Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Magic Gene

Oh, my head hurts.  First my friend A linked to this article from a Canadian magazine decrying the growing anti-intellectualism of American life.  As far as I can tell, the differences between the US and Canada in that area are a matter of degree, not of kind.  And while it's perfectly okay for the People's Republic of Canuckistan to criticize America, the Chomsky/King principle would prioritize criticism of one's own country before lashing out at others.

There's a funny story about that, in fact, from Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky (The New Press, 2002):
Now, when I go to Canada, I do get asked onto mainstream national radio and television a lot, as distinct from here -- a lot.  But see, that's because I criticize the United States, and in Canada they like it when people come up and dump on the United States -- because the United States is always pushing them around all the time, so it's nice if somebody comes and says how rotten the United States is once in a while.  On the other hand, I got sick of this a couple of times, and I started talking about Canada -- and I was off so fast you couldn't even see it ...

There's this nationwide talk radio show in Canada which everybody tunes in some time in the morning, and every time I'd go into Toronto they would invite me to come on that show.  So we'd have whatever it is, fifteen minutes, and this guy would ask me some leading questions, I'd tell him how rotten the United States is, big smile.

Well, one time I got really sick of this, and I started talking about Canada ...

Then I said something about Canada and the Vietnam War -- Canada was always denouncing the United States during the Vietnam War for its criminal actions, meanwhile Canada was probably the leading military exporter in the world per capita, enriching itself on the destruction of Indochina.  So I mentioned some of this stuff.  He went off into kind of a tantrum.  I actually thought it was sort of funny, but apparently his listeners didn't -- when I left, about ten minutes of listening to this harangue, the producer, quivering, stopped me and said: "Oh my god, the switchboard's lighting up, we're getting thousands of phone calls from all over Canada."

And apparently the phone calls were just about the fact that this guy Gzowski was being impolite -- I don't know if people agreed with me particularly, but there were a lot of people who were very angry about the way he was going about it.  Like I said, I thought it was comical, it didn't bother me ... 

Anyway, they made a big effort, they called me up in Boston, and we went through another show -- in which Gzowski was very contrite and quiet, just to make it up to the audience.  But that was the last time I ever heard from them; I've never been asked on that show with him again.

And that's happened to me elsewhere in Canada too, I should say -- I mean, I've been invited to universities in Canada where they've literally refused to pay my plane fare after I gave talks in which I denounced Canada.  So you know, Canada's very nice as long as you're criticizing the United States -- try going after Canada and see what happens to you [289-90].
Notice that Chomsky isn't complaining here about people being mean to him; he's just pointing out that "the media system works the same in both countries" (290-1).  You can get on mainstream US television and denounce other countries, especially official enemies, to your heart's content, with no requirement of factual accuracy or rationality.  You can even denounce the US government, if you're a Republican, and you'll get airtime and sympathetic treatment, which tells us something about the actual orientation of our corporate media.  But certain criticisms may not be uttered in their precincts.

This doesn't in itself mean that the criticisms by Jonathan Gatehouse, the article's author, are necessarily inaccurate, only that he's not sticking his neck out.  As far as I can see, some of his accusations are accurate, others are not.  Much of what he complains about has nothing to do with intelligence or the intellect.  For example:
The cost of a simple appendectomy in the United States averages $33,000 and it’s not uncommon for such bills to top six figures. More than 15 per cent of the population has no health insurance whatsoever. Yet efforts to fill that gaping hole via the Affordable Health Care Act—a.k.a. Obamacare—remain distinctly unpopular. Nonsensical myths about the government’s “real” intentions have found so much traction that 30 per cent still believe that there will be official “death panels” to make decisions on end-of-life care.
True, the US health care system is not in good shape.  But it's false that "efforts to fill that gaping hole" are "distinctly unpopular."  As has often been pointed out, the majority of Americans favor a universal single-payer system -- like Canada's -- or a national health service like Britain's, despite a determined propaganda campaign against them.  (And those socialistic systems are themselves under attack, so far unsuccessful but determined and unrelenting, in their own countries.)  The enemies of real health care reform in the US are not the general population, but our elites, like President Obama, who jeer at the idea of turning the US into Canada.  The ACA is basically a negotiated treaty between the American people and the health insurance industry and Big Pharma.  And despite the right's propaganda campaign, the ACA has evidently been pretty successful so far.  This is not exactly news unless you rely for your information on the usual suspects, namely the US corporate media and certain liberal outliers.  It appears that Gatehouse did exactly that, which doesn't speak well for his intellectual capacity.

The rest of the article is more of the same: Oh noes!  Many Americans don't believe in Evolution!  American students are falling behind the rest of the civilized world!  George W. Bush and Sarah Palin drop their G's!  Even Obama does!  The NSA!  Soundbytes!  Twitter!  LOLcats!  Oh noes!  Most of this is either false, dubious, or irrelevant.  Gatehouse has simply gone to the same well as those he criticizes:
Most perplexing, however, is where the stupid is flowing from. As conservative pundit David Frum recently noted, where it was once the least informed who were most vulnerable to inaccuracies, it now seems to be the exact opposite. “More sophisticated news consumers turn out to use this sophistication to do a better job of filtering out what they don’t want to hear,” he blogged.
It should be remembered where David Frum originally flowed from: Canada.  And he's hardly a reliable source, considering his participation in the American Right from the Reagan administration to Bush II.  From time to time he'll pull himself up short and weep great remorseful tears over what he has wrought, such as his 1995 jeremiad Dead Right (Basic Books), but then he goes back and does some more.  And given the history of American wack, I am skeptical of Frum's claim, seconded by Gatehouse, that "it was once the least informed who were most vulnerable to inaccuracies."  Frum may not be aware of American elites' fondness for end-times Christianity (search for Boyer in that post), but he should know about their anti-Semitism, which kept Jewish students and faculty out of Ivy League and other elite institutions.

Then today I got a link to this article at In These Times.  It's more of the same, a review of a recent book that attempts to rehabilitate scientific racism yet again.  But the durability of scientific racism, whatever you can say about it, is simply not a sign of anti-intellectual or anti-science heresy.  Quite the contrary: it means that people like science and respect it and want its support and prestige for their beliefs.  Does Jonathan Marks, the reviewer, realize just how intimately entwined scientific racism has been with Darwinian theory, historically speaking?  It doesn't look like it.

Not too surprisingly, Marks is an anthropologist.  Anthropologists have been among the most consistent critics of scientific racism, from the great Franz Boas onward, so they have been accused by proponents of scientific racism of (what else?) hostility to science, trying to make reality conform to their fuzzy-brained hippy-dippy politically-correct fantasies.  (The very first comment under Marks's review takes this tack, I see.)  This has been such a satisfying tactic that proponents of scientific racism use it even on fellow biologists, geneticists, and other lab-oriented scientists.

This doesn't mean that all humanities-oriented critiques of scientific racism have been well-made.  (The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.)  I wonder what Marks thinks of the attempts to prove a genetic basis for homosexuality, for example.  Many people who vehemently reject scientific racism applied to "race" and gender will embrace it when it "proves" that homosexuality is a biological condition, and those who attack that project mostly content themselves with babble about "social construction," a concept they don't seem to understand.  This isn't always true -- the anthropologist Roger Lancaster did a fine job dismantling scientific racism in The Trouble With Nature: Sex and Science in Popular Culture (California, 2003), for example -- but it seems to be the hegemonic response nowadays.  That's not anti-intellectualism, of course: such people are the very model of a modern intellectual.  They just don't do intellectualism very well.  But few people ever have, and Jonathan Marks and Jonathan Gatehouse aren't exceptions to the rule.

Here's an interesting observation from Lancaster's The Trouble with Nature (196):
Far from providing the occasion for self-evident truths or stable understandings, the question of reproduction actually seems ripe for mythical thinking and magical investments.  (In a place no more exotic than my native North Carolina, for example, I have met many people – some of whom work in hospitals, are familiar with medical models of reproduction, and understand how ultrasound works – who believe that a child’s sex is not fixed until moments before birth, and who thus urge expecting mothers to eat certain foods and to avoid engaging in certain activities so as to influence the sex of the child.)
In other words, magical thinking and scientific training are not mutually exclusive.  Magical thinking is part of our evolutionary heritage, after all, and magic isn't incompatible with the intellect -- indeed, intelligent and intellectual people constructed elaborate systems of magic in all cultures.  You don't achieve intellectual consistency by disavowing magic, crossing your fingers, spitting over your shoulder, and sprinkling salt on a bird's tail.

The weird thing, and another example of magical thinking, is that both Marks and Gatehouse talk as though there was a time when the intellect was universally respected, when all educated people were rigorously logical, and everyone sought a good scientific education.  I don't know of any such time; this frame for their arguments indicates that what drives them is not intellect or science, but a very common, non-rational nostalgia for a Golden Age that never was.  It quickly became clear as I read their diatribes that they called any idea they didn't like "anti-intellectual"; it's hard to imagine a clearer case of anti-intellectualism at work.

Going back to Gatehouse: Are Canadians anti-intellectual or pro-intellectual?  By Gatehouse's standards, it would appear that they're intellectual when their insecurities are being stroked by criticism of the Great Satan to the South, and anti-intellectual when they refuse to countenance criticism of their own country.  Maybe "anti-intellectualism" isn't the right conceptual tool for the job.