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The War on Thinking

"Empty Brain" -- Patricio Villarroel

It is unsettling to watch as hard-right politicians, acting with the assistance of weak-willed Democrats, exploit Great Recession fears to undo progressive reforms that lifted the country out of the Great Depression. But even more troubling is what might be called the War on Thinking.

The War on Thinking is fought on many fronts by a diverse army of selfish elites and bitter, know-nothing Palinites. The entire American advertising industry and the mediasphere it paid for are implicated. Thoughtful people don’t buy pet rocks, a perfect symbol of American consumer products.

Advocates for “elite democracy” (read: plutocracy) like author and federal Judge Richard Posner believe true popular democracy is dangerous. Most people, they hold, are too stupid to deal democratically with complex issues.

Posner is a useful poster child for an elite that wants to run off with country, but only because he’s unusually honest. In his book, Law, Pragmatism and Democracy, Posner writes:

Few citizens have the formidable intellectual and moral capacities (let alone the time) required for the role that [popular democracy] assigns to the citizenry.

Judge Posner’s words go a long way toward explaining why he approved of anti-democratic voter suppression laws in Indiana. Still, these elites are uncertain enough about their cynical assessment of us that they’ve launched what amounts to a decades-long campaign to make us stupid.

Supply lines for the War on Thinking stretch back to a distrust of intelligence that’s long been part of the Anglo-American Way. Back in 1915, Columbia professor John Erskine wrote:

The disposition to consider intelligence a peril is an old Anglo-Saxon inheritance… Here is the casual assumption that a choice must be made between goodness and intelligence; that stupidity is first cousin to moral conduct, and cleverness the first step into mischief; that reason and God are not on good terms with each other; that the mind and the heart are rival buckets in the well of truth, inexorably balanced–full mind, starved heart–stout heart, weak head.

Erskine illustrated his point with a verse by the English clergyman-poet Charles Kingsley.

Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever.

Erskine was the influential teacher of 20th Century cultural critic Lionel Trilling. In his essay, “Reality in America,” Trilling wrote:

…with us it is always too late for mind, yet never too late for honest stupidity; always a little too late for understanding, never too late for righteous, bewildered wrath; always too late for thought, never too late for naïve moralizing.

Is there a paragraph that better describes today’s media/political circumstances? Trilling was, no doubt, a literary aristocrat, but he argued for broad democratic intelligence. He held liberals and conservatives equally responsible for the spread of stupidity. He criticized thoughtless progressive melodrama (Dreiser) as quickly as he dismissed the totalizing, simple-minded cultural myth-making of fascists and communists.

So what we have today is a perfect storm of stupidity, a culture already skeptical of the merits of intelligence under assault by an elite/know-nothing alliance.

The current attacks on public education are an example. The Right simply doesn’t believe in it. It was those over-educated know-it-alls that brought us integration, after all. Then there are the education privatizers who are making a fortune (in tax dollars!) with their public school vouchers and fake university schemes. I suppose it’s true that you can leave no child behind if you don’t let any go anywhere.

I was a child of Sputnik. While that event’s impact on actual American innovation is often overestimated, it is a fact that fears of a Cold War intelligence gap with the Soviet Union temporarily overcame our native skepticism of learning. It was hip to learn, and that perhaps was one of the few temporary land bridges across the gulf that separated ‘60s rebels and their parents.

The demand for an educated work force led to broad business support for education, and that support lasted for decades. During education funding debates of the 1980s, my pro-education boss, Texas Democratic Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, had no trouble getting business leaders to the Capitol to demand increases in education funding, even if it meant they’d pay higher taxes.

The globalized economy has ended all that, as Paul Krugman explained the other day:

…technological progress is actually reducing the demand for highly educated workers.

Business leaders aren’t coming to the defense of education because they do just fine finding workers overseas where they don’t have to pay taxes to educate them. And, they won’t have all those educated smarty-pants challenging growing corporate hegemony.

In such a circumstance, the educated become an enemy. They are not so easily fooled. So, we drop the Sputnik narrative and return to the old Anglo-American convenient untruth that intelligence is the enemy of the good.

This brings us to Elaine Scarry’s new book, Thinking in an Emergency, published as part of Amnesty International’s Global Ethics Series. Scarry speaks of the perpetual emergencies perpetrated by states to manipulate publics and undermine democracy (see Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. Scarry extends Klein’s argument, however.

Noting that emergencies are often used to suspend thinking in favor of quick action, Scarry writes that thought and deliberation are even more critical in emergencies, and that this need is recognized in many institutional practices around the world. Instead of relying on the theoretical, however, Scarry uses four real-world examples to make the point.

Her first example is cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Built into it is “…a deep knowledge about the number of times a minute the heart must pump…The acts, far from being thoughtless, are thought-laden…” Moreover, CPR training is intended to make such an automatic habit of the practice that more room is left for thinking through immediate emergency circumstances.

Scarry then mentions mutual aid contracts among dispersed communities in Canada. Such a contract: “requires the community to think through a starkly specific set of questions about the tools required [in an emergency]. Once again, the practices facilitate more, not less thought.

Her third example is doubly damning of the U.S. She speaks of the Swiss’ well-thought-out nuclear shelter system, an egalitarian system built to save all segments of its population.  In contrast, the U.S. spends only on exclusive arrangements to save its president and other elites while spending nothing to save the general public. Immoral as they are, I can’t say American elites haven’t thought this through.

Lastly, Scarry mentions the constitutional brakes on war, such as provisions that delegate to Congress the exclusive right to declare war. What these provisions demand is thought. They intentionally call for careful deliberation, anything but thoughtless, knee-jerk action.

It is thought that’s allowed humankind to survive, and identifiable selfish interests are systematically eradicating that collective ability. It’s no coincidence that our failure to address the global climate crisis is accompanied by a War on Thinking that eliminates this magnificent ability bequeathed to us by our evolution on Earth.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith