THE DEATH OF EXPERTISE The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters
By Tom Nichols
252 pages. Oxford University Press. $24.95.
Donald J. Trump’s taste for advisers with little or no government experience; his selection of cabinet members like Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry, who have expressed outright hostility to the agencies they now oversee; and the slow pace of making senior-level appointments in high-profile departments like State, Treasury and Homeland Security — all speak to the new Pesident’s disregard for policy expertise and knowledge, just as his own election victory underscores many voters’ scorn for experience.
This is part of a larger wave of anti-rationalism that has been accelerating for years — manifested in the growing ascendance of emotion over reason in public debates, the blurring of lines among fact and opinion and lies, and denialism in the face of scientific findings about climate change and vaccination.
“Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue,” the scholar Tom Nichols writes in his timely new book, “The Death of Expertise.” “To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything. It is a new Declaration of Independence: No longer do we hold these truths to be self-evident, we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true. All things are knowable and every opinion on any subject is as good as any other.”
“The Death of Expertise” turns out to be an unexceptional book about an important subject. The volume is useful in its way, providing an overview of just how we arrived at this distressing state of affairs. But it’s more of a flat-footed compendium than an original work, pulling together examples from recent news stories while iterating arguments explored in more depth in books like Al Gore’s “The Assault on Reason,” Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason,” Robert Hughes’s “Culture of Complaint” and, of course, Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 classic, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.” Nichols’s source notes are one of the highlights of the volume, pointing the reader to more illuminating books and articles.
Nichols reminds us how a “resistance to intellectual authority” naturally took root in a country, dedicated to the principles of liberty and egalitarianism, and how American culture tends to fuel “romantic notions about the wisdom of the common person or the gumption of the self-educated genius.” (Though the country, it should also be remembered, was founded on the Enlightenment principles of reason and an informed citizenry.)
Nichols argues that the “protective swaddling environment of the modern university infantilizes students,” and suggests that today’s populism has magnified disdain for elites and experts of all sorts, be they in foreign policy, economics, even science.
Trump won the 2016 election, Nichols writes, because “he connected with a particular kind of voter who believes that knowing about things like America’s nuclear deterrent is just so much pointy-headed claptrap.” Worse, he goes on, some of these voters “not only didn’t care that Trump is ignorant or wrong, they likely were unable to recognize his ignorance or errors,” thanks to their own lack of knowledge.
While the internet has allowed more people more access to more information than ever before, it has also given them the illusion of knowledge when in fact they are drowning in data and cherry-picking what they choose to read. Given an inexhaustible buffet of facts, rumors, lies, serious analysis, crackpot speculation and outright propaganda to browse online, it becomes easy for one to succumb to “confirmation bias” — the tendency, as Nichols puts it, “to look for information that only confirms what we believe, to accept facts that only strengthen our preferred explanations, and to dismiss data that challenge what we accept as truth.”
Citizens of all political persuasions (not to mention members of the Trump administration) can increasingly live in their own news media bubbles, consuming only views similar to their own. When confronted with hard evidence that they are wrong, many will simply double down on their original assertions. “This is the ‘backfire effect,’” Nichols writes, “in which people redouble their efforts to keep their own internal narrative consistent, no matter how clear the indications that they’re wrong.” As a result, extreme views are amplified online, just as fake news and propaganda easily go viral.
Today, all these factors have combined to create a maelstrom of unreason that’s not just killing respect for expertise, but also undermining institutions, thwarting rational debate and spreading an epidemic of misinformation. These developments, in turn, threaten to weaken the very foundations of our democracy. As Nichols observes near the end of this book: “Laypeople complain about the rule of experts and they demand greater involvement in complicated national questions, but many of them only express their anger and make these demands after abdicating their own important role in the process: namely, to stay informed and politically literate enough to choose representatives who can act on their behalf.”
Can a new magazine launched to defend Trump take ideas seriously? Our former colleague Eliana Johnson has a short profile of the guy launching American Affairs, the forthcoming intellectual journal of Trumpism, rising Phoenix-like from the ashes of the Journal of American Greatness.
A 30-year-old conservative wunderkind is out to intellectualize Trumpism, the amorphous ideology that lifted its namesake to the presidency in November. Until recently, the idea itself was an oxymoron, since Trumpism has consisted in large part of the President-elect’s ruthless evisceration of the country’s intellectual elite. But next month, Julius Krein, a 2008 Harvard graduate who has spent most of his admittedly short career in finance, is launching a journal of public policy and political philosophy with an eye toward laying the intellectual foundation for the Trump movement. If his nerdy swagger is any indication, he has big ambitions: He noted wryly that he is — “coincidentally” — the same age that William F. Buckley Jr. was six decades ago when he founded National Review, the magazine that became the flagship of the conservative movement. No offense to Krein, but he should keep the comparisons to Bill Buckley to a minimum. No one wins from such comparisons (except Buckley), and raising expectations you can’t meet strikes me as a bad idea. But other than that, I’m glad someone is doing this.
The conservative movement needs more idea-development, not less. I agree with Yuval Levin, who tells Johnson, “Not nearly enough of that is happening around the changes we’ve seen in this election.” Also, a thing like “Trumpism” deserves an intellectual effort to define it in non-pejorative terms. That said, I’m skeptical of some of Krein’s larger ambitions. Johnson reports that American Affairs will “launch in both a print and digital version, and a substantial portion of the funding will come from Krein himself. He said donors to traditional conservative institutions have been ’surprisingly’ receptive to his pitch, though he declined to name the additional contributors.” How receptive could the donors be if the editor is largely self-funding?
But that’s nitpicking. Krein also said, “We hope not only to encourage a rethinking of the theoretical foundations of ‘conservatism’ but also to promote a broader realignment of American politics.” That’s a pretty tall order for a hedge-fund guy in his spare time. It’s even harder when Donald Trump is your lodestar. I’m quoted in the piece: “It will take a good deal of time for even Trump’s most gifted apologists to craft an intellectually or ideologically coherent theme or narrative to his program,” said Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review.
“Trump boasts that he wants to be unpredictable and insists that he will make all decisions on a case-by-case basis. That’s a hard approach for an intellectual journal to defend in every particular.” My point there is you beat ideas with ideas. You can challenge the “theoretical foundations of ‘conservatism’” (perhaps starting with an explanation for why you put it in scare quotes) or you can defend a theoretical program. Unless you’re just going to defend Pragmatism and/or the instinctual, infallible, wisdom of Donald Trump in all cases, you’ll either need your own theory of the case or you’ll need to allow for writers willing to criticize Trump outright.
There’s nothing wrong with that, except American Affairs is being launched to defend Trump and Trumpism. If Krein isn’t willing to tolerate serious criticism of Trump in furtherance of Trumpism, then he should skip the journal and go work directly for Sean Spicer. If he does allow criticism, (a) good for him and (b) he should be prepared for his pro-Trump journal to be denounced by Trump himself. While I am perfectly comfortable saying that Krein is no William F. Buckley — because no one is — I would note that great magazines and journals are often born out of such chaos and internal contradictions.
Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell founded The Public Interest (which was more of an inspiration for neoconservatives than was The National Interest, contrary to what Eliana wrote). But they had some pretty profound disagreements, causing Bell to walk away early on. Irving Kristol solved these, and similar, problems by making the PI a magazine for writers, not editors.
At National Review we had an even more stormy beginning, with libertarians, Machiavellians, Ultramontane Catholics, Straussian philosophers, social conservatives of every flavor, and a wide variety of ex-Communists squabbling and debating everything under the sun. The creative tension was invaluable in forming the foundation of modern conservatism. Bill Buckley made it work through sheer force of personality. We didn’t have a fan in the Oval Office until Ronald Reagan. Great magazines and journals are often born out of chaos and internal contradictions.
The New Republic (now a pale shadow of its former self) was always at its best when it was at war with itself. I grew up on it in the 1980s, when many of the editors hated one another’s guts and fought over Reagan, the Contras, etc. The magazine’s early years were even more chaotic. The New Republic was founded, according to Walter Lippmann (a one-time New Republic staffer as well as an aide to Woodrow Wilson), “to explore and develop and apply the ideas which had been advertised by Theodore Roosevelt when he was the leader of the Progressive party.”
Pretty much TR was to The New Republic as Trump is to American Affairs. But when Wilson was elected, and started leading us to war, The New Republic was all over the map because of disagreements among the editors. Eventually, their old ideological hero Teddy Roosevelt charged into the offices of The New Republic like a Bull Moose to chew them out for their disloyalty. Realizing he couldn’t set them straight, TR shouted that the magazine was “a negligible sheet, run by two anemic Gentiles and two uncircumcised Jews.” If Trump tweets something like that at Krein & Co., he’ll know he’s on his way to “greatness.”
— Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor of National Review.
Muslims don’t worship Jesus, but they do revere him and believe about him much that Christians do.
So you’re telling me you believe in Jesus, as well as Muhammad?” I remember the perplexed look on my Christian friend’s face a few years ago. I had dropped a theological bombshell on him in revealing that Jesus was considered by Muslims to be a prophet of God.
“Not only do we believe in Jesus,” I replied, pausing for maximum dramatic effect, “we also believe in the Virgin Birth.” My friend’s eyes widened with surprise, his mouth agape.
Christians, perhaps because they call themselves Christians and believe in Christianity, like to claim ownership of Christ. It thus comes as a huge surprise to many of them – my friend included – to discover that the world’s second-largest faith, Islam, also stakes a claim to him.
Jesus, or Isa, as he is known in Arabic, is deemed by Islam to be a Muslim prophet rather than the Son of God, or God incarnate. He is referred to by name in as many as 25 different verses of the Quran and described as the “Word” and the “Spirit” of God. No other prophet in the Quran, not even Muhammad, is given this particular honour.
In fact, Islam reveres both Jesus and his mother, Mary (Joseph appears nowhere in the Islamic narrative of Christ’s birth). “Unlike the canonical Gospels, the Quran tilts backward to his miraculous birth rather than forward to his Passion,” writes Professor Tarif Khalidi, in his fascinating book The Muslim Jesus. “This is why he is often referred to as ‘the son of Mary’ and why he and his mother frequently appear together.” In fact, Mary, or Maryam, as she is known in the Quran, is considered by Muslims to hold the most exalted spiritual position among women. She is the only woman mentioned by name in Islam’s holy book and a chapter of the Quran is named after her.
But the real significance of Mary is that Islam also considers her a virgin and endorses the Christian concept of the Virgin Birth. “She was the chosen woman, chosen to give birth to Jesus, without a husband,” says Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, an imam in Leicester and assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain.
For Muslims, however, the Virgin Birth is not evidence of Jesus’s divinity, only of his unique importance as a prophet and a messiah. The Trinity is rejected by Islam, as is Jesus’s Crucifixion and Resurrection. The Quran castigates Christianity for the widespread practice among its sects of deifying Jesus (and Mary), and casts the criticism in the form of an interrogation of Jesus by God:
And when Allah saith: O Jesus, son of Mary! Didst thou say unto mankind: Take me and my mother for two gods beside Allah? he saith: Be glorified! It was not mine to utter that to which I had no right. If I used to say it, then Thou knewest it
Muslims cherish and venerate Jesus the prophet – but, I often wonder, are we paying only lip-service to his life and legacy? Where, for example, is the Islamic equivalent of Christmas? Why do Muslims celebrate the birth of the Prophet Muhammad but not that of the Prophet Jesus? “We, too, in our own way should celebrate the birth of Jesus … [because] he is so special to us,” says Mogra.
In recent years, the right-wing press in Britain has railed against alleged attempts by “politically correct” local authorities to downplay or even suppress Christmas. Birmingham’s attempt to name its seasonal celebrations “Winterval” and Luton’s Harry Potter-themed lights, or “Luminos”, are notorious examples. There is often a sense that such decisions are driven by the fear that outward displays of Christian faith might offend British Muslim sensibilities, but, given the importance of Jesus in Islam, such fears are misplaced and counter-productive. Mogra, who leads the MCB’s interfaith relations committee, concurs: “It’s a ridiculous suggestion to change the name of Christmas.” He adds: “Britain is great when it comes to celebrating diverse religious festivals of our various faith communities. They should remain named as they are, and we should celebrate them all.”
Amid tensions between the Christian west and the Islamic east, I believe a common focus on Jesus could help close the growing divide between the world’s two largest faiths. Others agree. “We don’t have to fight over Jesus. He is special for Christians and Muslims,” says Mogra. “He is bigger than life. We can share him.”
If Freud, as Auden wrote in his 1939 elegy, is “a whole climate of opinion / under whom we conduct our different lives”, then it would be fair to say that the local weather patterns around him shift from temptestuous to clement with uncanny regularity. Geography inevitably plays into the picture.
There are actually only two (relative) constants in the diffusion of Freud’s invention, psychoanalysis, from 1906 on. One is the acceptance of the fact that each of us has an unconscious life: parts of ourselves that are hidden from our own view inform dreams, and shape unwitting remarks and behaviour. The second is the talk and listening technology of two people – the free-associating patient and the analyst engaged in an intimate therapeutic conversation. The rest of the huge and often subtle panoply of Freud’s ideas, developed and revised over a lifetime of practice and writing, has been – and is – up for grabs.
There is a wealth of material to pick over. From Freud’s first book, On Aphasia, published when he was 35, to his last, Moses and Monotheism, written just before his death at 83, there are 23 volumes of the standard edition, not to mention many thick tomes of reflective and revealing letters to his fiancee (then wife), Martha, and to friends and colleagues, plus proceedings of international psychoanalytic meetings. Followers, interpreters, critics and bashers, reinventors and film-makers, slipper and watch manufacturers, in America, India, China, Europe, Africa and Latin America, can thus dispute, develop or make jokes about everything from the importance of the sex drive or libido to the dynamics of memory and repression; the relations between ego, id and superego; identification; therapeutic practice; cultural liberation and much more, including, of course, Freud’s own integrity – his scientific and medical status.
As Dagmar Herzog, an eminent historian of religion, gender and sexuality, points out in the introduction to her excellent Cold War Freud, the derestriction of the now fully digitised Sigmund Freud Archives in the Library of Congress from 2000 on has ushered in a new era in Freud studies, one rich in contextual detail. Joel Whitebook’s illuminating intellectual biography is part of this fresh and buoyant wave of thinking.
It marks a welcome change from the bile of the Freud wars, that wholesale attack during the last two decades of the 20th century on Freud’s reputation and work (or what might lurk under his capacious mantle). In the US, the virulence of the assault was undoubtedly linked to the postwar centrality of psychoanalysis in both popular and medical culture, where it formed part of psychiatric training until the roll out of drug therapies from the 70s on.
Herzog shows with telling detail how the variety of psychoanalysis that was developed in the US after the second world war had little in common with Freud’s initial project. A wholesale flight from sexuality and an insistence on conservative conformity within the patriotic family dominated many analysts’ repertoire. The sign of “cure” for the ego psychologists became an individual’s ability to control her impulses and adapt to reality. What was understood by “reality” was delimited by the norms of the 50s. The analyst’s task was to work through internal conflicts with the patient, never bringing in shaping social or political conditions. Even analysts for whom Freud’s libidinal emphases were in play sent women back to sterile marriages and worse. Convention ruled, undeterred by the famous emigres from the Frankfurt School who married Freud to social critique and had started publishing in the US.
Herzog brings fascinating documents to bear to show how US psychoanalysts formed alliances with Christian clergy who themselves wanted treatment. In 1952, Pope Pius XII even granted his imprimatur to analysis – as long as it didn’t arouse too many sexual appetites. It was against this cold war analytic ethos that the women’s movement reacted so vociferously, often blaming Freud for a practice that wasn’t his.
Homosexuality was a highly fraught arena, judged by the analysts to be a perverse condition that could be successfully treated. Freud himself had hypothesised that everyone was bisexual and could experience homoerotic feelings and fantasies. He often enough noted them in himself. Not so the US cold war analysts, who also condemned the Kinsey Reports with their challenges to the accepted face of monogamous heterosexual marriage. Herzog meticulously charts the long campaign to eradicate homophobia from American psychoanalytic ranks. Though individual analysts, such as the pioneering Robert Stoller, had long stood against the general trend, it wasn’t until 1991 that the American Psychoanalytic Association officially allowed openly gay practitioners.
Like an anthropologist engaged in fieldwork, Herzog moves from site to site to give us a textured understanding of complex historical matter. She zeroes in on German psychoanalysis, where the naturalising of aggression served to exonerate a troubled postwar nation in which Nazis were still everywhere. She scrutinises the politically radical post-68 Anti-Oedipe by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, grounding the book and its huge impact in its times, and stressing that it initiates a conceptual shift in how to think about the interrelation between psyche and politics.
Herzog also focuses in on the ascent of trauma theory or PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder. During the 50s, when postwar reparations were being sought from Germany, it was disputed that the camps could have long-term psychic as well as physical damage on individual survivors, particularly since psychic damage seemed only to manifest itself after the event. A large dose of antisemitism was at work in these deliberations. Only with the Vietnam war (and the work of NGOs with torture survivors) did PTSD become a recognised mental disorder.
Whitebook argues that Freud was never able fully to explore the unruly, pre-linguistic, pre-Oedipal maternal sphere
Whitebook’s Freud is an elegant foray into the man and his mind by a philosopher who is also a psychoanalyst. Freud was notoriously suspicious of biographers (as Adam Phillips’ recent anti-biography of the young Freud stressed). Perhaps he intuited that, once he had given us something of a Proustian autobiography in The Interpretation of Dreams, the very readings his own work prompted would be turned back on himself. Whitebook is both questioning and respectful. He is also shaped by present intellectual currents, so a discomfort with enlightenment universals and an alertness to gender underpin this book far more than they did, say, Peter Gay’s classic Freud: A Life for Our Time or Ernest Jones’s first enthusiastic portrayal of the Freud who was his friend and mentor.
Whitebook persuasively positions Freud as a thinker of the dark enlightenment, “a deeper, conflicted, disconsolate, and even tragic yet still emancipatory tradition within the broader movement of the enlightenment”. Freud understood the forces of the counter-enlightenment, the pull of the irrational, the sway of belief, and integrated all this into his vision. Whitebook’s Freud broke with his own Jewish tradition to forge an identity as a secular and sceptical scientist, but was alert to the shaping distortions of the passions he so skilfully reinterpreted. He offers new insight into Freud’s move away from philosophy to science and medicine, and gives a gripping and even-handed rendition of Freud’s homoerotic yet thoroughly intellectual friendships with the zany but charismatic Berlin doctor Wilhelm Fliess and later with Carl Gustav Jung.
My only reservation with Whitebook’s account is his attributing a modish traumatic significance to Freud’s early family life. He speculates that Freud was traumatised by the oddness of his relations with his mother, Amalia. He was her first, idealised son, but in the aftermath of her next son’s early death, she purportedly developed depression, leaving little Ziggy to the whims of his Catholic nanny. Amalia was a generation younger than Freud’s father, which also meant that one of Freud’s nephews was a little older than him. As a result of this family constellation, Whitebook argues, Freud was never able fully to explore and theorise the unruly, pre-linguistic, pre-Oedipal maternal sphere. Mothers are far less central to Freud’s thinking than fathers. But as a child of the second half of the 19th century, Freud’s early experience was historically hardly uncommon. The powers of patriarchy may have had as much to do with the “Missing Mother” in his work (a figure also important in much Victorian literature) as his own intra-psychic state. In later life, partly under the influence of female analysts, he began thinking about the pre-Oedipal far more.
That said, Whitebook’s is a rich and illuminating intellectual biography, and like Herzog’s Cold War Freud kindles new thought. Together, the books signal that there are still many areas to pursue in the field Freud sparked. The Freudian weather currently feels clement.
Jeffery Sachs on his new book, Building the New American Economy–Smart, Fair, & Sustainable
Money is politics is a serious problem in America today–Jeffery Sachs
Professor Jeffery Sachs discusses his new book, Building the New American Economy– Smart, Fair, & Sustainable. I agree with this Columbia University don that America needs a make over by a progressive President like a President Bernie Sanders. Unfortunately, Americans have to learn to live with a Republican President Donald J. Trump and a Republican controlled House of Representatives and the Senate. To these politicians, sustainable development is a Grecian nightmare.
Trust (s0cial capital) is diminishing in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. The last decade has been 10 years of greed and widening income inequality in American polity. Politics ought to return to the politics of IDEAS, says Sachs. Listen him and decide what you think of his book. –Din Merican
Don’t be discouraged. Just click and you can watch it directly on youtube.com