Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Scandal of Anti-Intellectualism and Elites

by Gary Berg-Cross

Like a civil society, secular humanism and its kindred freethinking cousins require a certain base mixture of tolerance, curiosity, sophisticated of thinking, respect for truth and an intellectual environment. The hard truth of contemporary America is that we swim in a tide that seems less tolerant and appreciative of sophisticated thinking, such as required to understand systems of things.

I recently wrote about Transparency into Conservative Media Influence and the soft corruption of its methods. These combine threats, bribes, distractions and plain-out lying. It's unbalanced too. I expressed the hope that a larger group of people would take the opportunity to see how things work among the real power elite. For decades, Murdoch and his empire has cultivated the ability to influence elections on both sides of the ocean. As the dominatrix of News Corp, he ruled a layered suite of British papers. He could use the daily tabloid Sun to set the tone of electoral debate and echo it with a higher-minded Times, which was then backed by more aggressive voices coming from other parts of his empire. You get the tone from the way the American Propsect described the 1992 election:

"It was The Sun Wot Won It" declared the tabloid the day after the Labour party's fourth successive General Election defeat in 1992. The surprise result followed a sustained campaign of character assassination against its leader, Neil Kinnock. Pages and days of "Nightmare on Kinnock Street" propaganda culminated in an election day front page with his head on a lightbulb: "If Neil Kinnock wins today, would the last person to leave Britain please turn off the lights?" The British public decided that Kinnock wasn't prime-minister material.

Clearly, subsequent candidates and party leaders got the threatening message. On this side of the Atlantic the Clintons didn't need to think too hard about this, since it came at them at the speed a multiple scandals backed by conservative money. In Britain later pols pragmatically sought Murdock's support or at least a pass from his active opposition. And in a democracy this all comes at a chilling price, which should get our attention for the upcoming American election.

So maybe we can learn something from the unfolding scandal and take steps to change the environment through what Jefferson stressed - learning, which is essential in a Democracy. The media hasn't been helping to provide 2 things people need - knowledge of the facts but also an historical perspective so they can understand how things have developed and who did what and why. Both are necessary to hold politicians accountable for their past acts and current plans.

After the failures of the conservative policies leading to unnecessary wars, loss of rights, inequity and a financial meltdown at the end of 8 years, have we learned too little? The 2010 election suggests that Americans remain too receptive and unskeptial about well packaged, conservative messages. All too often we are lulled into passive acceptance of lies and manufactured explanations. A convenient history is invented and packed into a tale. If that is not enough to lull us, then pop culture & distracting video images fills up the cognitive space leaving little room for reflection.

Now a scandal has our attention. For a while get to peak behind the curtain and see some of those ugly power elites relations, but also some of the techniques that influence the populace.

I've previously mentioned the use of Framing of issues and the masking role of false dichotomies. One may add that unfactual facts used on both sides of the Atlantic, but another technique is to appeal of the common man. Tabloids and Fox appeal to the common man and identify various enemy to what they call the American Way of Business, I mean Life.

For conservartive convenience the enemy is an amalgamation of liberals, gays, secularists, intellectuals etc. These are the parts of society that are out of touch with the common person as well as common sense. You can hear it from Fox & newsreaders that lip sink the party line. It opines that traditional news organizations are out of touch with the real America. Rupert Murdoch provided this talking point, when he bought the Boston Herald in 1982, complaining that other media (not his) had too much "allegiance to the upper class" which has a liberal attitude. It's a bogus claim that a healthy dose of skepticism can challenge, but mainstream media seems unable to knock intellectual elitism claims down and point to the real troubling network of allegiances. Indeed the current scandal shows a bit of what really goes on with what Janine R. Wedel calls the Shadow Elite (Shadow Elite: How the World's New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market ).

These elite are a new breed of flexible political operators ("flexions") who may serve the roles of lobbyist, government insider or elected official but who converge into a single network such as seems to be the case with Murdock's network. Wedel sees them: "snaking through official and private organizations, creating a loop that is closed to democratic processes." We saw this during the Bush administration where a a core group of flexions provided a witch's brew of power to advance several cultural transformations that favored their networks:

  1. government outsourcing
  2. privatization
  3. deregulation, and
  4. "the embrace of 'truthiness.'"

By wearing several hats simultaneously (think tanker, retired military or government official, corporate representative, "objective" expert) flexions can gain extraordinary insider knowledge and influence in order to custom-tailor a version of the "truth" benefiting the highest bidder. Some bidders are media tycoons like Murdock, but there are many others. Versions of truth can then passed as memes to a media network like Fox. In this way, they not only "co-opt public policy agendas" but "craft policy with their benefactors' purposes in mind." We end up saying, "What's the matter with Kansas, and Wisconsin etc."

Rational analysis, skepticism and critical thinking are all means of challenging shadow elite gambits and for that reason they and the intellectual power they represent are enemies that must be marginalized by the Sharow Elite.

This enemies list of intellectuals becomes a convenient whipping boy for the failings of society and its anti-intellectual message has been a long time coming. You could hear a proto-version of this enemy story in the 50s when the John Birch Society equated intellectualism with disparate philosophies like atheism and communism. Both were undermining American/Christian values. Intellectualism and intellectuals had to be defeated. To some degree they have succeeded in shoving progressives and progressive policy off to the side.

In The Age of American Unreason Susan Jacoby tells the story of the advance of anti-intellectual in the past 4+ decades. It has resulted in a flight from reason by way of a right-turn descent into a realm that combines intellectual laziness, a lack or curiosity and reflexive skepticism. Jacoby also singles out a lack of knowledge and memory that allows an outlet like Fox to fabricate an alternate, bubble world. Together these created the current anti-rational landscape, personified by the rise of the ultra right wing and its sometime creature the Tea Party. They can get away with crazy claims (like birtherism) because rational challenges are discounted. It's an environment that enables the shadow elite with its power through connections and self serving agenda to rise and thrive.

But slowing and solving this sorry state may not be as simple as identifying a dues paying member of the elite like Rupert Murdock or Larry Summers. As Jacoby notes, the anti or non-rationality seen in our governance is not a simple result of a Machiavellian plot by current politicians. They are opportunists leveraging anti-intellectual tendencies now realized and embodied in a pretty passive populace. Too many of our ordinary citizens, like their elected representatives, live without the basic set intellectual tools needed for sound public decision-making.

We need to work on this steadily. It's not just rationality at elections that matter. It's an entire life of balanced life that is needed. An respect for a richly interlinked world of ideas, truth and facts that makes for an intellectual.

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