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Because Nature isn’t waiting for us to wise up

May 30, 2008

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.
Who’s next?

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.
Who’s next?…

(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.


Categories: Uncategorized
  1. May 31, 2008 at 03:00 | #1

    Oh, George!  This is awesome! And it reminds me of the one truth we need to hold most clearly in our minds: Nature is a mother.

  2. May 31, 2008 at 06:29 | #2

    A very thought provoking post. Love that first quote from Mencken…

    I waver between a position of sheer hopelessness based on our entire society and culture having fallen to the LCD, vs. a feeling that society and culture have shifted from being a continuum, a full spectrum, to being isolated populations arranged in a caste system with no overlapping, no Venn diagrams at work. In this latter, there is a hatred and/or fear between groups based on total failure to understand the other, whereas in the former, that hatred is replaced with dumbed-down goofiness, bully/victim school yard mentality.

    What ever happened to admiration and envy from those at the lower end to genuine caring and assistance from those above. Where is hard work to achieve? Whither long arms and gentle hands reaching out to help?

    Recently, I’ve been leaning more toward the isolation theory, the latter one mentioned above. The various components of “us”, no matter what demographic or attributes you want to examine, seem to have drifted further apart than ever. There is a very real and widening disconnect between haves and have-nots. The future holds little hope and promise.. Some days, I’m very glad that I won’t be around to see it…

  3. May 31, 2008 at 08:07 | #3

    Most of what you say I can agree with. We definitely have a different perspective on elitism however. From my perspective, elitism is exclusive, not inclusive. Look around you and you will see that the elite are not the teachers, scientists, doctors, and engineers. The elite are the lawyers, bean counters, corporate bigwigs (former salesmen, bean counters, and members of the “old boy” network), political and religious “leaders,” and the glitterati of Hollywood and professional sports. This last group is a kind of exception. They are the pampered pets of investors, gamblers and organized crime; all of whom make a ton of money off the accomplishments of the glitterati. For the most part, the elite
    are old money and new money in a land where “deserve” is an attitude, not a justifiable conclusion. Things like “no child left behind” are not indictments of elitism, they are tools of elitism. It insures that public education falters while it panders to the LCD, while their children attend private school.

    The elite cannot exist without a broad base of non-elite to feed off of; it is a hierarchy. The ethos of this structure is easily challenged. In a fair trade, profit is both mutual and marginal. When parasitic, third-party costs enter into the transaction, like baked-in insurance costs and taxes, things get lopsided and those that trade money earned from sweat (physical or mental) for other goods and services get labeled, “consumer”.

    I could go on in this vein and develop this argument further. Suffice to say that there has to be a better way than creating hierarchies so that the unscrupulous can claw their way to the top. We as a civilization are rewarding the wrong behaviors.

  4. May 31, 2008 at 08:08 | #4

    Perfect timing. I write for a “citizen journalism” site where an argument is currently raging over this very topic, as a response to an article about Susan Jacoby’s discussion of elitism. As might be expected, most of the heat is generated by those who prefer simple ideological answers and who have a hard time with logic and facts.

  5. May 31, 2008 at 09:41 | #5

    What you said.

    Was it Einstein who said something like “for every problem there is a simple solution that is wrong?”

    Everyone wants simple, but the world is complex.

  6. May 31, 2008 at 10:24 | #6

    Not many people know that farmers are scientists and techno savvy. Or that small businesses throughout the Bitter Hinterlands are connected to the world. Take a look at the small towns and cities and see that knowledge still matters.

    Excellent article.

  7. May 31, 2008 at 11:45 | #7

    Jerry!  :coolsmile:  That is one of the wonderful quotes I wanted to include in the umpteen drafts of this post, deleted, restarted, edited until I wasn’t sure what was in it anymore.  People who write for a living amaze me.

    The quote is: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler” – Einstein

    SylvieMac, your blog is a natural to contribute a post to the next Carnival. Definitely on-topic.

    Breakerslion, you’re right that is one of the definitions of elitism.  To differentiate I might call them “ability-elite” and “Status-elite”.  The latter is King George III, losing the colonies out of pure arrogance and the funny thing is, the status-elites have turned “elitism” into a political insult by pretending to be “regular guys”. They are anything but.

    Winston, I hear ya. And I do hope you’ll be around for a good long while.  Since I’ve got grown kids and probably forty years to go myself (a family of long-lived people) I have to at least try to be optimistic.  At very least I’ll go down fighting the stupid.

    This month’s COTEB is hosted at Dana’s place and there’s lots of good entries for its maiden voyage – it’s going to take me all weekend to read them all.  The permanent home of the carnival is linked from the carnival badge at the head of this post.

  8. May 31, 2008 at 23:26 | #8

    Excellent post. And I too hope to see our country shift. Which is why I plan to get back into Science Friday posting.

  9. June 1, 2008 at 08:54 | #9

    “What ever happened to admiration and envy from those at the lower end to genuine caring and assistance from those above.”

    That triggered a thought I might have to spend some time with. Envy has been replaced by resentment. That’s particularly ironic at a time in history when society is more open then it has ever been and the education that can move you out of a lower econonomic or intellectual class is available almost for the asking.

    But the idea that the “upper’ classes were ever caring is pretty much a myth, like the good old days, the golden age, etc.

  10. June 1, 2008 at 18:36 | #10

    Actually, my quote was sort of accurate (but not overly so), it was my author which was wrong, I should have looked at the first box in your article. It was H.L. Mencken who said: “For every problem there is a solution which is simple, neat, and wrong.”

  11. G
    June 2, 2008 at 19:27 | #11

    Amazing article. I’d add more, but I think you summed up my feelings pretty well already.

  12. June 2, 2008 at 19:33 | #12

    Hey G, the Humanist Symposium at your blog right now is really cool!  I recognized some good names and a few that I have not seen yet.  Will be reading the articles you link to.

    I see you live in Tacoma – I lived in Ellensburg for several years.

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