The Open Mind V: the Language of Black and White

by A. Jay Adler on February 22, 2010
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Ah, siddown. Holster your resentments. I’m not talking about that black and white. I’m referring to the fallacy. (Murmer, murmer, grumble, murmer.)

Sometimes labeled, parthenogenetically, the fallacy of bifurcation, more commonly known as the either/or fallacy, this form of thinking also sports the “black and white fallacy” moniker. You get the idea. There are only two alternatives, in all the world. Choose one. And these would be, proffers whoever is doing the proposing of alternatives – regardless of the subject and just sose you know – mine or the wrong one.

Generally, I prefer the either/or label. (From my selfish copulater’s perspective – not such a fan of parthenogenesis.) Commonly, people stumble into either/or thinking rather obviously, when they present us with an explicit two-horned choice. You remember back in the Sixties – America: love it (uncritically, was the implication) or leave it. Or, not to wax nostalgic, more recently, when it seemed the conservatively voiced dilemma over what to do about Afghanistan entailed making a quick decision (or be a witless ditherer) to go all in, for all time, or be a punk. (Of course, Democrats are punks these days, but for different reasons.)

All bifurcations are not so obviously either/or, however. Sometimes it is not a specific argument we are getting, offering us an explicit pair of Chinese menu options; sometime the fallacy is embedded in the language with which we more generally converse about a subject, language that engenders the black and white thinking of stark and undiscerning alternatives. For example, when last I was heard from among the pixels at ShrinkWrapped, I was offering a comment there regarding the use of the word “elites,” a term of far-reaching opprobrium as Shrink and some other conservatives use it. It is a simultaneously loaded and vague term that leads us directly into the night and day of black and white thinking.

An “elite,” by definition, is the “choice part,” of something, the “best of a class.” All perception focuses on the meaning of “best” and the nature of its validation. The best scientists are those who do more of the most innovative work. The best runners are the fastest or those with the greatest endurance (along with some strategic wiles). These are the elites of their class, and they are elites born of meritocracy. All things being even (which, of course, they are not always, and to the extent that they are regularly not, we have a sociological and then political problem) if you have the skill, you join the elite.

Elitism is “leadership or rule” by an elite, “consciousness of being or belonging to an elite.” These are more or less problematic notions depending on how we unpack, and again, validate them. The core problem is that of “snobbery,” entailing unearned access to elite status and expected privilege as a consequence. The offensive culmination is in a sense of social or moral superiority.

We go astray when we confuse elite class snobbery with earned elite class status. Roger Federer does a pretty good job of being inoffensive about his tennis superiority, but if you listen to him talk enough, it is clear, of course, that he knows not just that he is superior to everyone else, but quite how superior he is. When this knowledge pokes through his inherent decency, it can catch for a moment the sensibility of the mere mortal who knows not what it is to walk on such a height, but as any good tough conservative Darwinian might say, “That’s life. He is better. Deal with it.”

It is the pride of American history, culture, and society that more than any nation ever, we live in a meritocracy. To the degree that that meritocracy is not absolute, that all things are not always even, we have much significant political debate, and a lot of political preening, about which party and what philosophy really represents the interests of those segments of society that are unfairly deprived of the respect and rewards, whatever they be, of natural individual merit. An elite that would deserve the scorn, as an elite, with which Shrink, and many of his readers, use the word, would be an elite structurally embedded in society, as, for instance, England long had, with the remnant consciousness of which it stills struggles. The closest the U.S. had to such an elite was a WASP moneyed class and what still tries to pass for “society” in New York and some quarters of New England. The great immigration of 1880-1920 and the meritocratic rise of its offspring has much demolished the estate of that elite, and the immigration of recent decades will finish the job. Look at our government, our financial and research centers, our universities, and the occupants are in very large measure the children and grandchildren of a risen working and middle class. How well individuals or intellectual coteries do their jobs is one matter of consideration, but by and large, in one manner of competition or accomplishment or other, they earned their way there.

What Shrink and other conservatives object to is not the elite nature of these elites – were it not them, it would be others – but a set of modern and liberal beliefs that over recent decades they consider to have taken hold as the prevailing cultural zeitgeist. Fair enough. But characterizing the prevailing beliefs to which they object as “elitist” does not merely mischaracterize the nature of their adversary, it stokes a malformed amalgamation of class, cultural, and social conflict that can have dangerous consequences.

The contrary concept to elites, providing us our black and white, is masses. Some conservatives use that term too. Oddly, in the ongoing radicalization of American conservatism, the almost substanceless shell of the Marxist lexicon comes into vogue. At the objectionable heights of power, we have an elite; rising up in opposition, in new consciousness, we have the masses, always mystically imbued, by left or right, with a direct line to salt-of-the-earth wisdom and moral centeredness. Here is Leon Wieseltier:

“I’m never going to pretend like I know more than the next person,” [Sarah Palin] recently told Chris Wallace, which is just as well. And she added: “I’m not going to pretend to be an elitist. In fact, I’m going to fight the elitist, because for too often and for too long now, I think the elitists have tried to make people like me and people in the heartland of America feel like we just don’t get it.”

At the Tea Party convention in Nashville, Palin made a similar claim for the moral superiority of ordinariness, twangily championing “real people, not politicos, not inside-the-Beltway professionals,” and “everyday Americans,” and finally “the people.” Palin is packaging herself as the perfect image of the American mean.

The invocation of “the people” sounds inclusive, but it is a technique of exclusion….It is based upon a particular definition of “the people.” How do Palin and the partiers know who the real Americans are? The mystical certainty of her divisive intuition reminds me of what intellectual historians used to call the “epistemological privilege” of Marx’s proletariat, his reprehensible old idea that access to truth is a feature of class position. Palin, too, is idealizing the proletariat for the uniqueness of its understanding, though her economics is starkly indifferent to its tribulations. And if you throw in Palin’s views on the “social issues,” on the questions by which we measure the decency of our society, then it is clear that this is an anti-elitism that is not egalitarianism, a common touch without genuine commonality, which is quite an accomplishment.

The danger in these muddled concepts is in the anti-intellectualism that always immediately grows out of them, and this too has been a feature of many Marxisms, from Mao to Pol Pot, with those of intellectual achievement – elite in that area and sense only – pilloried, stripped of their work, even murdered. Did wonders for those societies too. Conservatives often rail against that liberal condescension, toward the “common folk,” and it does exist.

What conservatives fail to observe in themselves – and I have had opportunity to experience this in large doses in recent months – is their own condescension toward their political adversaries, upon whom they heap an array of demeaning and otherizing labels and perceptions, including the deluded belief that they’ve got liberals’ number, while liberals don’t have a clue about them. Accordingly, they tell themselves that liberal objections to Sarah Palin arise profoundly on the level of cultural snobbery, and there is, indeed, an element of that.

George will observes that Palin “has been subjected to such irrational vituperation — loathing largely born of snobbery.” He then immediately returns the favor by noting that “America, its luck exhausted, at last has a president from the academic culture, that grating blend of knowingness and unrealism.” Down with down snobbery, up with the up, and this coming with delicious irony from the bowtied Ph.D. in political science who is as established in the elite as a Doric column.

Speaking as an insider, however, (shh!), I am here to reveal that the overwhelmingly primary reason liberals so object to Palin – despite some clear skills in a number of areas – is her deep and disturbing ignorance. Conservatives are now so in the grip of anti-elite fever, with its attendant derision of intellectual accomplishment, that they will not credit the value of that accomplishment and thus will not credit the genuine reason Palin is objectionable to the left. Energized by the passion of the Tea Partiers, they lose historical perspective – it is only seventeen years since the last round of populist revolutionary fervor – and fail to place themselves in a continuum. Here is Will again, who, if he hasn’t been purged and tried yet as an independent thinker, certainly has lost his party office:

But the reaction against [Obama] must somewhat please him. That reaction is populism, a celebration of intellectual ordinariness. This is not a stance that will strengthen the Republican Party, which recently has become ruinously weak among highly educated whites. Besides, full-throated populism has not won a national election in 178 years, since Andrew Jackson was reelected in 1832.

After William Jennings Bryan’s defeat in 1908, his third as the Democrats’ presidential nominee, this prototypical populist said he felt like the man who, thrown out of a bar for a third time, dusted himself off and said, “I’m beginning to think those fellows don’t want me in there.” In 1992, Ross Perot, an only-in-America phenomenon — a billionaire populist — won 19 percent of the popular vote….

Populism has had as many incarnations as it has had provocations, but its constant ingredient has been resentment, and hence whininess. Populism does not wax in tranquil times; it is a cathartic response to serious problems. But it always wanes because it never seems serious as a solution.

Political nature abhors a vacuum, which is what often exists for a year or two in a party after it loses a presidential election. But today’s saturation journalism, mesmerized by presidential politics and ravenous for material, requires a steady stream of political novelties. In that role, Palin is united with the media in a relationship of mutual loathing. This is not her fault. But neither is it her validation.

Will is here converging with Wieseltier, but he is just another elitist, too.

There is also the rather immense hypocrisy of Palin and many other populists. Anyone who has run for the vice presidency, and has published a monster bestseller, and appears regularly on television, and will run for the presidency is a member in good standing of the American elite. Even lesser attainments of prominence and success confer the same loathed status. The anti-elitists in the Republican caucus in the House and the Senate, and in the conservative commentariat, and in the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute–they are anti-elitists in the elite….

The wisdom of a policy is not determined by its social origins. There is a distinction between populism and “the people,” though most populists do not want you to know it. The populism that bases its criticisms on a preference for one segment of the populace is merely another special interest, its denunciations of special interests notwithstanding. This does not mean that its criticisms are wrong; but when they are right, it is because their reasons are moral, not sociological.

But justice is not well-pursued by resentment. The anti-politician politicians who seek the favor of angry Americans are deceiving them, because anger is nothing more lasting than a political consultant’s contract. Emotions are stoked by elections and are spent by them. What remains after the great manipulation is the increasingly Sisyphean task of public reason, which is its own kind of insurgency.

What he said.



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