Wednesday, May 17, 2023

America's Credentialed Class Finds Joy In Making The Masses Obey And Comply

ET  |  Censorship is the cudgel that is out there. Censorship and cancellation are the two cudgels that are being used against us. It’s absolutely remarkable how easily we’ve gone from free speech to asking, “How can I make my way around the censorship that’s here?” We have skipped over the outrage phase, which might have led us to a more vigorous protection. Granted, a lot of boiling frog-type dynamics were built into the censorship regime.

But if you’ve been looking for the last 20 years at our press, September 11th brought a quantum leap in this need to marshal people into categories and to prohibit certain things and certain words and certain positions from entering into the public sphere. In 2001, Susan Sontag, one of the great American intellectuals, wrote about having some questions about the way the new war on terror was being pursued, and she was hooted down.
We’re beginning to see that a lot of this hooting down is not as spontaneous as many of us would like to believe. With the recent Twitter Files, and the case that the attorney generals of Missouri and Louisiana are trying now, we’re finding out that this was anything but spontaneous. There were a number of government actors working in concert with private actors to achieve a censorship that, frankly, for those of us of a certain age, is unimaginable.
You used to be able to say, “I have the First Amendment. Screw you. I’m going to say what I’m going to say.” We’ve gone from that to, “I have to be on guard because someone’s always watching me.” We went down this hole fairly quickly, and it’s very troubling.
Mr. Jekielek:
This is the treason of the experts, I suppose.
Mr. Harrington:
Yes. If you have been lucky enough to have a mentor in your life, what is a mentor? A mentor is someone who leads you along, who suggests, who looks at you and says, “What skills does this young person have that they are not aware of ?” They do an inquiry into that person and suggest and lead along, and then say implicitly, “How can I help this young person be the best version of themselves as I see it?” That is what an expert does. They do not impose a reality on anyone.
They are very aware of the power they have through their social title, but more often through their moral force. They realize that it’s a sacred thing that they have, and that it needs to be treated with the care that you treat treasures in your life, and that you don’t abuse it. They need to be very rigorous and be able to look at and check some of their ego impulses, and then ask, “Am I using this power to satisfy my ego gratification, more than I am to help the people that I say I am helping?”
It seems that that line has been crossed. There’s a lot of ego gratification that is interfering with what should be a real sober taking of responsibility for a gift of power. Power is a gift in a democratic society. It’s not something you own, and it’s not something there to make people obey you. It’s a gift you have that hopefully you can use in constructive ways that preserve the dignity of those who don’t have as much power as you do.
With the term treason of the experts, I’m playing with history a bit here with the title. It’s from a famous book that was written by Julien Benda after the First World War. He was an intellectual. As you know, the First World War was one of the great cataclysms in the history of the world, with violence that few people had ever seen.
When you go back and study it, you can look at what the violence was about, and the cynicism with which the violence was employed. Leaders marched their hundreds of thousands of troops so that they could get a tiny strip of land. It was an open auctioning of soldiers to be fed into the machine.
Benda wrote this book in 1927 called, “La Trahison des Clercs,” the Treason of the Clerisy. What he’s playing with is that in the world after the late 19th century, the church clerisy began to recede as an important element in society, to be superseded by the intellectual. The independent intellectual was made possible through newspapers and the publishing industry. The new clerisy, as he’s suggesting, are the free intellectuals.
He suggests that the role of the free intellectual is to always be rigorous and to always place themselves above their passions to the best extent they can and say, “What’s really going on here?” He wrote a devastating critique in the mid-1920s in which he takes on both the French intellectuals and the German intellectuals. He said, “They betrayed our trust. They acted as cheerleaders. They sent young men off to war to get destroyed, and became cheerleaders of gross propaganda.” He said, “Come on. We’ve got to reassume the responsibility that goes with having been granted a credential or a moment in power.” The first thing I thought about when this began three years ago was World War I.
Mr. Jekielek:
This being Covid?
Mr. Harrington:
Covid. The Covid triennial that we’re in now. In March of 2020, and you’ll see it in the first essay in the book where I say, “What’s going on here?” My mind immediately went to World War I. There were big forces that were pushing us in ways that didn’t add up. There were hidden hands in places making us do things that simply were not justified at the level of pure rational analysis. I was very grateful that I had studied a bit of World War I.
There’s another wonderful book where you can see some of the madness. It’s by Stefan Zweig, who was a wonderful intellectual back in that time. He talks about what happened in 1914 in Vienna. He thought, “We’ve reached the highest civilization that the world has ever seen.” He was a Viennese Jew. His friends had been integrated into Viennese life, and they were leading Viennese life in many ways.
All of a sudden, they were saying, “Don’t you want to go off to the trenches? Shouldn’t you be going off to the trenches? Shouldn’t you be excited? I’m going to go. Isn’t it wonderful?” He began to say, “What’s going on in this world that I thought was civilized?” I had the very same reaction in March of 2020.
Mr. Jekielek:
Some people think that this is being done for their own good. It’s not that there are nefarious forces with their own agendas. A lot of these folks genuinely believe in this incredibly dystopian vision of the world, that this is really the right thing to do, and that it will be good for me and good for you. There is a line that I flagged in the book, “Ever more open disdain for the intelligence of the citizenry.” There’s hubris here. That’s particularly infuriating, isn’t it?
Mr. Harrington:
Absolutely. It’s condescension, and I’ve always had a very thin skin for people being condescending to me. One of the nice things that my parents did in general was they talked to us as sentient beings almost from the beginning. It’s one of the things I’ve sought to do with both my children and with my students.
The condescending idea is that you need to dole it out and say, “If I told you, you might not understand. I’m coming from a place of complexity that you can’t understand. You’ll just have to trust me.” This is very insulting to people, and it’s antidemocratic. That’s just a fact.
The premise of democracy, as we understand it, and as it was formed in this country in the late 18th century, was that the farmer, the worker, and the lawyer were all citizens in the same measure. Granted, there would be a natural pecking order in terms of certain skill sets that would emerge. But in the public space, no one was inherently better or in a place to tell someone else what they need to know and how they need to live. It’s one of the great things about this country.


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