YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

March 13, 2012

Dumbing down: when did it begin?

William James drawn by S. Woldhek

I. I have been mulling over the deterioration of public speech and what passes for social and political theory for some time, trying to pin down a date or social movement that I can identify as chief perpetrator of the Great Dumbing Down. (For the second installment of this blog see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/22/3760/: The Great Dumbing Down (2). Perhaps we (and everyone else) have always struggled with mass stupidity and the temptation of the dark passions, but if one studies the writings of the Founding Fathers of the U.S., one must be struck by the quality of their argumentation and the deep knowledge of European history that each brought to the debates that eventuated in the Constitution. Moreover, many of these men were all too aware of humanity’s dark side, so they looked to the law OR to the ordering forces of religion to produce what has come to be known as “American exceptionalism.” Although Biblical Christian fundamentalists (the “traditionalists”) have emphasized the divine origin of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, secular students of history have read enough late 18th century American history to recognize the materialism and scientific attitudes that many Founders deployed to construct a representative republic that fostered “liberty” and “meritocracy”—at least for propertied white males.

Still, we are left with the ambiguity that surrounds the questions of free will and determinism. What exactly do we mean by human “freedom”? Not to explore the strongly divergent meanings attached to “liberty” is fatal to education in a would-be representative republic. And Hamilton’s notion of popular sovereignty, what he called “the consent of the people” or the voice of the people as the source of political legitimacy (see Federalist #22), was obviously dependent on a quality education for everyone who voted. Hence the disaster of the Great Dumbing Down. Charles Sumner and Walter Lippmann were two important Americans, who, in either the 19th or 20th centuries, fully understood the danger of poor schools.

Note that I use Hamilton’s language in describing our political structures. He was afraid of mobbish democracies, and I cannot blame him. Liberty is a much abused conception that can be annexed by divergent ideologies, as we have seen in the controversies of the day, but it is necessary to strictly historicize each raging issue.

For instance, the U.S. Constitution, a timeless document for many,  was framed in the context of a mostly agrarian society, while European empires looked longingly at the Western Hemisphere for expansion/wealth. Much of our political and economic history cannot be understood without seeing the vulnerability of the new republic to invasion by rival European empires. Since that time, industrialism, urbanization, continental expansion, changing patterns of immigration, and ongoing rivalries between developing countries have drastically changed the meaning attached to our key words (e.g., “immigration,” just as these changes called forth social movements to defend entrenched interests, or in many cases, to challenge them with modifications that anyone would deem to be revolutionary in their implications. Such was the case with social democracy, communism, and fascism. In post-Civil War America, it was first Populism that challenged capitalism, then Progressivism (that co-opted populism) that dominated. With constant interaction between America and Europe and the other major states, the terms of social theory became weapons in the hands of ideologues, using words and comparisons to suit their particular propaganda requirements. This website has been devoted to sorting out such confusions. See for instance https://clarespark.com/2010/04/08/racism-modernity-modernism/.

II. What progressivism, socialism, communism and fascism have in common is their statism and collectivism. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish “right-wing social democrats” from the other authoritarian doctrines that have typified human history (for a definition of “right-wing social democrat” see my comment below or go to https://clarespark.com/2009/12/16/perceptions-of-the-enemy-the-left-looks-at-the-right-and-vice-versa/). For instance, some persons on “the [far] Right” think that everything a progressive does is either socialist, communist, or fascistic. Social democrats do the same thing when they use the term “totalitarian” to conflate Soviet Communism and the various European fascisms that developed after the first world war. Indeed, London’s Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, an outpost of the British Labour Party (though there is no formal linkage), will host a conference later this year investigating psychoanalytic theory and practice in the “totalitarian” regimes (see http://historypsychiatry.com/2012/03/13/psychoanalysis-in-the-age-of-totalitarianism/).

“Totalitarian” is a made-up word that no historian or political theorist should espouse. That is why I think that social democrats of this stripe are responsible for dumbing down public discourse, hence undermining the Enlightenment—the Enlightenment that produced the doctrine of natural rights—a conception that was much abused by the Jacobins of the French Revolution.

Keep in mind that Progressivism in the United States was bipartisan and reacting against populism and/or the labor movement in the late 19th century. That is why hip scholars approve of the philosophy of the hugely influential William James, 1842-1910 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_James). Once you go for Jamesian pseudo-pluralism, stability and social cohesion over 1.the search for truth and 2. the best ways to level up/create wealth, you are left with ambiguity and confusion, what I call the anti-ideology ideology or “pragmatism” of “the moderate men.” You have donned the steel helmet, the perfect object admired by Goebbels. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/01/25/the-state-of-the-union-stinks/, and https://clarespark.com/2010/04/22/links-to-blogs-on-military-psychiatry/.

pragmatists Peirce and James

Moreover, these populist-progressives believe that “Wall Street,” is monolithic, and will undoubtedly play both the race card and will delve into antisemitism to beat “the big money” (“finance capital”) that they, along with some social conservatives, are already associating with Mitt Romney. And yet, a significant number of financiers remain strong Obama supporters, while others have broken away and support Romney. The latter believe that the Keynesian “demand-stimulus” solution to recession is ineffective and are upset over the mounting deficit, hence they worry about bankruptcy as has been threatened in European social democratic regimes.

What can parents and other concerned readers do? Silent acquiescence and going limp are not options. Study, fight back, use public libraries and the resources of the internet, and ask your children and students and friends what they mean by certain words. Draw them out and don’t be harshly critical, but stay with the subject until differences are clarified. We will even find agreement over some basic values, different though we may be at the outset. Start a book club. Study the curricula of your children and young adults and decode their agendas. (For part two of this series see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/22/3760/.)


January 28, 2012

Popular sovereignty on the ropes

I restarted my study of the making of the Constitution last summer, by reading the Federalist papers. I was very excited by Hamilton’s insistence on popular sovereignty as the fountain of authority that must guide the entire national government. (See “…The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority.” [Federalist #22. Hamilton’s emphasis, pp. 106, 110, The Federalist, edited by Max Beloff, 1948, second ed. 1987]  Hamilton stressed the power of the House of Representatives as the most direct route to popular control of government.  I was somewhat shocked as the prevalent [Jeffersonian] line on Hamilton is that he was an aristocratic thinker, a quasi-monarchist, who declared at a banquet that the people were “a great beast.” This latter slap at popular sovereignty was disseminated by medievalist Henry Adams and no one has found any source to confirm Adams’s claim. And unlike Stephen Douglas (1813-1861), Lincoln’s opponent in the election of 1860, Hamilton was an abolitionist, and would not have approved Douglas’s version of popular sovereignty as a route to the expansion of slavery.

So popular sovereignty is linked, not to Rousseau’s notion of the general/popular will (an idea taken up by the Jacobins and by many leftists today), but to the deliberations of a representative republic in which, presumably, the House of Representatives is recognized by the other branches of government as the “pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority.”

We find ourselves in campaign season 2012, in a condition where “the consent of the people” is a dream. In this polarized polity, characterized by a mish-mash of religious, class, ethnic, and gender politics, plus a stunning ignorance of political science, economics, and American and European history and its bevy of authoritarian social movements, “the people” is a convenient fiction of demagoguery, trotted out as counterpoint to special interests/”the nanny state.”

What is a writer with a popular audience to do? What can educators, including parents do to instill the mental habits that would make a representative republic more than a recruiting slogan for conservatives wishing to restore the divine origin of such innovations as the separation of powers and checks and balances, all treated in The Federalist? “God” is barely summoned in The Federalist; rather these pamphlets were a scientific, materialist proposal and defense of an unprecedented national government that would halt the slide to chaos and failure under the Articles of Confederation. In other words, the U.S. Constitution, and before that, the Declaration of Independence were products of the Enlightenment. “We” were “Nature’s nation” and for many, bearers of a providential mission to lead the world in political democracy. When Charles Sumner asked “Are We A Nation?” in 1867, he envisioned “the people” as the repository of those rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence, and these “human rights” were universal, and, quoting James Otis, “without distinction of color.” (Sumner also nodded to The Federalist and Alexander Hamilton). For more on Providence and American mission, see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/.  Rooseveltian internationalists, leaders of the American Studies movement, were fond of trouncing the Founders and Herman Melville’s character Captain Ahab as messianic and rabidly imperialistic. Thus “American exceptionalism” has come to signify the overweening desire to dominate the globe, rather than the invention of a nation grounded in natural, i.e., universal human rights: life, liberty, and property. However guided by “Providence,” Sumner, echoing Hamilton, insisted that “We the people,” not “We the States” were the source of legitimacy for the Constitution.

Although the President, along with the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has called for the beefing up of “education,” neither one suggested a debate about the curriculum, particularly who decides what is the proper training for would-be citizens. And by citizenship, I refer to a person with the critical tools to read the messages that affect all our choices. Here is where “protestant pluralism” founders on the rocks of neo-tribalism, “local control,” anti-intellectualism, populism, proto-fascism, and other man-traps. We are cathected to leaders who pander to our pre-existent prejudices or to reverence for ancestors, to the fear of an eternity in hell, to the presidential horse-race that the media promote, and to groupiness and partisanship in general. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/03/06/groupiness/.) We are constantly agitated and may enjoy the inner turmoil and suspense that a political campaign offers. Or we may feel helpless and permanently unrepresented in both high and popular culture, so turn inward to self, or to family, friends, employment, sports, and sex/personal appearance as primary sources of identity and purpose. Patriotism is taken to be a tic of “the Right,” not exemplary loyalty to human rights without distinction of color.

What I complain about here regarding our distorted and irrational political culture may seem so cosmic, so impossible to rectify, that a sane person must give up on this country and its survival as a representative republic. Indeed, the powerful historian Edmund S. Morgan denies that we ever had anything resembling popular rule, nor does he appear to be sanguine as to its prospects. (See his 1988 publication: Inventing the People, in which he concludes that we have moved from the politics of deference to the politics of leadership, i.e., the manipulation of public opinion.) So to be concrete, I suggest that each person concerned with her or his child’s education, encourage that child to look up the phrase “popular sovereignty” and to urge her or his teachers to discuss it in the appropriate grades. But first, look inside, and what do you see?  A terrified conformist, a romantic renegade, or a competent voter–a faithful seeker after truth, the universal truth that is the foundation of human rights and the glory of American nationality?  Captain Ahab, arousing his crew to find and fight Leviathan, echoed Milton’s Satan in Book 9 of Paradise Lost, when Ahab/Satan declared “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” Are We a Nation? For more on Alexander Hamilton and the search for truth see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/03/sluts-and-pigs/ (retitled Limbaugh v. Fluke).

August 1, 2011

Alexander Hamilton’s rational voice of the People

Hamilton, Madison, Jay, a.k.a. “Publius”

[Update, 4-18-17: despite the efforts of some academics such as Stephen F. Knott, AH is the villainous Founder, responsible for big government and the rule of money. So say the Progressives and their progeny. The Broadway show “Hamilton” is an outlier, perhaps its message of upward mobility inspired the cast and writer.]

This is an excerpt from Hamilton’s Federalist paper #22, a synoptic review of the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation and an argument for a strong national government. I am choosing a passage that seems to me to be directly relevant to the current debate over extending the debt ceiling.

I will quote only a portion of this lengthy document, and then offer a short comment of my own regarding my own strong response to words that seemed to leap from the page, reassuring me about the need for a thoroughgoing education in republican political theory in all our schools, in this case, the potential peril of a forced consensus.

[Hamilton, #22:] “…The necessity of unanimity in public bodies, or of something approaching towards it, has been founded upon a supposition that it would contribute to security. But its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority. In those emergencies of a nation, in which the goodness or badness, the weakness or strength of its government, is of the greatest importance, there is commonly a necessity for action. The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number, will over-rule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good.  And yet, in such a system, it is even fortunate when such compromises can take place: for, upon some occasions, things will not admit of accommodation; and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated. It is often, by the impractibility of obtaining the concurrence of the necessary number of votes, kept in a state of inaction. Its situation must always savour of weakness; sometimes border on anarchy.

…The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure original fountain of all legitimate authority.” [Hamilton’s emphasis. End excerpt, pp. 106, 110, The Federalist, edited by Max Beloff, 1948, second ed. 1987]

[My comment:] Hamilton’s remarks, though taken out of their immediate 18th C. context, seem applicable to the frustration all rational persons must feel as the prolonged debate over the debt ceiling may or may not culminate in some highly flawed, even “contemptible compromise,” so that government will not grind to a halt.  But what inspires me is the “elitist” Hamilton’s final remark affirming popular sovereignty. Throughout The Federalist Papers we find the same commitment to reason, specifically to concrete analysis of the material challenges that faced the new nation. Hamilton, Jay, and Madison did not appeal to “tradition” that had ever favored King and Church as the fountainhead of “legitimate authority.” Even though the men who argued for the Constitution were sharply at odds over some policies, they agreed that the American republican experiment was unprecedented, and the most enlightened in human history–a Novus ordo seclorum. Measures for educational reform, insofar as they construct a better curriculum, cannot ignore the fundamental rationalism and materialism of the Founders. “Live free or die,” is not merely the motto of New Hampshire; it is the very essence of American exceptionalism.

For more on Hamilton’s Federalist #22, see https://clarespark.com/2012/01/28/popular-sovereignty-on-the-ropes/. The essential word here is rational. Hamilton was horrified by the mayhem of the French Revolution, and thought that the Constitution should protect us against mobs and demagogues. There is a strong implication in his view of popular sovereignty that education is crucial, that is, education in politics, rhetoric and its decoding, economics, and all the skills that would make for citizens, but not citoyens in the sense that Robespierre would have meant.

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