Elitism & Democracy

While reading Glenn Greenwald's always excellent blog, I was led to this little gem of a piece regarding the power of the press corps. Here's an excerpt (emphases in original):

But the point is the powerhouse media and their politician lovemates truly do feel there are things normal, grubby Americans simply can't handle. Moreover, it has nothing to do with political parties. Everything I've seen in my life confirms that, with few exceptions, they feel this way across the (extremely narrow) political spectrum.

If you're not part of their little charmed circle, believe me, all your worst suspicions about them are true. They do think you're stupid. They do lie to you. They do hate and fear you. Most importantly, they think you can't be trusted with the things they know—because if you did know them, you'd go nuts and break America. They are Thomas Jefferson's aristocrats:

Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them, therefore, Liberals and Serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still, and pursue the same object. The last appellation of Aristocrats and Democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all.

Interestingly, in my endless years of school, this Jefferson quote was never once part of the assigned reading.

In response to this piece, a commenter using the moniker "mk" submitted this:

This is exactly what Herman and Chomsky analyze in their propaganda model in "Manufacturing Consent". The latter phrase comes from the Wilson-era liberal intellectual (and Creel Commission member), Walter Lippmann. He promoted this manufacture of public consent - it was then openly acknowledged as propaganda - by
recommending what the "responsible men" (always including the author himself) should do to ensure that the "ignorant and meddlesome outsiders" (the public) don't interfere with the decisions of the responsible men for the public good (by definition).
A full exegesis can be found in this piece from Deterring Democracy, from which the following is excerpted:
"The public must be put in its place," Walter Lippmann wrote, so that we may "live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd," whose "function" is to be "interested spectators of action," not participants. And if the state lacks the force to coerce and the voice of the people can be heard, it is necessary to ensure that that voice says the right thing, as respected intellectuals have been advising for many years.

As it so happens, I just watched a documentary (made in 1992) on Chomsky called "Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media," which I had received from Netflix at about the time I stumbled across this interesting piece. It's a fascinating film which I highly recommend if you want to learn more about this reality of American life.

I particularly enjoyed seeing (in the special features on the DVD) a debate between Chomsky and Michel Foucault (the subject of one of my seminars this semester) which was, interestingly enough, filmed in Holland, the very homeland of my good friend Benedict Spinoza who, although writing in a very different political context, says some remarkable things about the relationship between the reasonable few and the ignorant multitudes.

Spinoza, I think, evinces an ambivalence about the masses (one which I share), but despite some reservations about the danger that "the mob" poses, ultimately sides with democracy. Some choice quotations illustrate this.

In his earliest work, the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, Spinoza describes a personal journey that led him to strive for a particular goal, that he sees as the end of a good life (my emphases in bold):

[M]an conceives a human nature much stronger and more enduring than his own, and at the same time sees that nothing prevents his acquiring such a nature, he is spurred to seek means that will lead him to such a perfection. Whatever can be a means to his attaining it is called a true good; but the highest good is to arrive--together with other individuals if possible--at the enjoyment of such a nature. What that nature is we shall show in its proper place: that it is the knowledge of the union that the mind has with the whole of Nature.

This, then, is the end I aim at: to acquire such a nature, and to strive that many acquire it with me. That is, it is part of my happiness to take pains that many others may understand as I understand, so that their intellect and desire agree entirely with my intellect and desire. To do this it is necessary, first to understand as much of Nature as suffices for acquiring such a nature; next, to form a society of the kind that is desirable, so that as many as possible may attain it as easily and surely as possible.

Third, attention must be paid to Moral Philosophy and to Instruction concerning the Education of children. Because Health is no small means to achieving this end, fourthly, the whole of Medicine must be worked out. And because many difficult things are rendered easy by ingenuity, and we can gain much time and convenience in this life, fifthly, Mechanics is in no way to be despised. [TdIE paragraphs 13-16]

Here, in this noteworthy passage, we see encapsulated the driving motivation in Spinoza's life, which led him to speak and write what he felt was the truth, despite the very real danger of doing so (there was at least one attempt made on his life). Ultimately, it is a kind of democratic motive, as can further be seen in his Political Treatise or in the Ethics, insofar as the kind of life that it prescribes is presumably open to all people, not just the wise or educated ones.

On the other hand, Spinoza does have a tendency to talk about the shortcomings of "the vulgar" and the prejudices they are subject to. In a somewhat Hobbesian vein he says something like the following:

Everyone exists by the highest right of nature, and consequently everyone, by the highest right of nature, does those things that follow from the necessity of his own nature....

If men lived according to the guidance of reason, everyone would possess this right of his (by P35C1) without any injury to anyone else. But because they are subject to the affects (by P4C), which far surpass man's power, or virtue (by P6), they are often drawn in different directions (by P33) and are contrary to one another (by P34), while they require one another's aid (by P35S).

In order, therefore, that men may be able to live harmoniously and be of assistance to one another, it is necessary for them to give up their natural right and to make one another confident that they will do nothing which could harm others.... No affect can be restrained except by an affect stronger than and contrary to the affect to be restrained, and everyone refrains from doing harm out of timidity regarding a greater harm.

By this law, therefore, Society can be maintained, provided it appropriates to itself the right everyone has of avenging himself, and of judging concerning good and evil. In this way Society has the power to prescribe a common rule of life, to make laws, and to maintain them--not by reason, which cannot restrain the affects (by P17S), but by threats. [E IVP37S2]
Perhaps we could say that he is just being realistic here, and certainly his conclusions about the form that the State should take is quite a departure from Hobbes.

In any case, I think the lesson to be taken from this is as follows. It's easy to think that the masses are dumb and need to be kept in line when you're in the power elite that manufactures public opinion and influences political decisions that have potentially global repercussions. You don't need to be a neoconservative Straussian to be a part of the DC establishment (politicians, journalists, lobbyists, etc.) that actively views itself as elite.

Similarly, it's easy to be an intellectual at a prestigious university and go on about the stupidity of the masses and how easily duped they are, and so on. I have been known to, on occasion, espouse such views, and in my day-to-day life, I am something of an elitist: I associate almost entirely with a select group of people who are educated, intelligent, articulate, and so forth. Indeed, I often feel disconnected from more common people--I have enough trouble as it is dealing with my students, most of whom are a long way from having a working class background.

Now clearly, while we possess some degree of power, it pales in comparison to that of the various politicos who dominate what is taken to be "public discourse" in America. We are viewed, perhaps, as nuisances and rabble-rousers, conspiracy theorists and totalitarian leftist professors; we are marginalized and disrespected by an "anti-intellectual" culture.

But elitism is no fun if you're not part of the elite. Maybe we think we should be, but who doesn't think such a thing? This is one reason why I'm glad to come from a more or less middle class background; if you grow up with affluence you start to think that you deserve it (look at our current president: he hasn't earned any of the numerous privileges he's been afforded in life; he wouldn't have a single one of them if his name weren't George Bush). And so, I recognize my elitist tendencies as a kind of prejudice.

Now I understand a need for stability, but nobody wants to be treated like they're unfit to make decisions for themselves. This is one reason why control in ostensibly democratic countries is so insidious: it's masked by the incessant refrain of "personal freedom" and "individual choice". As Foucault might say, we are constituted as subjects in such a way that we internalize these relations of power, so that we don't have to have them imposed on us by violent force, except in rare circumstances. In postindustrial society, we're far past the use of mere threats to keep people in line.

But there is hope. The fact of the matter is, that we can have discussions of this sort, that someone like Noam Chomsky can star in films and give lectures all over the country and write books that people can read and so forth, is an indication that the system can't fully suppress resistances to it. Many American institutions function to isolate individuals from one another (look at the prolonged attack on organized labor), but dissenters can come together: at universities, on the internets, through books, TV shows, and films.

Really, this is what I see as one of my major roles as an educator (and why I find Spinoza's TdIE formulation so compelling). I foster dissent and encourage ways of looking at the world that fall outside of the narrow ideological spectrum that Americans are supposed to occupy. And this is why I work hard to stay informed about the world, reading alternative media and leftist blogs and writing my own observations (even if only three people read them).

As Chomsky rightly points out, it's too much to ask of an individual to sort through all the information available to get at buried truths. This can happen only in communities in which many individuals take up a small section as their own, learn what they can, and then share the results with others in the community and outside of it. This is perhaps what Foucault meant by the notion of "specific" or "local intellectual".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Read John Carson's _The Measure of Merit: Talents, Intelligence, and Inequality in the French and American Republics 1750-1940.