Thursday, 13 April 2017

Changing Trump’s mind on Syria

Directly after US President Donald Trump’s first real projection of force last week (cruise missiles fired against Syrian regime targets), his supporters complain he is listening to the exact experts he was supposed to ignore. But why does this complaint feel like such a waste of time?

Actually, a better question would be: who, exactly, are these experts? By what means did they achieve their positions of authority? Do their disciplines genuinely use the wonderful error-correcting quality of Popperian science? Or has this been, in some way, neutralised or bypassed? Was it never there in the first place?

Everything makes sense thinking about experts as a power caste, understood by using the Russell Rule (originally noted by Freda Utley about Bertrand Russell): the ruling caste are the people who say "we" when they mean "the government." The ruled castes always says "they."

This ruling caste enjoys obsessing about the negative aspects of life because, like all hominids, it likes power. Power in human societies is inseparable from responsibility: a person gains power by demonstrating they are sincerely concerned about solving problems. No problems, no power.

And these experts are definitely concerned. No one who has spent any time with these people can doubt their sincerity. This doesn't imply, however, their solutions will be effective. Mr Trump’s supporters agree: the solution is producing the problem it purports to be trying to solve.

For example, who hasn't suspected that democracy and the peace process are the cause of Syria’s ills? Don't you ever wonder what would happen in that part of the world if everyone decided to ignore it for a while? The experts didn’t want Mr Trump to wonder.

If you read the New York Times regularly and believe it is portraying an accurate picture of reality – obviously, it defers to universities in any case of doubt – you also believe that anyone who supports Mr Trump’s ideas is either ignorant, malicious or seriously deluded. And he is certainly out to lunch on many issues.

From this, people naturally conclude Democrats have better epistemology than Republicans. What this analysis is missing, I think, is a sense of the fundamental asymmetry between left and right in the modern American political system and how it impacts the presidency – and the world.

First, the right simply does not have an epistemological filtering system. It's only the American left that has genuine leadership institutions which work to frame the debate. There is no right-wing Harvard. There is no right-wing New York Times. There are only scattered circles of right-leaning intellectuals, generally poorly funded. The American university system speaks with one voice, and pretty much always has.

The only professional conservatives are neoconservatives, in other words, post-Trotskyists. Nothing at all survives of either McCarthyism or Patterson isolationism, both comical by pre-20th century standards, American or European. In short, American conservatism is a pathetic joke, and any liberal who worries about it is a paranoid.

In a society where scholars are the ruling caste, actual scholarship tends to vanish. The classical virtues of craft, originality and curiosity are virtually obsolete. They are of no use in the task of capturing the President’s psychology and expanding the state. Virtues leave little time for the organisationally valuable tasks of maintaining doctrinal purity, expelling dissidents and watching each other’s backs.

The place where these experts come from, universities, are no longer institutions of scholarship. They are revolutionary seminaries. Their product is cadre. Of course, it’s still possible to get a good education in STEM, but even there it is increasingly difficult to escape indoctrination.

As I wrote recently, ethnic minorities are ideal as cadre just as Ottomans selected and reared mainly Christian boys to serve as Janissaries. Children of the powerless classes have no reason to defect. They will be extraordinarily loyal warriors. This is why, if you're young, smart and ethnic, your ticket in life is written.

So Mr Trump has two sources of epistemology to choose from when making decisions. He can get his truth from the same place Mr Obama does. Or, as his supporters desire, he can get it from demotic folk wisdom, the Bible, common sense or whatever. You would expect the latter process to not be very reliable, and it generally isn’t.

What’s surprising is that it’s ever accurate. Yet there’s a pattern across the 20th century of this basically unintellectual side of the debate being correct, and universities being wrong. In economics, for example. This doesn’t mean it’s good to be an ignorant hick. It only suggests the “expert” system is not immune to epistemological corruption.

As the Syria strike now proves, it is a mistake to think electing Republicans will turn the US into Trumpistan. When a person votes Democrat, they are saying the people who have the real power should stay there. When they vote for Republicans, they are agitating and disrupting the system, albeit to a much lesser degree than most think.

There is one genuine, positive effect of voting Republican. It acts as a symbolic protest against the rule of universities. Progressives are very good at calibrating their demands to what the public will accept – I believe it’s one of Saul Alinsky’s rules. By saying, “we want Trump,” a voter implicitly says, “we have an issue with Maoist first-year indoctrination struggle sessions.” This doesn’t stop those programmes, not at all, but it strikes a little bit of fear into the progressive’s heart.

The way it typically works is that most of the ideas held by the ruling scholar caste are simply bad, whereas those held by its primary political competitor (the red-state bourgeoisie) are either unexpectedly sensible or profoundly awful. Traditions often work that way.

But complaints about the experts feel like a waste of time because the complainer inevitably becomes associated with low-status people. The result is a stable disequilibrium in which nonsense defeats sense. It's quite an ingenious design. Not that anyone designed it, of course, any more than someone designed, say, the ankle. But I think we can still be impressed.

However, experts know three things: One, their intellectual system is not capable of correcting itself. Two, it is possible to destroy it. And three, the red-state bourgeoisie is a productive, rather than a counterproductive, tool which can be useful in achieving this outcome. Now can you see why they wanted to change Mr Trump’s mind on Syria?

1 comment:

sumon tripura said...
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