America’s Strangely Ambivalent Relationship to Competence

We’re on vacation, so I’ve had some much yearned for time again to do some reading and peruse the blogscape for mental stimulus. Following a tweet from Richard Florida titled “Is Meritocracy a Sham?” which caught my eye, I landed at a blog called The American Interest, at what looks to be a conservative site strong on religion, and the article by Walter Russel Mead reviewing the book “Twilight of the Elites” by Christopher Hayes.

The book attacks the liberal and secular elites, graduates mostly of Ivy League Universities, who run government, and focuses on the fact that the social democratic vision of society held dear by “technocratic progressives” has not been realized.

Mead writes that:

“the technocrats were — and are — committed to the concept of rule by the best and the brightest. This is not a temporary stage on the road to a higher and ultimately more equal stage of society to gentry liberals. It is a natural division of power and responsibility based on innate differences in human beings. Gentry liberals believe that people who score high on SATs, do well in college, and get through the PhD process are, well, smarter than people who don’t do those things and that society will be better off if the dumb people get out of the way and let the smart ones make the important decisions. (And the unimportant ones too — like how big a Slurpee should be.)”

The problem with the technocrats is that they have been corrupted, and serve not the interests of democracy, but those of their own power. Such an insight would not be remarkable, as the old adage that power corrupts would simply be confirmed yet again, with the attendant question to be raised of how one is to cope with the current iteration of corruption to strengthen democracy should one find the claim to be true.

What gave me pause, however, was Mead’s analysis of the cause:

“This has to do with another dimension of today’s American meritocracy that I think is deeply problematic: atheism.”

Now, as someone who grew up and studied next door to the American system, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by such a religious suspicion of the secular, but Mead expresses it in a way which shows how far conservatives have gone in giving up all pretence to modernity to push a religious agenda:

“But caveats and cautions aside, there are certain consequences of success in a meritocracy that put people, and especially American people, without a strong religious faith at great risk, and I think we can see today in American life some of the consequences that come when a powerful but to some degree godless social elite lacks the spiritual resources and vocabulary that would better equip it for its role…. The first problem is arrogance.”

To sum up, Mead seriously argues that without God, one cannot be moral, and that Jesus himself was the first to fight and win against the meritocrats of his day:

“From the standpoint of the Gospels. much of Jesus’ public career was a struggle against the meritocratic social and intellectual elites of his day. Yet his attitude wasn’t simple demagogic populism. Over and over again he speaks of his respect for the knowledge that they have, but insists repeatedly that while it is indispensable, it is also worthless unless your heart is right. And you can’t make your heart right by study or achievement. For your heart to be right, you must be born again. You must look outside yourself, your education, your offices and your honours. Your “merit” on its own doesn’t stand. Only the merit of another can give life and meaning to who you are and what you do.”

Being on vacation, and having nothing better to do that get involved in a theologico-political debate, I added a couple of posts to the lively comments thread, at first tenuously testing the waters:

Tom K says:

July 1, 2012 at 6:48 pm

“The argument hinges on how we judge merit. That people with high SAT scores helped to engineer the financial crisis does not make believers the better candidates for positions of responsibility. The nuggets of wisdom contained in the world’s religions are embedded in so much mythological thinking that it takes a fine mind and strong character indeed to emerge from a religious education with well developed judgement rather than as an ignorant instrument of blind faith.

People of merit come from all walks of life. We need people in positions of responsibility who are outstanding at what they do, who can reference a lifetime of learning and experience in their area of expertise, who care, and have a record of good judgement. All of these criteria are independent of religion (without excluding a religious background). We should have had enough by now of people whose claim to fame is that they are as ignorant as he next guy but somehow good because of their faith.”

A few posts in the thread later I realized that I had missed the point, that not intelligence per se was under attack so much as the lack of its subordination to revealed truth, so I added:

Tom K says:

July 2, 2012 at 11:30 am

“@59 Russel, it seems more likely that religious morality codifies evolutionary achievements like empathic attunement and reciprocity than that it originates them through a revelation. Our increasing knowledge of our biologically social nature makes revelation not superfluous, but one more fascinating and valuable if somewhat dated expression of our nature. We have a loving God because we are by nature moral, not moral because of a God.
@ 63 exactly …:-)”

The “@63 exactly” refers to the 63rd post’s comparison of the whole thread to Hesse’s Glasperlenspiel.

But not quite satisfied, I thought I would break a lance for the evolutionary-psychological supercession of revelation thinking:

Tom K says:

July 2, 2012 at 8:26 pm

“Kris@88 From a psychological perspective, all gods are projections of our own developmental states onto an outside world. What we fear or worship is of our own creation, reflecting the degree to which we are able to integrate our unconscious processes into conscious self-awareness.

The theist-atheist distinction is not helpful to my thinking, and is but one more dichotomy we can overcome. But I agree with LukeLea@89 that the monotheistic God is one of our singular cultural achievements, and is the basis for most of the great achievements of Western philosophy and politics.

Beginning around the time of Hamurabi (if I remember my history correctly), and then increasingly in the stories collected in the Hebrew Bible, we see the emergence of a subjective, self-aware narrator, able for the first time to move freely through narrative perspectives of self, other, community and objective world. We also see the emergence of psychological dynamics for the first time in descriptions of our relationships, ranging from the psychopathological Yahweh of the book of Job to the attempts to deal with intrapsychic conflicts through self-refective treatments of myths of creation, fall and sin in Genesis, and the gorgeous subjectivity of the Psalms.

We in the West gave the name God to our often overwhelming conciousness of subjectivity (which today from a neuropsychological perspective we would e.g. call the “Self” which comes to “Mind” as an emergent phenomenon of our increasing neurological complexity).

The experience of our subjectivity through the God of the sermon on the Mount as love which, in its capacity to trust and believe all things and not be disappointed, marks a milestone in the development of human consciousness to wherever we are heading, and a great step forward over the fatalistic tragedy expressed in the consciousness e.g. of Greek theater.

At the beginning of modernity, the consciousness of subjectivity is then distilled and liberated from its theological frame of reference by modern idealist philosophers, and becomes the spiritual essence of social organization through democracy and human rights in the West (here I am thinking of Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, and the American founding Fathers).

Part of the drama of the theist-atheist dichotomy (which also gives this thread the Glasperlenspiel quality which makes it so entertaining), is that as we move in our social and economic organization away fom subject-object relations to network-flow architectures and processes, there is just no point anymore in a divine symbol of the subjective self. In a world of science and complexity, we tend to find concepts, hypotheses and heuristics more helpful in understanding reality than symbols and beliefs. Respectful attention to our gods can help us to develop our subjective consciousness at certain stages of our psychological development (the movement through the mythological stage), and help us to understand our historical roots. But it is not an end in itself, just a possible step along the way…”

…and then:

Tom K says:

July 2, 2012 at 9:04 pm

“Kris@88 Thanks for your question, and to answer it more directly, research shows that we are biologically social creatures in our empathic attunement to one another. We are naturally moral because we naturally care about one another. (A lovely summary of the research is in Rifkin’s Empathic Civilization). We are also easily overwhelmed, frightened and traumatized. Our dysfunctional attempts to cope, mirrored in our dysfunctional divinities, are part of our learning process of being human.”

(end of self-citations)

Eric from Texas gave a welcome nod to the larger post (somebody was responding:-)). But then I gave up. There are brilliant posts from wonderfully learned people in the thread, together with examples of the terrifyingly unconscious authoritarianism we know well enough from the history of religious power. It was all like walking through an asylum–voices are involved in heated conversations trying each to convince the other of their rightness, but common reality remains elusive.

We are becoming a world of parallel universes, operating right beside each other, without any points of contact.

I am so thankful to be living in a secular society…

So… back to the Caipirinias 🙂

2 thoughts on “America’s Strangely Ambivalent Relationship to Competence

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