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


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