Monday, May 26, 2008

Cooperation, Not Obedience

I hadn’t planned to read Nicholson Baker’s new book , Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, but I’m beginning to think I should. Reviewing Human Smoke in the New York Times, Colm Toibin called it “a serious and conscientious contribution to the debate about pacifism. He has produced an eloquent and passionate assault on the idea that the deliberate targeting of civilians can ever be justified.” “The debate about pacifism”? Where is that going on?

Katha Pollitt began her attack on the book in The Nation by declaring, “By the time I finished the book I felt something I had never felt before: fury at pacifists.” Damn, girl! Before I can judge her reading, I’ll have to read the book, but Pollitt’s wrath is mild compared to the New Republic reviewer, one Anne Applebaum (“a columnist and member of the editorial board of the Washington Post” -- not the greatest recommendation nowadays). Applebaum seems to be even more angry at the book’s form, which she uses as a springboard to rant at length on some of her (presumably) personal hobbyhorses, Wikipedia and “the contemporary cult of the non-expert, or rather the anti-expert: the bloggers who assume that the “ ‘mainstream media’ is always wrong, the Wikipedia readers who think that a compilation of random anecdotes is always preferable to a learned study, and of course the college students who nowadays prefer to get their news in emails from friends because it is too bothersome to read a newspaper.” Baker is on record as liking Wikipedia, so he’s fair game I guess.

In a display of typical mainstream media balance, Applebaum allows:

It is true that there are many excellent, well-educated bloggers, whose contributions to public debates are invaluable, and who have served to prod the establishment institutions of many professions to try harder. At the same time, there are also many bloggers who, without any knowledge or expertise whatsoever, believe their opinions must by definition surpass those found in the "mainstream media, " or the "conventional histories," simply because they are self-appointed "critics," whether right-wing, left-wing, or off the charts. The result of their efforts is that quality -- accuracy, truthfulness, learnedness -- is disappearing beneath the sheer quantity of random, wrong, and irrelevant information.

You know, Applebaum has picked a bad time to trumpet “the establishment institutions” of journalism. During the leadup to the Iraq War, the Washington Post and the New York Times functioned as propaganda arms for the Bush administration. This is not just the gripe of a disaffected anti-expert blogger: the Post and the Times have both admitted as much. And this was nothing new; the corporate media have been coasting on the Post’s Watergate coverage and the Times’s publication of the Pentagon Papers for decades now, to cover up their generally craven collaboration with the state. Thanks to the concentration of media ownership which left most American cities with only one major newspaper, conditions have probably worsened since the 1970s, when those last gasps of rebellion took place. But most of the mainstream media’s war coverage, before and since, has consisted precisely of a “sheer quantity of random, wrong, and irrelevant information”, most of it generated by “experts”: government officials speaking on and off the record, political scientists in the pay of mostly right-leaning think tanks, high-ranking military, and the like. It really is the most sensible course, when faced with mainstream media coverage of important political issues, to treat them with extreme skepticism.

Just for the hell of it, Applebaum lumps Baker in with Dan Brown, author of the dread Da Vinci Code, which I’ll certainly agree is one of the dumbest books I’ve ever read, though I don’t think that’s really Applebaum’s objection to it. What she means by expertise is really authority, the people who somehow know what’s best for us and whom we should obey without question. But why? It’s false to call Brown “anti-expert” – he appeals to an expertise based on conventionally serious scholarship that comes to unorthodox conclusions; his main character is an Ivy League academic, and one of the (inadvertently) funniest moments in that leaden book was when Sir Leigh Teabing impressed protagonist Robert Langdon with his ability to write the entire Hebrew alphabet from memory. (An intellectual feat which any Israeli schoolchild can probably match – it ain’t rocket science.) What enraged so many Roman Catholics about the book was its disrespect for Church authority, which is augmented by but not built on expertise: its scholars and theologians are servants answerable to the church, and with the resurgence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Wojtyla and Ratzinger it’s hardly a radical observation that their expertise is limited by the “establishment institution.”

Brown’s alternative Christian history is bogus, but so is much of the standard version. Outside of Catholicism, credentialed Christian academics who wander too far from mainstream positions can expect to be attacked, viciously and largely inaccurately, by their more conservative and conformist colleagues. One thing that struck me while I was studying early Christianity in the 1980s was how much sheer nonsense a mainstream Bible scholar could publish without real consequences. (Of course, picking each other’s work apart in journal articles is the fun part of being an academic.) Outside of academia, who even cares that a right-wing evangelical like D. James Kennedy publishes outrageous howlers in his apologetics? What counts is that he accepts the authority of orthodoxy. No one complains when a layperson like Anne Rice attacks the expertise of perfessors who don’t think the gospels are historically accurate, because she does so in the context of her return to the Roman Catholic fold, submitting to its authority. (It’s worth remembering that Jesus and the early Christians challenged the religious experts of their day without expertise, relying instead on the charismatic authority of the Spirit. And they were derided for it, dismissed as unlettered and rebellious – which they were. Ironically, the authority of the Church is founded on its founders’ rejection of authority.)

The democratic movements of the 1950s and later, which as Noam Chomsky says terrified rulers in the US and around the world, also refused to defer to duly constituted authority, and rightly so. The Civil Rights movement, for example, defied experts who cautioned against too-rapid change (that is, any substantive change at all) and urged African-Americans to be patient; after all, such people said in the mainstream media, it wasn’t certain that “the Negro” was ready for equal rights. (Male) experts also delineated Woman’s proper place, tut-tutted the crazy notion that homosexuals weren’t sick, and so on. Similar problems turned up during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, when straight doctors, mostly ill-informed and often downright bigoted, were challenged by people with AIDS who developed their own expertise. (This example shows another side of the problem, as many AIDS activists were co-opted by the establishment.)

I, of course, belong to the 60s generation that attacked not expertise so much as authority, though some of us did confuse the two, because we’d seen expertise abused so much. Women and gay men challenged the authority of the medical and psychiatric professions to declare us sick and then hold out the offer of “cure.” When women did so, however, they set out to construct their own expertise: Our Bodies, Ourselves didn’t throw out medicine, only pointed out its masculist bias and argued that it should serve women rather than control them. There were psychiatrists and other mental health professionals who questioned the sickness consensus about homosexuality, but they didn’t control the discourse; gay men and lesbians decided that we would decide whose expertise to use.

Experts aren’t always wrong; they aren’t always right either. So how to decide which expert to believe? Applebaum wants laypeople to wait quietly while the professionals duke it out, perhaps assisted by a few exceptional but deferential critics who “prod the establishment institutions of many professions to try harder.” Professionals generally don’t take well to criticism by outsiders, no matter how well the latter have done their homework; after all, they don’t even take well to criticism by other insiders. They’re much happier if they’re in charge, which is humanly understandable but not acceptable. (See Nina Eliasoph’s Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life [Cambridge, 1998] for an exploration of this problem.)

I can relate somewhat to Applebaum’s distaste for people, not just bloggers, “who, without any knowledge or expertise whatsoever, believe their opinions must by definition surpass those found in the ‘mainstream media,’ or the ‘conventional histories,’ simply because they are self-appointed ‘critics,’ whether right-wing, left-wing, or off the charts.” But those people’s skepticism is justified, and again, laypeople who accept authoritative lies and obfuscation are no better, though authorities seldom criticize them. It may be that relatively few people are willing to make the effort necessary for an informed critique; what if anything can be done about that, I don’t know. But I’m sure the answer is not more deference to expertise and authority. We’ve already seen the results of that.