It’s not elitism, but its absence

Some semi-random thoughts on where to from here, and why.

What could be more predictable than a news media looking to fill column inches/actuality minutes with blamestorming the election of a vulgar nincompoop by finding fault with his opponents.

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Not to do so would be to do the unthinkable: it would question the value of representative democracy itself.

And yet that’s exactly what should be happening.

A candidate won the election with fewer popular votes than his opponent. When will the USA wake up to the perpetual fraud of gerrymandering?

If two per cent of the ballots cast had gone the other way across key electorates, a different president-in-waiting would be the target of fulmination and a renewed campaign of Republican fearmongering.

What that means in a larger picture is that if a million more eligible voters had bothered to show up on the day, the outcome could have been quite different.

Not voting is tacit consent for the winner. Ergo, those who didn’t show up, for whatever reason, voted for the winner. Meaning they would have been equally satisfied with either candidate. Definitely no room for complaint from that demographic.

Electoral math, too, is not arguable. Voting for a minority candidate with zero chance of winning was a deliberate act of splitting the vote, and therefore assisting the major party candidate on the other side: Clinton for the libertarians, and Trump for the Greens. As it turned out, though, the minor candidates didn’t really amount to a game-changing tally.

One of my least favourite myths during the election campaign was that somehow Trump’s vulgar bigotry was not intrinsically Republican. It has been for decades. The Republicans have stood for misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy for decades. Trump is not really as much of a surprise as some say he is, and he’s not at all interested in changing things, except for the worse, in favour of the plutocrats who have always owned the Republicans.

The Democrat establishment, on the other hand, having grown used to being able to defraud its voters in front of national TV cameras, cheated voters out of a nomination for a candidate with a better chance of winning against Trump than the establishment favourite. Almost as if the DNC had decided in a spontaneous Harrison Bergeron gesture to handicap its party and its constituency.

So, there are grounds to argue the election was close, not a huge upset, and won’t usher in any changes we haven’t seen from other Republicans. What will be different is the scale of the disappointment on both sides of the voting aisle. People expecting change won’t get it, and people fearing xenophobic backlash will get it. Hopefully that will play to a more sane field of candidates in 2020. Hopefully. Sanity is not something that is easily conflated with American politics.

But on to the entertainment. The self-flagellation of liberals coming to terms with having lost their country to their unruly, ill-tempered, spoilt children. The ones they raised to be too selfish to recognise self-destructive nihilism for what it is.

The first couple of pieces pre-date the election, though they essentially say the same thing: liberals have become too smug in sneering at the ‘other’ America.
Emmett Rensin’s overly long, rambling Vox essay ‘The smug style in American liberalism’ felt like a drunken lament about an ended juvenile love affair. Irrational, melodramatic, and full of immature, naïve assumptions.

Chief of these assumptions is that non-Republicans can be regarded as a homogeneous group. That’s about as accurate and useful as proposing all Republicans are conservatives. It won’t do to point the finger at an imaginary phantom. We need to look at the charge itself: smugness.

I have no doubt it exists among people definitely not inclined to vote Republican, but it’s much more likely to be associated with a much smaller group of people than ‘liberals’. The ones Rensin describes strike me as the politically correct identity politics crowd. And that’s what the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof had to say two weeks after Rensin. In a column entitled ‘A Confession of Liberal Intolerance’ he basically pointed the finger at the academy and its heavy political bias against ‘conservatism’.

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But just as Rensin generalised liberalism, so does Kristof, and the latter goes even further by doing similar violence to conservatism. If the term conservatism has any meaning at all, it is not owned by the confederation of cause politics that is the Republican Party. In fact, no president since 1945 was not a conservative in the Burkean sense. Obama was the most successful conservative president since Nixon despite the nihilism of a congress controlled by anarchists falsely claiming to be conservatives. And Hillary Clinton proposed such a dour platform of anti-reform, she was sometimes indistinguishable from Reaganite Republicans.

Injecting that dose of realism into the rhetoric of politics that Rensin and Kristol adopt without question, it becomes possible to see the real problem.

Rensin is in fact railing against a group of ignorant, self destructive neo-Stalinists, whose militant adherence to the ideology of political correctness is a no more than a censorship agenda, and whose identity politics fellow travellers are just mercenaries looking to validate their own narcissistic self-gratification fetish. You might call these people liberals, but they aren’t really a totality of such a group. They are, however, the same people Kristof calls liberals, albeit more accurately limiting them to the academy and its private sector proximates, like some literary circles, media cliques, and arts patrons.

Kristof’s big omission, though, was not to define what he means by conservatives shut out of recognition in the academy. If he pines for Christofascists, bigots, or the Ayn Rand fan club, he’s just wrong to propose a better deal for them. They belong in the academy as much a flat earthers and ufologists.

Quality of argument and research is still the benchmark by which such things should be measured. Idiots claiming the title ‘conservative’ to reiterate conspiracy theories, eugenics, superstition, and crypto-fascism, should not be given a hall pass just to make people like Kristof feel better about themselves.

That’s not quite the same, however, as proposing serious scholarship of conservatism should be respected as serious scholarship. I suspect, though, the latter is no longer true in the Western academy either.

A friend pointed me to an alternative lament. This one from a British philosopher Helen De Cruz:

The day after Trump won the presidential election, I had been working on a paper on prestige bias in philosophy. I think prestige bias in philosophy results in injustice, and shuts out people who are not middle-class and white. But as I was writing this paper, it suddenly felt so futile to write about problems in the profession of philosophy, given the magnitude of the political situation we are now faced with.

Part of this feeling of futility is that we are made to feel futile. Academics are routinely dismissed as the out of touch elite, who somehow enabled this, or more charitably who were oblivious, living in a bubble. Leave campaigner Gove could not have been clearer: “People in this country have had enough of experts”. We’re out of touch with angry white voters. We’re wrong in our cosmopolitanism and openness to diversity. As May would say, we’re citizens of nowhere. So one important reason to battle the sense of futility is to counter the fake revolt led by elites who pretend not to be elites. Academics have a huge role to play in this. Bullshitters don’t care about the truth, but we do (even if those truths are philosophical). We need to hold them accountable.

I don’t really know about the British university culture anymore, but I do know that the one I encountered in Australia quite recently is definitely removed from realities playing out just meters outside campus grounds. It’s not enough to preach politically correct censorship and pretend all educated people share the same politics (they do not). It’s definitely not enough to withdraw and feel smug, as Rensin stated, in some kind of moral or personal superiority. If academics no longer engage with a wider public than each other and students, the elite tag will stick. And not because everyone else is wrong.

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Paradoxically De Cruz’s conclusions about this are absolutely correct. If the masses won’t come to the academy, the academy must come to the masses. Why are ill-educated and underprivileged people so alienated from ‘experts’? The simplest answer is that the experts have abandoned them to a careerism in which they (the underclass) are invisible. If that were not so, in place of the neo-Stalinist cult of political correctness and identity politics we would have a workable alternative to the Washington-Berlin consensus politics of austerity and plutocracy. That alternative would come from lecture theatres in the arts, in the social sciences, and in law. But instead we have graduates with no education in civics, no interest in anything but the self, and no insight into the dynamics of the societies they animate that way through their daily behaviours.

Academics are indeed culpable in the re-emergence of nationalist populism. But they could also make a huge difference. And De Cruz is right: academics need to hold bullshitters accountable. Including their own variety.

The final piece of entertainment here comes from someone billed by the Guardian as ‘Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy and law at New York University, … a British-born, Ghanaian-American philosopher and cultural theorist.’ I’m not suggesting this billing is incorrect. Just that I never heard of him until last week. Given my interests, that puts him at the margins of ‘philosophy’, but maybe not in the USA.

In his essay, ‘There is no such thing as western civilisation’ he comes close to boring readers to distraction with historical revisionism that offers few insights that shouldn’t emerge from high school history syllabi. Maybe he traverses this territory because history is no longer taught. He does make one telling point:

Values aren’t a birthright: you need to keep caring about them. Living in the west, however you define it, being western, provides no guarantee that you will care about western civilisation. The values European humanists like to espouse belong just as easily to an African or an Asian who takes them up with enthusiasm as to a European. By that very logic, of course, they do not belong to a European who has not taken the trouble to understand and absorb them. The same, of course, is true in the other direction. The story of the golden nugget suggests that we cannot help caring about the traditions of “the west” because they are ours: in fact, the opposite is true. They are only ours if we care about them. A culture of liberty, tolerance, and rational inquiry: that would be a good idea. But these values represent choices to make, not tracks laid down by a western destiny.

And that, of course, is why Appiah’s proposition is wrong. Western civilisation remains that so long as it persists as a place in which he can trash-talk it. Try that stuff about local culture in many other parts of the world and get ready for summary execution or banishment to some Dantean circle of hell.

The enemies of Western civilisation include all the ‘everything-me-now’ crowd at the margins of the lunatic left and right who denigrate Enlightenment values while posing as conservatives and lefties.

These squabbling children have certainly played a big hand in delivering Brexit and Trump. But the real problem is not that we should have been more tolerant of the extremists among them. The real problem is that we weren’t harsh enough in rejecting their elitism – the real elitism in demanding a singular conception of politics and ethics. What we should have been doing is pursuing endemic political and private sector corruption, and the rapidly accelerating economic inequality that will always lead to catastrophic realignment if not balanced more equitably.

All of this says to me that Brexit and Trump come as terrible reminders that the comfortably well-off are too removed from the bases of their own comfort to see they need to preserve them rather than taking them for granted.

But it also says to me that abandoning Western civilisation based on Enlightenment values is a ridiculous proposition when offered as remedy for our current problems. It would be better for people opposed to political nihilism in the West to act like a resistance rather than a bunch of genteel, mannered bourgeois namby-pambies talking tolerance of intolerance.

That means courage, determination, and a willingness to embrace risks rather than self-flagellation. It means a real elitism, based on rationality and human decency, and openly rejecting the demands of spoilt children, nihilistic plutocrats, and the mercenaries who play them off against each other. It means re-imposing social norms in which corruption, inequality, and bigotry are recognised as wrong by any ethical standard.

 

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