Sunday, April 14, 2019

Meritocracy and Idiocracy

The words used to describe political belief systems can be hard to understand when we consider the history of those systems.

A popular belief, aided by corporate media's constant repetition, is that the Republican Party is the party of conservative beliefs. The ideologies promoted by the modern Republican party since the 1980's actually trace their origin to the English philosopher John Locke who was an important figure in the development of classical liberalism. Classical liberalism emphasizes free markets and individual rights, particularly the rights of individuals to thrive or fail based on individual merit.

A case can be made that conservatism is derived from the thought of Edmund Burke. This type of conservatism places a strong emphasis on custom, convention, tradition, bonds of social order and the defense of ancestral institutions. Wendell Berry who decries the destruction of small farms and communities in the name of free market capitalism demonstrates elements of this type of conservatism.

Free-market capitalism disrupts culture, community, and family - making it antithetical to conservatism. The ideologues of free-market capitalism refer to this disruption of our social fabric euphemistically as creative destruction. Capitalism has created unprecedented wealth and worked better than any other system to distribute that wealth but it's been failing to do the latter for decades.

The Republican party of today has gone beyond the roots of classical liberalism to what is called neo-liberalism. This ideology holds that the state should be as small as possible to maximize individual freedom. In this worldview, freedom allows members of society to thrive or fail based on individual effort - a meritocracy. It's appealing to think that people who succeed deserve their success because of their individual merit - intelligence,  thrift, and hard work. Sounds fair right?


He gets criticized probably rightly so by some, but Edward Murray's book Coming Apart The State of White America 1960-2010 illustrates just how misguided and unfair the idea that people rise or fall in society based on individual merit has become.

Murray talks about "super-zips" his name for select areas in the U.S. with excellent private schools - from pre-K to university level, excellent medical care, easy access to healthy food, low crime rates, and professional jobs with high incomes. He contrasts these areas where the super-elite reside with areas that regular Americans live that have failing public schools, high crime rates, low wage jobs and persistent poverty.

If by accident of birth you happened to not be born in a super-zip but instead into an area where there is no pre-K education, failing public schools, limited or no access to medical care and healthy food, high crime rates and broken families - often as a result of rampant addiction...well then the meritocracy doesn't work so good for you. If you don't have any boots it's hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps as they say.

We now have generations of people who know the U.S. only through the vantage point of the super-zip(s) in which they were born, educated, work and live. When I was a kid, rich and not rich people lived in the same neighborhoods, attended the same churches and schools, shopped at the same grocery stores, had drinks at the same bars and got to know each other to some degree.

Murray holds that the emergence of super-zips has resulted in a cultural split between the residents of super-zips and the rest of the country. Cultural splits in what and where they eat, what they drink, how much TV they watch, which TV shows they watch, what they read, when or if they marry, how they raise their children.

He proposes this has led to a class system in the United States which didn't exist prior to the 1980's/90's. In comparison Nancy Isenberg's book White Trash The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America makes the argument that class has been part of America since it's founding. Richard Nixon said in 1959, "The United States, the world’s largest capitalist country, has from the standpoint of distribution of wealth come closest to the ideal of prosperity for all in a classless society." Murray's book illustrates how far we have departed from the society Nixon observed in 1959.

Do we live in a democratic or aristocratic society? Murray and Isenberg are both making the case for this being an aristocracy. Murray is pointing out how the last several decades have brought class divisions into sharp focus. Since it's founding America has been ruled by elites which worked because our meritocratic system allowed everyday Americans to enter the elite class. The development  of super-zips broke that system. The last time we had a revolution in the U.S. it was a rebellion against rule by a titled nobility in England. Super-zips provide us with kings, queens, lords and ladies today with inherited wealth, privilege and massive political power...they just don't have the titles.

Super-zips provide our country with CEO's, politicians, supreme court judges and the popular media. So....we have lots of very powerful people who are clueless about how the other 90% of America lives - what they believe, what they fear, what they need or what their dreams are.

No wonder the media elites who grew up in the super-zips keep wanting to travel to fly-over country to figure out what's going on with those Trump-voters. Media bashing is fun but I'm more interested in how CEO's, politicians and supreme court judges could possibly represent the interests of people they know nothing about.

I have to confess to being sort of an elite-lite in how out of touch I have been with what's happening outside my bubble. I was surprised to see so many Trump signs when driving from the West coast to Montana a few years ago. I'm starting to get it I think. In my defense I'd say I sort of lost track of what was going on in the larger world - what with work and kids and all that life stuff.


So much for meritocracy what about this idiocracy? You probably already know that is the name of a movie. I'm using it in a more generic sense to consider the possibility of a group/nation/world of idiots.

The long quote that follows is the introduction to the book - Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman:

"We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares. But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. 

Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. 

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. 

Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. 

Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. 

Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. 

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." 

In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Here's a video of Neil Postman discussing his book in 1985.


It's not yet clear where this leads, but Neil Postman was quite prophetic. If no one reads books and we have an unlimited number of distractions every waking moment it's hard to see how society progresses. An informed citizenry is necessary for a democracy and we aren't becoming informed through antisocial media, TV or radio.  

One last thing on the movie Idiocracy. I haven't watched the whole thing for years but I have been watching the trailer. The trailer makes me a bit uncomfortable in it's simplistic stereotyping and disdain for poor people but it is a comedy and probably contains some truth. It's worth considering if this is some elite created propaganda implying that since we theoretically live in a meritocracy, it's okay for fortunate people to look down on poor people because they are too lazy and ignorant to better themselves. I thought the poor peoples house with the dirt bike spinning around in the yard looked kind of fun - at least to my younger self.