Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Monbiot on Gibbering Numbskulls

George Monbiot has a bizarre rant on (as he says) how American politics came "to be dominated by people who make a virtue out of ignorance"? Part of the problem with the analysis in the essay is that even a minute amount of reflection will show that none of the factors Monbiot proposes to explain this alleged phenomenon could possibly explain it. And we get absurd exaggerations like, "A student can now progress from kindergarten to a higher degree without any exposure to secular teaching," supposedly because the Southern Baptists established private schools -- a claim that could not possibly stand serious rational examination as a general claim about private religious education, and could not possibly explain the problem, since private religious schools have existed throughout the history of the United States, which Monbiot concedes was not always like this.

In fact, a more rationally sustainable argument would have been to begin with not conceding that point. No one can seriously claim that most people in the States in 1776 were as well educated as Thomas Jefferson or James Madison; most people had less of an education than anyone does now. If we assume the existence of the phenomenon to be explained (I'm not sure we should do so without qualifications, but let that pass), then what we have to explain is not (as Monbiot illegitimately and absurdly assumes) why most people in the United States are not Thomas Jeffersons and Alexander Hamiltons, but why they aren't electing the people who are. And there are several things that are obviously going to have to be considered as potentially having an effect here. For instance: (1) The population of the United States is massive compared to where it used to be. Indeed, it is massive, period; not India- or China-massive, but massive nonetheless. It's harder to pick out anything in such a large population; it's more a matter of luck who rises to clear public view. (2) Democratic government in the United States has massively expanded since then. A greater percent of the population has the right to vote now than did in the early nineteenth century. Women can vote; there is no large voteless slave population; there is no property requirement on the vote. Certainly many of the people Monbiot is railing against as ignorant would have been denied the vote in the early years of the Republic. Now they have it, and are voting as they please. (3) The opportunities available to highly intelligent and well educated adults have massively expanded over time: the value of politics as a career option has arguably not kept pace (as one might argue that, say, medicine or law as a career option has).

More could be added. This is not an issue, assuming it is an issue at all, that can be handled by swift caricatures and absurd generalizations; it has to be approached rationally, by considering a number of different possible factors (like those above) and trying to see how much (if any) effect they have. And again, the question is not why most Americans aren't superbly educated, but why the superbly educated aren't ending up in public office, which is a radically different question. Monbiot opened by insisting that the U.S. "has the world's best universities and attracts the world's finest minds" and so forth; so obviously the problem is not that educated people don't exist in the United States, and therefore it can't be explained by saying that U.S. education system is bad. It is not, contrary to Monbiot, a truism that ignorant people vote in ignorant politicians; if they are, in fact, electing ignorant politicians rather than those who aren't, we still need to ask why they are doing so, why, for instance, they are not impressed by Ph.D.'s and the like. It does not automatically follow (as Monbiot assumes) that if people are well-educated that this would make U.S. politics more intelligent; there are plenty of well-educated lawyers in Congress, and almost nobody thinks they are doing an intelligent job. If we want an explanation we will have to do better than Monbiot, making wild generalizations and relying uncritically on a single text for information about the U.S. -- a text, moreover, with an explicit agenda. I don't think there is any problem with historians having agendas; God save us from historians who are so bland that they never have any. But rational people won't simply seize upon the results of such investigations and use them to give simplistic answers to complex problems.

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