald Trump and his behavior.)

I’ve tried to resist the reality that Trump has contributed enormously to the nation’s inability to balance itself and is partly, but not exclusively, the impetus for this discussion — indeed, his unstated belief of “how America should think” simply shouldn’t be part of government at all.  And yes, we don’t want any president, no matter how “thoughtful” he or she might be, appointing a “thought minister,” who invariably would be suspect as a political appointee, to prescribe for the president and the public precisely how individuals can best engage in moral or thoughtful behavior. We wouldn’t want that any more than we would want representatives of organized religion or a union of lay moralists to be responsible for that role (in government).

So, can right-minded people, if committed to righting the rudder, coalesce in a non-institutional way to speak to the broader needs of a civilized society? Major news outlets such as CNN, MSNBC or FOX simply can’t carry the ball. These institutions have demonstrated a lack of objectivity because of their respective political bents — and “objectivity” is the fulcrum of what such a dialogue requires.

The very idea of a “Secretary of Thought” is bunk, of course — a straw man here. But why can’t there be a meaningful dialogue among “thought leaders” and “influencers” (an overused term, and not in the Instagram sense) on all sides of every divide? Some believe in lockdowns, and some who don’t; some believe in organized religion, and some don’t; some think society should better serve minorities in an outsized manner, and some don’t; some want to tax the wealthy more, and some don’t; some believe in immigration, and some don’t. Don’t truth and objectivity emerge best when meaningful ideas are presented for all of society to intake?  

Why can’t the wise men and women of the nation find a consensus figure — a “moderator in chief,” if you will, a person who will not impart his own views even in how he or she asks questions — who can be counted on to put together for public airing thinkers and actors from all sides for national dialogue? We need a force to enable everyone watching or listening to make decisions on the issues through unfailingly civil discourse — no yelling, no facial gestures, no disdain for opposing views.  


What are thought leaders thinking today? We will learn only when leaders on all sides communicate with one another, and not as debaters. Their goal would be not to persuade, but to air thought — ideally, that which has been unconsidered by listeners for the first time.

We don’t need, and shouldn’t want, a Secretary of Thought — no one such person can possess all the relevant thoughts after having explored them from every probative angle. And no one person should be permitted to be the ombudsman of thought. That’s exactly what we don’t want — a polemicist, a know-it-all, who can impart what everyone needs to know or think, as he or she sees it.

So, who can be the moderator in chief? Who is that singular figure whose acceptability as an intellectual neutral allows him or her to sit in the middle club chair and pose with impartiality the piercing questions required of all sides? I have a candidate, but who do you think it could be?

Joel Cohen practices white-collar criminal defense law as senior counsel at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. He is an adjunct professor of law at both Fordham and Cardozo Law Schools, and is working on a book titled, “What Are Thought Leaders Thinking?”