About 'Alpha+Good'

Alpha+Good (sort of a bad wordplay on Orwell and machismo) is a side project that belongs to 'Onklare taal' ('Unclear language'), the umbrella of several of my literary projects in Dutch. This section is almost exclusively in English and comprises my ongoing thoughts on progress, gender, politics and various other social themes. Are you a little lost? This link will take you right back to my home page.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Dealing with progressive failure

Whenever a democratic process - a free vote, a referendum, what have you - produces an outcome that is ostensibly stupid, or, even worse, can trace its stupidity back to people taking action against their better interests, some progressives resist to scratch the itch of calling people dumb by laying the blame for the bad outcome at the feet of a system, a culture or some nebulous social trend. It happened when the US gave George W. Bush a second term, it happened when Berlusconi kept getting reelected in Italy and it's now happening with the Brexit.

In this piece, David Hopkins is one of the many to argue that our culture has dumbed down in the past decades and that there is a climate of anti-intellectualism. It has nothing to do with the Brexit as such but it was posted in a Twitter conversation about it between two people in my feed who can broadly be described as progressive intellectuals.

Hopkins' piece is not entirely serious but it is certainly not tongue-in-cheek. His complaint is also not new at all. Ancient Greek teacher and master of rhetorics Isocrates complained in the 4th century BCE that people venerated athletes more than wise men and that voters mistrusted honest politicians while praising people who were clearly sycophantic pretenders. Anti-intellectualism has been a force throughout the whole of Western Civilization, and possibly other civilizations, too, but I know too little about them to make that judgement.

However, two interesting questions remain.
1. Why does anti-intellectualism exist in the first place?
2. What motivates people to vote against their best interests?

"This is all we have"

In 2013, I wrote a piece for De Wereld Morgen (Tomorrow's World) - it's in Dutch, sorry - that cited research that seems to indicate that people on the bottom rungs of the social order cling a lot harder to the principles of the hegemony they are part of, even if these very principles cause them grief and pain.

This is not a repackaging of the folk wisdom that jocks hate nerds because they're secretly jealous of their intellect (although in some cases I suppose that could be true). The humuliation intellectuals often face in their formative years stem more from the idea that many of these young men and women have trouble adjusting to the hegemonic ideas of what makes for accepted behaviour, style and interests in society. I'll explain more down below.

I've also argued before in this essay - also in Dutch, sorry, but please consider learning Dutch, ok? - that the four main pillars of our social order are patriarchy, plutocracy, imperialism and superstition. Superstition has become more diffuse over the past few years (though it is scarily alive in a fanatical belief in the free market), but imperialism is still embodied by nationalism and racism, the idea that being rich is also being better is still alive and well (e.g. Donald Trump) and patriarchy may be under fire, but is still very much a thing.

Now, people in the lowest social strata turning to the imperialist pillar of the hegemony to feel better ("at least we're white!") and simultaneously cooling their anger on cultural minorities is well-documented. The fear of losing whiteness, Englishness or whatever other central idea about the self to a more mixed sense of culture is terrifying to people who have almost nothing else to feel confident about, because they sure aren't rich and aren't very much in tune with the current fads of holiness, whether it's holistic healing or free market orthodoxy.

Anti-intellectualism is, according to me, tied to toxic masculinity. And in that, I'm at least prepared to cede some ground to Hopkins's central argument: as more and more women are entering positions of power and more women than men earn university degrees, educational pursuits become devalued in the eyes of traditional masculinity. Sure, there are exceptions. The hard sciences, economics and applied sciences often get a pass and it's not a coincidence that a lot of political conservatives specifically rail against literature or philosophy education. It's also not a coincidence that these are fields still massively populated by men (science) or tied to the prevailing orthodoxy of the free market (economics).

So, because the socially maladjusted kid who prefers reading about Baudelaire or spends afternoons pouring over complex strategy games breaks the limited confines of the "man box" (the narrow idea of acceptable masculinity), his peers single him out for humiliation and gender policing. "We may not be rich, savvy or even white, but at least we're not pansies". It is also not a coincidence that anti-intellectualism is the second point of Umberto Eco's 1995 essay on Ur-Fascism, where Fascism is the hegemony on steroids, borne out of an intense frustration with the hegemony but unable to see past it.

Hatred trumps lucidity

So why do people vote against their best interests? Why did the socially less well-off of former English industrial areas vote for leaving the European Union despite the fact that they'll be struggling even harder under an unchecked neo-Thatcherite government?

A blogger who names herself Prester Jane has built on the theories of Authoritarianism from the Canadian psycholigist Bob Altemeyer and has coined the term "narrativism". I wrote about her, too - yeah, it's in Dutch again, seriously, go learn Dutch. One of the underlying ideas is that reactionary movements tap into really deep-rooted cultural sentiments that trump rational thought (pun unintended).

Hatred is an ugly human emotion, but an emotion all the same, triggered by elevated feelings of fear, being threatened and revulsion. A visceral hatred for the Other, whether they subvert the basic ideas of patriarchy, plutocracy, imperialism or superstition, is often enough to disregard other, more clear-headed arguments. If we consider Trump in the United States, that's very clear to see: he ripped off the band-aid of pretend holiness and liberty rhetoric to tap straight into the raw nerve of hatred in his constituency. They don't care he's thrice-married or used to donate to Democrats. Their emotional connection to his brazen racism, misogyny and get-rich-quick mentality is more important to feed their scarred self-confidence.

So, yeah, put very simply, some people vote against their best interests because they hate others more than they love themselves.

As a final note, a typical process of progressive handwringing must include musings about how progressive elites don't speak the language of the people or owe it to themselves that working class audiences have soured on them. I do not think this is because their ideology lost currency, but more because populist and reactionary politicians quite correctly perceive the majority of these progressives as complicit with the system that holds people down. If that is puzzling, that's human nature. There are feminists who admire rich and powerful women and turn a blind eye to their privilege as profiteers from an unequal economic system, just like there are militant atheists who have no qualms with misogyny.

The silver lining is that new movements are arising and will keep cropping up that actually can direct popular anger at the true enemies. Syriza ultimately was defeated in Europe, but its rise was hope-inspiring. So was the rise of people like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, Podemos in Spain or the PVDA-PTB in Belgium. It's not too late to use the downtrodden's very real frustration to unmask their real opponents, but it will take effort and it will take confronting a few uncomfortable truths. Yes, some people are stupid and hateful. But they don't have to be that way forever.