Re-tooling for Culture Wars 2.0
April 18, 2017
What I am saying tonight is different from what I would have said some months ago—perhaps not so much different in substance, but rather in its urgency. Between then and now, of course, was the watershed event of the November 8 US election. This event, both the run up to it and the ensuing fallout from it, has affected me in unexpected ways, but primarily in my personal stance towards my work. Like several in the room, I am “of a certain age”—that time when some of my colleagues and friends are “heading for the exits,” either by way of retirement or the funeral pyre. It is about that time when some of us may be reaching what one scholar called the fourth stage of Hindu spiritual development—the one where the elders head out to the forest leaving the striving to those younger.
In fact, over the last couple years I have found myself thinking about stepping away from academe. I am tiring of the bureaucracy at my university. I am currently on my fifth president (not counting the four interims) and my fifth dean of our college. I have seen legislative wrangling toy with university budgets and have endured various management and teaching-learning fads as they sweep across the ever-shorter attention span of administration. I have, to be sure, continued to enjoy my remaining colleagues and students and particularly my study and writing. But I thought I could foresee the near-term trajectory of work in my field and those who could carry it on and that things would be fine without me. Of course, that is still the case.
But the 2016 election was a proverbial “wake-up call” for me. I, along with many others, clearly did not read the near-term trajectory of our politics accurately. We were not to enjoy the (assumedly) easy transition in administrations that would continue the albeit hard fought, but achievable progressive society we assumed was all our goal. “Cold water in the face,”, “slap in the face,” “fire lit under me”—whatever the simile, many of us woke that morning of the 9th needing to come to terms with a new reality. The mean-spirited, racist, xenophobic, misogynist (and we can go on) rhetoric of the campaign was rewarded with those attitudes seemingly sanctioned by the voting public. (At the same time, we can and should console ourselves that there were nearly 3 million more voters who opposed these views so we are in the majority--still we also know how our electoral system worked out). But what does this “wake-up call” mean for me, for any of us who share this sentiment.
This is pretty political, you may be saying to yourself, although up to this point I think I may be preaching to the choir. In our current larger societal context, however, I would argue it has never been more important in the history of our country and, indeed, the world for each of us to martial our knowledge, energy, and resources in the service of the public good. There is considerable experience and wisdom in this room that needs to be shared. As the Farmers’ insurance commercial reminds us: “we know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” Whatever drift I may have been settling into regarding my own future work arrangements--that changed virtually overnight. I am awake and I say—to the barricades.
Now, before we all break into our favorite songs from Les Mis, we need to review the landscape for what this means for us, because however mad and determined to do something that we may be, we do operate in environments that shape, enable, and constrain, our activity. In my remarks tonight, I would like to talk about the challenges of the milieu in which we live and the idea of claiming and exercising our voice in this time.
A survey of 7000 first year college and university undergraduates in the US revealed that only 6 percent of them could name the 13 colonies and many of them thought the first president was Abraham Lincoln, who was also known for “emaciating the slaves.” This information was reported in a New York Times article--in 1943. In a similar survey done at the bicentennial, no improvement was shown. Current assessments continue to show a similar dismal trend of broad cultural ignorance.
This apparently continuing deficit in basic knowledge calls to mind an anniversary we can note that bears on this consideration of the current cultural milieu. This year is the 30th anniversary of the publication of Alan Bloom’s, The Closing of the American Mind, often referred to as the “opening shot in the culture wars.” Bloom, a distinguished University of Chicago political philosopher argued that the distinctive American character was being lost to a plethora of new and emerging “voices” parading under the banner of diversity. Education and the larger society were being eroded by competing (read “lesser”) works being admitted to the university curriculum while scaling back the traditional canon ridiculed as that of “dead white men.” This brief foregoing description risks caricaturing his argument; his work is complex and nuanced and deserves attention as a serious act of public scholarship, whether we hold it in high or low esteem.
Its publication proved wildly popular and produced a flurry of responses and companion pieces, perhaps predictably among them one called The Opening of the American Mind by historian Lawrence W. Levine, published in 1996. It was an articulate counter argument, one commentator saying that the book should “put an end to ‘culture war’ talk.” It neither gained the traction of Bloom’s book, nor settled the argument. Andrew Hartman produced an excellent 2015 history of the culture wars, A War for the Soul of America (the title taken from the battle cry of Pat Buchanan in his 1992 speech at the Republican National Convention). Hartman summarizes his argument this way:
This book gives the culture wars a history—because they are history.
The logic of the culture wars has been exhausted. The metaphor has run its course (p. 285).
I’m not so sure. The same year Hartman made this declaration, 2015, Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow published an edited volume entitled, The State of the American Mind, a collection of 15 essays essentially continuing Bloom’s argument, just updating it. Bauerlein is an academic—English professor at Emory--and Bellow is an executive in publishing. (Adam Bellow is also the son of Saul Bellow the noted novelist and University of Chicago professor who, coincidentally, wrote the foreword to Bloom’s book “back in the day”). To underscore its relationship to the earlier days of the culture wars, this latest salvo also features an introduction by the famous or infamous, again depending upon individual proclivities, E.D. Hirsch, Jr., author of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Of course, both of these recent books (Bauerlein and Bellow, and Hartman) appeared before last year’s presidential election where the continuing divide in US culture was laid bare. If there was any doubt that the culture wars continue, there should not be now, all be they in mutated form. Unlike the Thirty Years religious wars of 17th century Europe, there does seem to be any corresponding Peace of Westphalia in sight for our 30 years’ culture wars. The following is some of why I think that is the case.
Andrew Hartman and others point out that in the nearly twenty years between the end of World War II and the election of John F. Kennedy, there coalesced a set of conservative cultural standards, “assumptions and aspirations shared by millions of Americans, that came to constitute a “normative America.” These standards included “hard work, personal responsibility, individual merit, delayed gratification, social mobility”. . . stringent sexual and gender expectations within heterosexual marriage, a consensus around white Judeo-Christian values, and a cohesiveness required in these norms deriving from a shared, perceived threat of Cold War and alien cultural and ideology (p. 5).
Hartman succinctly summarizes the transition ushered in by the upheavals that would occur in the 1960s: “The new America given life by the sixties—a more pluralistic, secular, more feminist America—was built on the ruins of normative America” (p. 6). His announcing the “ruins of normative America” to me was a bit like Mark Twain’s famous quip about rumors of his death being greatly exaggerated. This normative America, thought to be lost to the 60s, would begin to find its voice again in Richard Nixon’s 1969 reference to the “silent majority,” a phrase we heard resurrected nearly 50 years later in this past election cycle.
So, in our current cultural milieu we recognize a pervasive lack of basic knowledge thought to be necessary to viable citizenship. We further recognize a continuing 50 plus year old cultural divide between the world reacting to and emerging from 1960s America. There are two other elements in the environment, newer I think, that we should acknowledge and take into account as we assess our stance toward what we can do as individuals.
First, more than there being a continuing basic civic illiteracy, some argue that there is actually a “campaign against established knowledge,” to borrow a phrase from Tom Nichols new book, The Death of Expertise--something we have, again, seen come to the surface in the recent election cycle and continue through to the present. There has been proven distortion and misrepresentation on both sides, and even outright lies and entirely fabricated “fake news.” Some of the fall-out from all this showed up in a recent poll that found that 44% of Americans believed
that media made up stories and fabricated sources. (By the way, I hope no one here had anyone injured in the Bowling Green Massacre). But beyond that there is a deeper current in American culture that has been with us a very long time.
Richard Hofstadter argued this in his 1963 book Anti-intellectualism in American Life. Though the seeds of this attitude may be seen as early as Alexis de Tocqueville, in his 1835 and 1840 works Democracy in America, it was in the 1952 presidential election between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson that this epithet took hold and was reinforced and exacerbated during the McCarthy era in the 1950s. (So here we have another characteristic baked into “normative America”—anti-intellectualism.). With the election of Eisenhower, as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. put it: “the New Dealers were replaced by the car dealers.” Schlesinger argued that the election brought on “the vulgarization which has been the almost invariable consequence of business supremacy.” He more pointedly, and provocatively, went on to say, “Anti-intellectualism has long been the anti-semitism of the businessman.” The mid-50s collapse of McCarthy, combined with the shock of the Sputnik launch, illuminating the shortcomings in American science, led to a brief resurgence of respect for the intellect that led into the 60s, though that respect was later to be tarnished by the “intellectuals’ war” in Viet Nam—engineered by the best and the brightest led by Robert McNamara (one of Steve Bannon’s favorite books by the way). In a more recent analysis of American anti-intellectualism, Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason brings current similar historical trends with current examples.
The argument here is that there is a basic tendency to rely on our own assessment of a situation over rational comment by another with presumed and credentialed expertise on the subject. This self-reliance may be, for example, because one had lost trust in so-called experts because some previous expert pronouncements have been off the mark. In Nichols book he argues that we have entered a new stage in this evolution, though the move is a matter of degree rather than kind. It is one brought on by the “Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers.” But there is one further element that threatens to further manipulate this, perhaps, “socially genetic” American condition of the distrust of expertise, and it is one enabled by our increasing technological sophistication which is being used to shape the information we receive even at a level of which we are unaware.
We are all familiar with this manipulation at a basic marketing level. We have all done searches on google, amazon, or whatever only to find later that ads for those items mysteriously pop up in our facebook feeds or other online sites we visit. We’re being tracked and profiled. But this surveillance and ensuing analysis has gone further, much further. A small US firm, Cambridge Analytica, spun off from the larger British data analytics firm SCL, specializes in “election management strategies” and “messaging and information operations.” SCL has refined their models over 25 years of military psychological operations (psyops) work in places like Afganistan and Pakistan. Through the use of sophisticated algorithms employed by artificial intelligence and using automated bots to rapidly and tirelessly examine hundreds and thousands of internet sites, these companies are coming to know our habits, emotional triggers, and subtle communication preferences of which we may not be aware.
As an example, SCL, the British parent company to Cambridge Analytica, built a psychometric model by creating a facebook quiz (admit it, some of us have taken one), getting a response rate of 6 million users, thereby producing a remarkable trove of data. They further found that by deploying the automated bots across the internet to correlate and corroborate patterns, they could, with 150 ‘likes’ on a facebook page, predict the users behavior better than could their spouse. With 300 likes, they claimed to know you better than yourself.
Cambridge Analytica, the US offshoot of SCL, claims to have 5000 pieces of data on each of 220 million US voters. What do they know about us and how have they been using it? They can track our reaction to words and phrases and then shape their messaging accordingly (think about the addition of the angry emoji and other more incremental reaction tools on facebook). The information obtained through bio-psycho-social profiling is being “weaponized,” to use a favorite term by former Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon, now White House strategist and Trump whisperer. The objective is “cognitive warfare.” Put together with our “google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, bog sodden” way of life, the stakes associated with evaluating information on the internet, or any source, go way up.
Now just to spice up this “milieu stew” let’s add one more ingredient and that is our current treatment of the idea of “political correctness.” We heard this used again and again in this past election. This phrase originated in the 1950s McCarthy era as a sarcastic reference to Stalinist Russia where one could be punished for not parroting the “official” line. It became employed early in the culture wars in the 80s and forward, again, to disparage in a sarcastic manner, any attempt to acknowledge and show respect for some other-than-dominant (most often Christian) white-group. It has morphed during the past election cycle into criticism by the perceived down-trodden (mostly the Christian Right and poor working class whites—and there is some overlap) that their rights are being displaced by minority groups. In connection with this latter sentiment, religious liberty has morphed from the free exercise of religion delineated in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution to the right to use one’s religious beliefs to defend one’s prejudices.
So, we have a large portion of the general population that persists in a low-level understanding of the rudiments of civic knowledge. Additionally, I argue that we must acknowledge evidence of long term anti-intellectualism in the United States. Further, this ignorance and its associated attitude constitutes a condition toward which current communication techniques and technologies are being employed to sway public opinion in ways that many of us would say are authoritarian and inimical to American values. And, words and ideas are being re-contextualized for differing purposes.
In the words of Tolstoy: “What shall we do and how shall we live?” I believe that this is a question that each of us must answer. I want to propose one starting place to formulate an answer. And that is to analyze the kind of unique power that each of us has to employ in this fight, because in the end, I believe that solutions to these pervasive problems will involve a power struggle—one that begins with each of us as individuals, giving renewed poignancy to the phrase: “Think globally, act locally.” We do have power, even though for some of us, as the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson said, “We are not now that strength which in old days, Moved earth and heaven.” Remember: we know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.
I want to use a well-known and serviceable, if old, study of power by French and Raven that I feel is germane to consider at this juncture. This is because the strength of one’s impact in speaking out will be affected by the overall power one brings to the task.
As you may recall French and Raven identified five different kinds of power in their classic 1965 study: 1) coercive, 2) legitimate, 3) reward, 4) expert, and association. Coercive does not apply so much to our discussion here as we cannot make anyone attend to our lofty pronouncements (well, my wife may have that power over me). This type of power pertains to more of a military or incarceration situation. Legitimate power is that which comes from an official position that we recognize as rightfully held, usually associated with an organization or bureaucracy. Reward power, as it sounds, involves being able to bestow some desired result on the recipient. This type of power may come into play if your audience sees your contribution as valued return on the investment of their time in listening to you. Expert power, closely related to reward power, is clearly a pertinent type of power if you are an independently recognized and desired source of the knowledge being sought. Finally, there is the power of association in which a public identifies with speaker for reasons in addition to other kinds of power be they expert or legitimate: you may know them personally or there may be some non-rational draw to them.
For one example, let’s apply this to my talk tonight. First, I have no coercive power here. I cannot make anyone follow what I say, particularly this group who’s not-so-hidden mission is to argue about everything. Regarding legitimate power, I am a duly invited and elected member of this august body, so at least I have some minimal legitimate standing to be holding forth tonight. Any reward power I may have in this instance depends upon whether, by the end of this talk, you feel like you have some positive resonance with what I have said or at least were somewhat entertained--in either case it being a positive trade-off for your time spent. Expert power is not supposed to come into play in this group as we are to speak outside of our areas of expertise, but I suppose there could be some expert power residing in one’s ability to make a convincing argument. Finally, there is associational power. Does our individual relationship involve some dimension that draws you to what I am saying? Is it that my white hair cries out “wisdom.” Or we’re good enough friends that you’re extending me a credibility “line of credit” thereby giving me the benefit of the doubt. Or by the same token, there could be a negative
attribution arising out of association. You’ve heard something suspect about me, so you believe that I’m talking out of my . . . depth. The cumulative power that accrues in this calculus will determine the extent to which you as a hearer will be impacted by these remarks. It also works the other way of course. Who we listen to and are persuaded by depends upon our assessment of that speaker’s collective power.
As I alluded to above, my wife, in addition to other kinds of power (aka charm) has some measure of coercive power as reflected in the saying “ain’t mamma happy, ain’t nobody happy.”
In a small example of legitimate power, we all defer to (and count on) Judy’s role in scheduling us to speak and Mike’s role in alerting us monthly of our meeting. For reward power, perhaps timely service of food, drink, and processing of our checks by Tony’s staff. For recognized expert power in law we would acknowledge Max or Darius, or for questions within the physical sciences, Lynn or Paul. The power of association--the self-congratulatory good will extended to each other in the spirit of “for [insert correct pronoun]’s a jolly good person.”
I believe that we must consider each of our audiences in a similar way. We all have circles in which we move where our influence may be exerted. Again Tennyson, “that which we are we are, one equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will. . .”
I am reminded of the famous Pogo cartoon where he says “We are faced with insurmountable opportunities.” Regarding the attitude that we take into this fray, a couple things come to mind. Cornel West visited UNI last year and someone asked him: “In the face of all this, are you optimistic?” He said, “No, but I must do this anyway.” I take that sober reflection with a longer perspective we should all recognize from Martin Luther King: “The moral arc of the universe is long and it bends toward justice.”