Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Liberal Arts of Being Ruled

"There should be a science of administration which shall seek to straighten the paths of government, to make its business less unbusinesslike, to strengthen and purify its organization, and to crown its duties with dutifulness. This is one reason why there is such a science." (Woodrow Wilson, 1886)

"Though shalt not sit with statisticians nor commit a social science." (W.H. Auden, 1946)

I agree with those who say that Hillary Clinton lost the campaign when she forgot that the president's job is to govern the people, not to deplore them. She may have forgotten this long before she openly put half the population in one basket and all her eggs in the other. Indeed, she was not at all alone in this forgetfulness. The past few years have seen an intense effort to "purify" our political organisations, not least within the university and it would seem that university students and their teachers are now the least equipped to understand how Trump was able to win the highest office in the land.

I think Robby Soave is absolutely right to suggest that Trump's victory was, in part, a backlash against political correctness, not least the version of it that has been nurtured in the "safe spaces" of America's college campuses. But I think the problem goes deeper. You can't beat a political opponent that paralyzes you with fear simply when he expresses his opinion. It's because the left demonized Trump that they were unable to defeat him. In a word that I hope to give a particular meaning to in this post, they dehumanized him. In that sense, the rise of Trump can be attributed to the fall of the humanities.

And that means that it can also be attributed to the inextricably related rise of the social sciences. For over a century, funded by a network of powerful foundations, they have wrested our understanding of our own selves away from, well, our own selves, and placed it under the tutelage of a confederacy of academics and journalists, a convocation of politic worms, who are more comfortable with ideologies than actual ideas. Indeed, the ideology of the moment is less important to them than subordinating thought to the forces of history.

Thus blinded, the intelligentsia was simply unable to understand what was happening. It had lost the capacity for independent thought. Indeed, it didn't have much of a taste for thinking any longer. An appreciation of poetry was supplanted by the popularization of science. Gladwell replaced Auden; "the clear expression of mixed feelings" was abandoned in favor of "thinking without thinking". Intellectuals were all too happy to sit with statisticians. Much better to commit a social a science than risk committing a thought crime. Organizations were cleansed of their impurities, the living organisms they comprised. Engagements became "interactions". Actual human beings of flesh and blood, hopes and fears, pains and pleasures, became "profiles" to be "situated" on social media "platforms" where they could be "liked" and "blocked" at will. Opposing ideas became threats; reality was deemed offensive. Friends became "allies". Enemies became monsters.

Think of rhetoric as the liberal art of humanizing your enemy, of converting animosity into language.* Not for the sake of your enemy but for the sake of your own moral orientation in the universe. Once you have decided that half your country has chosen a leader to represent only its bigotries, you have lost your way. Your ethics have been compromised by generalities. You have allowed a vague "theory" to overwhelm your data, which you have, I am afraid, taken too much for given. You've been taken in. And now you are living in fear of an inhuman oppressor.

Undermined by "foundations" (e.g., The Clinton Foundation) and overwhelmed by organizations (e.g., The Trump Organization), our institutions lost their footing. With the proliferation of media, we lost the immediate rightness of our conduct. Proudly declaring ourselves "reality-based" we mocked and ridiculed those who questioned our most cherished facts. We socially constructed an objective reality that had no room for the subjective idealities of our fellows.

Perhaps the names of the relevant parties is telling. Perhaps the end of Democracy is the rise of the Republic. The first step is to recuse ourselves from the Empire. Wyndham Lewis talked of "the art of being ruled"; Ezra Pound said "master thyself then others shall ye bear." Make love, not war, said Propertius. Don't say #NotMyPresident. Look in your heart and write, gubernator non sum. You are not the pilot. But have some respect for what pilots do.

I think we may have to face the fact that social science and democracy are incompatible. The social sciences conduct an undemocratic inquiry into society. Democracy is an unscientific way of governing it. It is because psychologists and sociologists have supplanted poets and novelists as experts on who “we” are that we have lost faith in democracy—at a deeper level, we have simply lost faith in each other. Democracy is possible only on a “humanist” foundation. As Pound tried to tell us a hundred years ago, the arts provide the "data of ethics". They are "the permanent basis of all metaphysics and psychology."

*This sentence was originally about poetry. After posting, I decided rhetoric is a better label.


Andrew Gelman said...


This is all fine. But you could've written it a few days before the election. Had the election gone as predicted, with Clinton getting the expected 52% of the two-party vote rather than the awkwardly-distributed 51% which was not enough for her to win in the electoral college, it still would've been true that half of Americans would've refused to vote for her etc. So I don't disagree with much of what you write, but there's something a bit off, to me, in tying it to the particular election outcome. Maybe you could've said this back in 2010 when the Democrats lost control of Congress.

Thomas said...

I agree with you about this, Andrew. In my defense, I have been somewhat critical of the social sciences and the humanities since before 2010. And you say the Democrats lost control of Congress in 2010? Maybe it's a small point, but I did suggest that the little stunt they pulled back in 2009 probably didn't do much to improve their relationship with "the real America".

Russ Odoni said...

As an anthropologist, I think blaming 'the social sciences' is a bit too broad of a brush, not least because they're hardly all in the ascendant. Within social science, certain statistically-dominated subjects have thrived (sociology and economics); these two subjects are the ones which have led us astray even as they have asserted their dominance over the rest of the disciplines.
Economics proved false in 2007-8, having become so lost in a sea of numbers that they no longer understood the economy as a whole. Sociology arguably fell adrift even earlier - it was obsessed over by left-wing governments from Clinton and Blair onward, a trend which continued under Obama, yet the data it was producing was increasingly divorced from the real lived experiences of citizens.
I suspect that, unless and until the power imbalance within social science is corrected so that the scientism-riddled 'statistics' subjects cease to hold extra-ordinary clout while qualitative disciplines are sidelined, we shall continue to see academia's approach to social commentary drifting away from genuine explorations of the real world. This is, of course, ultimately a political choice - for nearly three decades, economics and sociology have dominated grant awards, and it's well known that if an economist, a historian and an anthropologist compete for the same money, the economist always wins. It didn't used to be this way. Neoliberalism brought willful blindness to the social sciences, since no ideology can bear critical scrutiny, and now we need to catch up on decades of lost work and missed talent if we are to correct our lopsided understanding of the social.

Thomas said...

I think we mostly agree, Russ. My view is that bad economics and bad statistics, imbued with the authority of "science", have provided ideological cover for a lot bad policy. If we had kept our economics Austrian and our statistics Bayesian, much human suffering could have been avoided. If you start the clock in 1913, you can even imagine the avoidance of two world wars.

But this would also mean limiting the social sciences to some pretty formal analyses of rather broad phenomena. On the policy side, there would likewise be some serious limitations on the role of the state in what you call "the real lived experiences of citizens".

The articulation of those experiences, I am trying to say, should be left to the arts, and the study of the arts should be left to the rigorously unscientific attention of the humanities. Where we disagree on your idea (as I understand it) that the solution lies in funding more "qualitative" social science. There is no such thing. It's either art or science—"qualitative science" is nonsense. Interestingly, even the Austrian economists would admit that they aren't doing science so much as philosophy.

Ben Bradshaw said...

I am in 100% agreement with you that ideologues in academia and journalism have been hamstringing our society's ability to accurately perceive itself. However, I think it is ludicrous to suggest that any type of epistemology other than the scientific can pierce the fogs of ideologies.

I partly agree with your sentiments about the humanities needing to play a larger role in our efforts to understand our society, but I sincerely hope that not many people are persuaded by your arguments that, to my ear, are anti-scientific. Instead of asking the moneyed people to "return" to funding the humanities, I think it is time for academics in the humanities to take on the intellectual burden of connecting their fields of study to the preexisting network of scientific knowledge already out there. In my opinion, the application of evolutionary theory to human behavior--behavior which includes the creation of great works of art studied by the humanities--would be the place to start.

Thomas said...

I appreciate that view, Ben, which I take as a version of "we don't need less science but better science." There are a lot of reasons that I don't hold that view any longer. One of them is that placing the "burden of connecting their fields of study to the preexisting network of scientific knowledge" on scholars in the humanities often implies something like what Dawkins said in the Selfish Gene:

"Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man? After posing the last of these questions, the eminent zoologist G. G. Simpson put it thus: 'The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely.'"

Notice that he is suggesting that we ignore Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Kierkegaard completely in favor of what you call "the application of evolutionary theory to human behavior". I suppose you're not advocating that we outright ignore them, but merely using evolutionary theory to explain their works as "evolved" human behaviors. I've got to say that that seems like a highly impoverished way of reading, say, Hamlet.