Intellectualism and Ignorance in Political Discussion

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Yesterday, not for the first time, I was taken to task for offering comfort to the ‘anti-intellectuals.’ I am not against clever people, per se. Or clever solutions. I just think that those of us who are clever have to be realistic about imposing clever anything in a democracy. We have to bring people along with our clever programs. We can’t just impose them.

Arising out of that discussion, someone I deem to be genuine and clever and compassionate wrote to me with an idea into which that person had obviously put a lot of thought.

I believe the idea to be brilliant. But once again, I recognized that brilliance of idea was not enough. What was also required was a way to convince the many disparate threads within the body politic that it was a good idea, along with a realistic plan of implementation.

I wrote back to the person concerned. And having done so, I thought that what I was writing might be interesting within the context of this debate about ‘anti-intellectualism.’ Not because I think I’m some clever, narcissistic, SOB pooh-bah. But because I am grateful to the universe for putting these thoughts into my head. So, here is that response (and if my memory of the two examples I give is shaky, or too Geoff-centric, I apologize!):

“I want to thank you for sending this (the idea) to me. And for taking the very considerable amount of time to think it through. I have a response for you. And I do not want you to think it is facetious. It is written within the context of the Facebook discussion, in which we both participated (about intellectuals in politics).

(One of the participants in the FB discussion) laments the rise of ‘anti-intellectualism’ in current political debate. My response. In line with my theme at the moment. Is that those of us who presume to describe ourselves as ‘intellectuals’ brought this upon ourselves by falling into the trap of thinking we could shortchange or circumvent the democratic process. That simply being clever, and coming up with clever solutions, would of itself sell those clever solutions to the body politic. Even if the body politic didn’t want or even understand the solutions. In my opinion, if nothing else, 2016 was one long, loud scream by non-intellectuals against all those with their white papers.

What I said to (said participant) eventually, was, hey, I’m not against clever people. I’m just saying clever people have to make their clever solutions sellable to the body politic. There is no common ground in the body politic. The best you can hope for is the possibility that you can weave together a coalition of mutual interest. Which often requires as much savvy and work as creating the original solution. Nothing in politics is self-evident or self-explanatory.

So. And I feel somewhat humbled here. Saying this to someone who taught at xxxxx. Let me put on my faux teacher hat, and respond to your term paper like this. What you say is eye-opening and fascinating. It is a great starting point.

Now. Stages two and three.

Stage two. Reduce it to a three point program/explanation.

Stage three. Anyway you choose, divide the Republican Party and the Democratic Party into three groups each. And imagine the language you think they would each use to attack your program, and the language you would use to rebut.

I think you understand why I am suggesting this. But, let me give you two examples from my own experience.

1) I lived for two years, 2003/2004, in Dallas. While there, I became tangentially involved with some organizations working to combat inner-city homelessness.

I was no expert. But I became especially interested in the whole process of productive people very quickly becoming homeless in a state with a marginal safety net.

These were people who wanted to become productive again. But lacked the ‘start-up’ money. And everyday resources. A telephone, to arrange an interview. A place to wash, to prepare for the interview.

The organizations had some language, which they used to approach the very rich folks in Dallas. With little result. I have been in marketing all my life, one way or another. My input was that the problem was not that the ambition was not a good one; it was that the folks selling the idea were using the wrong approach.

First, it was not enough simply to enunciate a good project: we need money to make certain homeless people productive. All rich people see is someone with their hand out, wanting to take their money, or tax ’em.

What was required was language that rich people understood. And a fashioning of the process that made the return immediate to the rich people. I raised the idea that individual rich people should be invited to ‘adopt’ an individual homeless person or family. And, with guidance from an organization ‘professional,’ help that homeless individual or family once again to become productive. But only if that is what the latter wished for themselves.

This made it personal for everyone. And it sold the process to a rich person not as an impersonal grab for their money, but as a individualized vehicle of investment, with return.

I had to move on. I have no idea whether or not my idea caught on. I only know that it was received well by the organizations with which I was speaking, and by one or two well-to-do folks with whom I spoke.

The idea of helping people to become productive was not enough. It required someone to work out how to sell it. And then to expend the time making it work.

2) In 2005, for all sorts of personal reasons, I began working in a leading grocery co-op. I wanted a slow-down in my life. A little less pressure. I thought I would find that in a co-op. Until I realized that this self-described consumer-worker co-op wasn’t actually allowing workers any real say in designing policy.

I won’t bore you with the details. But it took me ten painstaking years of resolute, cautious advocacy within the co-op to help to persuade the Board (it wasn’t a solo effort; others were involved!) to change the rules to make it easier for ordinary workers to have more influence than management in the election of worker representatives on the board. To persuade the board that it would be in the best interests of the co-op to have their workers more invested in the outcome of decision-making. To convince management that this would not threaten them. And then to convince workers that the changes made would allow them to elect real worker representatives. Ten years. In 2015, for the very first time, workers had on the board two people representing them who were actually workers. In that year also, a few of us succeeded in stopping management gutting the Employee Policy Handbook of policies that embedded worker participation. Again. Ten years.

All of this based on one simple premise: if you allow workers to be involved in decision-making, they will be invested in implementing the decisions successfully. But it took ten years to overcome natural human fear and resistance. I had to leave that grocery co-op and my many friends in 2016. Again, for all sorts of personal reasons. I hope that the reforms that were wrought with much emotional investment by a number of us over that ten years have continued. I have no certainty. But some progress was made. And again. It took ten years.

You paper is a wonderful document. But. And please do not take this the wrong way. It is impotent unless it is accompanied with discussion openly addressing human frailty, misunderstanding, fear and resistance. And your suggestions for overcoming the same. Is this fair? I trust this contributes. I hope it does not upset. I am looking to take something forward. Not to stop it in its tracks.

All the best,
Geoff”

Now. What I say next has absolutely nothing to do with the above letter. It flows solely from other thoughts that I have had. I want to make that clear.

I posted the picture with this note that I did because I disagree with it vehemently.

There are certain very strict qualifications for voting in the US. One of them is not that you are clever or well-read. Your vote is personal. You may vote for whatever reason you choose. It is not incumbent upon the voter to vote wisely. It is incumbent upon candidates to persuade. Not on voters to listen. This is why I came up with my own definition of democracy (along with some input from a guy called Churchill):

‘Democracy is a flawed system of governance, that allows misinformed idiots to vote stupidly; but it’s better than the alternatives.’

Where exactly do we end up with our attacks on ‘ignorance’ in voting? Who precisely sets the level of ‘ignorance’? And how do folks see anyone distinguishing between what they charmingly trash as ‘ignorance,’ and people with genuine developmental disabilities?

For me, this is dangerous territory. That reaches far beyond a cozy fireside chat about how well-informed we want our voting base to be.

One more time. It is the job of political parties to persuade. Once they’ve given it their best shot, voters can do whatever they damn well please. And the outcome is the result of bad persuading, not ‘ignorant’ listening or voting. That is the nature of democracy. Stop whining about it. Accept it. Work with it.

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Published in: on July 9, 2017 at 6:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

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