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Sunday, Aug. 13, 2006 at 11:24 AM
The Decadence Excuse... . The Song Sung by All Our Foes
Stirring the porcelain bowl again, former GOP White House staffer Peggy Noonan offered up the following observation, one that seems worth a little commentary:
"I note here what is to me a mystery. It is that people with lower IQs somehow tend, in our age, to have a greater apprehension of the meaning of things and the reality of life, than do our high-IQ professionals, who often seem, in areas outside their immediate field, startlingly dim. I don't know why intellectuals--or cerebralists or eggheads or IQ hegemonists--seem to miss the most obvious things, floating on untethered by common sense.”
What Noonan does here is illustrate a phenomenon we should study carefully and recognize in all of its forms. In fact, it is what all enemies of America and the Enlightenment do... coining fancy rationalizations to explain-away facts that would otherwise have to be acknowledged. Nay, recognized as clear refutations of their entire position.
(Yes, it is more generally a human phenomenon. But I want to address the particularly anti-modernist and anti-American aspects, up front.)
I have several times mentioned the Decadence Rationalization. This is an act that ALL enemies of the Great Experiment, have had to perform, without exception, during every generation for at least 150 years. Indeed, it may be their most commonly shared trait. It goes something like this:
“Americans rich and happy and progressive and dynamic and have way too much fun. They must have traded away something essential and precious in a devil’s bargain, in order to get all that. Clearly, what they have given up was (variously) their sanctity, manhood, character, soul, chance-of salvation, racial purity.... (Details depend on whether you are Osama, a Russian poet, a fundamentalist, Oswald Spengler, Adolf Hitler, or...)”
Some of you will recognize the familiar tunnel vision of the Zero Sum game, a way of viewing life that stood unchallenged in most societies, during nearly all of human history. (And prehistory, for that matter.) The logic of simple tradeoffs. If you win a point, it is because I lost one. If you are good at math, you must be bad at sports. If you are eating, it must have come off of my plate.
The alternative, Positive Sum approach is something that comes less naturally to a human mind, though it’s been making headway. People either grasp it right away, or perhaps they never will, as a matter of deep-down personality. “It is possible for us both to win. Ideally, I will have the satisfaction of winning a little more than my opponents do. But it may be possible for us all to do well, at an accelerating rate.”
The Positive Sum game is much more than just a simple matter of personality or perspective. The core principle underlying democracy and markets and science, it is also the very foundation of modernism, and fosters the notion of human-built progress. For that trait, above all, it is hated, passionately, by all of the simplistic ideological extremes. And you can see why. Take the quandary of explaining the wealth/happiness/fun/success of contemporary American society.
We’ve seen the Zero Sum rationalization, that Americans paid a stiff price of decadence. The alternative -- the Positive Sum interpretation -- is devastatingly obvious and utterly unbearable. Suppose there was no wretched tradeoff, no fatal surrender of virtue in exchange for decadent pleasure. Then the real reason for all this success must be that we found a better way for human beings to live.
Intolerable. Inconceivable. So, without exception, we see variations of the same tiresome, just-so story, repeated like a hypnotic mantra: ”They are rotten fruit. If we strike Americans a sharp blow, they will whimper and crumble like spoiled, rudderless children.”
It doesn’t matter that we refute the Decadence Rationalization every single generation. (Find one exception. It really is tediously rhythmic and predictable. And it will happen again.) Always, always, it erupts again to snipe and pester us. Because it must.
This time, we got off REALLY cheap. The heroes of flight UA93 stood up from their seats and showed that they were made of the same stuff as their ancestors at Lexington and Gettysburg, flushing away Osama’s version of the decadence scarecrow with abrupt agility and such dramatic decisiveness that their impromptu insurrection really did end that particular war, on the very same day it began. That is, the phase of the war that was really about “terrorism.”
(There have been a dozen or so cockpit door incidents, etc., on planes, since that day, and on EVERY occasion, passengers simply sat on whichever loon was causing a ruckus -- so routinely that the airlines now have standard reward procedures in place. This, plus strengthening and locking the doors themselves, made ALL the difference. And yet, has this changed attitudes toward citizen empowerment? See:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000BY2PRQ)
As for Peggy Noonan? Let’s go back to her excerpt: “I note here what is to me a mystery. It is that people with lower IQs somehow tend, in our age, to have a greater apprehension of the meaning of things and the reality of life, than do our high-IQ professionals, who often seem, in areas outside their immediate field, startlingly dim. I don't know why intellectuals--or cerebralists or eggheads or IQ hegemonists--seem to miss the most obvious things, floating on untethered by common sense.”
Yeah. Karl Rove said something similar, about how there can be such a thing as “too much education.” How about that!
Well, let’s not get all hot and bothered, because it really was predictable. They have to come up with their own version of the Decadence Rationalization, after all. Because (as I was among the 1st to point out, at http://www.davidbrin.com/realculturewar1.html) the so-called education level advantage of the GOP over the Democratic Party has recently reversed, in a big way. Hence, the primacy of education, a thing that they once crowed about is suddenly irrelevant, dumped in the trash, along with other obsolete tenets of 20th Century conservatism...
...like fiscal restraint, suspicion towards foreign adventurism, skepticism toward the “discredited utopian fantasy of so-called nation-building”...
...and a few other quaint notions. Like the patriotic willingness of previous elites to at least help pay the cost of wars fought by other peoples’ children.
Ah, how easily we surrender the things of youth.
Oh, but when it comes to education, this kind of two-step reversal is no minor thing! The GOP advantage in this area wasn’t easy for Democrats to overcome. After all, they have long stood up for the disenfranchised and disadvantaged, the poor and immigrants. Naturally, those demographic groups laid a heavy statistical burden, dragging down Democratic averages. Democrats have always enjoyed a counterbalancing edge at the other end of the education spectrum, causing a “U-Shaped” education-level effect. But that slight uptick at the postgraduate level was never enough to overcome the statistical tilt caused by urban poor...
... that is, till now. Now the Democrats' advantage at the high end has become so profound that even the neocons can no longer ignore it! Once you get above (on average) three years of college at an Aggie school, GOP support peaks and then starts to plummet, like a rocket. As skill and knowledge climb, so does awareness of the world’s complexity, along with willingness to see past a few polysyllabic nostrums, toward more distant horizons. Horizons of time, of space, of inclusion. Horizons of possibility, for well or ill.
Is Noonan TOTALLY wrong?
Of course not. Obviously, there has always been a core of truth to the so called “egghead effect”! Fads and fashions and limp-wristed hyper intellectualization can reach truly impressive levels of foppish impracticality and smugly addlepated dopiness that make the old French Court look positively -- well -- enlightened by comparison! Take campus postmodernists, for example, who use “textual analysis” to prove that there is no objective reality and thus no such thing as science. What tripe-aholic yertzes! (They are among Karl Rove’s favorite people, for obvious reasons.) Anyone with a dram of sense must acknowledge that such people exist. They certainly are loud enough to be noticed.
Which is what hypocrites like Noonan and Rove count on, a small grain of truth that they then use Big Lie techniques to amplify, in their attempt to discredit the vast and growing demographic that threatens them most -- Americans who have postgraduate degrees! (Or the equivalent in dedicated post-college learning.) A pool of skill and talent larger and more fantastic than any the world has ever seen...
...now blithely dismissed by the Noonans and Roves as “eggheads” (or, in British parlance “boffins”) -- portrayed as specialist, hot-house minds, too high-strung to be trusted outside their expertise, and maybe not even then. Nutty perfessors who are of use in the lab, but far too absurd ever to be allowed near policy.
Stepping back a bit, notice the familiar, “zero-sum” notion of a fateful tradeoff. The brilliant or self-made or well-educated must have sacrificed something essential. Some basic grounding in common sense. Perhaps even their souls.
(How DO they manage these tricks? Out of one side of their mouths, they call New York a city of heroes... then turn and diss every supposedly decadent trait of that capital of Blue State America, including New Yorkers’ “excessive” levels of reading and education. Do they notice or ever acknowledge that the principal American victims of terrorism also happen to be the Americans least afraid of terrorism? Not ever. They cannot. Because it would mean accepting that city as more American than the so-called heartland. But let’s veer back to the topic at hand. The new anti-education, anti-intellect campaign of the far right.)
What this is really about is power, of course. Should those who know a lot have a right thereupon to influence public decision-making? As much as -- say -- those who have a lot?
No -- they maintain -- policy cannot be trusted to scientists, or those who dedicated themselves to self-improvement and learning more about the world. Policy belongs in the hands of those who always had it before the Great Experiment began. Those who were bred to it. Born to it. Who are connected. People of quality.
(Want irony? Other than those aforementioned campus postmodernists, what group most intensely fits the image of overly-erudite, elitist snobs? Who, other than the neo-platonist followers of the University of Chicago’s own Leo Strauss, those neoconservative smartypants boys, Kristol, Wolfowitz, Perle and their ilk, so relentlessly sure of themselves. So relentlessly superior. So relentlessly and repeatedly and devastatingly wrong about almost everything.)
No, this latest sally by Noonan and Rove & co is dismally predictable on so many levels, not just as “anti-egghead” populism aimed at their base. No, that would not explain their cabal’s deliberate demolition of the entire Congressional scientific and technical advisory apparatus, depriving the legislative branch of any chance for independent analysis and neutral fact checking. Nor does mere populism explain their campaign of obfuscation, calling it “false consensus” when 90% of scientists demand that attention be paid to something that may threaten our children.
Can self-interest explain it? True, we are in the middle of the greatest kleptocratic raid in the nation’s history. The smartest must know it cannot last. Indeed, it must be dawning on them that , like the great campaign to deny the dangers of tobacco, the anti-science denial of climate change will eventually lead to the assigning of blame.
Nor can any rational reason really explain the open war that these ninnies are waging right now against the intelligence community and United States Officer Corps, the third best-educated clade in our society. The one group standing between us all and a very cold wind. Who could possibly be benefitting, in any lucid way, from that?
No, after going through it all, we can only conclude that we are seeing the Decadence Rationalization playing out, all over again. The same mental acrobatics that have been performed by every enemy of the American Enlightenment, ever since it began.
A contortion of both perception and logic that allows an old-fashioned, zero sum mind to explain to itself how fun and wisdom and learning and practicality and compassion and cooperation and accountability and openness and joyful competitiveness and a myriad other good things (especially fun) can co-exist without equal and counter-balancing cost.
These people sincerely believe what they are saying, folks.
And of course, that’s the scariest part of all.
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