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David Brooks Says Smart People Caused Trumpism

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David Brooks wrote a too-long article, How The Bobos Wrecked America. blaming smart people for Trumpism. I discussed one aspect of this in my last post, focusing on Brooks’ use of the term Epistemic Regime. It’s a phrase he picked up from (I’d guess) reading a couple of chapters from a book by Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution Of Knowledge. I’m reading Rauch’s book. The first four chapters discuss the Epistemic Regime as a system we as a society developed to decide what is true.

Rauch follows Charles Sanders Peirce’s concept of truth. I discuss this important definition here. Truth in Rauch’s sense means that a proposition has been thoroughly checked for error, and so far has held up. Truth, then, just means our best guess at a useful and accurate description. The goal of the Epistemic Regime is to eliminate error, not to establish some objective truth “out there”.

The word “epistemic” is related to epistemology, the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge. Here’s Rauch’s definition of an ideal Epistemic Regime:

… a public system for adjudicating differences of belief and perception and for developing shared and warranted conclusions about truth…. P. 76.

Rauch’s Epistemic Regime is a community of institutions through which individuals cooperate and compete in generating and disseminating new propositions, checking them for errors, and if cleared, fitting them into the store of knowledge, subject to being amended or dumped if later found to be erroneous. There are, of course, other methods of determining what is true, such as bias-confirming regimes, or those which just accept the word of an authority figure or group.

Rauch’s Epistemic Regime is self-organizing. No one controls anything. The communities are open. Anyone willing and able to do the work can participate. It’s impersonal, in that conflicts are about propositions, not people.

The range of subjects covered by this Epistemic Regime is large, but it is not all-encompassing. The limits are set by considerations about what we can falsify. For example, we currently think the universe began with a Big Bang, and that we cannot know what happened before the cataclysmic event because it obliterated all evidence.

The general method of construction of truth can be applied to many areas. For example, we can apply aesthetics to decide if Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey is good. [It is.] We can make warranted judgments about aesthetics, morality, and other fields using tools honed by the Epistemic Regime, such as respect for precedent, persuasive argument, careful attention to detail, and willingness to accept criticism.

This isn’t what Brooks drew from Rauch. He claims that over the past few decades a new group of social classes has evolved, one Red, one Blue, and both hierarchical. One of his Blue Classes is the “creative class”, which he characterizes as:

… the same scientists, engineers, architects, financiers, lawyers, professors, doctors, executives, and other professionals who make up the bobos [his group from his book Bobos in Paradise].

Here’s his thesis:

The creative class has converted cultural attainment into economic privilege and vice versa. It controls what Jonathan Rauch describes in his new book, The Constitution of Knowledge, as the Epistemic Regime—the massive network of academics and analysts who determine what is true. Most of all, it possesses the power of consecration; it determines what gets recognized and esteemed, and what gets disdained and dismissed.

Brooks seems to think Rauch’s Epistemic Regime is just a group of people, identical to the creative class, or at least overlapping it. That’s not what Rauch says.

The Epistemic Regime is a system developed over a long period and followed by a lot of people seeking to increase our knowledge. We act under the Epistemic Regime when we seek knowledge. The habits of thought we use under the Epistemic probably influence us in other aspects of our lives, but I don’t root for Notre Dame, or admire Jane Austen, as part of any Epistemic Regime.

The creative class does participate in creation of new knowledge, but it also works in the area of culture, taste, and politics. Tools generated under the Epistemic Regime can be applied to criticize specific aspects of each. But the Epistemic Regime doesn’t tell us how to enjoy our lives or which political party to support, because our individual choices can’t be falsified. De gustibus non est disputandum. Chacun à son goût. Each to his own. All societies agree on this point.

No one, and certainly not an entire class, controls the Epistemic Regime. And, the Epistemic Regime doesn’t control anyone. Its a system for adjudicating truth as best we can, not of domination.

Brooks seems to thinks the creative class is homogeneous in cultural matters, which is dumb. The only thing this class uniformly accepts is insistence on Rauch’s Epistemic Regime when working to generate knowledge. Outside that, members are diverse on every social axis.

Brooks tells us that the creative class disrespects the culture of the Red Classes. That makes them resentful so they vote MAGA.

What causes psychic crisis are the whiffs of “smarter than” and “more enlightened than” and “more tolerant than” that the creative class gives off. People who feel that they have been rendered invisible will do anything to make themselves visible; people who feel humiliated will avenge their humiliation.

Brooks doesn’t explain the connection between these two sentences, probably because there isn’t one.

It’s certainly true that there are tastemakers among the creative class, and that they are snotty about it. The snotty people of an earlier generation referred to High and Low Culture. For most of human history cultural superiority was solely a pleasure of the filthy rich, like the Medici or French Aristos. They were scary because they exercised physical power over people’s lives. That’s not true today. Why would anyone care what the creative class thinks about their cultural and taste preferences? And why would that turn political? Brooks doesn’t say.

Discussion

1. Brooks doesn’t say anything about the cultural views of the Red Classes that are “dismissed and disdained” by apparently, the entire creative class. I’m pretty sure it’s mostly a toxic mixture of self-pity, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and other anti-social attitudes.

I’d guess most of the Creative Class doesn’t like that toxic mixture. Generally we (I include myself in the creative class, just like Brooks does) think we should try to follow the Golden Rule. We justify and expand that view with tools provided by Rauch’s Epistemic Regime. We try to squelch bad impulses in ourselves and in society. And we don’t care if that hurts the feelings of racists, women-haters, homophobes and xenophobes.

2. Brooks is trying to explain why so many Americans reject vaccines and other public health measures. He does this by conflating the creative class with the Epistemic Regime, as if the two were identical. If you reject the creative class then you have to reject the Epistemic Regime and its fruits, like vaccines, but somehow not Ivermectin and monoclonal antibodies. He doesn’t even try to justify this absurd idea.

3. Brooks is right that the Red Classes are angry and hostile towards the Blue Classes, but he makes no effort to explain how they got so worked up they’d suicidally risk sickness and death over it. He says it’s now become political, but he doesn’t explain why anyone would think that makes sense.

He doesn’t mention the economic power of the filthy rich, or their role in generating and amplifying the grievances of the Red Classes; or why it seems to be a policy choice of his Republican Party. It’s just natural, he says, as if that explains something.

4. In other words, this relentlessly long article contributes nothing to knowledge. You’re just supposed to assume that because it’s so bloody long and drops a bunch of names it’s a brilliant defense of the Trumpian Republican Party to say:

“If only those smart people weren’t so rude”.

Understanding Suicidal Americans

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I’ve always had a sneaking admiration for people who vote on principle rather than self-interest. Lots of people vpte against their economic self-interest because they believe that some religious doctrine is more important. Some vote for the Republicans who have rigged the economy to protect the interests of the filthy rich because the Republicans promised to end abortion. I think that’s stupid. But at another level, it’s easy to forgive. After all, I vote for Democrats like Liz Warren who want to raise my taxes. This would be expensive for me, but I think it’s crucial for a decent society to work to reduce wealth inequality.

But even I can’t understand the rationale for refusing masks and vaccinations. That’s just suicidal, as we see over and over among the genuinely stupid. For example in the last few weeks, at least seven conservative talk radio hosts nad anti-vax anti-mask shouters have died of Covid-19. Their reasons vary, but all ignore the actual facts, including the safety record of the vaccines and the protection they give us. As an example, Phil Valentive said in a blog post that his chances of contracting Covid were “pretty low”, and his chances of death were less than 1%. In point of fact, at least 13% of us have caught Covid, and 1.6% of cases have resulted in death so far. But Valentine thought he could evaluate his own immune system and do his own calculations.

Innumerancy isn’t new in the US; most of us aren’t good at really big numbers. That’s why we don’t do research ourselves but rely on experts to help us make smart decisions. And therein lies the problem. These suicidal people reject traditional expertise.

Again, at one level, so do I. The elites who started the War On Terror are incompetent monsters. Elites decided to deregulate the financial sector. They were wrong and caused enormous damagae around the world. The capitalists who fought regulation designed to prevent climate change are elites. They are still busy wrecking the planet. The intellectually dishonest hacks on SCOTUS who have beat back our efforts to govern ourselves are elites. The list of failed elites is long and dismal. And none of them are ever held accountable. Not a single one of them is even shamed. And that’s before we get to Trump and his crowd of intentional wreckers. So yes, our elites are failures.

But that’s not what the suicide class cares about. They’re mad because smart people hurt their feelings. That’s the explanation offered by David Brooks in his article How The Bobos Broke America. Brooks read several recent books about stuff, and he explains that the “creative class”, of which he is a member, is a bunch of self-centered, self-righteous, not-nice people who are insufficiently sensitive to the feelings of the rest of America.

Brooks’ creative class consists of “… the same scientists, engineers, architects, financiers, lawyers, professors, doctors, executives, and other professionals who make up the bobos …” the group Brooks discussed in his book Bobos In Paradise. They came to dominate culture. This makes the other groups sad, or angry, or both, and so naturally they reject the class and its values. In that process, they reject the expertise that gave rise to cultural dominance. That includes the science and technology that we need to solve our actual problems. Here are some quotes to flesh that out:

1. The working class today vehemently rejects not just the creative class but the epistemic regime [defined earlier in the test as “the massive network of academics and analysts who determine what is true”] that it controls.

2. A third rebellion is led by people who are doing well financially but who feel culturally humiliated—the boubour rebellion. These are Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the rich St. Louis couple who waved their guns at passing Black protesters last year.

3. What causes psychic crisis are the whiffs of “smarter than” and “more enlightened than” and “more tolerant than” that the creative class gives off. People who feel that they have been rendered invisible will do anything to make themselves visible; people who feel humiliated will avenge their humiliation.

4. The reaction to the bobos has turned politics into a struggle for status and respect—over whose sensibility is dominant, over which groups are favored and which are denigrated. Political attitudes have displaced consumption patterns as the principal way that people signal class sensibility.

Like everything Brooks writes, this is slanted to produce a result Brooks likes. But there are a couple of germs of reality here. There is no doubt that the value systems of various classes of society are different. And there are in fact epistemic regimes. We saw a lot of this in reading about the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu.

Consider this post. Bourdieu talks about symbolic violence, meaning “…the capacity to impose the means for comprehending and adapting to the social world by representing economic and political power in disguised, taken-for-granted forms.“ In this phrasing, someone has power to enforce an epistemic regime related to economic and political power. I used neoliberalism as an example in the post.

Epistemic regimes govern most of our ways of understanding parts of our lives, including our social lives, and our spiritual lives, and the way we understand academic disciplines. There is, for example, an entire epistemic regime around our understanding of literature. There is an epistemic regime that governs scientific fields, as Kuhn shows. These epistemic regimes are regularly contested, as by deconstruction, or string theory. But there are entire systems devoted to managing and deciding those contests.

Brooks pretends that a “massive network of academics and analysts” controls the epistemic regime around political and economic power. As a statement of cause and effect, that is absurd. It would be equally absurd to argue that literary theory is governed by a massive network of billionaires and centi-millionaires.

To put it another way, there is no plausible political science theory that says that the interests of the filthy rich are entitled to dominance in a democracy or that any particular pig rich person is entitled to make decisions for the rest of us. Nor is there a plausible economic theory that says that oligopoly is a good way to run a market. True, there are economists and lawyers who tie themselves in intellectually silly knots trying to justify the current state of concentrated corporate power in the US. The oligarchy funds this network of grifters and PR hacks and supports their efforts to distort and mislead.

That takes us to the next step. The suicidal class operates under its own epistemic regime, one created by right-wing media and social media, right-wing pundits, Fox News and its competitiors, right-wing talk radio, and a massive infrastructure of support from right-wing Oligarchs. This epistemic regime is totally divorced from reality. It says to its adherents: you can’t trust main stream media, government workers, scientists, doctors, the health establishment, or any one other than us, because only we know the truth. Covid is just like the flu. Vaccines cause sterility. Hydrochloroquine and Ivermectin are great treatments for Covid.

The people who create and operate this epistemic regime are not Brooks’ creative class. They are a motley group of ghouls, amplified and encouraged by tools of the Oligarchy. And their epistemic regime is killing people.