Saturday, July 17, 2010

If I Had That Money, I'd Give It All to the Homeless -- Every Cent!

I've linked to the video clip above before, and I'll probably do it again before I die. It sums up my views in this post concisely -- who says Chomsky can't do concision? -- and is a moving rejoinder to Scialabba's "argument for elitism." But anyway ...

I have to correct an earlier post. I mistook George Scialabba's quotation from Ortega y Gasset for a division into rulers and ruled:
The most radical division that it is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are; without imposing on themselves toward perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves. …
And so on. But I was wrong. Whatever Ortega was talking about here, it wasn't the incapability of human beings to govern themselves -- that, as Scialabba put it, "most people will always be incapable of the energy, imaginative range, sensual and familial detachment, and inner poise required for citizenship in a republic." It appears that Ortega was talking about intellectual and "spiritual" qualities of self-perfection, which are still bogus in my opinion, but the real fault lies with Scialabba's adducing Ortega's "sadly, quietly authoritative observations" in support of "the argument for elitism."

In fact, immediately before the passage I quoted, Ortega warned:
When one speaks of "select minorities" it is usual for the evil-minded to twist the sense of this expression, pretending to be unaware that the select man is not the petulant person who thinks himself superior to the rest, but the man who demands more of himself than the rest, even though he may not fulfil in his person those higher exigencies. The most radical division that it is possible to make ... [etc.]
"The division of society into masses and select minorities is, then, not a division into social classes," Ortega insisted, "but into classes of men, and cannot coincide with the hierarchic separation of 'upper' and 'lower' classes." (The blogger who quoted this passage declared that Ernest Hemingway was one of "those who make great demands on themselves," based on his adherence to a newspaper style sheet. I don't think that's quite the kind of demand Ortega had in mind, but who knows?)

One question here, of course, is how to distinguish the truly "select man" from the "petulant person who thinks himself superior to the rest." For example, another blogger who quoted Ortega complained: "One of the worst things that happened to western culture is the fashionability of faux intellectual poses among common people. If you're a nobody, and you probably are; face up to this fact. Live your life as well as you can; cultivate moral excellence, and learn humility and good manners." Fashionability? It has always been fashionable. But then there's always been faux humility too. (I can't help wondering what qualifies that blogger to preach to his fellow human beings so self-righteously.)

This is an important question, but it's more important to ask what making great demands of oneself, "piling up difficulties and duties", indeed what "energy, imaginative range, sensual and familial detachment, and inner poise," has to do with "citizenship in a republic." All these traits are virtues, I suppose, but they'd be virtues in any society. I'm also not sure that the drive for self-perfection as Ortega described it necessarily goes along with Scialabba's list of virtues. Many elitists wouldn't think so, but then they would reject the whole project of a republic, except as it gave them something to rule. Very often people who are busy perfecting themselves aren't interested in participating in civil society, getting their elbows dirty by rubbing up against the vulgar multitudes. Were Nietzsche, or T. S. Eliot, or Isaac Newton, or any number of other great minds, interested in being good republicans? (Scialabba describes Ortega as a "Nietzschean conservative," which makes me wonder if Ortega would have been interested in being a good republican citizen.)

Indeed, I think it's arguable that much of the mischief done in history has been the work of people who not only wanted to perfect themselves but everyone else, disregarding the latter's wishes in the matter. The drive for perfection animated the eugenicists who hoped to perfect the race by getting rid of the "unfit." They certainly had, or thought they had, energy, imaginative range, sensual and familial detachment, and inner poise, but these traits were compatible with a destructive scientific racism. Ortega was evidently anti-fascist, and as I say I'm not clear about just what kinds of self-perfection he had in mind. (I suppose I'm going to have to read The Revolt of the Masses, dammit.)

I once got into an argument at A Tiny Revolution on more or less this subject. (No permalinks to individual comments there, alas, as always.) Faced with the slaughter of Afghan civilians by US forces, one commenter remarked:
Sure it's all crap, but that is what people get pounded into their heads over and over and over again. So why wouldn't the public at large believe it? Please remember that a full 50% of the population is of average or below average intelligence. (Funny how that sounds insulting, isn't it?) I don't think many people know much about iraq or afghanistan, partly because they just don't and partly because that's not encouraged by the media either.
Why, yes, it does sound insulting, but even worse, it's irrelevant. (Deliberately so, which is why it's insulting.) I wrote:
There's nothing "insulting" about saying that 50% of the population is average or below -- it's simply true by definition, and so meaningless. The questions are, what is the average? and how intelligent do you have to be to know that the government is lying to you? If you have to be a genius to know that, then we're doomed. Yet as far as I can tell, the educated classes are just as credulous, if not more so, when the government speaks. Higher education is largely a matter of indoctrination and preparing its subjects to fit in with the rulers, so that's hardly surprising.
The other commenter replied, rather predictably:
I am not only above average intelligence, i am a real smarty pants, so much of a smart pants that I actually was aware that it's true by definition that 50% of any population--every population--is below average intelligence, more or less, depending on whether we're talking mean or median or mode or chi square distribution or a flux in the warp core, captain. And i neither insulted nor intended to insult anyone. But i commend you for your valiant defense of egalitarianism anyway, because i appprove wholeheartedly of that, even if i am too flip for my own good.

But all that being the case, i don't know that that makes my observation meaningless, in the context i was talking about. I was trying to inartfully suggest that you can't expect the general public to disbelieve the government when the government piles mounds upon mound of lies on them about whether killing civilians on the other side of the world is necessary or avoidable. My point was that many people really are less equipped to see through so many lies, by reason of intelligence and training. And i'm not backing down from that. It can be easier to deceive people who don't have information and education and aren't sophisticated, at least that's what courts have long said, though they say that less and less as they become more reactionary, which is the trend i've seen.

I kept asking for some reason to believe that IQ has anything to do with being "equipped to see through so many lies," but this was a question beyond the other commenter's capacity to answer, or even grasp (thus demonstrating his high intelligence), so he settled for repeating himself: "my position is just that ordinary people aren't well equipped to figure out the complex questions of what the military is doing abroad." There is nothing "complex" about "what the military is doing abroad"; one way of securing one's spot among the "select" is to assert that the problems are more difficult than they in fact are.

In this spirit I continue to pose the question of how smart one actually needs to be for citizenship in a republic. Scialabba wants to set the bar high, but gives no reason for doing so other than that "the masses have fairly consistently disappointed their well-wishers" by not rising up against the elites. But if you insist that there do exist elites, a "yeast of heroes" in Scialabba's phrase, who make great demands on themselves, you have to consider that they have even more consistently disappointed their well-wishers by their murderous policies and conduct. (And worse yet: if the ignorant masses ever did rise up against the elites, they'd go after George Scialabba too!)

Oddly, elsewhere in What Are Intellectuals Good For? Scialabba praises an essay by Noam Chomsky on equality, which appeared in The Chomsky Reader (Pantheon, 1987, 183-202), and is now available online. It's hard for me to understand how someone could admire Chomsky's arguments there while at the same time, however sadly and regretfully, granting force to "the argument for elitism." Especially since Chomsky tackles Scialabba's position head on, in a discussion of "a series of articles on 'egalitarianism' by John Cobbs in Business Week, (December 1975), which is not untypical of current debate over these issues." Cobbs, Chomsky says,
poses what he takes to be "the great intellectual dilemma of the egalitarians," namely, that "a look at the real world demonstrates that some men are smarter than others." Is it fair to insist, he asks, that "the fast and slow . . . should all arrive at the same condition at the same time?" Is it fair to insist on equality of condition achieved, when natural endowment so plainly varies?

Presumably it is the case that in our "real world" some combination of attributes is conducive to success in responding to "the demands of the economic system." Let us agree, for the sake of discussion, that this combination of attributes is in part a matter of native endowment. Why does this (alleged) fact pose an "intellectual dilemma" to egalitarians? Note that we can hardly claim much insight into just what the relevant combination of attributes may be. I know of no reason to believe, and do not believe, that "being smart" has much to do with it. One might suppose that some mixture of avarice, selfishness, lack of concern for others, aggressiveness, and similar characteristics play a part in getting ahead and "making it" in a competitive society based on capitalist principles. Others may counter with their own prejudices. Whatever the correct collection of attributes may be, we may ask what follows from the fact, if it is a fact, that some partially inherited combination of attributes tends to lead to material success? All that follows, so far as I can see, is a comment on our particular social and economic arrangements. One can easily imagine a society in which physical prowess, willingness to murder, ability to cheat, and so on, would tend to bring success; we hardly need resort to imagination. The egalitarian might respond, in all such cases, that the social order should be changed so that the collection of attributes that tends to bring success will no longer do so. He might even argue that in a more decent society, the attributes that now lead to success would be recognized as pathological, and that gentle persuasion might be a proper means to help people to overcome their unfortunate malady. Again we return to the question: What is a just and decent social order? The "egalitarian" faces no special "intellectual dilemmas" distinct in character from those that confront the advocates of a different social order. ...

Discussion of egalitarian views is often misleading, in that the criticism of such views is commonly directed against a straw-man opponent, as egalitarians have been quick to point out. In fact, "equality of condition," much deplored by contemporary ideologists, has rarely been the express goal of reformers or revolutionaries, at least on the left. In Marx's utopia, "the development of human energy" is to be taken as "an end in itself as humans escape the "realm of necessity" so that questions of freedom can be seriously raised. The guiding principle, reiterated to the point of cliche, is: "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." The principle of "equality of condition" is nowhere invoked. If one person needs medical treatment and another is more fortunate, they are not to be granted an equal amount of medical care, and the same is true of other human needs.
The whole article is worth reading; Scialabba was right that it's very good, and I'm grateful to him for mentioning it, since I hadn't looked at it in a long time and had forgotten it. But it also demolishes Scialabba's position in "The Sealed Envelope."

Scialabba must really like that passage from The Revolt of the Masses, because he quotes it elsewhere, for example in a 1992 piece called "Crowds and Culture." Inspired by a trip to Italy, which was plumb roont by rain and tourists, Scialabba was ambivalent:
Actually, I’m not sure, on reflection, that I want to complain. Perhaps the crowd is even a cause for – guarded – celebration, for a muffled cheer. In theory, after all, the cultural landmarks of Europe are everyone’s heritage. Better a single confused, brief, distant glimpse of them than yet another generation of ignorance for half the population or more. Many of the crowd will have come for no reason they can articulate; but for others, out of a daily round of routine labor and consumption, the trip may be a shy, wistful homage to the higher life. And even if barren for the traveler, the trip may have a residual effect, may water a seed, blow on a spark, transmit a message to a child, neighbor, co-worker.
But there's always a "but":
True … and yet. Something’s not right. It’s not a happy match; the places themselves are, in a sense, frustrated. A half-empty theater or sports stadium is a waste; when they’re full, both performers and audience are exhilarated. But the Farnese Gardens, the Cappella Palatina, the Greek temples of Sicily can only work their magic on a few visitors at a time. And no doubt they would prefer some visitors to others: erudite old friends and ardent neophytes rather than the dutiful, the acquisitive, the ignorant, or the naively curious. ...

Whether active (i.e., reading their guidebook) or passive, few tourists seemed to recognize (I’m speculating, I admit) that there might be any other qualification for being where they were – in the holy places of European culture – than having paid.
Really? The gardens, the chapel, the temples are conscious "holy places" and have preferences about visitors and viewers? Does it, like, hurt them when unworthy eyes are looking at them? And what about the locals who live in those places? Are they properly humble before the cultural treasures that by merest chance of birth they live among? Should those treasures be reserved for the truly wise ones who can appreciate them, and the oxlike locals shut out?

Scialabba then quotes Ortega's by-now familiar lines and comments:
Ortega’s mistake – what made him a conservative – was his assumption that this distinction between high-quality and low-quality human beings, between creative and critical people on the one hand and passive consumers and conformists on the other, was a metaphysical distinction, was just a fact of human nature. He never considered that increasing the number of the responsible, the cultivated, the noble from generation to generation might be possible through a supreme effort of democratic pedagogy. He went, that is, only part of the way with William Morris and Oscar Wilde toward the loftiest conception of socialism yet devised.
It's mighty big of Scialabba to grant that Ortega was wrong in assuming that this distinction "was just a fact of nature," and could be mitigated through "a supreme effort of democratic pedagogy." Once again the missionary impulse to save the proles from themselves raises its head, and there's good historical as well as logical reason to distrust it. Me, I'm not sure that a supreme effort is needed, or even desirable, because I don't know what is the metaphysically correct mindset to bring to "the holy places of European culture", nor do I know how Scialabba could know that all those tourists were motivated purely by commercialism and were unworthy to bring their unclean eyes unto them.

I don't believe in holy places anyway, and many of the glories of European culture were created for "the masses" in the first place. Did they appreciate those treasures in the way Scialabba thinks they should have? (Did London groundlings genuflect at the first performances of Shakespeare's immortal dramas?) It's not for Scialabba, or for me, to decide.