32. A Harvest of Souls – Talking to Those Other Fools

They had the infor­ma­tion, but not the knowl­edge” – David Ignatius in the IHT, dis­cussing infor­ma­tion over­load in the CIA; 30 Octo­ber 2001

Com­mon wis­dom on the net­works is that George Bush won the 2004 Amer­i­can elec­tion by har­vest­ing the souls of America’s lumpen pro­le­tariat. This was made pos­si­ble because almost alone amongst West­ern democ­ra­cies, Amer­ica has a large com­mit­ted reli­gious con­stituency, and any con­stituency, whether it be for reli­gion, foot­ball or col­lect­ing bot­tle tops, is a hon­ey­pot for the polit­i­cally ambi­tious.

There is a kind of self-evi­dent truth about the polit­i­cal potency of reli­gion in Amer­ica. How­ever, I think it is a sur­face truth which misses some under­ly­ing insights. Are ordi­nary Amer­i­can peo­ple really so dif­fer­ent from ordi­nary Euro­pean or Aus­tralian peo­ple? Yes, these Amer­i­cans are famously igno­rant of the wider world. They are insu­lar in their ideas, but polite to strangers. They are quickly offended, and ruinously liti­gious. They are spec­tac­u­larly self-indul­gent with their diets, lifestyles and the pro­lifi­gate use of mate­rial resources. These char­ac­ter­is­tics may be extreme, but none are unique. The pre­ced­ing descrip­tion could fit any num­ber of my Aus­tralian coun­try­men.

Indeed, Aus­tralians have also just re-elected a con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment. As in Bush’s Amer­ica, that gov­ern­ment was essen­tially elected by so-called mid­dle and lower class peo­ple even though the declared and covert poli­cies of the gov­ern­ment arguably run coun­ter to the inter­ests of the work­ing elec­torate. Aus­tralia is not a coun­try given to overt reli­gion : about 15% of peo­ple go to church reg­u­larly, and the towns are dot­ted with empty churches (like much of Europe).

Bush did indeed use the reli­gious elec­torate, but was that his secret weapon? I think not – not at base. The instru­ment used so effec­tively by Bush, and by his Aus­tralian alter ego, Howard, was the latent anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism which per­me­ates much of both cul­tures. In the Amer­i­can case, the Bushites were able to marry anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism to a faith based move­ment. Faith cor­rupts, and absolute faith cor­rupts absolutely. Bush and Howard were utterly men­da­cious in manip­u­lat­ing anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism as a pop­ulist weapon, but that is not the point.

The point is that anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism is not equally avail­able in all cul­tures for polit­i­cal mis­use. There are parts of con­tem­po­rary Europe and else­where where it is not a social hand­i­cap to be known as some­one with an excep­tion­ally effi­cient brain. There are places where indi­vid­u­als who chal­lenge accepted wis­dom are not con­sid­ered cul­tural lep­ers and polit­i­cal trai­tors.

What is this “intel­lec­tual” thing any­way? Clearly we are not all born equal when it comes to doing math­e­mat­ics, play­ing darts, dis­man­tling an engine or writ­ing poetry. The cat­a­logue of pos­si­ble apti­tudes is very long indeed, and only some of them are tra­di­tion­ally asso­ci­ated with “being an intel­lec­tual”. Maybe “being an intel­lec­tual” has more to do with a style of using our brains than any skill in actu­ally doing it. We all live on a ration of 24 hours per day, and we all make choices about how to allo­cate our atten­tion over that scarce time. In other words, we choose which men­tal spaces to live in.

Intel­lec­tu­al­ism in com­mon par­lance car­ries a flavour of dubi­ous and elit­ist polit­i­cal activism. Allo­cat­ing men­tal time and space to polit­i­cal stuff never appeals to more than a minor­ity any­where. It takes a cer­tain amount of exter­nal threat or dis­com­fort before an aver­age per­son will give over time to polit­i­cal choices. When choices must be made, the chances are that these apo­lit­i­cal peo­ple are short of essen­tial infor­ma­tion. They prob­a­bly haven’t spent time and men­tal space on learn­ing about reli­gious minori­ties in Iraq, Chi­nese urban­iza­tion or the state of the Fed­eral mon­e­tary reserve. When the polit­i­cal choice becomes urgent, it is too late to learn about these things, even though their impact on a vot­ing individual’s pros­per­ity or sur­vival might be cru­cial.

What­ever an intel­lec­tual is, it seems that there are peo­ple in every national con­stituency who are bet­ter informed about com­plex issues, and world wide issues, than the aver­age voter. These bet­ter informed peo­ple are more or less qual­i­fied to make democ­racy work at a national level. They may dis­agree bit­terly amongst them­selves of course, but at least they are dis­agree­ing from a base of widely gath­ered infor­ma­tion.

I have sug­gested that we choose the men­tal spaces we live in. “Choose” may be a mis­lead­ing word here. A few rugged indi­vid­u­al­ists test every new propo­si­tion to death, and have a vis­ceral dis­trust of author­ity as the val­ida­tor of truth. I suf­fer from this skep­ti­cal ten­dency myself, and it is rarely a com­fort­able place to be. As for the rest of the world, well most folk per­mit them­selves to be informed through a vari­ety of cul­tur­ally approved con­duits. The big divide between a New York intel­lec­tual, an unem­ployed Ohio steel worker and a Texan cow­boy might be less in their var­i­ous men­tal apti­tudes, than in the con­duits they will accept for chan­nel­ing “truth” to their brains. That is, they have dif­fer­ences of atti­tude.

Let us sup­pose that we wish to play pol­i­tics on a national scale (in Amer­ica, Aus­tralia … wherever). How do we win the con­fi­dence of all those folk who res­olutely refuse to allo­cate their scarce resources of atten­tion to learn­ing about the wider world ? George Bush and his friends have found a work­ing answer to that. The Amer­i­can cul­tural par­a­digm has a reli­gious con­duit of trust avail­able for short-cir­cuit­ing the indif­fer­ence of ordi­nary peo­ple. It is there as an entrenched and con­tin­u­ous vehi­cle for con­vey­ing infor­ma­tion or mis­in­for­ma­tion. This con­duit of trust can give coher­ence even to the Orwellian spec­ta­cle of an extreme anti-labour mil­lion­aire cap­i­tal­ist pre­tend­ing to be an ally of the ordi­nary guy at the local ham­burger bar.

If Bush & Co. have won the hearts of the lumpen pro­le­tariat, America’s would-be intel­lec­tual elite have only them­selves to blame. Like the ordi­nary guy at the local ham­burger bar, they are reck­lessly self-indul­gent. Their indul­gence takes the form of spurn­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion with folk who don’t hap­pen to share their par­tic­u­lar mix of apti­tudes. Lenin, Mao Zedong and Hitler all opened chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with ordi­nary folk — and betrayed them with dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences. Most reli­gious prophets, pop-idols and mar­ket­ing gurus have sim­i­larly hid­den their supe­rior airs under a bushel, and found power through feign­ing a com­mon touch. Elites of all kinds (techies, sci­en­tists, Olympians, bil­lion­aires … ) nor­mally spurn reach­ing out to the unwashed. It makes them feel sex­ily supe­rior, and by the time a pogrom arrives it is too late.

So is decep­tion a nec­es­sary con­di­tion for appeal­ing to folk beyond your cir­cle of knowl­edge and exper­tise? Decep­tion is surely a quick and dirty route to igno­rant minds. For the politi­cian, once power is seized through pop­ulism, it can be held by other means. His­tory is also replete with exam­ples of such decep­tion being unmasked, usu­ally at the cost of much blood and suf­fer­ing. On the other hand, in those cul­tures where “intel­lec­tu­als” have arrived at some accom­mo­da­tion with other folk, there are the mak­ings of a win-win sit­u­a­tion. Cul­tural democ­ra­cies may not claim that “all men are born equal”, but they do accept that all men and women are wor­thy of talk­ing to as equals. That kind of respect is learned at your mother’s knee. It is a pro­duct of child rear­ing, and the cul­ture of the schools where your chil­dren come to matu­rity.


The orig­i­nal post­ing for this arti­cle is at http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/harvestofsouls.html

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