Tag Archives: elitism

Elitism? Or Respect For Knowledge?

One of the many lessons of the current pandemic is that electing leaders who sneer at expertise and make war on science was a big mistake.

In The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis defended the federal bureaucracy, and pointed out how significantly the tasks they perform – from maintaining nuclear waste to  forecasting the weather–depends upon knowledge and training. In a recent interview, Lewis pointed to the Trump camp’s “glaring ignorance” of government’s responsibilities and the expertise required to discharge those responsibilities.

I’ve previously blogged about Trump’s effort to eject scientists from the federal bureaucracy–a fixation exceeded only by his determination to purge anyone responsible for oversight–but the excessive anti-intellectualism of this administration isn’t simply due to Trump. It’s the result of a longstanding Republican “culture war” strategy in which educated folks are demonized as “elitists.”

“Real” Americans don’t put on fancy airs, or point out when policies aren’t based on facts.

As the “Big Sort” has accelerated America’s cultural differences, the GOP has found it easier to sneer at the effete intellectuals who flocked to congenial urban neighborhoods.(I recently read that House Democrats represent 78 percent of all Whole Foods locations, but only 27 percent of Cracker Barrels.) Trump doesn’t understand much, but he does recognize that most of those remaining in the dwindling GOP- -whiter, older and more Christian than the country as a whole–don’t care about policy, or about voting what others might consider their own self-interest. They see themselves as an identity group under threat, and they’ll follow anyone who speaks to their sense of grievance. It’s easy to convince them that coastal “elitists” look down on them.

The GOP’s constant assault on knowledge, professionalism and education has had a predictable effect on trust in all the institutions necessary to democratic self-governance.

A recent report from the Brookings Institution focused on the degree to which the erosion of trust has made us more vulnerable to this pandemic, and noted that Trump is “merely the apotheosis of a political approach that has animated much of the conservative movement for a half century or more: undermining trust in the media, science, and government.”

For America to minimize the damage from the current pandemic, the media must inform, science must innovate, and our government must administer like never before. Yet decades of politically-motivated attacks discrediting all three institutions, taken to a new level by President Trump, leave the American public in a vulnerable position.

Trump has consistently vilified the national media. When campaigning, he called the media “absolute scum” and “totally dishonest people.” As president, he has called news organizations “fake news” and “the enemy of the people” over and over. The examples are endless. Predictably, he has blamed the coronavirus crisis on the media, saying “We were very prepared. The only thing we weren’t prepared for was the media.”

Science has been another Trump target. He has gutted scientific expertise and administrative capacity in the executive branch, most notably failing to fill hundreds of vacancies in the Centers for Disease Control itself and disbanding the National Security Council’s taskforce on pandemics. During the coronavirus crisis, he has routinely disagreed with scientific experts, including, in the AP’s words, his “musing about injecting disinfectants into people [to treat COVID-19].” This follows his earlier public advocacy for hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment, also against leading scientists’ advice. Coupled with his flip-flopping on when to lift stay-at-home orders, the president has created confusion and endangered people.

Finally, President Trump has consistently demeaned essential government agencies, labeling them part of a “deep state.”

An article originally from Salon looked at the history of empiricism and its importance:

What Galileo established as separating science from other types of “revealed” truths was this: facts and the ability to make testable predictions mattered. There weren’t anymore your facts and my facts, neither were there facts and “alternative facts“. There weren’t revealed facts or aspirational facts. Facts came in only one flavor — observable. Observations, experiments, and reasoning based on reliable data became the only acceptable methods for discovering facts about the world.

In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt summed it up:

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

Since at least the 1960s, the GOP has waged a sneering assault on “elitists” who respect empirical inquiry, and pursue facts, knowledge and expertise. The result is that today’s Americans occupy alternate realities. Denigrating knowledge, however, is equivalent to a demand that we disarm the front-line soldiers fighting our wars.

That is no way to fight a pandemic–or run a country.

The War on Elites

Anti-elitism has become a conventional explanation for what is motivating the electorate in 2016 .

Let’s think about that.

An online dictionary defines “elite” as “something prestigious or the best of the best. An example of elite is an Olympic athlete. Another definition is “The group or part of a group selected or regarded as the finest, best, most distinguished, most powerful, etc.”

The use of Olympic athletes as an example is particularly ironic; right now, millions of Americans are glued to televised Olympic competitions, and I’d bet a considerable amount of money that none of them is rooting for our teams to demonstrate less “elitism.”

In fact, I think there are two pervasive–and very different– American attitudes that get lumped–improperly– into the “anti-elitist” category.

Americans are increasingly critical of the misuse of money and power to the detriment of democratic processes that might otherwise ameliorate or solve our social problems. This attitude powered Bernie Sanders’ campaign; it explains the large following that Elizabeth Warren has amassed. It is not anti-elite, however; it is anti-corporatist, anti-oligarchy. It offers a critique of the current power structure that is likely to grow and eventually trigger policy changes that will improve the life prospects for poor and middle-class Americans.

The second attitude that is routinely lumped into the anti-elitist narrative is anti-intellectualism–an attitude that has long been America’s Achilles heel. Suspicion of “pointy-headed” intellectuals has ebbed and flowed through our country’s history; that attitude is responsible for a widespread rejection of science, the arts, and the humanities, among other negative consequences.

An article in Psychology Today addressed Americans’shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history; and the fusion of anti-rationalism with anti-intellectualism.

There has been a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in America, unlike most other Western countries. Richard Hofstadter, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his book, Anti-Intellectualism In American Life, describes how the vast underlying foundations of anti-elite, anti-reason and anti-science have been infused into America’s political and social fabric. Famous science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once said: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”…

Journalist Charles Pierce, author of Idiot America, adds another perspective: “The rise of idiot America today represents–for profit mainly, but also and more cynically, for political advantage in the pursuit of power–the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are the people who best know what they are talking about. In the new media age, everybody is an expert.”

When a society elevates anger over understanding, shows contempt for knowledge, dismisses the importance of competence, and prefers entertainment to substantive discussion, we wind up with political candidates like Donald Trump–and a government that no longer functions in the public interest.

When “Best and Brightest” is Too Elitist

I listened–very briefly–to the Congressional hearings on the unfortunate, embarrassing roll-out of the federal Affordable Care site. The problems with that site have been amply documented, and I certainly don’t want to minimize what they tell us about the current level of bureaucratic competency–in this case, the ability of federal officials to adequately supervise and manage private-sector contractors.

What I heard of the proceedings didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about the website’s problems, but they did provide an epiphany of sorts: when you elect as your Representatives people who are undistinguished by reason of either intellect or character,  you get a legislature that is unequal to the challenges of the 21st–or any–Century.

There is nothing wrong with members of Congress not knowing much about the technical aspects of the Internet. But there is something very wrong when those same Congressmen  posture and grandstand as if they were experts.

The hearings were yet another dreary reminder of an all-too-common experience: a Senator–or more often, a Representative–pontificating about matters he or she clearly knows little or nothing about, citing “evidence” that is erroneous, non-existent or fabricated, in support of nonsensical positions increasingly divorced from the reality of a complex world. (During the recent government shutdown, this was a more-than-daily occurrence.)

What I want to know is, why? Why have we elected so many empty suits–self-important ciphers who are dismissive of science, slavishly attentive to the uninformed passions of their most extreme constituents, unschooled in basic economics, and contemptuous of education and expertise?

When did intellectual achievement become “elitist”? When did degrees from highly ranked schools become a source of ridicule from the right? When did rightwing pundits start dismissing those we used to call “the best and brightest” as “snobs” and “pointy-headed intellectuals”?

What prompted this latest eruption of American anti-intellectualism?

I can’t answer my own question with any assurance, but I can’t help thinking this sad phenomenon began in the early 1980s with the constant denigration of government as a mechanism for collective action–government as problem rather than solution. When government is seen as an inept enterprise–when “public service” becomes an oxymoron–how can we expect it to attract our most talented and public-spirited citizens?

The low esteem with which we view our governing institutions has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

After all, why would the moderately competent, let alone “the best and brightest,” want to work with the likes of Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Michelle Bachmann or Louis Gohmert?

 

As the World Turns…

My very first “official” political position was as chair of something called “the 71 Committee for Lugar for Mayor.” It was a Jewish community group supporting Dick Lugar for Mayor back in 1971.  I continued to support Lugar over the years, even as he became more and more conservative, and even after I left the GOP, partly because he is so solid on foreign policy and partly because the Democrats have thus far failed to offer any strong candidates as alternatives.

The recent Tea Party opposition to Lugar’s re-election is a perfect example of what has happened to the Republican Party. As the party has become more radical, officeholders have found it necessary to pander to a base that is increasingly composed of rabid ideologues. Highly intelligent people like Dick Lugar have had to choose between playing to the sensibilities of that base and losing elective office. Thus far, Lugar has managed that balancing act pretty adroitly; he’s been sufficiently right-wing on domestic issues to placate the crazies, and that strategy has allowed him to pursue the sensible, nuanced international policies for which he is known.

However, the right wing of the party has gotten steadily more intolerant of any deviation from their “agenda” of bumper sticker platitudes, and increasingly suspicious of anything that looks like intellect. The continued “Palin-ization” of the GOP can be seen in its increased hostility to complexity, its dismissal of science and rejection of empirical evidence, and its absolute opposition to anything that smacks of “elitism”—which apparently is defined by actually knowing what you are talking about, or (God forbid) having a degree from a decent university.

So now we have Richard Mourdock, our intellectually-limited State Treasurer, announcing a primary challenge to Lugar. Mourdock’s last foray into public policy was his lawsuit to withdraw Indiana from the Chrysler bankruptcy settlement negotiated by the creditors—despite the fact that he had previously signed a binding agreement to abide by whatever settlement the creditors’ committee negotiated and despite the further fact that Indiana did better financially under that settlement than it would have if he won the lawsuit.

In a sane world, Lugar would make short work of someone like Mourdock, and the odds still favor that result. But given the current mindlessness and anger of the Tea Party folks, and the fact that they are far more likely to come out to vote in a primary than the party’s dispirited moderates, I would be reluctant to place a very big wager.