Collective mediocrity, Part II
0 comment Thursday, September 11, 2014 |
''Where the people possess no authority, their rights obtain no respect.''
The above words were written by George Bancroft, who was a historian, diplomat, and a New England transcendentalist. He was also called 'the father of American History.'
My previous post had to do with the question of whether the 'average' citizen is capable of the demands of participating in the political process of our republic. It may be that because our population has been so dumbed-down and distracted, 'the people possess no authority', in Bancroft's terminology, although he intended another meaning by his words.
Bancroft, like others in his intellectual and social circles, had what I would consider an inordinately high opinion of human perfectibility. I wonder if he were able to time travel, as we discussed the other day, and visit 21st century America, if he would have such a high opinion?
Over at the Nolan Chart, EJ Moosa notes that debate is a lost art in our society.
What are we afraid of? Why are our debates so short? Why are we afraid to debate others on topics of importance? Why do freedom seekers seem to want to stifle debate at the first chance they get? Our presidential debates are not really debates. They are question and answer sessions. The candidates do not go toe to toe, and debate the underlying principles of their beliefs. Those that watch the debates do not have the patience to listen to such a dialog. Either that or they are not really interested unless what they hear reinforced what they already believe. This does not accomplish much.
Our forefathers debated for weeks and months on issues. Yet here we are and we must be suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder. A five minute discussion and we have had enough.
Why are we afraid of debate? Is it because we must know what we believe to defend what we believe? That we must have absolute principles behind our statements?
We are told that we should not discuss religion, sex or politics with friends. Yet, are those three topics not the most significant in our lives?''
[Emphasis mine]
That last paragraph is something I've said many times over the course of my life -- or at least regarding religion and politics, although Moosa and I would probably find little political or philosophical common ground apart from support for Ron Paul. But we can agree that debate is a lost and dying art.
When it comes to our presidential 'debates', I've lamented here on this blog how they are not debates in any sense of the word, being scripted and staged, and containing few exchanges of any substance, much less formal arguments and rebuttals. But to 21st century, short-attention-span Americans, these 'debates' and what passes for discourse seem good enough.
We may think this is a trifling matter, but I don't believe that we can have any kind of real participatory government, or an informed electorate, without real debate. And in order to have that, we would need to undertake the monumental task of educating the public from the ground up. Our public schools are meant for indoctrination and socialization only, and seem to actively discourage critical, independent thought. And they do not teach young people logic and analytical thinking, or rhetoric. They seem to purposely turn out young people with little capacity for deep thought or any kind of disciplined use of the mind.
But there is something other than poor education and attention deficit disorder that plays into this phenomenon. It has to do with personality traits or social habits.
Americans somehow seem to confuse argument with personal quarreling. Some people do not perceive any difference between a spirited debate about ideas or events, and a barroom brawl, finding both equally unseemly. Some people are quite willing to enter into a spirited debate or discussion and yet they cannot keep it on a detached and objective level, but must turn it into a personal attack. We see this last phenomenon a lot on the Internet; I suspect many of the attackers and trolls on the Internet may be polite people in the real world, who feel their inhibitions loosened in the anonymous world of the Internet. So we have two extremes: people who shy away from all debate and disagreement, even when it is of a very civilized kind, and people who are eager to turn a polite debate into a slanging match and a donnybrook.
We need to be re-educated on how to have a civilized but frank discussion of ideas and issues. We seem to have lost the art of it, if we ever possessed it.
Albert Jay Nock quoted Goethe as saying that the test of civilization is conversation. In The Right Thing, Nock said:
American life has long been fair game for the observer.
[...] So much, in fact, has been written about the way we live, how we occupy ourselves, how we fill up our leisure, the things we do and leave undone, the things we are likely to do and likely to leave undone, that I for one would never ask for another word on such matters from anybody. As a good American, I try to keep up with what is written about us, but it has become rather a dull business and I probably miss some of it now and then, so I cannot say that no observer has ever made a serious study of our conversation. In all I have read, however, very little has been made of the significance of the things we choose to talk about and our ways of talking about them. Yet I am sure that Goethe's method would give a better measure of our civilization than any other, and that it would pay any observer to look into it. For my own part, ever since I stumbled on Goethe's observation --- now more than twenty years ago --- I have followed that method in many lands. I have studied conversation more closely than any other social phenomenon, picking up from it all the impressions and inferences I could, and I have always found that I got as good results as did those whose critical apparatus was more elaborate. At least, when I read what these critics say about such people as I know, especially my own, they seem to tell me little with which I was not already acquainted
[T]he most significant thing that I have noticed about conversation in America is that there is so little of it, and as time goes on there seems less and less of it in my hearing. I miss even so much of the free play of ideas as I used to encounter years ago. It would seem that my countrymen no longer have the ideas and imagination they formerly had, or that they care less for them, or that for some reason they are diffident about them and do not like to bring them out. When I first remarked this phenomenon I thought it might be an illusion of advancing age, since I have come to years when the past takes on an unnaturally attractive colour. But as time went on the fact became unmistakable and I began to take notice accordingly.''
Nock remarks that Americans don't like to explore a subject in depth, or to hear a range of opinions; there is a pressure to agree.
It is a mark of maturity to differentiate easily and naturally between personal or social opposition and intellectual opposition. Everyone has noticed how readily children transfer their dislike of an opinion to the person who holds it, and how quick they are to take umbrage at a person who speaks in an unfamiliar mode or even with an unfamiliar accent.''
Nock notes the pressure to conform to popular opinion. I think this is especially strong in our society.
Surely this tendency has to translate into bad news for the success of our political system. A democratic republic relies on an informed and civic-minded citizenry, and an open and fair and thoughtful discussion of important issues. Do we have either of these on any scale in America, or anywhere in the Western world these days?
Nock wrote that the extension of the franchise has been detrimental to the character of politics and to the type of person who enters public service:
...One must also remark with interest that in a republic every extension of the franchise has been accompanied by a deterioration in the character of politics and in the personnel of the public service; and this, too, is by hypothesis what one would look for. When England extended its franchise in the last century, Mr. Mill asked pathetically how it was possible to produce great men in a country where the test of a great mind was agreement with the opinions of small minds; and one can easily paraphrase this saying to suit the terms of our hypothesis.
Allowing everything in reason for other contributing causes, there is at least a striking coincidence in the fact that the American public service, all over the land, became fully twofold more irresponsible, unscrupulous, and scandalously wasteful almost at the moment when the electorate was practically doubled by the extension of the suffrage to women.
[...] On its political side, the eighteenth-century doctrine of republicanism, on which the Declaration of Independence and the Federal Constitution are based, turns out to be utterly false and mischievous. This doctrine assumes that if the mass-men take control of politics, if sovereignty be lodged in "the people" and exercised directly by them, they will in time work out a true commonwealth, a political order established on principles of justice, as set forth in the Rights of Man. The ground of this assumption, obviously, is that the mass-man is human, and therefore capable of a degree of development competent for this purpose; and indeed, if this be true, the doctrine is probably sound enough, the only postulate being that of practically unlimited time.''
And now we return to the ideas of Alexander Hamilton, who was quoted in the blog excerpt I posted yesterday:
At the time our republic was established, Alexander Hamilton was one of many who were strongly against this doctrine [of republicanism]. He objected to the experiment of putting sovereignty in the hands of the mass-man, and he expressed himself about it in terms that are curiously anticipatory of the idea that we are discussing. "The people," he said, "are a great beast." Now, if the anthropologists should decide that Hamilton was right about this, if the mass-man be literally and actually not human, if he be essentially incapable of any such degree of development as our eighteenth-century political theory presupposes, then surely republicanism is about the worst system that could be devised, even for the mass-man himself; for, in practice, instead of promoting any such limited development as the mass-man, in common with the other more teachable and imitative forms of animal life, is capable of making, it seems bound to reflect the very lowest common denominator of the mass-man's intelligence and character, and its tendency must be continuously to depress that denominator ever farther.
Thus instead of improving and elevating the mass-man by means of political experience, republicanism serves merely to degrade him. This appears to be what we see taking place. The candidate for political favor is sedulously careful to approach the mass-man on a plane of intelligence and character which is never above that of the mass-man's ordinary self. It is a commonplace of republican politics that he not only does so, but must do so.
The issues and policies that he presents must be such only as are adjustable to a potential majority in a mass-electorate endowed with an unlimited franchise. Thus every republican campaign reminds one of nothing so much as the scene described by Plato, where a huge, sluggish, obscene monster is surrounded by people who are assiduously flattering it, pretending to understand its noises, and in every imaginable way courting its good-will. Hence, by a selective process almost automatic, the political organization of a republican society is bound to be in control of the mass-man who is gifted merely with a low type of sagacity somewhat in excess of his fellow-creatures; whereby he is able to exploit their lack of intelligence, their vagrant attention, their superficial spirit, their hot and cold fits, their superstitions, their tendency always to run to the short-time point of view�and worst of all, their occasional good impulses, their occasional good faith, their boundless credulity, their weak hopes and weaker fears.
All this is extremely bad for the mass-man. What it does in the long run is to snarl up his society in a terrific tangle, wherein he is utterly helpless. Not only the financial genius of Hamilton but also the transcendent philosophical genius of Hegel foresaw this consequence. Hegel said, at the outset of republicanism, that it would culminate in an unexampled catastrophe; for, when all comes to all, republicanism puts upon the mass-man a burden of responsibility which he is not only unable to bear, but wholly incapable even of comprehending. This view has been inconclusively debated ever since the end of the seventeenth century, and its satisfactory conclusion on a priori grounds now seems as remote as it was then. In our own history we find John Adams on one side of the question, saying that the political struggles of the mass-man, left to his own devices, could end only in "a change of impostors." On the other side we are confronted by the great name of Mr. Jefferson, who believed that the mass-man was indefinitely improvable, that he was capable of learning by political experience, and of learning fast enough to enable him to hold his society together in some sort of working order while he was learning more.''
Nock calls our attention to the stark contrast in opinion between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in their views on the perfectibility of man. On the one hand, Hamilton's rather cynical (or is it realistic?) view, as opposed to Jefferson's more sanguine one. Also on the sanguine side was the assessment of George Bancroft, the transcendentalist historian I quoted at the beginning of this entry. Which view is the correct one?
In an 1835 speech, The People in Art, Government, and Religion, Bancroft said
...the best government rests on the people and not on the few, on persons and not on property, on the free development of public opinion and not on authority; because the munificent Author of our being has conferred the gifts of mind upon every member of the human race without distinction of outward circumstances. Whatever of other possessions may be engrossed, the mind asserts its own independence. Lands, estates, the produce of mines, the prolific abundance of the seas, may be usurped by a privileged class. Avarice, assuming the form of ambitious power, may grasp realm after realm, subdue continents, compass the earth in its schemes of aggrandizement, and sigh after worlds, but mind eludes the power of appropriation; it exists only in its own individuality; it is a property which can not be confiscated and can not be torn away. It laughs at chance; it bursts from imprisonment; it defies monopoly. A government of equal rights must, therefore, rest upon mind, not wealth, not brute force; some of the moral intelligence of the community should rule the State. Prescription can no more assume to be a valid plea for political injustice; society studies to eradicate established abuses and to bring social institutions and laws into harmony with moral right; not dismayed by the natural and necessary imperfections of all human effort, and not giving way to despair because every hope does not at once ripen into fruit.
The world can advance only through the culture of the moral and intellectual powers of the people. To accomplish this end by means of the people themselves is the highest purpose of government. If it be the duty of the individual to strive after a perfection like the perfection of God, how much more ought a nation to be the image of duty. The common mind is the true Parian marble fit to be wrought into the likeness to a God. The duty of America is to secure the culture and the happiness of the masses by their reliance on themselves.
It is the uniform tendency of the popular element to elevate and bless humanity. The exact measure of the progress of civilization is the degree in which the intelligence of the common mind has prevailed over wealth and brute force: in other words, the measure of the progress of civilization is the progress of the people.
It is alone by infusing great principles into the common mind that revolutions in human society are brought about. They never have been, they never can be effected by superior individual excellence. The age of the Antonines is the age of the greatest glory of the Roman Empire. Men distinguished by every accomplishment of culture and science for a century in succession possessed undisputed sway over more than one hundred millions of men, until, at last, in the person of Marcus Aurelius, philosophy herself seemed to mount the throne. And did she stay the downward tendencies of the Roman Empire? Did she infuse new elements of life into the decaying constitution? Did she commence one great beneficent reform? Not one permanent amelioration was effected. Philosophy was clothed with absolute power; and yet absolute power accomplished nothing for humanity. It could accomplish nothing. Had it been possible, Aurelius would have wrought a change. Society can be regenerated, the human race can be advanced, only by moral principles diffused through the multitude.
The irresistible tendency of the human race is therefore to advancement, for absolute power has never succeeded and can never succeed in suppressing a single truth. An idea once revealed may find its admission into every living breast and live there. Like God, it becomes immortal and omnipresent. The movement of the species is upward, irresistibly upward. The individual is often lost; providence never disowns the race. No principle once promulgated has ever been forgotten. No "timely tramp" of a despot�s foot ever trod out one idea. The world can not retrograde; the dark ages can not return. Dynasties perish, seeds are buried, nations have been victims to error, martyrs for right; humanity has always been on the advance, gaining maturity, universality, and power.
No truth can perish, no truth can pass away; the flame is undying, tho generations disappear. Wherever moral truth has struck into being, humanity claims and guards the greatest bequest. Each generation gathers together imperishable children of the past, and increases them by new sons of light alike radiant with immortality.''
[Emphasis mine]
There is a degree of truth, I think, in Bancroft's words, but I think his philosophical beliefs inclined him to think somewhat too highly of the perfectibility of the human being. History does not seem to bear out his belief that 'humanity has always been on the advance.' Too often, for the human race, it's one step forward and several steps back, just as I observed yesterday of certain individuals I've encountered. In a way, they typify the human race. Just as when we congratulate ourselves that humanity 'gets it', and we think we are on the way to solving the riddles of the human condition, we see a retrograde movement of the human race. We seem, as a species, to have to keep reinventing the wheel, where our moral and societal development is concerned.
Nock noted that the efforts of the political and social reformers hinged on the question of whether Man is perfectible, or even substantially improvable. If he is, then the pollyannas and the utopian reformers must keep on trying to perfect humanity. If he is not perfectible or even substantially capable of improving or 'evolving' then we had better scale back our hopes for do-gooding projects and government interventions. So this question is central to our politics.
But such questions are never considered, much less discussed by the reformers; we go blithely on assuming that we can continue our endless efforts to improve human nature, despite the observable lack of progress in that area.
Meanwhile, our public discussion is centered on the trivial and the superficial, our discourse deteriorates, and we are left with a feeling of dissatisfaction. In Nock's words,
The civilization of a country consists in the quality of life that is lived there, and this quality shows plainest in the things that people choose to talk about when they talk together, and in the way they choose to talk about them.
It can be taken for granted, I suppose, that man has certain fundamental instincts which must find some kind of collective expression in the society in which he lives. The first and fundamental one is the instinct of expansion, the instinct for continuous improvement in material well-being and economic security. Then there is the instinct of intellect and knowledge, the instinct of religion and morals, of beauty and poetry, of social life and manners. Man has always been more or less consciously working towards a state of society which should give collective expression to these instincts. If society does not give expression to them, he is dissatisfied and finds life irksome, because every unused or unanswered instinct becomes a source of uneasiness and keeps on nagging and festering within him until he does something about it.
Moreover, human society, to be permanently satisfactory, must not only express them all in due balance, proportion, and harmony. If too much stress be laid on any one, the harmony is interrupted, uneasiness and dissatisfaction arise, and, if the interruption persists. disintegration sets in. The fall of nations, the decay and disappearance of whole civilizations, can be finally interpreted in terms of the satisfaction of these instincts. Looking at the life of existing nations, one can put one's finger on those instincts which are being collectively overdone at the expense of the others. In one nation the instinct of expansion and the instinct of intellect and knowledge are relatively over-developed; in another, the instinct of beauty; in another, the instinct of manners; and so on. The term symphonic, which is so often sentimentally applied to the ideal life of society, is really descriptive; for the tendency of mankind from the beginning has been towards a functional blending and harmony among these instincts, precisely like that among the choirs of an orchestra. It would seem then that the quality of life in any society means the degree of development attained by this tendency. The more of these instincts that are satisfied, and the more delicate the harmony of their interplay, the higher and richer is the quality of life in that society; and it is the lower and poorer according as it satisfies fewer of these instincts and permits disharmony in their interplay.''
It would appear that we in America and probably in the West in general have developed the instinct for expansion almost to the exclusion of the other instincts, such as that for religion and morals, intellect and knowledge, and beauty.
And as ideas and ideals as well as emotions, that make us individuals, Nock observed that we are thus less individuated and more conformist. This, although he did not spell it out, would seem to make us inclined towards a mass society, which does not brook much dissension. There is a pressure toward consensus; peer pressure often shapes ideas and ideals and emotions, thus depleting our individuality in what should be the most individualized areas.
To bring this down to the mundane level of our present political campaign, we see the people stampeding, or being stampeded, towards candidates who seem to be the poorest of fits for the expressed wishes of the people: in an era in which many people mobilized to fight amnesty, we get three pro-amnesty candidates. In an era in which most people seem to be disillusioned with if not staunchly opposed to the Iraq War, we get three candidates who will pursue more war. How is this happening? Are the elections rigged? Or are people just being caught up in the bandwagon effect, and passively acquiescing in what is being presented to them as an inevitability, with which they had better get on board?
I think there is much of the latter, and it is no surprise in a society which thinks debate and argument is rude, a society in which people who differ from majority opinion are ridiculed as 'kooks' (Ron Paul and his supporters), that people are willing to be herded toward a comfortable consensus, in which everybody splits the difference though nobody really gets what they want.
I can't help but think that this is not what our forefathers had in mind when they conceived of our system.
How can we extricate ourselves from this situation? Or can we? Does the fault lie in our stars or in ourselves?
I think the very first thing that must happen, if there is any hope at all, is that we have to reinstate free speech, plain talk, and common sense. We have to re-learn, or learn for the first time in some cases, how to think logically and dispassionately, and we have to be able to debate and discuss and talk among ourselves in a civilized way about the urgent issues of our time. This is the absolute first step.
This would be the first step to 'possessing authority' and thus the first step toward obtaining respect for our rights as the people.
Forum comments here.

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