Those stupid Americans as seen in the eyes of our superiors

Summary: Our elites display their arrogance and belief in their own superiority. A moment’s thought reveals that this is politically foolish – and wrong in several ways.

From the New Yorker, by Will McPhail.

This cartoon by Will McPhail from The New Yorker was endless reposted and tweeted after Trump’s election. The unstated message was Those stupid Americans – spurning our leadership! It is a statement by and for our elites (and their proud servants, the intelligentsia) about their superior fitness to rule over the people of America. Imagine the feeling of superiority they feel when reading it. But while flattering to our professional class, it is a daft exaggeration.

On another level, this displays the moronic politics of our elites that helped put Trump in the White House.  As Hillary discovered after calling Trump’s supporters “a basket of deplorables” {transcript here}, mocking people does not build support.

There is a third level of meaning to this cartoon.

Another perspective

“Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it.”
— George Santayana (1863–1952), Spanish-American novelist, essayist and poet. From Little Essays Drawn from the Writings of George Santayana, edited by Logan Pearsall Smith (1920).

Contraria Sunt Complementa {opposites are complementary}.
— The motto physicist Niels Bohr chose for his coat of arms when granted the Order of the Elephant by Denmark in 1947.

“It is the hallmark of any deep truth that its negation is also a deep truth.”
— By Niels Bohr, from Max Delbrück’s Mind from Matter (1986).

Politics in America consists largely of Left and Right exchanging aphorisms. They are often correct, but both sides are oblivious to the larger truth: simple-minded aphorisms are useful only for teaching children – or provoking thought about complex situations. Paired aphorisms nicely show this.

  • Birds of a feather flock together. Opposites attract.
  • The early bird gets the worm. Haste makes waste.
  • Familiarity breeds contempt. Home is where the heart is. 
  • Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Out of sight, out of mind.
  • He who hesitates is lost. Look before you leap. 
  • It’s better to be safe than sorry. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
  • Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

What is the opposite truth to be paired with that cartoon, the rest of the story about the West’s experts, especially intellectuals? The twentieth century is noteworthy for their great experiments confidently conducted on a vast scale, with entire peoples used as lab rats. They devised and implemented communism, destroying nations (e.g., Russia has yet to fully recover). Urban experts remolded cities, destroying communities – leaving behind the wreckage of today’s inner cities.

Intellectuals In Action

Now they are conducting even larger experiments. Bolder experiments. Such as radical changes to gender roles, a foundational stone to our society. Opening borders to people from drastically different cultures, driving massive demographic change. Both campaigns are being conducted at fantastic speed, guided by nothing but ideology.

This has, along with their other projects, increased the skepticism of intellectuals already well-rooted in America (see Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life). This was best expressed when the modern era of social engineering began.

“I would rather be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand people on the faculty of Harvard University.”
— Conservative intellectual William Buckley on “Meet the Press”, 17 October 1965.

Knowledge is important, but so is common sense. If our experts are the “pilots” of America, perhaps it is time that the passengers revolt and set their own course. Experts are valuable resources, but not necessarily the best leaders or pilots of society.

Where to from here?

Here we see another example of our national decay. It shows the rise of tribalism, our alienation from America’s institutions – and our loss of social cohesion. The arrogance of our elites is met by the growing distrust of them by the public. Unless reversed soon, this won’t end well for us.

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see my posts about experts, and especially these …

  1. Experts now run the world using their theories. What if they fail, and we lose confidence in them?
  2. Do we face a future without confidence in experts?
  3. Our confidence in science is crumbling. Why? How can we fix this?
  4. Will our geopolitical “experts “lead us to ruin?
  5. An anthropologist announces the fall of the liberal professional class.
  6. Scientists as both experts and political myth-makers.
The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics
Available at Amazon.

For more the role of scientists in society…

The Honest Broker:
Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics
.

By Roger Pielke, Jr.

From the publisher.

“For scientists seeking to play a positive role in policy and politics and contribute to the sustainability of the scientific enterprise, scientists have choices in what role they play. This book is about understanding this choice. Rather than prescribing what course of action each scientist ought to take, the book aims to identify a range of options. Using examples from a range of scientific controversies, The Honest Broker challenges us all – scientists, politicians and citizens – to think carefully about how best science can contribute to policy-making and a healthy democracy.”

17 thoughts on “Those stupid Americans as seen in the eyes of our superiors

    1. Sunny,

      Thanks for catching that! I confused Richard Hofstadter with Douglas Richard Hofstadter (author of the fantastic book, Gödel, Escher, Bach).

  1. Opportunity and capability: The two cornerstones of how things work.

    The real problem is that the elites confuse opportunity with capability and a lack of opportunity as a lack of capability.

    This bias effects the elites on the right as well as those of the left.

    1. John,

      (1) “This bias effects the elites on the right as well as those of the left.”

      That’s an important point. I’ve often found that people on the Left and Right exhibit similar behaviors (after all, they’re both Americans). They condemn these in their foes but remain oblivious to these in themselves.

      (2) “elites confuse opportunity with capability”

      Sounds interesting. Can you explain that a bit more?

  2. War also is determined by capability and opportunity. There is a confusion by elites of both sides that they see an opportunity to make war, but do not understand that the capabilities of our military were determined by the way it is constructed and maintained. As others have pointed out , our military was setup to handle, supposedly, a two front massive war. And although the US military historically fought insurgents and won with a lot less advantage than now, presently they do not win, and the wars malinger about. Thus, the confusion, whether purposeful or not, is about our actual capabilities. We are taking the opportunity, we are showing our incapability. Yet continually, military and politicians are bragging about our capabilities, or complaining about being handtied. We still lose. There is a cognitive disconnect here.

    It may be that the politicians and military professionals are losing on purpose, but then that means the lack of capability is in a different area than we usually think when making war. But it is still about our lack of capability.

    On the left, New York is infamous in seeing the opportunity in rent control, but continually generate the opposite of what they claim will happen. They take the opportunity, but make housing worse. Then, they decide upon failure that more control is needed. Unless they are doing it on purpose, they show that they are incapable of making their policy to work. Either way, there is a disconnect here. One is the thought in passing this rent control that those without opportunity are incapable. They state this with such words as “fair” and “struggling families”, and other pejorative statements that indicate that these people are incapable. Yet, the economic studies indicate that the lack of housing is due to the rent control. If there was a surplus of housing, perhaps it would have to be in a more ideal free market, housing costs would be less, thus it is not about the capability of those serviced.

    On the right, opposing the benefits of public education is also confusing lack of opportunity with lack of capability. This is anathema to their other claims of how capable people would prosper if government got out of the way. If they are capable, it has been shown repeatedly that education is bargain because education means the capability to make more money, and thus pay higher or more taxes, whether it is flat tax or a progressive scaled tax. If one wants the most equitable outcome, persons should be allowed, encouraged to maximize their capabilities.

    The left also, falls into the trap of thinking it is the diploma, rather than the proof of capability that makes a certificate of education worth something. This means standards need to be high and need to be inviolate. The claim that everybody is capable, is actually that no one is capable. This is the corollary of a lack of opportunity as a lack of capability. They are saying everybody is capable if given the opportunity. No; it is not a correct policy.

    Getting long…please add any IMO, etc needed to make understandable.

  3. I think there is something to be said about how unpleasantly centralised our societies have become. If a change is made to how our society functions, this change can be instituted rapidly, for good or for ill. This sense of power has given rise to what I see as a technocratic class who see society as a problem to be solved. This is a process that started back in the 17th century with the rise of reason, pretty quickly this morphed into a cult of efficiency. Now we are cursed with a plague of fanatics who wish to perfect us, as fabius has said they are now monkeys in the control room struggling over the controls.

    The majority of the ruling class just want to improve us, yes there are the venial, and the corrupt, no doubt they exist in greater proportions at the top, but most of them want to make our lives better (by which they mean function more efficiently), be that our health care, housing, education, our productivity, our diet, to our profitability, to our GDP to make us more efficient citizens.

    I don’t see any change in this until this mind set is changed, this cult of efficiency only grows stronger as the ability to monitor and collect data on the citizen grows. There is push back against this, you can see it in the new GDPR regulations in the EU, and moves to safe guard data in general, it is also manifested in the election of Trump, the rise of a nativist populism in europe, the brexit vote in the UK, it is incoherent, and ugly in parts, but carries some promise.

    My best hope is that those movements will be cannibalised by an renewal of conservatism in the sameway the rise of the Republican party in the USA devoured the nativists, abolitionists and whigs alike in the years preceding the civil war, but there would need to be some issue which can carry people along, in the sameway the abolitionist movement could.

    I even have a catchy chant

    Sung, as call and response

    Question – What do we want!
    Answer – Gradual change!

    Question – When do we want it!
    Answer – In good time!

    1. Gerard,

      “I think there is something to be said about how unpleasantly centralised our societies have become.”

      For another perspective on this, have our societies become more centralized in terms of flow of information and materials? Tightly run societies were tightly controlled for transport distances of weeks. Today that span encompasses the entire world. So I suspect the centralization process has a long way to go.

      “I don’t see any change in this until this mind set is changed, this cult of efficiency only grows stronger as the ability to monitor and collect data on the citizen grows. ”

      My guess (guess!) is that is a peripheral issue. The core is our willingness to experiment on ourselves and our children. One or two disasters like communism (which I can easily imagine as the result of our current mad experiments), and people might become more conservative — in the meaningful sense of opposing social change implemented without careful priortesting, and then done only incrementally.

  4. This may be a little off thread, but it goes to how we are treated stupidly and how “Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it.”

    Part of capability and opportunity is implementation: A good plan vigorously pursued is better than a great plan carried out half-assed.

    The real part is the difference between belief and knowledge such as “To Engineer is Human” or “the best laid plans of mice and men.”

    The attention to detail often determines how successful, yet the design, the policy, etc have to be known to work. Often though, it is assumed they work. Good plans need good detail in the steps taken for correct completion; thus great plans need great detail for correct completion.

    Yet, what is thought and proven to be a great design is having a design solution that is easy and has fewer parts, etc. This is because humans do understand the need for detail, and the difference of knowledge and belief when it comes to things that work, and what a successful design should look like.

    This goes to why our elites have such simple and wrong policy constructs and such complicated and equally wrong policy constructs. Almost every day, the left and right will appeal to their base with simple solutions that address their tribes beliefs; and almost every day they will demonize their opponents with a complicated policy that also addresses what their tribe believes. What is known by non partisan observers is that almost all these policies don’t work as advertised. Larry, this post and many of the guest posts provide evidence of this tribalizing that is ongoing in USA.

    Take the New York rent controls. It has been studied and used as an example of unintended consequences that cause the opposite of desired results in college level courses. Yet, despite billions being spent, source Manhattan Contrarian, and supported by my extrapolating what was known in the 1980’s, Nixon is proposing more rent control as a solution! The question being asked at Cultural Cognition Project about this phenomena is how does the body politic fail in their knowledge of certain situations such as climate change, and other issues; while in general doing a good job of knowing what is true without true knowledge.

    As a further aside, I don’t know that we have failed for climate change. I think that with the actual knowledge we have about climate change to date, doing nothing at present is the correct policy; because we need to get the scale correct. It will be too damn expensive not too. This should be known by everybody, IMO, since advocates are always claiming that renewables are cheaper; but they are known thus far to be much more expensive at only 25 to 33% penetration. The support structure demands are also 10 times the fossil fuel structure demands for some human activities that will be difficult to impossible to do without. A large metropolitan area such as New York City is one of the human activities that would be needed to be cancelled, based on cost of structures needed in a 100% renewable world.

  5. Didn’t Elizabeth Kubler-Ross say that denial is the first stage when we’re told that we’re dying? Or maybe we’re well past that now and into anger.

    Of course this assumes that this really is the end of the road for the old order. That’s far from certain, and we don’t know what will take its place. Right now they’re working on ways to rig future elections and maybe get a do over on the last one. We’ll see how that works out. I don’t want this statement misinterpreted, because my hope is that the citizens of this nation will fully shoulder the burdens of citizenship. Having said that, it’s been my experience that people who are stupid in a really dangerous kind of way often have one last bite left in them before the end, and that one can be the worst. And people who have been allowed to get away with entirely too much may have one last profoundly destructive tantrum left in them when the time finally comes and the ride has to end.

    The cartoon is funny in its own way, but there’s something in back of it that isn’t.

    1. The Man,

      I don’t understand your comment. Any of it.

      “Didn’t Elizabeth Kubler-Ross say that denial is”

      As i’ve said so many times, cute aphorisms are poor guide. “The world is flat.” “Yes, denial is the first stage …”

      “Right now they’re working on ways to rig future elections and maybe get a do over on the last one. ”

      Evidence?

      “It’s been my experience that people who are stupid in a really dangerous kind of way”

      Who are these stupid people?

      “And people who have been allowed to get away with entirely too much may have one last profoundly destructive tantrum left in them when the time finally comes and the ride has to end.”

      Who are those people?

      “The cartoon is funny in its own way, but there’s something in back of it that isn’t.”

      What is this “something”?

  6. “For another perspective on this, have our societies become more centralized in terms of flow of information and materials? Tightly run societies were tightly controlled for transport distances of weeks. Today that span encompasses the entire world. So I suspect the centralization process has a long way to go.”

    It’s not the flow of information or goods that is a problem, it’s the sense of omnipotence it gives business and governments. Its a bunch of wet behind the ears mba’s designing financial instruments with unknown consequences, or as you said city planners gutting cities. Its what happens when profit and efficiency(nothing wrong with either, within reason…) are raised up as the greatest goods in a civilisation. The fact that our technocratic elites managed to avoid communism actually made them even more delusionally confident in there ability to control events.

    The way I see it is we are the product of an intellectual rebellion against Monarchical government. Irrational, aristocratic, unaccountable, inefficient. Reason was what destroyed Monarchy, first in America, then in Europe. The new Societies founded by reason were far more efficient, see how brutally effective they were in war and how they could mobilize there societies in ways the Monarchs could only dream. But along the way this new efficiency in method replaced the reason which created it. Efficiency, not reason became the goal. That is the reason our highly efficient societies can act in such unreasonable ways. We have Universities, Staff Colleges, Business schools churning out MBA’s, and Officers and civic planners whose sole purpose is to restructure there organizations to run more efficiently. Its actually crazy when you step back and look at it.

    The side effects are enormous. There not drugging boys because they hate boys, its because the schools run more efficiently when the boys are doped. Governments want as many women in the workforce as possible because they need higher labour force participation to raise tax intake, women who would rather stay home and mind the kids (my missus) are forced to go out to work, because we need the two incomes to maintain our standard of living. We have built our societies in this way because someone with a calculator said that pensions need to be funded. It made sense if your only metric is profit and efficiency. Communism and fascism is this approach without representative government.

    1. Gerard,

      “it’s the sense of omnipotence it gives business and governments. Its a bunch of wet behind the ears mba’s designing financial instruments with unknown consequences,”

      Much of our belief about the uniqueness of our time results from our ignorance about the past. The 2008-09 crash was a blip compared to the many crashes and panics of the 19th century. The speculators and bankers responsible for the “great” recession were just the 19th century speculators without the cool beards. See Jay Gould.

      The big difference between then and now is that we’ve become drama queens, so that every blip is the end of the universe.

      “The fact that our technocratic elites managed to avoid communism ”

      Why not give them credit for the sun rising? The rest of us are not passengers. In fact, communism was far more popular with those elites than with the rest of us.

      “There not drugging boys because they hate boys, its because the schools run more efficiently when the boys are doped”

      Note even remotely true. Schools ran far more “efficiently” in the 1960s and before than they do now — without drugging boys and all the other changes instituted by our elites.

      “because we need the two incomes to maintain our standard of living.”

      That’s often said, but quite daft. Our standard of living has risen, so that women have gone to work to achieve it. Look at late 1950s sitcoms. They lived with one car (even executives would car pool), one TV, and a minimalist lifestyle few middle class households would accept. Average home size in 1950 was ~1000 (our home, just sold, was built in 1952 and was 3 bedroom, one bath, 1050 sq ft). Per the Census, by 1973 the median was 1,525 square feet and in 2010 it was ~2,170 sq ft. The NAR says it is rougly 2500 sq ft today. And those bigger homes have few people: family size decreased from 3.37 members in 1950 to 2.5 members in 2016.

      “We have built our societies in this way because someone with a calculator said that pensions need to be funded.”

      Almost every discussion of reform in America features one theme in comments: we’re helpless pawns. Little puppies, with no agency. Stuff just happens to us. This is a self-fulfilling belief. If so, just accept the ways things. Let’s not whine about it.

      The alternative is to accept responsibility for American, and decide to change it. The machinery bequeathed to us by the Founders remains live, although dusty from disuse. It needs only our will and effort – “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” to make it decisive.

    1. The Old Sarge,

      The Titanic was built just fine, by the standards of the time. It sank because the Captain ran it at full speed at night through an ice field, with observers in the crow’s nest who didn’t have binoculars, on an extraordinarily still night (no waves breaking on the iceberg to mark it). Then the office of the deck gave the wrong commands when it was sighted (forgot the standard response).

      Then the closest ship (SS California) ignored their distress signals (flares and wireless).

      Stuff happens. Sometimes people get unlucky.

      Also, the Ark was built by directions from God. I suggest you not make that our standard.

    1. The Sarge,

      “You’ve completely missed my point.”

      Not for the first time; not for the last time. Comments are a tool for miscommunication (due to brevity and nature of talk between different cultures).

      So what was your point?

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