Tuesday, October 21, 2014

American Politics and Intellectuals

American Politics and the Intellectuals
P. Schultz
October 21, 2014

Here is an email exchange with a friend and former colleague about American politics and intellectualism. The first part is a link that Paul sent to me, followed by my response, his response to my response and my response to his response. My responses are in red. 

I have to say, Paul, that describing Americans as not believing in science is like describing them not believing in profit/wealth. Sure, some reject certain scientific conclusions but they do this while living in houses controlled by technology - except the Amish, e.g. - and they glory in their high tech killing machines and high tech medical devices. How many Americans with cancer reject science or technology for the sake of, say, prayer? 

Isn't this notion that many Americans don't "believe" in science just another attempt to manufacture fear? It isn't only "conservatives" who play the "fear game." 


Gotta disagree with you on this one.  Sure American believe in science insofar as they use its products, but they believe in its truths selectively, or more accurately, as they are manipulated to believe.  Let's put it this way.  Politicians and media can get people to do weird things.   A more accurate phrase would be that they selectively ignore science when politicians convince them to.

Global warming is the big one:  98% of climate scientists say that this is happening and it's largely man made.  Most GOP politicians choose to glom on to outliers and say that it's undecided or bogus.  When there is that much consensus in the scientific community about something, choosing to ignore it for political gain and convince a large segment of the population that is the case is in some sense "people are ignoring science."

Ebola.  The medical community appears to pretty much be in agreement that a travel ban would make the ebola situation worse, for reasons that I'm sure you've read about.  GOP politicians stoke and exploit a fear of it for political purposes.

"Austrian" austerity economics are a real minority view in academic economics.  From what I understand, a large percentage of economists said that we needed a bigger stimulus.  Under the influence of GOP politicians, once again the outlier position is embraced.  I don't claim economics is "science."  But it is reasoned analysis.

It's the anti-intellectualism that thinks Joe Fuggie can ignore and have contempt for what people have spent their lives analyzing, and the political will to exploit that by politicians who represent those who will advantage from that willed ignorance.

Bobby Jindal on climate change:  "I don't have a degree in climate change, so I am not in a position to claim whether it is occurring or not."  C'mon.  I don't have a degree in oncology but I can have a very, very reasonable belief that cigarettes cause lung cancer.  Why?  Because I trust and believe what there is a large scientific consensus on.

There are more examples, but those are the current three biggies.

I bought but haven't begun reading Naomi Klein's recent book on climate change.  If you want big political change, which I know you do, Klein's book actually seems optimistic in that she thinks global warming will trigger significant political change.

We will have to disagree here. Your "intellectualism" is, for me, at the very least, controversial, less than persuasive, and politically fruitless and dangerous. 

By that I mean, you assume a certain conception of knowledge, of knowing, and use it to measure and evaluate all forms of knowing. Your understanding of "intellectualism" requires, I believe, that people think of politics as involving a series of issues that people reason about and then vote on. But this is, itself, a kind of politics and not only kind. It is a kind of politics that empowers "experts," those who claim "to know" because they are "scientists" or "analysts," whether social, economic, or physical. This is the kind of politics that took control of our politics with the Progressives and was intended to "downsize democracy" for the sake of an allegedly "scientific politics." 

But as near as I can tell this is not the way or the only way that people think about politics, and it certainly isn't how those who you claim are "anti-intellectual" think about politics. There was a book, "What's the Matter With Kansas?" published some years ago, and the author argued that Kansans were hard to explain because they seemed to vote against their own "self-interests," making them seem stupid or ignorant. "Why," the author seemed to beg, "don't these people vote as I want them to vote, as I think they should vote, as "science" or "analysis" says they should vote? Oh, I know! They must be stupid or deliberately ignorant or blinded by religion and other fantasies." 

So this "analyst" had a "model" of how politics works and it didn't fit "Kansans." So he criticized the Kansans but he did not wonder whether his model was an accurate description of how people are politically. For example, he merely assumed people vote their self-interest. Moreover, he reported very few conversations with actual Kansans, conversations that might have led to his own enlightenment. If he had those conversations, he might have found that Kansans were voting as they did because they sensed that something was wrong, that is, wrong in a basic, even fundamental way in this nation. 

Could they articulate this feeling "intellectually", to suit you or other intellectuals? No, they could not, but that does not make them wrong. So they go politically with those who are saying, "Yes, there is something wrong here." They do not respond to those saying, "Well, let's get some experts together and let them tell us what to do, how to "save" the environment, how to solve racism, how to run their our schools, how to democratize Iraq and the rest of the world, how to structure or actually re-structure the '"battle" between the sexes. Because we and our analysts KNOW and you don't."  

Well, a large part of the problem here is that they, the "Kansans" amongst us, have had enough of these "experts," these "analysts." Why? Well, because these "experts" and "analysts" gave them the Vietnam war, our huge bureaucracy, and all kinds of bat shit crazy politics such as the war on drugs, the war on crime, the war on poverty, no child left behind, the race to the top, etc., etc., etc. They, the "Kansans" amongst us, know that these things are not working, that things are not getting better, and unlike the "intellectuals" who want these "experts" and "analysts" running things despite their repeated failures, they have said "Enough already! We need to try something else!" They, the "Kansans," KNOW that not only have they been disempowered, but their lives aren't getting better. Is it any wonder that they are "anti-intellectual" in the sense that you mean it?  I think not.  

Parenthetically, it was the people in the streets, those long haired "hippies" like Mario Savio and Jerry Rubin, those who were and are dismissed by the "establishment" as unwashed and uneducated, who were right about Vietnam, not the "experts" and "intellectuals" at Michigan State, Rand, and a host of other "intellectual institutions." It was those "experts" and "analysts," of course, THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST who gave us that fiasco, not the people who didn't know and didn't need to know where Vietnam was! You seem to ignore this consequence of "analysis" and "expertise." 

Moreover, I doubt that any classroom teacher or public school principal would ever have come up with such bat shit crazy policies like "No Child Left Behind,"  "The Race to the Top," or the "common core!" And they wouldn't simply because they KNOW better. And I doubt that any mayor would ever have come up with a war on drugs or crime because she or he KNOWS better. 

How did they know? I don't know but they knew and they knew without the help of and despite the experts, and they were right! Perhaps it is as Bruce Springsteen sang it: "We learned more from a 3 minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school." And, by and large, what kids learn in schools designed by the "experts" is to be "just another brick in the wall." 

So, you can rail against these people and treat them dismissively for not being sufficiently "intellectual" all you want but you might as well piss into the wind, because they have already rejected, on substantial evidence, the kind of knowledge your "experts" and "analysts" claim to have. And when you do this, you pave the way for more Republican victories because they pretend to be listening to the "Kansans" amongst us, then use their votes to maintain the status quo and their own power and privilege. You or someone should listen to them, actually listen to them, and try your best to give them what they want. Their wants, their desires, are or should be the criteria, not the wants or the desires of "experts" or "intellectuals." [Another delusion of those endorsing "experts" and "analysts" is that these types are not motivated by their wants and desires, their passions, but merely by, say, the "pursuit of the truth." But I have met very experts/analysts who didn't crave success.]

But you are correct, we will not agree about this and, as a result, 

So it goes........

Good examples for something else, but they are largely irrelevant for the issues I raised on climate change, ebola containment, and to a lesser degree, economics.

But I think you are right. we will not agree about this and, as a result, so it goes.

I haven't read any more then the first twenty or so pages of the Klein book, but I think she is talking about big structural change.  Check it out.

Apparently you have not understood what I wrote: I said that "raising issues"  is a peculiar kind of politics, an elitist and disempowering kind of politics that human beings who are not awed by their own intellectualism and the alleged intelligence of "experts" and "analysts" reject.....and with very good reasons, as these "experts" and "analysts" have failed time and time again. You write back and reassert that we need to talk about "the issues I raised." No, I don't and won't because were I to do that I would be conceding the argument to you and, worse, conceding the worth of the conventional wisdom which you are content to embrace in your "issues" brand of politics. 

On MSNBC the other day, Andrea Mitchell was interviewing the woman running for governor in Texas, Wendy Davis, I think, about an ad she had run featuring an empty wheelchair that pointed out how her opponent had consistently favored as a judge the wealthy over the not wealthy in law suits for damages for personal injuries against corporations, and this after he had himself collected millions in a similar case - hence, the empty wheelchair. Mitchell had her panties all in a bunch over the empty wheelchair -"Oh, how insensitive!" - and then asked Wendy Davis whether this issue was more important than the issue of access to abortions in Texas. I yelled at the radio: "It's the same fucking 'issue,' you dumb ass!" I am sorry to say that while Davis made the same point, she was too polite in her response for my tastes. 

This is what happens when you adopt an "issues" brand of politics. Abortion, and, yes, even climate change, ebola containment, and even economics get severed from the social and human context in which they occur as if they were isolated phenomena the resolution of which have no implications for the power relationships in our society. In fact, this is one reason why an "issues" brand of politics is popular: Because it allows us to ignore the very real power "imbalances" that exist in our society and, thereby, perpetuates the status quo. The Progressives embraced such a politics - as an alternative to what was then called, appropriately, "populism" - because it would ensure their right to govern, to rule over its all-too-many and all-too-unsavory immigrants "flooding" the nation then and supporting those unsavory city machines. 

So, no, my argument is not "largely irrelevant for the issues [you] raised." You just have to try to understand that your brand of politics is peculiar, why it is peculiar, and why it is little more than a front for preserving the status quo. Or to simplify: If you say "A" and I say "B", you shouldn't say "A" again. It doesn't get us anywhere. 

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