Be forewarned: if you don’t feel like a rant today, save this for later. For the last few days I’ve had the strangest sensation. It’s as if I’ve been struggling to emerge from some intensely sticky substance—a vat of rubber cement, perhaps, or a freshly spun spider web as it might appear to a hapless fly—only this substance congests the realm of thought.
If we were on the old “Star Trek,” I’d be Mr. Spock, peering levelly at Captain Kirk and saying, “It’s Anti-Thought, Jim, a resilient life-form from the planet InstaMedia that induces a powerful confusion, reducing highly intelligent beings to the mental capacity of a child.” And then the captain would marshall his team to devise a clever antidote that would be administered with total success by the top of the hour. Over blue cocktails in the canteen, Spock would gaze at the camera with the wry amusement that is the Vulcan equivalent of horror. “Imagine,” he would say, “if we had to live in a world where Anti-Thought was replacing the capacity for rational thought.”
Imagine! Then we would have contend with things like this:
All week, I have been reading the media’s giddy accounts of the Tea Party movement, obligingly timed to coincide with various meetings and announcements from political groups wanting to claim the Tea Party mantle. Here’s one from the New York Times. A month ago, I wrote about the Tea Party movement as exemplar of the reactivity swamping our political climate. I suggested ways to at least reduce our own skyrocketing brain chemicals, reclaiming the capacity for rational thought.
One of the most bizarre things about the movement is that many of its grassroots adherents declare themselves strong constitutionalists while advocating a remarkable degree of social control. They oppose encroachments on civil liberties, things like domestic wiretapping, and policies that make the public pay for private misdeeds, like the bank bailouts. They charge both major political parties with manipulating crisis to amass power. So far, so good.
But they slide easily into a pliant paranoia. In just about all the interviews I’ve read with Tea Party stalwarts, fear of Big Brother is the trigger for their involvement, and the response is a belligerent defensiveness which severely limits their capacity to notice how and by whom they are being manipulated. It’s kind of hilarious to see them denouncing President Obama as a power-mad despot, while forbearing to mention President Bush’s stellar role in the inflation of executive power. They don’t like a lot of the ways that government spends money (me neither, although I think we disagree on many of the specifics). But their prescriptions, such as eliminating income tax, suggest a wildly irrational view of what it takes to manage the collective infrastructural needs of 300-odd million people.
The extreme incongruity of Tea Partyers’ statements fairly cries “Use me!” to ideologues wanting to ride their momentum into office. Right now, Republican candidates are clamoring to position themselves as Tea Party mavericks and far-right organizations are proposing points of unity like the “Mandate to Save America,” vague, dog-whistle language that speaks volumes to the old-right groups endorsing it, with their long records as advocates of censorship, public control of private behavior, and an America where white is right. The media is lingering over every second of the supremely photogenic red, white (indeed, nearly all-white) and blue spectacle, which has everything TV loves: anger, conflict, irrationality, costumes, flags, and wild enthusiasm.
Help, Mr. Spock! Where is that Anti-Thought antidote now?
For the last few days, one of the New York Times’ most-emailed stories has been a column by David Brooks entitled “The Power Elite.” Brooks is an intelligent and articulate fellow who sometimes anti-thinks himself onto a ledge. In this column, he jumped off.
He begins with a raft of assertions of about how our institutions are more meritocratic than formerly, now that they are not the exclusive preserve of elite social groups or other restricted categories. (Finance used to belong to blue bloods, he writes, and now pedigree isn’t as important as accomplishment; journalism used to be “working-class stiffs who filed stories and hit the bars,” now it’s “cultured analysts;” and so on.) As he sees it, inclusion of women and people of color means greater meritocracy. Why, I wonder? It means greater inclusion and greater diversity, a wholly good thing; but can’t people of any gender and complexion be picked as their predecessors were, for criteria that include their alignment with institutional interests and their disinclination to rock the boat?
Skipping over all that (as well as any requirement to actually demonstrate cause and effect), Brooks says that greater meritocracy has generated even greater public mistrust. He proposes several wildly disparate reasons: social-class segregation, a lack of “leadership class solidarity,” deficient empathy, short-term thinking caused by truncated ancestral memory, and the availability of too much information about government to preserve a respect formerly protected by veils of secrecy.
Brooks’ column is as crammed with unexamined assumptions as a pillow holds feathers. The overarching one is this: “that Americans actually feel less connected to their leadership class now than they did then.” I assume he is working in at least some vague way off polling data that shows a decline in Americans’ trust of government, Wall Street, or the media. I don’t dispute that it’s low. I just wonder whether the halcyon age of trust in our betters and wisers ever existed. It certainly wasn’t in my sphere growing up, where the leaders of these institutions seemed so far from our own reality that they might have been another species.
It certainly wasn’t in the 1890s, when “yellow journalism” flourished in a war between Hearst and Pulitzer to see how low they could go, and everyone knew that news was whatever the fat cats who owned the papers said it was. Nor in the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s, nor in the 1930s, when Wall Street was widely seen as a hotbed of self-dealing crooks who had failed the public trust. As the 1950s approached, it was easy enough for Senator McCarthy and his ilk to discredit government with Red Scare propaganda, and later on, for Ronald Reagan to ignite the general mistrust that is now flowering anew at the Tea Parties. Reading through Brooks’ column, I was stunned by its total indifference to evidence and by the way he didn’t scruple to examine a single one of his assumptions and assertions.
Please, Mr. Spock! The Anti-Thought antidote!
Not long before President Obama was inaugurated, Jeremy McCarter of Newsweek wrote a nice piece highlighting the WPA and art’s public purpose. But recently, he interviewed National Endowment for the Arts’ Chair Rocco Landesman, taking a tone and approach that bears a remarkable resemblance to most Tea Party coverage. McCarter regurgitates a gaggle of received opinions, without shedding a single beam of new light on his subject.
When Landesman made his first public faux pas back in August, I wrote about it. At the time, I hoped Landesman had spoken in haste when he said, “I don’t know if there’s a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it’s not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman.” After all, what responsible person would consciously assert an opinion that begins with an admission of total ignorance of his subject? But half a year later, Landesman told McCarter “there’s nothing I’d retract in what I was saying.” Too bad, because while snobbery can be relatively harmless and even amusing as a private vice, in a public official it insults democracy.
McCarter practically swoons from the charm of it all, then tries to spin it into a point of principle: Landesman’s commitment to “artistic excellence” versus his predecessor Dana Gioia’s commitment to “access.” This is so silly. During Gioia’s tenure, the NEA may have made at least one grant in every congressional district, but so what? Regardless of who chairs the agency, close to half of the NEA’s budget is committed to formulaic grants to the state and regional arts agencies, who in turn support all kinds of projects, many in places far smaller than Peoria.
What Gioia did was waste a substantial portion of the NEA’s remaining funds on national initiatives that did nothing to support actual living, creative artists, to add to our stock of creative imagination, or strengthen art’s public purpose. Instead, he opened a uni-directional cultural transit system, de haut en bas, including such elements as: The Big Read (whereby the residents of an entire community are encouraged to read and discuss a single book); Poetry Out Loud (whereby high school students “memorize and perform great poems;” Shakespeare in American Communities, a national tour of professional productions to smaller towns and cities; or American Masterpieces, financing revivals, restagings and so on of works “from the American classic canon.” Excellence versus access is a bright-red herring. Gioia was all about P.R., and so far, Landesman is continuing most of his programs.
Despite the NEA’s minuscule budget, it is widely perceived as emblematic of national cultural policy, with the agency’s Chair as our national arts spokesperson. McCarter reports that Landesman is energetically lining up colleagues and elected officials, singlehandedly attempting to introduce more coordination into the public cultural apparatus, a process he compares to “lining up backers for a show.” But what show? So far, we have a punning advertising slogan (“Art Works”), $5 million to be split 35 ways on a program called “Our Town,” and an encouraging willingness to tell the truth about arts funding (“pathetic and embarrassing,” says Landesman, and right he is). He still has time to live up to his role, and I hope he does it.
But what about McCarter? It’s tempting to see the huge disparity between the sizzle McCarter sprinkles over his article and the barely visible meat of it as just another example of the trivialization of cultural policy. Why should journalists be expected to know the territory or ascertain the actual facts when the public officials overseeing cultural programs aren’t? But then I think about how remarkably widespread is this refusal to examine one’s own assumptions, the proclivity to instead repeat what one has heard without first testing it, and I find myself wishing I could dose the water supply with the Anti-Thought antidote.
I may be indulging in a long overdue rant, but I’m not equating disagreement with Anti-Thought, obviously. To the contrary, no matter how supple our thought processes, only time can reveal the meaning of contemporary events, and while we wait for it to unfold, we are free to speculate and disagree. It’s the premature certainty that gets me. The Chinese tend to take a longer view of history than is typical of the U.S. addiction to frantic bulletins from the present. Lately I have thought many times of the story about Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai’s reported response to a question on the impact of the French Revolution of 1789: “It’s too soon to say.”
I’d like to hear that more often. Right now, for instance, highly intelligent and well-informed commentators are differing markedly on the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, striking down certain restrictions on corporate campaign speech. Flying in the face of most liberal commentary, Ira Glasser, former Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Unions, calls it a clearcut victory for freedom of speech. He says that laws regulating campaign speech “have generally suppressed insurgent candidates, advantaged incumbents and increased inequity in election campaigns,” that remedies intended to level the playing field actually made things worse. In contrast, much-honored liberal law professor and author Ronald Dworkin, writing in the New York Review of Books, called it an “appalling decision” that “will further weaken the quality and fairness of our politics.”
It appears that there is something to be said for both positions. Our electoral system is badly flawed. Many have advocated public financing as a more equitable (and less corruptible) alternative, but millions applauded when candidate Obama eschewed public financing because he thought he could raise more money without its restrictions. We will have to wait and see how both for-profit corporations and not-for-profit organizations respond to both the opportunities our present electoral system affords and the need for reform (and also to see the role this Supreme Court decision plays in those responses). In the meantime, there is plenty of room for analysis and debate. Spiraling into a louder and more paralyzing state of alarm, not so much.
At times, as dubious as I am about the value of much existing formal education, I fantasize about a couple of courses that ought to be compulsory, like Drivers’ Ed. One would be Real Democracy; that is, democracy as it is actually practiced, instead of a quick sprint through U.S. history and a show of hands to elect the class president. I imagine that if young people had in-depth exposure to the elements and texture of participatory democracy—to the required research, education, reflection, negotiation, the craft of balancing conflicting interests, the challenge of holding one’s self-interest and the group’s interest in simultaneous awareness, the monitoring and mid-course correction, the impossibility of perfection—they may grow up to be better at actually practicing it.
The other class would focus on How To Think, especially how to notice and correct for the characteristic blind-spots and biases that come packaged with human cognitive capacity. I love to peruse the list of cognitive biases on Wikipedia. Many of them cluster around what is called the “confirmation bias,” our tendency to look only for confirmatory information. Typically, we form a hypothesis, then set out to gather substantiating evidence. The trouble with this approach is that the world is so jam-packed with evidence, there is abundant data to support almost every hypothesis (as well as its opposite).
Unless you have considered all the data in the world (an obvious impossibility), confirmation can never definitively prove your point. To confirm the hypothesis that “all birds can fly,” for instance, I can list flying birds until I run out of paper, accumulating confirmation in abundance. But it takes only one penguin sauntering by to refute the hypothesis. The strongest way to test an idea is to seek to disprove it: and how many times have you seen that done that lately?
I think Mr. Spock could help write the curriculum, illustrating it with tales from his encounter with Anti-Thought. “Imagine,” he would say, “without this course in How To Think, we might have to live in a world where Anti-Thought was replacing the capacity for rational analysis and understanding.”
And wouldn’t that be terrible? Beam me up, Scotty.