Sad Christmas in November

I’ve been watching analyses all night and well into this morning. At this point, I’ve pretty much lost hope. Slightly more than half of the American people have decided to side with moral absolutism and totalitarianism.

If you voted for Bush (I don’t think that there are many of you out there who did), I would like to receive, in writing, a complete and objective justification for your vote. I just want to hear compelling fact-based reasons. Is that so hard to ask.

Is there such a think as an academicracy? Would it be so bad if there was? Would the messed up politics of the academic world as it is map into national politics?

I sleep now, and pray for an election miracle.

Blowin’ In The Wind” from Forrest Gump by Joan Baez


16 responses to “Sad Christmas in November”

  1. Is there such a think as an academicracy?

    Heh, I’ve actually been thinking about this a bit recently. The first issue is what one would call such a system of government: the possibilities I thought of include a mathocracy (rule of understanding), epistemocracy (rule of knowledge) and sophocracy (rule of the wise), and also possibly the silly-sounding gnomocracy (rule of foresight/planning/patience … ahh, those untranslatable Greek words).

    I think such a government would work reasonably well–I would hope that most academics could put aside any petty rivalries they held toward one another and focus on weightier matters. Even if I’m wrong, which I might well be, I seriously doubt the resulting infighting and petty politicking could produce the caliber of blunders that we’ve seen over the past couple years. Perhaps their views wouldn’t reflect those of the general populace, but I don’t care one bit. Ancient history, and now recent history, tell us that people in general are clueless and don’t know what they’re doing.

    Unfortunately, Plato was right–the ones who are most fit to rule are the ones who don’t want to rule. Grr.

    (Sorry… this came out a bit more vitriolic than I’d intended. If you couldn’t tell, I’m planning on writing a classics-flavored election rant as soon as I get some free time on my hands…)

  2. The proper, traditional, and non-value-judgmental term for a system of government that worked this way would be a “meritocracy”, where some institutional test (getting a degree) gives you access to the institution. The huge tradition of the Chinese civil service examinations and the scholastic bureaucracy it generated is probably the best historical example (even though the meritocracy was frequently overruled by the monarchy it coexisted with).

    History shows that while such a system worked, I would be hesitant to say it worked “reasonably well”. The nature of being an academic is being isolated from ordinary people and ordinary life, and being resistant to sudden new ideas while at the same time slowly breeding a general, orthodox worldview that may turn out to be radically skewed from what actual public opinion and from a truly considered, objective perspective on what needs to be done.

    It means that in a hundred years or so your academic meritocracy is treating ordinary people like shit and doesn’t care, because they’re not smart enough to be academics and therefore what they think doesn’t matter. This is exacerbated by the fact that academics have to be rich to pay for an education (and even if formal education is free, people who can pay for *informal* education — tutors, cram classes, leisure time to sit in the library and read — still have a huge advantage) — and once it becomes known that the academy is the way to gain power, the non-academic rich folks start seeing buying academics — making sure one scion of the family gets the important degree, sponsoring people to take the exams, etc. — as really worth their while. And despite all our cynicism about elections, degrees are *much* easier to finesse and finagle than votes.

    Frankly, while there’s merit to the idea that majority-rule democracy is inherently flawed because it oppresses minorities, and that there are minorities out there who know what’s good for the majority better than the majority does, the fact remains we’d rather risk letting the majority oppress the minorities than letting some minority oppress the majority. Even if we initially define that minority as “smart people”.

  3. Addendum: If this is about left vs. right politics, it should be noted that Bush’s ideas don’t come from himself — they come from the bevy of, yes, academics who came up with neoconservative foreign policy, supply-side economics, and so on. You’d have, if anything, *less* balanced and *more* crazy ideas if you let the eggheads behind the campaign have direct, ultimate power unfiltered by having to appeal to the general public.

    Unless by “academics” you mean “academics I like”, in which case we’re not really talking about a system of government but about wishing we actually had mind-control powers and ruled the world, which is an admirable sentiment but unworkable.

  4. I think this serves as a validation of sorts for the electoral college, which so many of us have lampooned. Whoever actually becomes president, Bush has a pretty good spread over Kerry on the popular vote right now, and there’s been a gay marriage ban in like 11 states, which says to me that pure democracy clearly isn’t the solution to our problems. Much as the founders thought, the minority certainly needs to be protected from the knee-jerk whims of the majority (even if that minority is a plurality itself). Whatsmore, sometimes the silly majority needs to be protected from itself. Call it terrible, terrible patronizing, but I think that that’s certainly the case right now.

    Life would be so much simpler if presidents didn’t stick their hands into social policy and just ran on platforms based on foreign policy and domestic economic issues. Then you wouldn’t get all this bull about “moral values” and “leadership”, empty words that gain significance simply because one side says them in every other phrase and therefore just has to have those qualities, along with one’s ideology about what personal rights people do or do not deserve, being the driving forces behind every election. I think we could all vote more rationally then, and it would matter less if your guy won because the guy who did would just be pissing off America’s neighbors and mismanaging your money, not promoting school prayer, turning gay people into second-class citizens, fighting science tooth and nail, whatever.

    The Democrats have a lot to learn, though. Both parties have been pretty shitty at playing to people’s hopes and aspirations (as have the minor parties, really, unless your aspiration is the dismantling of all government). The Republicans did a much better job playing to people’s fears: fears about terrorism, fears about war, and fears about people with lifestyles different from yours actually being able to live them. This is the lowest common denominator. This is the basis of Bush’s strongly conservative 50.000001% strategy. So far, it seems to be getting just the results they had hoped for.

    This is an object lesson. We’re the object. And the lesson, expressed in l33t because l33t is stupid and it’s a very stupid lesson: FUD = teh win.

  5. Well, gee, yeah, because clearly when I said “academics” I meant one of “entirely right-wing academics” or “entirely left-wing academics?” I’m aware that there are academics whose opinions differ from my own, and you speak as if such a system would consist exclusively of one side or the other. In theory it might turn out thus, but that certainly wouldn’t be the intent. It’s easier said than done, I know, but one would hope to have a reasonable sampling of most of the political spectrum, and failing that to at least avoid glutting it too badly with one extreme or the other. The important thing isn’t that they pass laws favorable to me, but that the laws be discussed and debated by informed, intelligent (even if biased) people.

    And as for such a system in general, I think it’s clear that importing the old Chinese system wholesale, or even mostly, wouldn’t work. What I had in mind, and I probably should have said this more clearly, was something more akin to Nick’s “academicracy” than to a meritocracy or to the words I listed in my reply, where rule would be exercised by academics, by professors, not by people who happened to pass a civil service exam. Competent professors from all backgrounds would be chosen, perhaps by lot, to serve a year or two in a senate of sorts, at the end of which they’d return to their previous positions. This would allow intelligent debate while avoiding giving rise to a separate caste of intellectuals totally sequestered from the rest of the world.

    Of course, this has all sorts of practical and logistical issues that would need to be worked out. And you’re right that academics likely won’t share the views of the populace. But I’m bloody tired of this public that’s inflicting so much damage on our country by being unwilling or unable to inform itself.

    (Would I be saying all this if Bush had lost? Probably not. That’s certainly fair criticism.)

  6. I don’t think it’s a validation of the electoral college… after all, Bush won both the popular vote and the electoral. Admittedly (although I don’t feel like doing the math so I’m not completely sure) Kerry would have won the latter if the EC wasn’t so heavily weighted towards small states, but that doesn’t make the EC the right system either.

  7. Oh, of course your academics would have disagreements among themselves, be split into left and right wings, and so on. That’s something I assume — I also assume that when an elite takes power it frames all the issues they argue about around their own interests. Right-wing and left-wing academics there might be, but the vast majority in both camps would favor policies that favored academics. And both camps’ perception of “left wing” and “right wing” would be really different from regular people’s, and would often ignore things regular people wanted because of unspoken assumptions among academics.

    What you have is *still* a meritocracy — being a professor is the result of getting good SAT scores, passing your undergrad classes, and going through a byzantine hazing process through grad school, junior professorships and the tenure track. If you think this process is in any way “fair” or in any way accurately reflects who the smart, intellectually honest or dedicated people in America are, you’re deluding yourself. (Yes, I have gripes about the academy. Yes, despite the fact I’m a Democrat, I think there’s a serious left-wing political bias in the academy. Yes, I formerly wished to be a college professor and now hate the idea.)

    It’s not being in government that sequesters people from the world — it’s being in *academia*. Believe it or not I think there are many ways in which the Bush team is smarter than my Swat professors because they actually have to listen to and speak to huge numbers of proletarians every day rather than sitting in an ivory tower and writing papers.

    I think we may be overreacting about this Bush thing. Bush’s bad qualities come mostly in those things where he’s *sacrificed* popularity for the plans of his pet academics (the invasion of Iraq, most definitely, was such a case). Just because you think your professors are smarter than Bush doesn’t mean they’d be better leaders; this whole college-student attitude that anyone who’s not like us is an idiot is really annoying. You may disagree with their opinions, but just because your opinions are expressable in academic jargon and theirs aren’t doesn’t mean theirs are worth less than yours.

  8. But it does show that the so-called “pure democracy” that everyone was hoping for in 2000 wouldn’t’ve helped much. And my larger point is that it’s good to be a republic because the rights of a minority are protected from the opinions of the majority. The trouble is that you need the majority to create any new rights that weren’t considered during the time of its founding, which is why stuff like women’s voting and civil rights were such hard battles, and why gay people are getting waled on right now.

  9. Well.. yeah, okay. Any my larger point (mostly incoherent due to an awful caffeine hangover) is that “democracy vs EC” seems like an irrelevant debate either way, when the system of government of the USA is as messed up as it is. Personally I’m hoping we can magically get a parliamentary system in place somehow, although, considering how equally messed up the demographics and politics of US citizens are, that might not help so much…

  10. “Life would be so much simpler if presidents didn’t stick their hands into social policy and just ran on platforms based on foreign policy and domestic economic issues.”
    I feel this intensely, and contemplated making a post about it; Nicholas Kristof’s most recent column captures a lot of the feeling. I think one thing that this election teaches us is that the culture war is a massive, cancerous tumor in American political discourse — if we could only get by all that and, like you say, concentrate on real issues! — and there is a strong part of me that feels intense rage at gender activists and their ilk for the divisions they do a lot to contribute to. (I think, though, that at the end of the day one must just say that in large part the gender activists are right, damn it, and you just can’t compromise other people’s rights, even if they’re small rights and it’s a small demographic, and we can’t budge and just have to ride this out.)

  11. The problem (as you know perfectly well) is that those academics hate Jesus.

  12. Yeah, but if presidents didn’t stick their hands into social policy then no one would vote Republican…

  13. I have no real interest in continuing this, largely because I posted my original comment while half-awake and still incensed about the election results. That said, there are a couple things that need to be addressed.

    It’s pretty clear that my view of academics is rather less cynical than yours. Though it may be hard to believe, especially at Swat, professors are real people who care about a lot of the same issues regular people do; they’ve got families to take care of and bills to pay, and, with few exceptions, they’re not getting rich by teaching. Try getting to know one or two of your professors outside of class–it can be a very rewarding experience. (My parents are both professors; they’re perfectly compatible with non-academics, even extroverts, and I know a great many of their colleagues personally; while this may contribute substantially to my perspective, I do think it gives me some credibility on the subject of professors as real people.)

    I have no illusions about such a system being fair; I don’t think I ever claimed it to be. There can be no truly fair system for identifying who’s best-suited for ruling the state (whatever that means) until we’ve developed some means of omniscience. But academia, I think, does represent a reasonably reliable sample of smart and dedicated (not necessarily intellectually honest) people. I’m not sure how else one could obtain such a sample. Their socio-economic status may not be even remotely diverse and their interests may not coincide with those of the populace, but a lot of people were discontent with their choice of candidates in this past election for those very reasons.

    What this all really comes down to for me, I guess, is that I’m losing faith in the citizenry’s ability to exercise its democratic responsibilities. IMHO, our system carries two weighty responsibilities for its citizens: they must make an effort to think intelligently about important matters, not just to believe what they see on TV, and they must play an active part in shaping the political landscape–that is, they must vote. I like to think that I’m reasonably open-minded and don’t label people as idiots for disagreeing with me (though I may think it at times), but I also hope that they’ve given some thought to their opinions. Moreover, while I have nothing against religion and don’t mean to offend anyone with this remark, I have some serious issues with groups, even majority groups, that attempt to curtail rights of other groups simply because they “don’t believe in them” or happen to view them as “wrong.”

    Of course we’re overreacting to all this nonsense. Nevertheless, if someone voted for Bush because they’d made a rational decision that his policies were the better ones, great. If someone voted against gay marriage because they’d come to a rational decision that it was a bad thing, fine. (I won’t deny that, if I’m to claim open-mindedness, I ought to be more understanding of decisions made purely on faith.) But I’m not convinced that many of Bush’s supporters had fact-based reasons to offer (to get back to Nick’s original post), nor am I convinced that, in the relevant states, he would have received quite the number of votes he did had there not been an opportunity for voters to ban gay marriage. I really hope I’m being too cynical here, but Thucydides has grilled into me the awareness that in a democracy it’s not at all impossible for The People not to have a grip on the facts and not to know what they’re doing. When citizens cease to serve as active instruments of a democracy or a republic, it’s time to consider whether they still deserve to be part of one.

  14. Hmm, I was wrong–Bush still would’ve won the EC if you subtract the two Senate votes from each state’s electoral count.

Nurd Up!