« Huck Fever | Main | Quick Thoughts »

September 03, 2008

Comments

“This election is not about issues,” said McCain's campaign manager

Dr. Ngo, it's great to see you on the front page. Thanks for a very thoughtful analysis.

In my very very humble opinion, what conservatives have been running on for the last 40 years has been making fearful, resentful people feel good about themselves and their lives. Perhaps that seems unfair, or overly simplistic, and I invite any rebuttal anyone cares to make. But that's the way it looks to me.

The result is a very childish and shallow public conversation about very profound and un-childish issues.

It's actually been a pretty successful strategy. Everyone likes to feel good.

It has, however, become something of a rut. I'm not sure how we get out of it.

I also have the sneaking suspicion that there's nothing really all that new about it.

Yes, I fear for the republic as well.

Thanks -

To thine own self be true.

It's always fascinating to me that this quote comes out of the mouth of one of the most duplicitous characters in literature.

On the larger point, I think framing this as competence v. instinct cedes too much to the 'gut feeling' side. For people like McCain or Bush or anyone who takes that kind of pride in their 'instincts', the key is that they associate instinct as being in touch or aware, not as simply a haven from being in touch or aware. People with real instincts can spot this b.s. a mile away: it's the fakes who are consistently entranced with their own distortion who love to hear about their intuition and hearty moral courage. The importance of the Narcissus myth isn't that Narcissus stares at himself; it's that he doesn't recognize himself.

The sad truth about America is that Joe Average living the normal life is as decadent and lost as faux intellectuals in Williamsburg lofts, while the pseudo-Jacksonian fraud of American scepticism, which is basically arrogantly pissing on anyone who has the inherent humility to read and devote their time to learning, ruins everything it touches.

I think that this is a brilliant post, partly, I suppose, because it crystallizes a lot of things I have been thinking about lately. But your pointing out the similarities between the right's powerful taste for mediocrity and incompetence and the left's surviving 60's style "follow your bliss" is particularly penetrating. I might add the useful if much made observation that reasonably bright and competent people sometimes like, and hire, very bright and very competent people, but mediocre like, and hire, people who are mediocre or worse. And too many of us seem to be perfectly happy with that.

Bush looked into Putin's soul in a one hour meeting and decide he could trust Putin. Now, McCain seems to have looked into Palin's soul in a one hour meeting and decided he could trust her. World without end.

Great stuff.

I agree that the anti-competence thread of Republic is intertwined with the anti-competence notions of the Republican party. I'd also point out that it also complements a thread in Christian thinking, that of one's best effort is, if done for the Lord, as good as someone else's best effort.

Hilzoy has spoken about her own journey with Christianity, and mine is similar, but without the intellectual heft. And what occasioned my break was (talk about lack of intellectual heft) was the Christmas carol Little Drummer Boy, where the hero doesn't know what the baby Jesus wants and so starts pounding on a drum while it is in the manger, so we can assume that Jesus was the Messiah because he would have enjoyed the Fall of Paris on a snare drum if it were given in the spirit of the season.

This is why no one is saying 'hey, why didn't you take Huck?' It doesn't matter. It's why they don't criticize Bush, because, as David Kuo notes

Christian leaders, Christian media, and Christian writers, however, didn't dare question or challenge him or the White House. He wasn't a political leader to them, he was a brother in Christ – precisely what the White House wanted them to believe. What they didn't get to see was what the White House thought of them. For most of the rest of the White House staff, evangelical leaders were people to be tolerated, not people who were truly welcomed. No group was more eye-rolling about Christians than the political affairs shop. They knew "the nuts" were politically invaluable, but that was the extent of their usefulness. Sadly, the political affairs folks complained most often and most loudly about how boorish many politically involved Christians were. They didn't see much of the love of Jesus in their lives.

At some point, this willful blindness becomes unChristian. I just wonder when, or if, they ever will realize it.

I call it the "Dave" syndrome, after the movie of that name. Plenty of Americans think that all we need to clean up Washington is to send in a few people with common sense, honesty, and gumption. It's a comforting fantasy.

Dr. Ngo, you make a very good point on the Right's attack on intellectuals and how unsuccessful it has been. It is now an epithet to be called an 'intellectual' (as in 'stop being an intellectual').

For years now I have asked people why they want to be governed by just an 'average Joe' but insist on having their appendix removed by the best doctor possible. Most of the time I get the response "that's different" and sometimes I get a long and involved dissertation that boils down to "I just don't like those smart ass SOBs".

So here we are, destined to be governed by those who can convence the voter that they are just plain folks while telling them they are best of the best.

Dr Ngo,
Your kind of thinking sounds like "elitism"
...
through the lens of popular perception that you describe.

Yet if you suggested that the way to straighten out the local sports franchise was to send in non-players, instead of better players, they'd look at you like you're crazy.

We're not all shortstops, no more than we're all politicians.

I call it the "Dave" syndrome, after the movie of that name. Plenty of Americans think that all we need to clean up Washington is to send in a few people with common sense, honesty, and gumption. It's a comforting fantasy.

Which is what Palin plays to.

Good post, Dr. Ngo. I have long felt that the GOP - in the person first of Reagan - coopted the worst aspects of hippie-dom, or the madison ave. version of it, and fused it with Dale Carnagie. In this context it must also be born in mind that the Hippie Ethos was very conservative in some ways, even reactionary (back to the land, 19th century clothing and hygiene, living off the grid, etc.).

Whether it's Disney or Scott McKenzie ('flowers in your hair..' if you don't know the song, count yourself lucky), this dips--t mindset has been with us for a while. It's part anti-authoritarianism (in service to authoritarianism, in the case of the current GOP) and part just a horror and resentment of excellence. It's very very scary, particularly now that this hatred of excellence is so well represented in the mainstream, particularly in politics.

All of which is why I think it's important for the Dems to play up Palin's corruption.

American's do love common sense, honesty, and gumption. But they hate to discover they've been played for fools.

Troopergate and the lies about the Bridge to Nowhere are the thin edge of the wedge.

"Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance?" -- Sen. Roman Hruska, defending the nomination of G. Harrold Carswell

I wonder if that would have become as instant a classic, had it been uttered thirty years later.

>>I have long felt that the GOP - in the person first of Reagan - coopted the worst aspects of hippie-dom, or the madison ave. version of it, and fused it with Dale Carnagie.

I was about to write a defensive post about hippie culture, but then I suddenly remembered: Even back then, I loathed the sizable "Willful Suspension of Intelligence" portion of the counterculture. They weren't all of us by any means, but they may have been the majority.

Ah, screw it. I'm still glad I partook.

Rick Perlstein reminds us in Nixonland of the less-quoted next sentence in Hruska's statement: "We can't have all Brandeises and Cardozos and Frankfurters and all stuff like that there."

That's a useful reminder of the antisemitism that lurks beneath the surface of much American populist rhetoric (Hostadter wasn't all wrong and Goodwyn wasn't entirely right).

Funny how America's Mayor chose to accuse Palin doubters of finding Wasilla not "cosmopolitan" enough.

I would like to join the others in complementing Dr. Ngo for a though-provoking post, and I have a small point to add: I have been coming to the realization that there are two fundamentally different thinking styles: the original pattern-based thinking on which most mentation is based, and the phylogenetically more recent sequential-based system upon which language, reason, science, and technology are based. The sequential system is, neurophysiologically, something of a fake; getting our brains to think logically is rather like getting our bodies to do yoga. But it permits us to accomplish things that can't be done by the holistic, intuitive thinking style that comes naturally to our brains. And therein lies the fundamental question facing our society: do we trust logic -- a wholly alien way of thinking -- or pattern-based thinking? I believe that the essence of the Western achievement is rather like a pilot flying an airplane on instruments, or a skydiver jumping out of an airplane the first time. All our instincts are screaming "We're going to die!" but our logic tells us that the instruments are correct or the parachute will keep us from falling to our deaths. We trust our logic over our pattern-based thinking. And that permits us to accomplish wonderful things.

Viewed this way, the election becomes a simple choice between two thinking styles: sequential and pattern-based; logic version intuition. It is a stark choice, and when viewed this way, the necessary outcome is obvious.

dr. ngo, I mostly agree with your post but I'm not sure I agree with this part:

Trust your instincts.

Look into your own heart and decide.

Follow your bliss.

To thine own self be true.

Go with your gut.

The problem with claiming that these statements represent anti-intellectualism is that they are usually employed in contexts where intellectualism is of little use. If I'm trying to decide what to do with my life, how will talking with a Doctor or Economist help? Expertise is fairly narrow and there are all sorts of questions we must answer for which there are no real experts.

Even in areas where expertise is relevant, the skills of experts are not always as useful as the social position of experts might suggest. Consider, for example, the presence of evidence based medicine. Do you find it reassuring that some doctors have launched a revolution in medicine based on the notion that treatment methodologies should be justified rather than assumed correct? Alternatively, consider how many economists were convinced that putting money into housing during the housing boom was a great idea or how many thought that the internet changed the rules such that the economy would grow forever in the 1990s.

Yet another problem is that even if one believes that experts know a great deal about a problem, it does not necessarily follow that one can determine which experts to trust. If you know that you lack the skills or information needed to determine which of several competing experts to trust, isn't deciding based on character the most rational thing to do?

Create your own reality.

If it feels good, do it.

I have never, not once in my life, heard anyone mention these phrases in a positive way. I mean, the second one was one of W's stock phrases for burning straw men, wasn't it? I'm having trouble accepting that these are widely believed memes in our culture.

In the rest of life – and this includes the Presidency – competence is simply not a consideration, for a very sizable chunk of the electorate, enough to win or lose the election.

Do you think this is phenomena is related to how little the average American understands about policy analysis or policy history? Most people finish their education without ever getting a rigorous treatment of how policy is actually developed and how to assess it after the fact. Likewise, most people will never learn about the effects of major policies historically; i.e., they'll never learn how much LBJ's anti-poverty programs reduced material want. If people remain ignorant of both the mechanisms by which politicians address social problems and the history of successes and failures doing so, is it any surprise when they evaluate politicians based on character?

I'll echo Liberal Japonicus and suggest that going with the gut, listening to your heart and so forth are always going to be appealing to the decerebrate fraction of the electorate, for whom neuronal intellection is suspect.

Using your gut is pretty much the same as trusting your faith. Some very smart people wind up discarding evidence and experience when it conflicts with received wisdom, but most don't get that far, because thinking for yourself is difficult. It's so much easier to agree that "God said it, I believe it, that settles it."

Also, kudos to Dr. Ngo.

Turbulence, a company for which I used to work had (after I'd left) a sign in the lobby proclaiming "Perception is Reality". The president at that time was a salesman.

What Turbulence said. Sometimes the experts are wrong, sometimes they contradict each other, and most importantly in the world of politics, sometimes they do not have your best interests at heart.

Take going to the doctor. Right, I wouldn't go to my neighbor just because I thought he/she was a good guy. But if I had a choice between a competent GP, with good communication skills, that I could trust, versus the brightest, Ivy-League-est doctor around, but one that might be too arrogant to really listen to me, ... I'm choosing the former.

That's not to knock the original post though, which was pretty good.

Turbulence writes: Alternatively, consider how many economists were convinced that putting money into housing during the housing boom was a great idea or how many thought that the internet changed the rules such that the economy would grow forever in the 1990s.

"how many economists" in both cases was "very few".

Yet another problem is that even if one believes that experts know a great deal about a problem, it does not necessarily follow that one can determine which experts to trust

There will always be a few maverick experts who buck the trend. That shouldn't be a source of confusion. If a supermajority of experts agree on some point, then you can safely trust them as a group. A good example of this is the global warming controversy. A strong supermajority of experts are in agreement that this is quite real and very serious, yet politically motivated opponents have confused the issue in the eyes of the public by citing a small minority of experts who take issue with some components of the overall consensus.

"how many economists" in both cases was "very few".

Many large wall street firms with access to significant analytical capability did in fact bet wrong, so I think that there were a decent number of economics experts who were wrong here.

There will always be a few maverick experts who buck the trend. That shouldn't be a source of confusion. If a supermajority of experts agree on some point, then you can safely trust them as a group.

Sure, I get that there will be always be outliers and cranks. But in some cases, there is no strong supermajority consensus position. Which is better: Clinton's health care plan or Obama's health care plan? Experts disagree and there doesn't seem to be a super clear consensus one way or the other. So how do you propose I decide between them?

Yes, when there's a lot of disagreement between experts, then it's difficult to choose between opposing camps. But that doesn't mean that you flip a coin, nor does it mean that you decide which experts you feel better about. It means that you don't know. What's wrong with admitting that a particular issue is simply too complicated to make a decision on as yet?

But that doesn't mean that you flip a coin, nor does it mean that you decide which experts you feel better about. It means that you don't know. What's wrong with admitting that a particular issue is simply too complicated to make a decision on as yet?

It all depends; if you have to make a decision now (say, because there is a consensus that the status quo is unacceptable -- something I think Clinton and Obama health care economists would agree to), then random choice might be best. I agree with you I think. My main point here was that in practice, there are reasons to be wary of reliance on experts, which is a point that I think dr ngo's post glossed over.

Yes, we don't disagree much. I heartily agree that we need to be wary of experts, especially when we're talking about individual experts. Everybody is wrong about something. Even groups of experts can be wrong. I think experts deserve our deference only when there's a supermajority of experts agreeing on something. But that's only deference. On a truly messy issue such as health care, I think it's perfectly reasonable to pick and choose which experts -- and which opinions of which experts -- to embrace.

Turbulence: The problem with claiming that these statements represent anti-intellectualism is that they are usually employed in contexts where intellectualism is of little use. If I'm trying to decide what to do with my life, how will talking with a Doctor or Economist help? Expertise is fairly narrow and there are all sorts of questions we must answer for which there are no real experts.

I agree completely, and attempted to address this point in passing a few lines later when I said:

Perhaps in our own minds we confined their usage to matters of romance and/or personal development, but they have in fact spread to a much wider arena, to nearly all of life, including foreign policy.

If I had been more awake, I might have tried to explore this contradiction: how does 'wisdom' that may be helpful in one context pervade so readily (?) quite inappropriate contexts? Could we have stopped it? Can we reverse it now?

I fear the flabbiness in our thinking for at least the last forty years (about all my own memory of the issue encompasses) has allowed the problem to metastasize. But thanks for picking it up and encouraging us to re-examine it.

After my original draft I added a paragraph, inserted at about this point in the essay, which I failed to effectively insert into the text (management of electronic technology NOT being one of my areas of expertise!). FWIW, it bears on the issue of why the "intuition" meme became so popular, and runs as follows:

We want to believe that our success in life can depend on a flash of insight or a moment of inspiration, because that excuses us from the necessity EITHER to work really really hard at mastering something OR to accept that we're just not going anywhere, just not good enough. Hence “American Idol” - no nonsense about studying music there! Nothing about spending hours every day, for years, learning theory or practicing scales. Go up on stage, let it all hang out, and hope your “heart” will win the audience. Why not try? It's just a matter of luck – and self-confidence.

Or, as Russell more succinctly put it, above: "Everyone likes to feel good."

I even thought of trying to drag in the whole concept of Developing Your Child's Self-Esteem, which my wife and I bought into (with mixed success), but which, on reflection, may not have been the best approach to creating or preserving a society that values actual accomplishment. That, however, is probably at least one Bridge Too Far.

********

A few comments on the comments so far (besides thanks for the kind words):

- I love the movie "Dave"! Heartwarming, funny, and totally unbelievable. It can't possibly have anything to do with what we're discussing here. I simply refuse to believe it!!

- Beau: did you mean "successful" rather than "unsuccessful" in your first sentence?

- Tsam: I remember a time when "elite" was something good. O Tempora! O Mores!

- AndyK: Thanks for the reminder of Hruska's paean to mediocrity, which occurred to me once, then slipped my mind (and which in any event my memory had misattributed to Spiro Agnew, speaking of monuments of mediocrity).

- and to BenA: Thanks for noting the anti-Semitic subtext, which I don't think I had noticed before.

- and, finally, Turbulence again: Just Google "Create Your Own Reality." You may be surprised.

Dr. Ngo,

Good post. (and parenthetically, if this is an indicator then more guest posts please).

The anti-intellectual current in US politics which you describe sounds to me like a form of populism.

Populism is a very strong and enduring factor in our political life, but not the only factor. Otherwise how to explain the election of Woodrow Wilson to the Presidency, to cite one example? JFK also strikes me as an example of somebody who was able to use other forms of appeal to get elected despite the disadvantages of appearing intelligent.

If Obama succeeds this year, I think a lot of commentary will draw parallels with JFK, and point out that McCain's complaints about Obama's "celebrity" were both on target and made in vain, as glamour can be an asset rather than a liability if handled correctly.

With regard to the wider discussion in comments here about different types of expertise and how to judge what kind to trust and when, has anybody else read Taleb's "Black Swan"?

It seems to me that the distinction which Taleb makes between more predictable regimes ("mediocristan") and less predictable regimes subject to chaotic processes and power-law scaling in the results obtained ("extremistan") is a useful concept for looking at this expertise problem.

I think that a greater issue here is how the leftists have driven conservatives out of education. Barack Obama snuffed out all of the conservative initiatives from receiving funding when he was chairman of the CAC. What were the great accomplishments that Obama and Bill Ayers achieved? This day, James Meeks sought to disrupt the beginning of the school year for some sort of political stunt. What? The New Trier school district pays more money for god students that could be spent on dropouts? IT'S AN OUTRAGE! Don't feed me that BS, when the aggrieved students receive the AVERAGE state funding for their schools.

The deal is that the leftist political machine has excluded conservatives from all levels of education, with the NEA doing most the work, and college administrators finishing it off. Conservatives and religious people are called stupid and evil, over and over again, in a mass propaganda campaign, in the mass media and blogs like this. But this isn't true at all, and the fact that college professors openly hate conservatives, and will fight against them in every way including hiring and giving students poor grades for their political beliefs is part of the reason for this apparent decline in education. I have seen this happen also in elementary schools and high schools. Perhaps it is different at your institution. What did the professors do to the naysayers about the bogus lacrosse team rape case?

Perhaps in our own minds we confined their usage to matters of romance and/or personal development, but they have in fact spread to a much wider arena, to nearly all of life, including foreign policy.

Ah, thanks for the explanation. I'm not sure I find this persuasive though: it seems that most of the foreign policy elite reject assessments made primarily on intuition. Moreover, the public had trouble accepting the Iraq War without a hearty dose of implications regarding WMD and terrorist support. That was the point of Powell's little presentation to the UN: it helped convince people that there existed evidence somewhere that Iraq was full of WMD and going to destroy the world and steal our underpants. Or something. Could you expand on what you mean by saying we've adopted this belief in foreign policy? Were you thinking of something like Bill Clinton's insistence on regime change regarding Iraq or am I way off base?

On the other hand, the rise of the superstar CEO, with his outsized compensation, might be a good example of what you're describing.

- and, finally, Turbulence again: Just Google "Create Your Own Reality." You may be surprised.

Blech. I think I'm going to be sick. Thanks for the suggestion.

I wish I could disagree, but I very much fear that this is absolutely correct.

What's wrong with admitting that a particular issue is simply too complicated to make a decision on as yet?

Sometimes it's not an option, or not a practical option. Taxes and budget are a good example. You'll never get economists to agree on the effects of a specific tax and budget decision, but Congress can't just throw up their hands and say "insufficient data". They have to get the budget out, contradictory advice notwithstanding, or the whole Government will grind to a halt.

I think that a greater issue here is how the leftists have driven conservatives out of education.

Arrant nonsense.

The most popular major in America is business.

Perhaps they're all Marxist sleepers who are going to burrow deep into the capitalist system only to smash it later.

How many departments or colleges or schools of business or management are there?

How many schools, or colleges, or departments of labor studies? Of community organizing?

The notion that conservatives have been driven out of the academy is simply ludicrous -- unless you are laboring under the delusion that the Duke English department is the entirety of higher education.

DaveC, your suggestion that leftists have driven conservatives out of our educational system has no evidentiary support and reeks of conspiracy theory. I reject it.

Barack Obama snuffed out all of the conservative initiatives from receiving funding when he was chairman of the CAC.

Someone has been getting mash notes from Stanley Kur~tz~~~.

The notion that conservatives have been driven out of the academy is simply ludicrous

Well, it depends on what kind of conservatives...

Social conservatives? Maybe. Economic conservatives? Hardly. Aside from the business schools, have you checked out the alliances in OTHER schools like engineering and medicine with local businesses, both small and large? (Or at least at the larger universities. Very entrepreneurial.)

Roger Moore, you're right that we all have to make decisions in the absence of conclusive opinions from experts. But my comment referred only to the specific problem of determining which experts to trust. If we don't have sufficient material from experts, then we must fall back on our own judgement. That's one reason why budgetary decisions are so difficult: everybody has their own opinion, and there's no expert who can tell us that spending X dollars on Project A will yield more social benefit than spending Y dollars on Project B.

most of the foreign policy elite reject assessments made primarily on intuition.

Indeed. And then GWB rejects the foreign policy elite, when they don't give him the analysis he wants. And McCain promises to do the same. He's an old-fashioned Russia-hater; he doesn't do nuance. Just read Brooks on McCain and Palin - their moral compass gives them all they need to combat the evil that is Putin. No knowledge need apply.

Foreign Policy - It's Not Just For "Experts" Any More!!

DaveC - assuming Duke University to be my "institution" (they don't pay me, but I do go to games there and sing in the choir, so fair enough), I fail to see what in the world the lacrosse scandal has to do with the topic at hand.

I mean it was a great mess, in many dimensions, and still is, with the entire squad, including those never named, now suing the University and the city of Durham for the affront to their delicate reputations (there go my taxes!!). But to portray this as part of the "leftist machine exclud[ing] conservatives from all levels of education" is beyond ridiculous.

It is difficult to put this into words. The intuitive side of the brain operates without words so any description in words will necessarily be inadequate.

I happen to work in the "geek squad" world, where attention to detail and logical thinking are essential to success. My intuitive side is not as well developed. But based on my limited experience and on a large amount of reading, I have to say that an intuitive approach to life is every bit as valid as a logical one.

It appears to me that what's missing from the argument for "gut feel" is recognition that reaching right action from an intuitive basis is just as demanding as reaching correct results via logical thinking. It is a different approach but requires no less discipline. Laziness and carelessness can afflict an intuitive judgment just as they can lead to logical errors. I put forth George W. Bush as an example of laziness in the intuitive approach.

It's more difficult to ascribe error, though, to someone else's intuitive judgement than to an error of logical reasoning. Usually a logical error can be demonstrated clearly, whereas a flawed intuition is harder to pin down.

In one sense we do "create our own reality." I cannot escape the fact that my perception is the only window I have on any objective truth. The universe seems to be a consistent place, though, so both logical and intuitive thought can and must be tested. Such testing requires careful attention, looking both inward and outward.

Nero Wolfe advises Archie Goodwin to use his intuition guided by experience. Let us not argue with genius.

Dr. Ngo, I hope you will feel better soon.

Here is a link to Terry Gross interviewing Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist who suffered a left-brain stroke and after eight years recovered. It is very illuminating on the subject of intuition vs. logical reasoning.

"It is now an epithet to be called an 'intellectual' (as in 'stop being an intellectual')."

Now? Which decade, specifically, in the last 100 years, was it otherwise?

When was it not an insult among the masses to be called a "pointy-headed intellectual," an "egghead"?

ral, you might be interested in my examination of the two types of thinking. It starts here.

I'll give a shoutout to black swan. appropately enough I found a copy left at the local bar. It was a interestiny reaf. He is a bit of an arrogant ass in the first few chapters tho

Just to be difficult: I'm struck by the number of biblical literalists who assert that we use our heart to evaluate this proposition or that. The heart is, of course, primarily muscle tissue, too sparsely supplied with nervous tissue to respond promptly to deficiency in blood supply, which is why reparative surgery is so popular.

We can't actually think with our hearts or our stomachs. Nonetheless, I'm not confident that those who proclaim the contrary actually agree with this 17th century perception. Perhaps they avoid arugula precisely because they fear its effect on their decision-making.

Dr. Ngo, thank you for a thoughtful & thought-provoking post. Let me add a slight refinement. Anti-intellectualism is hardly a new feature of American life. What does seem to be new, is anti-competence, a sense that anybody who claims to be good at anything by dint of hard, smart work is an elitist fraud.

We still admire success, but appear to believe that it is the result of sheer personality and/or luck. We have revived the old pagan idea of the Man of Destiny, upon whom (the) G-d(s) smile(s).

That did not used to be the case. Our heroes were achievers, often workaholics, like Washington, Lincoln, Teddy R., Edison, Ford, Andrew Carnegie, the Horatio Alger characters, etc. We admired achievement, not just success.

I don't blame the Republicans for the change, and even the affirmation/self-esteem industry seems more effect than cause. Actually, I blame the medium.

Not the media, mind you. Just the medium -- film and television. I think we have started to believe that life's problems can be spoonfed in neat 30- to 90-minute meals, and solved by a single heroic act, which need not require special competence (that's hard to film), just grit. And the people best qualified to apply that determination are the protagonists -- i.e., the ones with the most style and swagger.

McCain's story is a good example. As the Quick Thoughts post suggests, it is a marvelous narrative. Yet it would not have been recognized as one a century ago. A man celebrated for being a prisoner? Too passive, too unmanly. A hundred years ago, it was Zola, not Dreyfus, who was the hero. Sacco and Vanzetti were rallying cries, but not heroes. Etc. But with the addition of one single act -- refusing to take early release -- McCain redeems even his participation in Vietnamese propaganda. That one heroic act, pictured no doubt with the stare and thin-lipped grin of Clint Eastwood, is the climax of the movie. It's enough.

It is interesting in this regard that the Obama campaign seems to be returning to an earlier Democratic theme: the ennoblement of labor. At least, I hope it is. We need that. If it is, we really will have a clear choice: between the grownups and the kids, the ants and the grasshoppers. Perhaps even between Veblen's Old Testamentarian Protestant Ethic and the salvation-by-faith-alone crew.

I agree somewhat on the anti-intellectualism part, but this has always been a feature of politics, not only in the US and not only on the right. Furthermore, I am just as wary of technocrats as I am of populists.

And while the most glaring examples of denying reality such as biblical literalism or opposition to overwhelming scientific consensus are indeed very worrisome, it is also simply a fact that when we talk about "politics", "society" or "the economy", we are talking about virtual entities that are to a large part driven by forces that are hard or even impossible to pin down objectively.

Consequently, both individual as well as political success is just as much dependant on "soft" qualities such as the ability to connect with people, to earn their trust and to sell oneself or one's ideas. Simply dismissing these factors as subjective, emotional or shallow and favouring some vague idea of objectivity determined by experts instead constitutes itself a denial of reality, since a large part of our society is driven by such factors - they might be "only virtual", but they are also very real and it is vital to understand this if one wants to understand modern society.

Thus, instead of relying on a futile notion of objective reality which is supposed to guide our political decision making process, I think it is much more important to analyse the psychology underpinning people's grievances, wants and needs. Only if these are taken seriously and are not simply dismissed as purely "emotional", "irratinonal" or "misguided" can we even begin to try winning them over in order achieve political change.

I wrote something a while ago about this recent emphasis on what I called 'virtue politics': that what is important in chosing a politician is 'character', because a person with the right character can be trusted to make the right kind of political decisions. It's an idea (that as I pointed out), is as least as old as the Romans.

I think the view is more prevalant now, and mentioned the 'black swan' events as one possible reason for this. But I am coming to wonder whether one Christian theme also has a particularly strong influence in the US. It's not just that if your intentions are good enough, it doesn't matter about the outcome. It's that if your faith is enough, God will provide: things will work out right even if logically they shouldn't. This is a continuing theme in the Bible: Moses doesn't want to go to Pharoah, because he's not a good speaker, David is the youngest and least of his brothers, the apostles are fishermen, not lawyers. But the extreme example is Gideon (Judges chapters 6-7) where God has Gideon send away most of his army, because he doesn't need them to defeat the enemy: a handful of men can defeat a mighty army with God on their side.

As an inspiration for humble Christians to do things that they don't feel up to, that message is inspirational. And for that reason a secularised version (as in the Little Engine Who Could, the Hollywood sports movies where the little team triumph against the big guys etc, etc), has also proved popular. But as a realistic strategy for politics (or indeed anything), it's riduculous and terrifying in equal measure. Or as Damon Runyon put it: 'The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet.'

I'd like to point out that when it comes to the most important decision of all -- who will lead our Republic? -- we don't rely on experts. Instead, everybody, rich or poor, smart or dumb, gets an equal say. That's not how the Founders wanted it, but we have decided that all adults are competent for themselves to decide what leadership would be best for them and for the country.

I certainly have no problem extolling rational thinking or condemning anti-intellectualism, but the challenge is reconciling that with the fundamental values of Jacksonian populism.

Chris and Ral, and any others who want to contemplate the "two ways of thinking" - you might want to read (if you haven't already) "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", by Pirsig. Written back in 1974 and thus the milieu is somewhat dated, but the subject matter is still rings true.

I think that a greater issue here is how the leftists have driven conservatives out of education.

There was something to this back when I was in university, 25 and 30 years ago. I think it's less true now, but I'll let others who are still in that world reply on that count.

One observation I'll make from back in the day, when we were on the cusp of Morning In America, is that none of the conservative folks I knew then had any interest in academia.

There was no money in it.

They all wanted to get into B schools or law school, then they wanted to get into finance, especially M&A.

Teaching was for losers who couldn't hack it in the real world.

So, that was a generation of bright conservative minds lost to the academy, but I don't think liberal hounding had much to do with it.

Just a data point.

Thanks -

It must be a mistake to oppose intuition and rationality. Surely they inform each other. Problems arise when one or the other is discounted.

DaveC ,

You make the same mistake that many right-wingers make….you assume all religious folks are fundamentalists and evangelical. The biggest “enemy” against reactionary thinking in Protestantism has been liberal and modernist Protestants. The religious right has been successful at telling their folks that this mysterious mass of atheists and secularists have kept them out of positions of power, while the whole time it has been the liberals and secularists within their own faith who have been doing it.

When Republicans toss around charges of "elitism" this is what they're referring to: education. They're saying to voters, "He thinks he's smarter than you are!" Never mind that John McCain, George Bush, Dick Cheney, etc. are in dollar terms worth much much more than not only any of us but than almost any Democratic politician, and by rights ought to be considered the true "elite." Most all of them were at best very middling students in school, but since they're the sort of person you wouldn't mind hanging out and "having a beer with" they must be A-OK.

In some respects I don't like this, but on the other hand it's not completely irrelevent. Intelligence isn't everything. I think every one of us must know at least one person who's really really smart, but doesn't have a lick of common sense to go with it. Very smart people can do very dumb things.

"I'd like to point out that when it comes to the most important decision of all -- who will lead our Republic? -- we don't rely on experts. Instead, everybody, rich or poor, smart or dumb, gets an equal say. That's not how the Founders wanted it, but we have decided that all adults are competent for themselves to decide what leadership would be best for them and for the country."

Universal suffrage can work when universal education works. Without education as a high priority, many of the issues I have read above will become worse. More specifically, when was the last time you heard anyone talk about civics class?

Since Dubya, we will consistently have a situation where ideology will hold sway over good governance. Liberal Democrats find it very hard to wrap their heads around it, but the Republican "base" has no problem electing ideals over competence. This is why the Palin selection is not at all troubling to the "base," who believes that her conservative Christian beliefs are paramount. In selecting her, McCain sent a powerful signal about his future appointments (wink, nudge).

The U.S. political system is extremely complex, and determining one's place and role within the complexity is difficult. Considering the many layers of government-- city,county, state, and national-- it's no wonder many people just don't vote. Or they do what the "group" says, and often that group is a church congregation.

Bring back civics education. When people have a better appreciation and understanding of the how the system works (as well as their role within it), we can at least lay a foundation to have a more intelligent national dialog, ultimately creating better incentives to evaluate and elect competent leaders.

Can this be accomplished in an election cycle? No way. But, a responsible discussion about "where the country is going" needs to include the practical matter of educating citizens about their civic responsibilities, as well as how government and media actually work. A lot of the population doesn't even read about political issues; they get their info from the TV, or worse, partisan radio, and are unable/unwilling to evaluate conflicting points of view. If schools won't provide civics education, then the churches and their affiliates will.

dr ngo: I even thought of trying to drag in the whole concept of Developing Your Child's Self-Esteem, which my wife and I bought into (with mixed success)...

Frankly, I blame the Child.

Lucas:

a responsible discussion about "where the country is going" needs to include the practical matter of educating citizens about their civic responsibilities, as well as how government and media actually work.

Thank you! There is nothing corny about Civics education. What the hell happened to it?

One of the worst pieces of rhetoric (to use the term loosely) in...well, recent days, from the McCain campaign, is an old favorite among conservatives: vote for those who care more about individual responsibility than about individual rights and privileges (us)'. This modern GOP feedback loop-gimmick of accusing your opponent of exactly what you yourself are guilty of is doubly pernicious, because it's not only a lie, but it also obviates or neutralizes the issue at hand. It's what people with personality disorders do, BTW.

The GOP Revolution has been nothing if not a seduction of people *away* from individual responsibility, away from consequences (this comment sort of belongs in Dr Ngo's thread). After many years of it, I'm frankly tired of listing the ways, but they are leigon, and you all - conservatives too - can think of two or three off the top of your heads. The gimmick mentioned above was used to perfection by W Bush/Rove, and continues with McCain now: it is practically the definition of avoiding reponsibility.

Back to the original point: working as hard as you can to obfuscate and lie to people is the opposite of Civics. All pols lie, but not all pols *rely* on lying as a primary tool of politics and govenance.

Frankly, I blame the Child.

But not, of course, the Grandchild. She's not allowed to post on blogs yet, but since she recently complained to me that one of her My Little Ponies was saying nasty things to her, I think she's already developed the reverse sock puppet on her own.

In case anyone was wondering if they would trot out the Sarah Palin as "Dave" analogy. Behold.

I think there's something more to add to this, namely, that when Americans, especially those older than 50, think about the actual record of technocratic or expert-driven governance and policy-making in the U.S., it's not a very happy record. Even the Iraq War has some "expert" fingerprints on it, much as Vietnam did. In the last fifty years of American history, there are a lot of cases of policies that went horribly wrong which were strongly advocated by experts, of expert quackery of various kinds which led to substantial interventions into institutional life, of experts carrying out what were essentially experimental policy initiatives on human subjects without their knowledge or consent, and so on. So it isn't just that there is a kind of folk sensibility that is opposed to expert or intellectual approaches, it's also that expert knowledge is considerably more fallible in its record than most experts and intellectuals will allow.

That's helped to punch a hole open for the over-the-top contempt towards anything intellectual or expert that the Republican Party is now almost wholly identified with. Reclaiming some space for the proposition that people who know things and have concrete skills might have a useful role to play in public life and political leadership requires not just a bit of humility about what that role might be, but maybe even finding ways to subject expertise to new forms of public scrutiny.

Consider for example the role of expert witnesses in civil and criminal proceedings: most litigators just find the expert who confirms their own argument, and leave it to a judge or a jury to somehow arbitrate between the two antithetical claims made by experts. Which just produces cynicism about the very idea of expertise, if people with supposedly superior qualifications looking at the same situation can produce completely different assessments. For anyone who believes that expertise has a genuine value, this is a really bad situation that calls for some kind of change, whether it's internal mechanisms of professional certification or regulatory oversight or a change in the way that expertise is allowed to enter into political and public life.

when Americans, especially those older than 50, think about the actual record of technocratic or expert-driven governance and policy-making in the U.S., it's not a very happy record...Iraq..Vietnam..expert witnesses..

This is quite right, but you're really talking about two separate things: technocratic hubris and amoralism. The ascendency of the latter is a much bigger deal, and is part of the cultural change ushered in by the Reagan Revolution. In 1950, sleazy 'expert' witnesses presumably exsisted, but they were shunned by reputable cohorts, and didn't make the fat paychecks - because they were sleazy. In any field, most people avoided being sleazy or lying because they valued their own pride and reputation. Now, however, the only thing which matters is whether you make money, whether it 'works'. The same is true in politics: what would've been considered dishonorable in 1950 is now (Rove) 'smart', 'effective', and of course, 'tough'.

Amoralism is a proven disaster. Technocracy has a mixed record.

This old http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bgJ5AcsXp4M>clip sums up the situation quite neatly, assuming that the Spheniscid is a GOPista and the Chiropter a liberal.
And I think the latter is rather naive and the former knows what he is talking about.

See, I don't think this is quite true: there were plenty of expert quacks in the 1950s (and earlier) who sometimes did surprisingly, even shockingly well financially, and who commanded considerable public influence. I agree that over time, entrepreneurial avenues for expertise have opened up and the authority of careful experts over quacks has lessened even more, except perhaps in some fields of scientific research.

But technocratic policy's mixed record, if we considered that separately, is also enough of a reason for many Americans to feel uncomfortable with expert or intellectual influence.

Another thing that might help the Democrats or liberals on this score is if they were more careful to separate out issues and arguments that they are advocating for philosophical, ethical or "gut" reasons and issues and argument that they rest on some kind of expert knowledge. I think, for example, that a lot of debate about guns and gun control really muddies these two distinct kinds of discussion, where expert findings are held to dictate a particular policy solution, but the policy solution also requires a particular conception of human agency, the authority of the state, and so on.

there were plenty of expert quacks in the 1950s (and earlier) who sometimes did surprisingly, even shockingly well financially, and who commanded considerable public influence.

Fair point. But you also made my point better than I did: some disreputable operators did 'shockingly well'. The point is that it was even considered 'shocking'. That's the difference between then and now. Now it doesn't even matter if you know the person is a liar or quack or whatever: if they are 'successful', they're 'smart', or 'savvy'. That means that these people are actually respected rather than reviled. I know there are exceptions and counter-examples, but I'm thinking of a particular, distinct phenomenon, a change of ethos. (Rove is the perfect example: say anything and do anything to win.)

I don't say that the modern GOP invented this or foisted it on the world single-handedly. But I am one of those people over 50, and I remember the country before the 80s: the highest public and personal virtue was not necessarily money-making, and there were a lot of things most public professionals weren't willing to do or say for money - at least there was a tension there. Now, making money or winning elections is actual *proof* that you are worthy, proof of your rightness and virtue. For god's sake, if that isn't 'results oriented', what is?


Joseph McCarthy was shockingly influential for a while, but can you imagine an 'at long last, have you no decency sir?' moment today? Obama sort of tried for something like that with his 'Enough!', but hardly the same sort of thing. The point is, *decency* has nothing to do with anything. It's merely a brand. Actual decency is for chumps, losers.

Great post, and wonderful comments.

Someone has been getting mash notes from Stanley Kur~tz~~~.

I thought it was David Horowitz...

"This old clip sums up the situation quite neatly"

This "Penguin"'s notions intrigue me, and I wish to subscribe to his newsletter.

"The point is that it was even considered 'shocking'. That's the difference between then and now. Now it doesn't even matter if you know the person is a liar or quack or whatever: if they are 'successful', they're 'smart', or 'savvy'."

I think you might find it difficult to back up the former part of this claim objectively: that there's a major difference "between then and now." That we are, alas, In Fallen Times, but back then, It Was So Much Better.

As always, people love to romanticize How Much Better It Was in The Good Old Days. Particularly if they weren't around for them. If you have any metrics, I'd like to see them. My own reading of history says this is hogwash.

As always, people love to romanticize How Much Better It Was in The Good Old Days.

"We weren't good, we weren't old, and it wasn't the days we liked the most."

As always, people love to romanticize How Much Better It Was in The Good Old Days. Particularly if they weren't around for them.

Gee, really? I had never thought of that. Thanks for that insight.

If you have any metrics, I'd like to see them. My own reading of history says this is hogwash.

Oh yes, how can we ever know anything without 'metrics'?

I *was* around in the 50s-80s, and I'm telling you, this was a pretty different country then, culturally. I'm sure I didn't call it the 'good old days', because they were *worse* days, in several respects. And I won't claim that every motive was purer - some people might have done the better thing for a less than great reason - for instance, many people didn't sell themselves out because there wasn't as big a market for their 'souls'. But that's part of the point: we're in more of a scoundrel's market now. It almost always pays to be a liar, a Professional Asshole, a swindler. The vulgarity and shamelessness of our culture (not, of course, of our society, because there's no such thing) - that which conservatives wail about is a direct result not of liberal democracy, but of *monetizing everything*. When everything has a dollar price, everything is equal to everything else.

Again, just to be clear where I wasn't before, I'm not going to assert that motivations were necessarily superior. Both healthy pride and plain old vanity can inhibit people from acting like the jerks they might otherwise do. So?

Among Timothy Burke's several excellent comments is the correct observation that there were (shockingly) influential frauds and scoundrels in the 50s. The point I was trying to make was that they tended to be the exception rather than the rule, outliers rather than mainstream. It's more like the reverse now. Scorn the timidity and complacency and sanctimony and conformity of the post war, pre-80s Consensus all you want; things can always get worse, and they did in many ways. I don't think *people* really got worse or better, but the culture got, on balance, worse.

BTW, my reading of history suggests that an automatic nostalgia for the 'good old days' is no less trite than its - basically meaningless - obverse, ie 'there's nothing new under the sun'. Depending on your perspective, they are both always true and always false. But cultures do rise and fall.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Blog powered by Typepad