The myth of the common man has a range of presentation from its high point in Aaron Copeland’s triumphant 1948 Fanfare to Sam Cooke’s 1958 Wonderful World, which celebrates ignorance of history, mathematics, geography, biology, and the French language in favor of unexamined emotionalism. I don’t know why, but for some reason that song reminds me of this prophetic quote:
“Someday the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
— H.L. Mencken
Anti-elitism is, briefly, the preference for a simple ideological answer to complex real problems. It is the ignorantocracy of politicians pandering to the lowest common denominator. It is corporations strip-mining our culture and our economy for short-term gain. It is the war on abstractions. It is the education system producing the next generation of prison inmates. It is what we have.
In the years since Cooke, politicians and their strategists have re-discovered anti-elitism as a potent manipulative weapon. If you can call the other fellow “elitist”, It is no longer necessary to win an argument with facts and reason. Like every other cultural meme, and with apologies to Sam Cooke, there is a history. It goes back a long ways but let’s just turn the pages from my lifetime…
Around the time I was born something happened that scared the living bejeezus out of our country; the Soviets lofted a beeping ball into orbit over our heads. When that object rose above the horizon, with it dawned the realization that technological power is not an exclusively American franchise.
It should have been obvious earlier; we had to race the Germans and the Japanese for the creation of an atom bomb, but that contest took place largely in secret. The story (that we alone possessed supreme destructive power) as it was delivered to the American people was much simpler than the reality behind it. A little more history in music:
First we got the bomb, and that was good,
‘Cause we love peace and motherhood.
Then Russia got the bomb, but that’s okay,
‘Cause the balance of power’s maintained that way.
France got the bomb, but don’t you grieve,
‘Cause they’re on our side (I believe).
China got the bomb, but have no fears,
They can’t wipe us out for at least five years.
(Tom Lehrer, Who’s Next?
Anyone with the price of a newspaper could figure out that a bomb could be mounted on top of a rocket. That meant we had to stay ahead of the Soviets. For a brief while, scientists and engineers became celebrities. Schools beefed up their science and math programs. Supremacy in education became a matter of national defense. Don’t let Communism win! We did a pretty good job, and not coincidentally, America’s economy surged.
Of course ideology was the back-seat driver, but lately ideology has jumped into the driver’s seat and kicked science out the door. We’re not just resting on our laurels; we’re driving them into the ground. The problem seems to be that people who understand science, culture, and history are difficult to manipulate. Today anytime science conflicts with official policy, some political appointee gets out his little marker and starts redacting. And what’s the problem with that?
Since (irrevocably, and for better or worse) our civilization depends on technology and on making correct technological choices, you can substitute “civilization” in the following quote:
“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
—Richard P. Feynman
For a successful civilization… and yet our leaders are behaving as if nature could be fooled, as if facts didn’t matter, and as if (as Karl Rove famously said), we could make our own reality. As if real consequences would hold off forever as long as we closed our eyes and keep repeating the lie. And if any pesky scientists or intellectuals say differently, all you have to do is call them elitist and poof! You win. It doesn’t even matter who the real “elitist” is; it’s just one of those all-purpose insults. Until:
“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces…”
- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World
Expertise has fallen on hard times; ideology is in ascendancy. In fact, somehow patriotism itself has fallen into a crab bucket from which no higher culture can emerge. Anything above the lowest common denominator in art, music, sports, or even science is suspect. National politicians can openly deride the value of a college education, and seek political endorsements from preachers who wouldn’t know a phenotype from an archetype. Arguments can now be won by labeling the other side as “French”. Biology education fights a constant battle against encroachment from bronze-age mythology. Schools cut art and music in favor of standardized test instruction. Here’s Sagan again:
“I worry that… pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us—then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.
The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.
- Carl Sagan, IBID
It’s time to go on the offensive against anti-intellectualism, anti-science, and anti-elitism, and start calling stupidity by its right name. As a culture we need to stop thinking in slogans and start celebrating complexity, depth, and study, and if the answer to a problem is complicated, then it’s complicated and that’s fine. It’s time to stop pretending that the laws of nature don’t apply to us. And here’s why: because when we stop tolerating ideological nonsense, we can carve out space to give reality precedence over public relations. So we can have a successful civilization.
Adlai Stevenson said; “Eggheads Unite! All you have to lose is your yolks!” In his day the main threat was only nuclear holocaust. Today we have that, and lots more. Because nature isn’t waiting for us to wise up.