The Open Mind V: the Language of Conceptual Clarity

by A. Jay Adler on February 26, 2010
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Shrink sounds like an enlightened, empowering doctor, the kind I certainly want myself. Do not condescend. Explain everything I wish to know, which will be a lot. Enable me, and provide me with options. And please – please – know more than I do.

And the pilots shall fly the planes, and the aeronautical engineers build them. The programmers shall program. The biomechanics shall manipulate genes. And the surfers of the sea shall not aim protons at one another in the Large Hadron Collider like bottle caps in a game of skully along the Pacific Coast Highway. For knowledge is a awesome thing. Unless it is of something soft like political science. (Science? Really, please.) Or sociology. Or history. Or government. Or – good God, man, watch out for the quicksand! – English.

We are all philosopher-kings in the realm of our own perfect wisdom. The tenants do not complain, and no court can seek to impeach us. Our rule is like a pure, sturdy blanket o’er the land, and it is without blemish. The citizens even get rebates. All hail the imaginary land.

It is a truth of human nature that what we can do at all, we will often imagine doing better than others. Familiarity breeds proverbial contempt. After all (in those societies that do), we all speak English. We’re all observers of society and political calculation, and know a tyrant is just a bully with an army. We’ve all read our Federalist Papers, our Smith and Marx and Keynes. (Oh, all right, and Friedman. So Krugman, neah.) We even know our W. Edwards Deming. And we’ve got ourselves a heap of street smarts, as Jimmy styles and praises it.

We can run a country.

It may even be that, roiled enough by the incompetence around us, we seek the mantle of leadership. We have the requisite political or networking skill (already we rise above), we achieve positions of responsibility, elected or other, and with a P an h or a D or some other alphabet soup after our names or none at all, we are become what we despise: we are elite. We are – how do you say? – anointed.

This discussion of elites confuses one concept in three attitudes. Of the first, that toward elites, Nightelf says, “Jay seems to get bogged down in ‘what is an elite?’ The problem isn’t ‘elites’, it’s elitism.” Well, yes, actually, I focused on elites because that is the subject I chose (thanks for noticing) and I chose it because that is the word Shrink and so many conservatives keep using – not elitism. Were there an actual problem with elites per se, it would, indeed, involve elitism. As I wrote

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.

However, Nightelf, and Jimmy, and Shrink, all go on immediately to complain against the “insufferable arrogance,” the constitutional deviance, and the “statist” beliefs of, not elites, but liberals, even if styled as “liberal elites.” Which is my point exactly. Their complaints are properly lodged against liberalism, not the reality that leadership and governance will always be exercised by some kind of elite – the bus driven, for the trusting and hopeful, by someone who at least knows how to drive, maybe even, pray, by one who can drive at least somewhat better than the others, and who will probably, since it is good and responsible to regulate matters of safety and entrusted lives, have a commercial driver’s license, a kind of professional certification, an established imprimatur of elite status as a driver of commercial vehicles.

This conceptual confusion of what are perceived as liberal ideas and behaviors with the nature of elites mixes, secondarily, with the fact that the latter generally in our meritocracy (though always with exceptions), reach their professional or public state as the consequence of formal education and accrediting and certifying systems. (Imagine, please, the justifiable outcries were matters of professional guidance and public trust not in some way regularly established, reviewed, and certified – how the buses then would drive off cliffs and into walls. But perhaps some conservative, after centuries now, has conceived some better idea than the university and the professional school. Perhaps righteous dissatisfaction and outrage.)

From this mix follows the anti-intellectualism. Shrink offers a definition of “intellectual” serviceable for my purpose here:

The intellectual class is composed of that class of people who make their living, often a very good one, by manipulating language.

One manifestation of a class so represented is that it is, by definition, ubiquitous and vocal: it ratiocinates, writes, speaks, educates, broadcasts, pronounces, declares, informs, congregates and issues statements and reports. You get the idea. It is all around us – what Jimmy calls the “three legged stool (Academia, MSM, Washington DC)” – and if one feels just a little misaligned with this class and its unavoidable voice, ubiquitous can come to seem oppressive. The desire for heads can rise in the blood.

Even many of those who think themselves not of this class recognize the centrality of the idea to human history and achievement – the idea, by nature, manipulated as some form of language. Inherent in this recognition, for some, is a kind of, not class, but status envy. Economic class resentment is anathema to conservative thinking, but the substitute of status resentment is not. Even Shrink, clearly of the intellectual class as he defines it, feels obliged, and apparently comfortable, to state of “Engineers, who actually build things” and “Entrepreneurs, who actually create new products and wealth that enrich all of us” – all of which is, of course, true – that “[t]he average Engineer or Entrepreneur contributes far more to society, and far more that is lasting, than the average intellectual.” We know that the contrary statement of comparative value – the terms reversed – would strike as immediately superior and offensive, but because the acceptability of status envy and resentment, particularly against intellectuals, Shrink’s statement bats no eyes. And so, too, amongst the comments to Shrink’s rebuttal in this debate we are treated to condescending, demeaning and clearly ill-spirited stereotypes of members of the “intellectual class,” some of whom referred to are contingent workers who struggle to cobble together an income of, if they are fortunate, $20-30,000 per year (without, generally, and by the way, health insurance), but who, because shitting on the life of the mind is always in vogue in some quarters, don’t qualify as “the people.”

What Shrink flirts with here is what Massimo Pigliucci labels “a third form of anti-intellectualism, unreflective instrumentalism. This is the idea that if something is not of immediate practical value it’s not worth pursuing.” Of the rejection of intellectualism Pigliucci writes

One can be anti-intellectual also by rejecting intellectualism because it is elitist. Anti-elitism is very peculiar to the American psyche, and it is virtually unknown in the rest of the universe. Most other people recognize that in matters of the intellect, as in any other human activity, there are people who do it better and others who are not quite as good. That does not—and should not—imply anything about the intrinsic worth (or lack thereof) of such people. Astonishingly, Americans don’t have any problem with elitism per se: just watch the adoring crowds at a basketball game and the recursive tendency to set up athletes as “role models” for our youth. The underlying assumption seems to be that everybody can become an Olympic athlete, but that the way to science and letters is only reserved to the lucky few. Ironically, the truth is quite the opposite: while the chances of making it in professional sports are almost nil, a country with a large system of public education and some of the best schools in the world can give the gift of intellectual pursuit to millions of people.

MaxedoutMama (who sends me verbal flowers when she agrees with me and calls me dolt when she doesn’t – but that’s okay, I like her all the time) states

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

Well, of course, I didn’t say that because it isn’t my thought. I have not said a word about the competence of our leadership, which MoM acknowledges, in her own grievances, encompasses liberal and conservative. I have been arguing that anti-intellectualism is a factor in a misconception of the notion of elites. We can argue about competence and how we strayed from the Constitution in, like 1793, and are now virtually a Soviet republic another time. That is not the topic I chose for our fifth go around. However, MoM does state

You discuss language. The people on SW’s blog are probably looking more at data and results.

She goes on to ask, “What data can you present to show that our leadership (not just political) is mostly competent?” As I say, I am not arguing here about the competence (or lack of) of our leadership, and, anyway to meaningfully respond to her question we would need to – you should pardon the expression – define what we mean, in this context, by competent and mostly. As to the opposition set up between language and data, with – I can’t help but feel – some implied derogation of language in the comparison, even statistical studies and reports, never mind political argument, are dependent upon clearly conceived terms of analysis, consideration, and discussion. Clarity of conception is the foundation for all, and we conceive in language.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to uselessly read a poem. I’ll get back to you with the data on that later.

AJA


21 comments

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate March 2, 2010 at 3:46 pm

Jay,

Australia’s two main political parties are the Liberal party – the right wing side – and the Labor party (obviously the left wing side). Both are, or were, far more oriented to the center than anything that I’ve seen here.

In the last 30 years or so in Australia, the biggest reforms of the labor market to reduce frivolous and wildcat strikes were spearheaded by the Labor party, with a Prime Minister who was a former president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. He and his (also Labor party) successor were the first ones to generate budget surpluses in way too long.

The Prime Minister after that was Liberal Party, kept up and increased the budget surpluses, continued with the labor market reforms, added in tax reforms, and pretty much kept things running nicely. I suspect the main reason his party lost power in the last election was that the Australian electorate tends to swing away from the incumbents every 8 to 10 years, and there isn’t one electoral district in the country that wouldn’t change hands with a 10% swing.

So, yes, the ultra-partisan divide here – and what seems to be an assumption that if you agree with one point you must agree with all of them – is quite bewildering. So is the emphasis on what I’d consider ‘fringe’ policy. When the economy is going down the tube, the deficit and government debt are breaking records, and the best you can hope for with unemployment is that it stops rising quite so fast, social hot-button issues should matter a whole lot less than getting the country back into a position where we can afford to debate the social hot-button issues.

But then, I guess Americans would find Australians weird, so we’re probably even.

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A. Jay Adler March 1, 2010 at 11:54 pm

Kate, don’t know how I missed “liberal” being right-wing down under. Maybe it’s like draining water spiraling in the other direction below the equator. Not a word you wrote with which I disagree. I wonder if, like the corruption, you find the ferocious political divide on another scale here too.

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Kate March 1, 2010 at 4:54 pm

Jay,

Thanks for the welcome. It’s certainly been quite the experience, and remains so. To my Aussie ears ‘Liberal’ means right-wing. That’s been a particularly difficult one to adjust to.

By Aussie standards, providing the ladder, then if need be teaching the person who climbs out how to fish (as opposed to handing out fish) is the the way to go. You never know when you’ll end up in the hole, after all. “Socialism” is confiscating the fellow downriver’s fish and handing them out to all and sundry – without bothering to pass that ladder down the hole to the poor sod who’s down there.

With regard to Mr Buckley’s statement, not having a view inside his skull, I can see his point. It’s very easy for people who spend their entire working and social life in academia to lose contact with the concerns of people who don’t – and vice-versa, of course.

At least when I was taking my science degree, we undergrads were taught that theories which didn’t work in practice were failures. You learned from what failed, tried to work out why, and built the next theory on the ashes. If there’s no practical application of a theory, it’s very easy to get disconnected from practicalities.

I have to admit I’ve often thought that any country would be better served by taking its government at random from the phone book, but not because of anti-intellectual concerns. What I’ve seen is that yes, power does corrupt, and absolute power definitely corrupts absolutely – and the corruptible are drawn to power with the inevitability of death and taxes (not necessarily in that order). By that measure, of course, anyone who seeks office is suspect. Anyone who seeks office with the expressed intention of “helping the people” is doubly suspect because it makes such a noble-sounding cause and tends to draw people’s attention away from their actions (which is not to say that everyone who does this is rotten – merely that it’s a distressingly common way for the rotten to disguise their real intentions).

I started following politics in Australia in Queensland in the 1980s, during the height of the most corrupt state government ever seen in the country (although I gather there is some serious competition from the current federal government), and one of my big stumbling blocks here is that what I’d consider breathtaking corruption seems to be standard procedure, on both sides of the political fence.

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Geoffrey Britain March 1, 2010 at 8:34 am

Jay,
Ok, coming late to the discussion, I wasn’t aware that I was off topic.

As for your unfurrowed brow; Once in a while, we stumble upon the truth, clearly you have decided to pick yourself up and hurry along, as if nothing had happened.

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Nightelf February 28, 2010 at 8:45 pm

Of course the elected are supposed to represent the people in a republic such as ours but that doesn’t mean that once in office representatives aren’t supposed to respond to public opinion or, as the Democrats are doing, shut their ears to it completely.

I smell blood in the water. It’s not like with George Bush where people just hated the policy, this time they’re scared…and becoming very angry. They’re scared for their jobs and their economic future. But Obama and the Democrats like Pelosi refuse to address those concerns and instead to pursue the White Whale of health care overhaul. The American people don’t like thugs even if they’ve been to Harvard.

Even if the HC bills were clean and rational, which they’re not, forcing them on the public is bound to create bitterness, resistance, and in the long run, political chaos. It is impossible for Obama and his henchmen not to be aware of what’s going on, so either they’re deluded ideologues or they’re gangsters who are drunk with the arrogance of power for the sake of power. Or as a Democratic hack from SEIU said recently, “We prefer to use the power of persuasion, but if that doesn’t work we use the persuasion of power.”

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MaxedOutMama February 28, 2010 at 7:16 pm

forcing a policy on people without their input

Jay, I am not sure whether you are just ignorant of the current proposals for health reform or being dishonest, but that is precisely what is being done.

Hillary Clinton’s proposal for health insurance reform was mandatory insurance. Barack Obama’s proposal was to make it affordable, and avoid the mandate. Voters chose Obama over Clinton, and that was clearly one of the reasons. So they had spoken, and now they are getting the opposite. One need only read any leftist or Democratic site to understand that Democrats oppose the current proposals.

This is why your continued insistence that the Tea Party is “conservative” populism doesn’t wash. A lot of those people are anything but conservative.

Your language in this post continues to be emotive and perhaps deliberately confused, but your accusations are pointed and clear. You are better than this, and this time I am calling you to account for it on my blog.

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A. Jay Adler February 28, 2010 at 10:30 pm

I’m going to presume – for the time being – that MaxedOutMama’s repeated and growing intemperance is a product of the virus from which, she tells us on her own blog, she is suffering. It nonetheless continues to be the case that with the occasional exception it is almost impossible to debate with the readers from ShrinkWrapped and engage a discussion only of ideas and that does not degenerate within about a second and a half into accusations of my – as the representative liberal in their eyes – ignorance, dishonesty, and mendaciousness. And that has been today only. And the product of seeking something as relatively bloodless as the proper understanding of a concept – that of elites.

And even that turns into the political debate equivalent of “Whuddyu say ’bout my mama?”

To say that it is unbecoming is to be generous, and the obvious blindness to it on the part of those who conduct themselves in this manner dresses it up no better. It is pathetic. Students could not remain in my classes debating like this. Who exactly is better than what?

When I receive comments that address the arguments and the arguments only, I may respond. Personal insults can hang and swing on their own like the dead weight they ever are.

Meanwhile, I’d be interested to know if MaxedOutMama has any data to support this claim:

Hillary Clinton’s proposal for health insurance reform was mandatory insurance. Barack Obama’s proposal was to make it affordable, and avoid the mandate. Voters chose Obama over Clinton, and that was clearly one of the reasons.

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Geoffrey Britain February 28, 2010 at 5:25 pm

Jay,

Given your statement of an informed electorate, one or the other must fit. It gives me no pleasure to accuse you of possibly being mendacious. But if the shoe fits, you are the one who must look in the mirror.

I never claimed to be a populist nor even that I was not an intellectual. I did posit as to one of the appropriate ways in which to use a gifted intellect, so what was your point in pointing out that I’m not a populist?

Any liberal who acknowledges objective fact and for whom that is of more importance than implementing an agenda through disingenuous tactics is one who demonstrates sufficient knowledge and character.

It is not agreement I seek but rather clarity.

I hold as a matter of principle, that intellectual honesty is the coin required, to sit at the table of debate. I also agree with Moynahan’s observation, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own set of facts”.

So lets start with some basic statements that intellectual honesty would compel any liberal to acknowledge;

no leftist ideology has ever resulted in anything but suffering for the people’s living under such a system. Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot and communist ideology have killed far more people than any other system of government.

“You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.”

“The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”

The socialist governments of the West cannot continue to exist if they have to pay for their own defense. It is the American military umbrella that has enabled them to survive. Were America to follow Europe’s path within 50 years democracy would cease to exist.

Liberalism’s goal is to, as completely as possible, eliminate life’s essential unfairness.

I could go on but that should suffice for now, any liberal who cannot acknowledge the aforementioned truths is being intellectually dishonest on a fundamental level and is engaged in massive denial.

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A. Jay Adler February 28, 2010 at 6:10 pm

Geoffrey, I made the observation about populism in the context of the debate that has been going on here and at ShrinkWrapped for the past five days, and your clear departure from the defenses of it by your brethren.

This was a debate on a particular subject. There will be other focused and specific debates in the future, and your welcome, of course, to weigh in on my posts independent of The Open Mind, so I will decline to take this one far and broadly afield on the very general topic of liberalism, which, I note, is a subject many conservatives are willing to inveigh furiously upon at every chime of the clock. May I suggest the Olympics?

I will observe that

1. Western liberalism and social democracy are leftist political philosophies that defy your characterization, and

2. since your definition of a decent liberal is a class with apparently no members, I find myself gazing into the mirror with unfurrowed brow.

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Jimmy J. February 28, 2010 at 4:32 pm

Jay said, ” It isn’t an argument. It’s an expression of frustration that you lost the election, and it’s a tactical talking point. The kind made daily by our contemptible politicians – you know, the elites.”

So, I suppose that Representative Paul Ryan’s presentation at the “Healthcare Summit’ was nothing more than a contempible tactical talking point meant to frustrate the desires of the winners of the 2008 election. He made the following ponts:
• “This bill does not control costs (or) reduce deficits. Instead, (it) adds a new health care entitlement when we have no idea how to pay for the entitlements we already have.”

• “The bill has 10 years of tax increases, about half a trillion dollars, with 10 years of Medicare cuts, about half a trillion dollars, to pay for six years of spending. The true 10-year cost (is) $2.3 trillion.”

• “The bill takes $52 billion in higher Social Security tax revenues and counts them as offsets. But that’s really reserved for Social Security. So either we’re double-counting them or we don’t intend on paying those Social Security benefits.”

• “The bill takes $72 billion from the CLASS Act (long-term care insurance) benefit premiums and claims them as offsets.”

• “The bill treats Medicare like a piggy bank, (raiding) half a trillion dollars not to shore up Medicare solvency, but to spend on this new government program.”

• “The chief actuary of Medicare (says) as much as 20% of Medicare providers will either go out of business or have to stop seeing Medicare beneficiaries.”

• “Millions of seniors who have chosen Medicare Advantage (Medicare through a private insurer) will lose the coverage that they now enjoy.”

• “When you strip out the double-counting and … gimmicks, the full 10-year cost of the bill has a $460 billion deficit. The second 10-year cost of this bill has a $1.4 trillion deficit.”

• “The ‘doc fix’ (restoring cuts in Medicare reimbursements) costs $371 billion … a price tag (that) made the score look bad. (So) that provision was taken out, and (put) in stand-alone legislation. But ignoring these costs does not remove them from the backs of taxpayers. Hiding spending does not reduce spending.”

• “Are we bending the cost curve down or are we bending the cost curve up? If you look at your own chief actuary at Medicare, we’re bending it up. He’s claiming that we’re going up $222 billion, adding more to the unsustainable fiscal situation we have.”

One man’s expressions of frustration at losing (your point) are for another man (me) well considered facts about a piece of legislation that is poorly written and does not bend the cost curve down or achieve universal coverage. (The stated goals of the winners). I see Rep. Ryan’s work as being responsible and necessary to prevent a possible fiscal calamity. Not as sour grapes over losing an election. But that’s just me.

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A. Jay Adler February 28, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Geoffrey, why not think me both appallingly ignorant and breathtakingly mendacious? I’ve earned no credit – and I am a liberal, after all. And you are clearly not among the populists.

Just curious, so I know from whom I fall short, who are the present day liberals whose knowledge and character you wouldn’t grandly assail? Any upstanding and smart who just see the world differently from you?

Jimmy, but how not see that the long list you present, to which the comment of mine you cite was not a response, is indeed, accurate or not, a substantive argument of the kind I encouraged in the remarks to which you respond. The “it” to which I clearly refer in my comment is the charge of forcing a policy on people without their input, which is both false and evasive of substance. That is sour grapes.

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Geoffrey Britain February 28, 2010 at 4:01 pm

“The intellectual class is composed of that class of people who make their living, often a very good one, by manipulating language.”

‘Manipulating’ language is not evidence of the useful exercise of intellect.

Reflecting deeply upon important subjects so as to get to the heart of the matter and then, skillfully using language in concise and clear terms, so as to share with others that deeper understanding is one use of intellect used properly. Other than entertainment, any other ‘manipulation’ of language is hubris.

“The electorate chose Barack Obama in full knowledge of his beliefs.”

Please. Take a poll Jay with just 4 questions of 100 people randomly selected outside a grocery store who say they voted for Obama. Ask people to state Obama’s 20 yr. religious mentor’s primary belief? Ask them what prominent Chicago celebrity hosted Obama’s first political fund-raising event at his home? Ask them who Obama’s teenage political mentor was and what belief makes that person of note? Ask them to explain Obama’s reasoning in voting twice to support infanticide? The average ‘consumer’ of MSM output might get one question right. An informed electorate? Please.

You are either woefully ignorant of or more likely, in willful denial of the MSM’s blatant bias and protection of Obama prior to and since the election, regarding both his beliefs and his history. No one who got their information from the major media outlets, (with the exception of FOX) had any true perspective upon Obama’s history or his beliefs. For you to state otherwise is to demonstrate either an appalling depth of ignorance or a mendaciousness that is quite breathtaking.

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Matt February 28, 2010 at 1:47 am

1) One key difference between the pilots, engineers, programmers, biomechanics, etc. you use as examples of elites, and the elites in government: the former deal with a specific field that’s pretty uniform. Those types of elites push pieces around on the gameboard of life, and those pieces always behave the same. You can’t manage human beings in such a fixed manner without doing gross injustice to their basic rights and autonomy — compared to the hard physics governing the pilot, engineer, or even bus driver, we humans are chaos incarnate, and have a RIGHT to be. Behind each piece an elite in government pushes around is an individual person with their own goals and priorities that don’t quite match anyone else’s, and the only person with enough knowledge to manage those goals and priorities is the person themself. What is the name for someone with the “expert” knowledge to manage other people’s lives and livelihoods without their input? It’s the attempt to move beyond managing how people interface with each other peacefully (safeguarding people’s rights from mutual interference) into managing their lives directly that brings the calls of elitist hubris.

2) While the liberals currently have control of the government, that doesn’t change the fact that a large majority currently (and loudly) oppose the health care overhaul. Just because someone has been elected doesn’t mean they tell their constituents to “shut up and color, because we know what’s best for you better than you know yourselves” until the next election. I have coworkers who’ve gotten letters back from their Senators that say pretty much that, if in slightly more diplomatic (or opaque) language. That sort of declared or demonstrated contempt for their own constituents is the other half of the “elitist” charge.

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A. Jay Adler February 28, 2010 at 9:38 am

Matt,

I think you make very good observations in point 1., and it is precisely because of the generality and the chaotic nature of governance – its partaking of so broad a field of human life and behavior – that people of all backgrounds more easily imagine that they can do it themselves, which is not to say they cannot. They can. But on what basis do we judge beforehand that they might be capable? After all, we are going, perhaps, to vote for them. We are going to judge them on some basis or other, by some set of criteria, and if those criteria provide us with no basis upon which to distinguish one candidate from another, one candidate as, for our purposes, superior in ability to another, then what are we doing, playing craps?

Keep in mind, too, in all this glorification of a vaguely defined populist mass in contrast to a conceptually muddled elite, that we live in a constitutionally determined representative democracy. These are elements of a Constitution that conservatives and libertarians properly revere. If we do trust the political intelligence of the people, what are we to make of their electoral choices? If we so disdain the whole governing class, which draws to significant degrees from the intellectual and professional classes, what are we to make, then, of the wisdom of the electorate that chose them? Will we make excuses for this electorate – that it is deceived by interest groups, influenced by lobbyists and corporate and union money? Do we not then condescend to and diminish the people by needing to excuse their faulty judgment – if it was faulty. And if it was, why trust in it more directly? These are contradictions in the elitist argument that require examination.

Where you go seriously wrong in your comment is in your observation that people’s lives are being managed “without their input.” This is profoundly false. The people had the very great input of national elections, what our great Constitution mandates, to join the wisdom of representative government. Among the reasons for representative government are those to avoid the passions of mobs, the passions of the moment, at times ,even, the tyranny of the majority. There is no governance by sample polling, varied and ever changing as it is or not. Healthcare reform was at the center of Democratic primary debates and the general election discussion. The electorate chose Barack Obama in full knowledge of his beliefs. Despite the polls many conservatives cite, and unsubstantiated claims as to the majority will – and there is only one kind of formal, electoral majority will that counts under the Constitution – there are just a many polls (ah, damned statistics and polls) that show that a majority wants healthcare reform, and, indeed, wants even more, a public option.

If you think the ideas and the policies are wrong, make your best arguments against them, and keep on making them. However, claiming that the passage of legislation according to electoral results and constitutional processes is depriving people of their input and defying the will of an amorphous and floating majority – what conservatives keep saying – is simply an argumentative cheat. It isn’t an argument. It’s an expression of frustration that you lost the election, and it’s a tactical talking point. The kind made daily by our contemptible politicians – you know, the elites.

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Nightelf February 27, 2010 at 1:23 pm

Jay thinks he’s got me because I appear to be anti-intellectual myself by quoting Buckley. He’s missed what I’m saying. Buckley was himself an intellectual and need I mention many of my favorite conservative intellectuals such as Thomas Sowell, VDH and Shelby Steele. The founders might also be called intellectuals, but they were also doers, the intellect was connected with reality. I have great respect for the intellect. I’m just saying two things: the tea party movement is not anti-intellectual, and some (perhaps many) self styled intellectuals are worse than useless, i.e. postmodernists and neo-Marxists. Having a PHD has nothing to do with effective governance, and effective governance may be better in the hands of persons with practical experience than in academics and writers.

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Gloria February 27, 2010 at 11:39 am

I think Jay is saying that any group holding the position of “those who govern” is going to be an elite and therefore the anti-elitism of conservatives is (a) misplaced and (b) reflects the anti-intellectualism of conservatives.

With regard to (a), it is true than any “in” group is a kind of elite. But it is also true that some “in” groups take a more directive stance than others. For instance, the Obama/Pelosi/Reid group could have moved a health care bill that was based on just one or two basic changes that are currently acceptable to most people. Then next year they could have created another bill that again just made a couple of changes. Such an incremental approach would have symbolized to the American people that the administration and Congress are “listening to the people.” But this approach, which is symbolically very very important, was not taken.

The massive overhaul of the health care system all at once was a symbolic gesture that signified to the American people, “F— You.” That gesture is what has stirred up so much rage. I think any good cultural anthropologist analyzing the past year would come up with this judgment about the relation between the majority of Americans and the administration. This is how the two concepts of elitism and liberalism got affixed to one another.

Regarding Jay’s supposition that conservatives are anti-intellectual. I believe I myself could be defined as an intellectual–worked as a professor in a university for about 35 years, have a Ph.D in linguistics–involved in language and languages, and worked with language teachers for my entire career. Yet I am a conservative.

I moved away from my youthful liberalism for, I think, two reasons. (1) Getting older provides a person with lots of experiences that force one to question the basic liberal assumption that if you just provide people with material comfort, they will be “good.” I found I had to explain to myself why some people carry out evil acts despite having no material reason to do so. (2) Getting older caused me to think more about the traditions and institutions that existed and understand how these implicit supports in our society impact upon the individual self and the development of the self.

I discovered that conservatives had the proper understanding of institutions and traditions. These are to be conserved. But that conservation does NOT mean that the institutions and traditions remain the same. Each of us embodies tacitly in ourselves the traditions and institutions, and therefore because each of us is different, we as human beings transform these traditions and institutions and pass them on to our children in a transformed way and they, in turn, internalize them in a transforming way. To conserve these institutions and traditions is to KNOW them, and such knowledge is certainly not compatible with anti-intellectualism. I have found conservatives study traditions and institutions carefully and deeply. (Victor Davis Hansen is a good example.)

This focus on the individual’s interiorization of tradition and institution means a rejection of the notion that any in-group which governs has the authority to overturn or deny the underlying principles (embodied in traditions and institutions) by means of which and upon which people live in an avowedly democratic society. So, I can be against elitism without being an anti-intellectual.

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A. Jay Adler February 27, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Gloria, you are correct in identifying my claim as one that says that whoever governs and leads in any sector of society is, by that very nature, an elite – a good elite if their placement is earned on merit. And you are correct in stating that I think anti-elitism in a meritocracy is misplaced, and by many conservatives, misidentified, I argue, with the liberals they oppose. You are incorrect in stating that I think conservatives, in general or by nature of their conservatism, are guilty of anti-intellectualism. Conservative ranks are filled with intellectuals no less than are liberal. The Wieseltier piece I quoted in the opening of Open Mind V makes the very point that the ranks of our elite institutions and organizations are brimming with conservatives. The overwhelmingly influential, elite economic thinkers of the past three decades have been conservative. Of course, you rightly point out yourself.

Aside from my central point contending a confusion of liberalism with the idea of elites, I am also arguing that the current conservative populism, like populisms in general, is anti-intellectual. That is demonstrated in its resentments, in the expression of its resentments, in some of the emblematic figures it elevates, and almost unavoidably, reflexively in every defense denying its anti-intellectualism.

About health care we completely disagree, but we’ve had that debate already.

Regarding your last three paragraphs, omitting the praise of Hansen, I completely agree with you, until you claim that an elite is attempting undemocratically to overturn traditions and principles. This is simply the expression conservatives have chosen in response to the loss of control of the government and the government’s consequent pursuit of policies with which conservatives disagree. Liberals lived through that for the previous eight years. And even if what you claim were true, it would be liberals, qua liberals, doing what you charge, not elites qua elites. However, I honor the essential conservatism you express in those paragraphs, and it is from various directions on the conservative spectrum from which I hear these days – as I stated in my comment at ShrinkWrapped that spurred this whole discussion – the kind of fervent transformational rhetoric, the revolutionary fever to overturn that is worrisome.

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Kate February 27, 2010 at 10:30 am

I’ve been following this series with interest (caveat: I first found it by lurking on Shrinkwrapped’s blog).

It seems to me that what’s getting lost in all of this is that a working society needs to have intellectuals (I’ll use Shrink’s definition here: it seems to be a good one), professionals (the trained, skilled doers like engineers, miners, plumbers and so forth), researchers (who to my view are a blend of the intellectual and the professional), and laborers (by which I mean anything that involves relatively unskilled work). If you haven’t got the whole spectrum and don’t value them all for what they are as well as what they do, you end up with a society where the ideas and the pipes fail to hold water.

The lyrics from The Cowboy and the Farmer Should be Friends, from Oklahoma! should be engraved on quite a few eyelids: “I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else, but I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good!”

On the subject of elites, I think “elite” has come to mean the unholy and frequently incestuous relationship between politics, media and certain segments of academia, all reinforcing each other and building a wall that no-one else can get through.

Certainly, I’ve never heard anyone describe, say, Stephen Hawking as an elite scientist. I’m not even going to consider the question of “elite plumber” although I’m certain such a thing exists. Essentially, the meaning of the word has twisted, leaving the original meaning effectively useless. It happens a lot. (Terrific, awesome, gay, nice, patronize, just to grab a few out of what passes as my mind).

Certainly, in my experience in the sciences, as a teacher, and most recently in software quality assurance, I’ve never known elite scientists, elite teachers, or elite programmers to regard everyone else as inferior. I’ll admit programmers sometimes wonder what the rest of the universe is on (and can they get some, please), but I’ve never met one who thinks that someone who can’t cut code at lightspeed is a lesser person.

Sadly, the attitude of superiority emanating from the political-media-academia triumvirate does justify the hostility. Even more tragically, the academics, media people, and politicians who don’t look down on the rest of us are the exception – or at least, this is the appearance they give.

I”ll close by pointing out that I grew up in Australia and after 8 years in the US, I’m still having issues wrapping my head around US politics. The labels are all totally different, so I’ve got to fight my first association (the Australian one) to make sense of the US meaning. I tend to find “social justice” meaningless, and prefer the Aussie concept of a “fair go” – each person deserves the opportunity to do the best they can, and if they need a ladder to get out of a hole, you provide the ladder.

Here ends this rather disjointed ramble.

Kate

p.s. Oh, and Jay? Poetry is never useless.

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A. Jay Adler February 27, 2010 at 11:03 am

Copithorne’s comments, as always, stand quite successfully on their own.

Kate, thanks for joining in and welcome. I appreciate your comments. As you continue to try to get your bearings within the U.S. political scene, I will advise you that “if they need a ladder to get out of a hole, you provide the ladder” is a suspect philosophy in some political quarters – what are you, a socialist? I’ll let you recognize those quarters on your own. As for poetry, indeed, yes, it is never useless. I stand with Hegel, who called it “the universal art of the mind.”

As for Nightelf, for whom logic and the disinclination to review his own arguments for sense are never a bar to commentary,

“Because Obama and liberals in general appear at this time to be arrogant in the extreme, trying to push policies against the will of the American people, the charge of elitism naturally sticks and a movement in opposition has blossomed. This movement would of course have as one of its banners ‘anti-elitism’ which Jay evidently mistakes for anti-intellectualism.

William F. Buckley once said that he’d rather be governed by the first 100 names in the Boston phone book than the faculty of Harvard; meaning that when it comes to the actual mechanics of governance people with average experience and competence would be better than self-appointed elites or professional intellectuals. I think the Framers were of the same mind. One only has to remember the disastrous fads which have plagued intellectuals in the past such as those brainiacs who thought Stalin was the best thing since sliced bread, and more recently the idiotic cult of postmodernism that swept the faculties of our major universities. In other words, overheated intellects are often more trouble then they’re worth.

I rest my case.

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Nightelf February 27, 2010 at 10:02 am

I have carefully read this screed and at the end remain confused as to what Jay is getting at. Perhaps I’m to smart enough to get it. Or. Perhaps it’s because he’s primarily trying to deal with terms like ‘elite’ and ‘intellectual’ as if they had more concrete meanings than they do. There is a corollary to Murphy’s Law which says, “If you tinker with something long enough it will break.” Anybody who does technical work knows what that means: you build a big enough kluge it gets buggy and unmanageable.

Jay appears to be defending the life of the mind, or ‘intellectuals,’ from the attacks by populists. I am trying to get the thread of his argument from his rather tipsy syntax. For example he states:

I have been arguing that anti-intellectualism is a factor in a misconception of the notion of elites.

Because we’re dealing with rather high-level abstractions (‘elite,’ ‘intellectual’) and nested prepositional phrases it’s difficult where he’s going with this. I think he’s saying that elites are disliked because they’re intellectuals, or perhaps intellectuals are disliked because they’re elitist. Listing with the 3rd ear (admittedly an unreliable organ in my case) I’m hearing that populists like Sarah Palin hate the life of the mind because they resent their own deficiencies in that regard and are projecting their resentment on ‘elites’. I could be wrong. I submit that Jay’s writing tends to obfuscate more than it clarifies.

I suppose it comes down to our current political disorder, the fact of a new president who was taken to be some kind of intellectual because of his professorial demeanor but who turned out to be quite average in brain power, having to constantly use a teleprompter and seemingly ill informed on a variety of subjects. At least he was considered to be politically astute having got elected, but alas, even that appears to be overrated as he continues to make political blunder after political blunder. Because Obama and liberals in general appear at this time to be arrogant in the extreme, trying to push policies against the will of the American people, the charge of elitism naturally sticks and a movement in opposition has blossomed. This movement would of course have as one of its banners ‘anti-elitism’ which Jay evidently mistakes for anti-intellectualism.

William F. Buckley once said that he’d rather be governed by the first 100 names in the Boston phone book than the faculty of Harvard; meaning that when it comes to the actual mechanics of governance people with average experience and competence would be better than self-appointed elites or professional intellectuals. I think the Framers were of the same mind. One only has to remember the disastrous fads which have plagued intellectuals in the past such as those brainiacs who thought Stalin was the best thing since sliced bread, and more recently the idiotic cult of postmodernism that swept the faculties of our major universities. In other words, overheated intellects are often more trouble then they’re worth.

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copithorne February 26, 2010 at 9:54 pm

I had a response to the argument that ‘the average engineer or entrepreneur contributes far more to society and far more that is lasting than the average intellectual.”

Over the past few decades many of the people who perceived themselves to be the most talented and intelligent joined the finance professions. I know a good number of them and most of them were not shy about seeing themselves as making the world go round and deserving every penny of their generous compensation. As it turned out instead of creating value they were taking risks with other people’s money and sucking value out of the economy until they became $700 billion welfare queens. They would have contributed more as French Lit graduate students.

I think we have our feet more firmly planted on the ground when we share the humility of Gandalf the Grey and acknowledge that it is not for us to know who is important and who is not – who contributes and who does not. We all have a role to play and it is best to endeavor to build a society that respects and aspires to justice for all its members.

I might argue that over 80% of what Sarah Palin has to say in public is about this resentment or resentiment — of her and the people who identify with her being victims and taking a dashing stand against this victimization. And over 50% of what appears on Fox News over two thirds of Rush Limbaugh. The resentment towards elites and intellectuals considered here is a defensive response to feeling judged. But to reach the point of that sort of obsession the judgment is not external but a projected insecurity.

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