Collective mediocrity
0 comment Wednesday, November 19, 2014 |
I have had a blog entry in mind for some days now, 'inspired' or, more accurately, provoked by what I have been observing with the election returns of the last week. It relates also to a piece I wrote about a month ago called 'Crisis of faith', in which I described my wavering faith in my fellow Americans.
Darrell Dow sums up what I have been thinking recently in this piece called Boobus Americanus
A friend once summed up his view of democracy and the limitations inherent therein with the following formulation: "The masses are asses."
While admittedly crude and by no means a wry, Menckenesque description of the folly of Boobus Americanus, my friend insisted he was merely quoting Alexander Hamilton. And in fact, he had hit upon an important truth. Though elites always and everywhere rule, in a democracy they do so by holding to the faith and aspirations of mass man. As Burton Blumert observed, "if we only unmasked the conspiracy, all our problems would be solved, but if the trouble is in all of us, then we really are in trouble."
Witness the current GOP primary. Sixty-four percent of all Americans oppose the Iraq war and fifty-nine percent think things are going "somewhat badly" or "very badly" in bringing stability to that blood-soaked land. Still willing to flak for the prez, an astounding sixty-four percent of GOP primary voters continue to support the war. Obviously, that means the remainder must be voting for Ron Paul, right? Well, no, they are voting for John McCain.''
Dow describes the irrationality behind most of the choices being made by voters across America; people claim to be concerned about illegal immigration and yet they failed to rally behind the candidate who spoke out most forcefully about it, Tom Tancredo. The same people, having 'moved on', then switch their allegiance to someone like Mike Huckabee, who has been an unashamed apologist for illegals for some years. Of course Huckabee made some kind of profession of being a born-again restrictionist, and his lip service to enforcement was enough to satisfy the undiscriminating voter.
And now we are told that McCain is almost certainly the Republican nominee -- which makes not a whit of sense, given that McCain's name is indelibly associated with the amnesty bill which so many Americans fought to defeat last year. We oppose amnesty and yet we are willing to accept the most pro-amnesty, pro-open borders politician out there? This is insane. The only possible explanations are that many people are irrational, or irremediably stupid, too stupid or lazy to find out what a candidate's record shows on a given issue, or that there is some kind of election-fixing going on. Or perhaps all of the above apply.
Dow lists all the issues like trade, smaller government, and the Iraq war -- on which McCain seems to be the worst possible candidate from the perspective of the majority of Republicans, if not all Americans.
What is going on here? Can we attribute this to voter ignorance or apathy? Short attention span? Or is it evidence that the real votes have not been reported, and that the elections are fixed? It is tempting to prefer to believe the latter, rather than to accept that the average American is so lacking in common sense and civic virtue as to vote for a McCain (or a Huckabee, or any of the others in both parties).
I've noticed, to my considerable frustration, that I can be talking with someone who seems to 'get it', who seems to understand that our country is now at considerable risk for various reasons, reasons which are familiar to all my readers. Just when I think I am talking to an aware and perceptive person, that individual will utter some complete inanity which completely destroys my optimism. Sometimes I despair of my fellow Americans. It seems that I will invest considerable time and effort to try to get people to think and to question, and then they will suddenly revert to the kinds of idiocies purveyed by the mass media. One step forward, ten steps back.
Our 'democratic' system puts excessive faith, I think, in the masses. We have become too enamored of the idea that there is some kind of mystic, magical wisdom inherent in mass man, or in the 'average' man or woman. The saying from Alexander Hamilton 'the masses are asses', which Dow quotes at the beginning of his piece, is in fact an echoing of a longstanding attitude, going back to classical times. Have we in fact made a god of 'democracy' or of the average man? Can it be that at the founding of our country, in a reaction against the idea of an aristocracy of birth, we went too far in the opposite direction, toward exalting the 'little guy' and disparaging the idea that perhaps an aristocracy of character and ability might be preferable?
In an ideal world, the average man and woman would be possessed of sound instincts and common sense as well as basic knowledge about the world around us. It was emphasized by those who founded our country that only a literate, informed, moral, righteous people were capable of sustaining our Republic. We may have strayed too far away from that ideal, and in present-day parlance, dumbed down our Republic by broadening the franchise while we diminish the average intelligence.
There is now no serious and informed political discourse except in various isolated places; what passes for political and philosophical discussion in the mainstream media, in newspapers and especially on cable 'news' channels, is crude and banal propaganda. It is no wonder that we have an electorate which does not make rational and informed decisions.
And maybe it was always thus, really. If we look at the quotes from various classical sources, we see that similar laments were heard thousands of years ago.
"In the common people there is no wisdom, no penetration, no power of judgment." - Cicero
"It is proof of a bad cause when it is applauded by the mob." - Seneca
''Since the masses of the people are inconsistent, full of unruly desires, passionate, and reckless of consequence, they must be filled with fears to keep them in order. The ancients did well, therefore, to invent gods, and the belief in punishment after death.'' - Polybius
For a while, perhaps, we had an anomalous age in which there was widespread literacy, and when children were given a sound education and a good grounding in logic and reason.
However as Nock and other observers have noted, the very fact that literacy became nearly universal was the beginning of the dumbing-down process. The advent of the printing press, too, may have made possible the wide dissemination of great literature, but mass literacy and mass production of cheap books spread a great deal of inferior and vulgar material as well. In this context, science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon was supposed to have said that "95 percent of everything is crap", the formulation which is now called Sturgeon's Law.
It seems rather a cynical statement, but looking at the media and the political world these days, it certainly seems true.
Sometimes I've had what seemed to be a fruitful conversation with someone about the urgent issues of our time, and about the election, and then later I talk to the same person and it's as though our earlier discussion never took place, or perhaps went in one ear and out the other. Is this just a sign of short attention spans? Poor memories?
It almost seems as if people are placed in a trance by the 'mainstream media'; what they hear on Fox News or on their favorite talk radio program or on Oprah seems to carry considerable weight with many people, and then there are those who, even worse, seem to change their minds by the hour, depending on which neighbor or co-worker they have spent time with. Many people seem highly impressionable, a fact which seems promising at first, because it is easily mistaken for open-mindedness and intellectual curiosity, at least at first glance. But too often, it's just malleability and fickleness, double-mindedness, lukewarmness. I truly do believe that many people vote based on the toss of a coin, or worse, based on what the consensus at the water cooler is. So many people are swept this way and that, and have no fixed beliefs or principles. Some people are fine on their own, in a one-to-one conversation, but put them in a group and they will passively agree with the group consensus.
This is not the stuff of which good representative government is made; it is fodder for demagogues and exploiters.
John Stuart Mill said
At present individuals are lost in the crowd. In politics it is almost a triviality to say that public opinion now rules the world. The only power deserving the name is that of the masses, and of governments while they make themselves the organ of the tendencies and instincts of masses. This is as true in the moral and social relations of private life as in public transactions. Those whose opinions go by the name of public opinion are not always the same sort of public: in America they are the whole white population; in England, chiefly the middle class. But they are always a mass, that is to say, collective mediocrity. And what is a still greater novelty, the mass do not now take their opinions from dignitaries in Church or State, from ostensible leaders, or from books. Their thinking is done for them by men much like themselves, addressing them or speaking in their name, on the spur of the moment, through the newspapers."
And given the present calibre of our newspapers, this is not a good omen.
Still, since John Stuart Mill wrote this in the 19th century, it's obvious that things were not much better in his day.
In this essay
Everything you need to know
James Leroy Wilson writes, of Albert Jay Nock:
The more Nock was persuaded that humans can not be perfected, the more he looked upon them with a "Christian spirit." Their drives, tastes, and prejudices didn't bother him any more.
It's good advice to those who believe that if only the masses can "be told the truth," they will see the light, change their ways, and reform the system. The best anyone can hope is to reach those with an open mind, who are open to persuasion. We shouldn't expect either the masses or the system to produce freedom or justice - only individuals can choose to be free, and only individuals can be just.''
Maybe this is the only sensible -- or Christian -- attitude to take toward the average man and his irrationality. It may be that we have unrealistic expectations. I have to return to Nock's beliefs that the masses are not amenable to reason or enlightenment; I am afraid that any other view is based on wishful thinking and not on a reading of history.
However, is this not bad news for 'democracy', if the average man, the mass man, is only prey for demagogues and exploiters? What hope is there for representative government, or specifically for our Republic if this is the case?
I suppose I put my hope in the fact that it does not take 'the majority' to make things happen. In fact, if we look at the world now, it's clear that the majority are mere pawns, while a few very powerful -- and very motivated -- people are manipulating the rest.
Maybe all that is necessary to work good is to awaken an equally determined and motivated few to counter the ascendant few who are working so much harm.
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