The Open Mind V: the Language of Black and White

by A. Jay Adler on February 22, 2010
Read More: , ,

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.

AJA


7 comments

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Wacky Hermit February 23, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Jay, I think this is your best one yet in the Open Mind series.

I think your point that we need to guard against dividing our nation into two groups, one of which is expendable due to its lack of some virtue, is well taken. And it is true that some people divide the world into elites (expendable) and masses (virtuous). However, I would point out (just for a counterpoint) that I have seen this sort of thinking on both sides, including people who believe those with Southern accents should not be allowed in public discourse on account of their presumed stupidity, people who believe that rural conservatives have no views worth listening to because they have not gone to the right college, people who believe that liberals should drop into their own black hole and the world would be better off without them, and people who believe that bankers (a financial elite, if you will) ought to be impoverished and ruined. I am reminded of Aesop’s fable of the body and its members. In the body politic, all the members are needed.

As the old joke goes, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. As admirable as it would seem to find oneself in the latter group, any attempt to position oneself there lands one in the former group.

Reply

A. Jay Adler February 24, 2010 at 6:46 am

Wack! You’re a woman. (I know, I know…) And you’re Swiftian funny too:

Organic Baby Farm

Growing the World’s Cutest Free-Range Kids… and feeding them nothing but crap.

Thanks for reading. And for writing.

P.S. There are three kinds of people in the world. (I’m not telling.)

Reply

Jimmy J. February 23, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Jay, you say that we SW faithful believe we know what inspires people of the liberal left. Methinks you are, like so many in Washington DC these days, not willing to consider our arguments or unwilling to look at your positions. The main argument, IMO, goes back to the founding. Hamilton and Adams were great believers in a strong central government and did not trust the populace to make good decisions at the state and local levels. Jefferson even accused Hamilton of wanting to install a monarchy with all the attendant monarchial powers. Jefferson and others from the southern states believed in a weak central government with most of the power invested in the states and local entities. We conservatives interpret the Constitution as leaning more toward Jefferson’s views. However, since TR and Wilson, the country has moved inexorably toward a larger and more intrusive federal government. FDR moved the ball further in that direction and Lyndon Johnson even more so. The leftist students of the 60s became the tenured professors of the 70s driving academia further into the big government camp. Concurrently, the media of newspapers and TV swung to the big governmment stance, which leaves the nation with a three legged stool (Academia, MSM, Washington DC) providing the zeitgeist that seems to we conservatives as culminating in a Congress and Administration that are embarking on huge deficit spending, further interference in the business world, heavy taxation of energy produced by fossil fuels, and an attempt to take over the healthcare industry.

All those things convince us that you are proponents of Federal Government solutions for whatever issues you deem to be problems or, as I call them, Hamiltonians. Can you refute that position? On the other hand, our belief is that state and local governments, being closer to the people affected, are more likely to do what the people want. Yes, the people at the state level may not want to engage in those issues mentioned previously and may be condemned as “ignorant” or not knowing “what’s good for them” by liberals. Should the “superior” beliefs of liberals at the federal level be forced on the states? It is the conservative view that they shouldn’t.

The great awakening of the silent majority brought about by the onslaught of passing bills that our representatives have not read, not seeking counsel of the minority party, proposing more taxes (cap and trade, healthcare), and proposing more government interference in the lives of citizens (healthcare), has resulted in the Tea Party movement. The usual suspects (MSM, liberal politicians) rushed to condemn these people as unruly, ill-informed, astro-turfers, and racists. It is a commentary on how out of touch the liberals are when they don’t/won’t try to understand that a majority of people in this country are not Hamiltonians. It is also a sign of how out of touch the Washington DC “in crowd” are that people like George Will would call this a populist movement. It isn’t a populist movement because it has no leader and is not a reaction against anything except overreaching federal spending, increased government regulation, and growth of government. It is a Jeffersonian movement that demands the governmment remember its job is to serve the people and not the other way around.

The charges of ignorance against Sarah Palin are just another marker of the Hamiltonian stance that average citizens cannot be trusted to make good decisions about their lives. Palin does not show gravitas – that outward appearance of wisdom and worldly knowledge that so many find indispensable in evaluating political leaders. What she does show is “street smarts” – the ability to quickly size up new situations and make pragmatic decisions. Is Palin smart enough to be president? IMO, no one is smart enough to be president. That’s why we provide our presidents with cabinets and advisors – to fill in the weak spots in their knowledge. What a president does need is the ability to examine alternatives and make good decisions. Who gets more experience doing that? An academic or a businessman? An academic or a small town mayor? An academic or a state governor? I know what my answer is. I suspect yours would be quite different. And that’s why we believe we have you folks pegged.

Reply

MaxedOutMama February 23, 2010 at 11:17 am

PS: I’m leaving you this link
http://www.theamericanscholar.org/the-disadvantages-of-an-elite-education/
to an article the Shrink discussed in July 08:
http://shrinkwrapped.blogs.com/blog/2008/07/the-times-they.html

The article is interesting on several levels, and I think germane to your post at three points. I’d invite you to read it and think about what you just wrote VERY CAREFULLY.

Reply

MaxedOutMama February 23, 2010 at 11:04 am

I think you are writing from a fundamental misunderstanding akin to Obama’s bitter-clingers gaffe.

This has historically been mostly true “It is the pride of American history, culture, and society that more than any nation ever, we live in a meritocracy.”

This is not true, on the whole “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.”

No. It’s the perception that our leadership IS MOSTLY FAILING, and there is a widespread perception that when confronted with their failures, the leadership responds with something like “but we’re very smart” instead of trying to figure out how to do something that works better.

Presumably you don’t hang out in conservative circles. They have been bewailing the failure of “conservative” leaders for over six years.

Also, the idea that anti-intellectualism is a necessary consequence of observing that our leadership is incompetent is just plain stupid.

Americans are on the whole a pragmatic, not-very-ideological lot. The truth is most of our leadership has failed, and is failing, and is apparently too insular on the whole to recognize and correct its own failures. You discuss language. The people on SW’s blog are probably looking more at data and results, and certainly the general population is looking at results. They see anything but a true elite in charge.

What data can you present to show that our leadership (not just political) is mostly competent? I await your answer with some interest. By definition, a meritocracy should be competent.

Reply

HappyAcres February 23, 2010 at 10:02 am

I enjoy your exchange with Dr. Sanity.

Isn’t it rich that conservativism finds use for the labels of “elite” and “masses” ?

And rich that socialists now appeal to an enlightened aristocracy?

No matter. What follows is for your own edification:

As a conservative intellectual, I heartily embrace “anti-intellectualism” — for intellectuals, except in idle scholarly settings, are a curse. They inevitable become “court intellectuals”, propagandist for factions seeking money and power through the State.

Another rich irony: come the revolution, I’ll personally frog-march every liberal arts professor to the countryside for re-education ;-)

Reply

HP February 23, 2010 at 8:28 am

It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble, it’s the things we do know that just ain’t so. – Artemus Ward

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: