This post continues the discussion of Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869), applying Arnold’s argument to the 2016 US presidential campaign – especially as it concerns Republican nominee, professional celebrity, and clownish asshat Donald Trump. In it, the authors consider Trump’s illiteracy, incuriosity, insensitivity, his general unfitness for office, and how his nomination may be traceable to a larger failure of cultural institutions to nurture a population committed to values greater than freedom qua freedom.
When we left off last time, we were talking about books, and culture, and Donald Trump. I’d like to pick up there with an anecdote that combines the three. In her recent New Yorker profile of Trump ghostwriter Tony Schwartz – author of The Art of the Deal – Jane Mayer includes this nugget:
Schwartz believes that Trump’s short attention span has left him with “a stunning level of superficial knowledge and plain ignorance.” He said, “That’s why he so prefers TV as his first news source—information comes in easily digestible sound bites.” He added, “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.” During the eighteen months that he observed Trump, Schwartz said, he never saw a book on Trump’s desk, or elsewhere in his office, or in his apartment.
Other journalists have noticed Trump’s apparent lack of interest in reading. In May, Megyn Kelly, of Fox News, asked him to name his favorite book, other than the Bible or “The Art of the Deal.” Trump picked the 1929 novel “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Evidently suspecting that many years had elapsed since he’d read it, Kelly asked Trump to talk about the most recent book he’d read. “I read passages, I read areas, I’ll read chapters—I don’t have the time,” Trump said. As The New Republic noted recently, this attitude is not shared by most U.S. Presidents, including Barack Obama, a habitual consumer of current books, and George W. Bush, who reportedly engaged in a fiercely competitive book-reading contest with his political adviser Karl Rove.
Trump’s inability to cite a book he’s read recently brings Sarah Palin immediately to mind. Both are Republican (faux) working class heroes with dismissive attitudes toward culture, and both appeal to voters because of their brash, unpolished, presumably un-focus-grouped style. They interest me, not because I think an elected leader can have broad influence over the nation’s attitudes, but because it is so bizarre that either could come this close to becoming an elected leader. I believe their success in politics is symptomatic of an unhealthy political body.
At the very least, it indicates that a great many people devalue thoughtfulness in their leaders. Many consider it an actual liability, insofar as thinking is not acting.
In Chapter 2 of Culture and Anarchy, titled “Doing as One Likes,” Arnold opens in direct response to critics who made the same claim about him and his ideas. He writes:
It is said that a man with my theories of sweetness and light is full of antipathy against the rougher or coarser movements going on around him, that he will not lend a hand to the humble operation of uprooting evil by their means, and that therefore the believers in action grow impatient with him. But what if rough and coarse action, ill-calculated action, action with insufficient light, is, and has for a long time been, our bane? What if our urgent want now is, not to act at any price, but rather to lay in a stock of light for our difficulties? (70)
Since Arnold believed that culture was requisite for fulfillment in life and competence in leadership, he rejected the notion that intellectual labor was soft or effeminate or in any way inferior to the “coarser movements.” He rejected the supposed opposition between Main Street and Ivory Tower. Instead, he argued that thought leaders were necessary to help us discern what to do with our lives – especially, perhaps, in a liberal democracy:
When I began to speak of culture, I insisted on our bondage to machinery, on our proneness to value machinery as an end in itself, without looking beyond it to the end for which alone, in truth, it is valuable. Freedom, I said, was one of those things which we thus worshipped in itself, without enough regarding the ends for which freedom is to be desired. (71)
This continues to ring true today, when our politicians travel the land hocking freedom, freedom! without any evident interest in what we should do with it. For them, apparently, the most important thing is that everyone be able to “do as he likes,” whatever that happens to be.
But Arnold is dissatisfied. Many individuals seem to like doing really superficial, unhealthy, or even destructive things, with detrimental consequences for the whole. Because we are all invested in the life of the polis, we need to be attentive to the political value of mere freedom. Uncultivated, it leads ultimately to anarchy. He explains:
Now, if culture, which simply means trying to perfect oneself, and one’s mind as part of oneself, brings us light, and if light shows us that there is nothing so very blessed in merely doing as one likes, that the worship of the mere freedom to do as one likes is worship of machinery, that the really blessed thing is to like what right reason ordains, and to follow her authority, then we have got a practical benefit out of culture. We have got a much wanted principle, a principle of authority, to counteract the tendency to anarchy which seems to be threatening us. (79)
When I think about the state of education (public and higher) in the United States, and cast it against the spectacle of anger and racism spewed at a Trump rally, I see Arnold’s claim vindicated. I also suspect there is blame to go around. On the one hand, conservative forces in the US have been attacking our educational apparatus through budget cuts and dismissive attitudes for several decades. On the other, I’m not sure the educational apparatus (especially the higher) has done enough to serve the guiding role that Arnold assigns. There’s also the possibility that I am just misdiagnosing the problem.
Arnold seems to see a big distinction between “mere freedom to do as one likes” and “right reason.” I’m not sure I do.
They can be very different, no doubt. Trump is interesting in part because he gives his mouth lots of freedom to say whatever it wants, with little or no reference to reality. He’s bad at thinking, and he doesn’t care. And neither do lots of the people that support him.
But I don’t like Arnold’s more general swipes at freedom. Liberal democracy is an enormous accomplishment. It’s also always under threat, and its preservation requires vigilance.
More to the point, though, liberalism is rooted in a kind of humility; it says, We’re gonna cover some basics. Beyond that, everyone’s free to pursue their best lights (so long as they respect everyone else’s right to do the same). We’re humble enough to know that we don’t always know what’s best for others.
In other words, there’s often a lot of overlap between “mere freedom” and “right reason.” What might look superficial from the outside – my interest in MMA, my friend’s interest in fashion – might be deep and life-giving pursuits from the inside. Or, more minimally, they might be necessary stages on intensely personal journeys. And anyway, what’s wrong with a little superficiality?
And none of that means that society has to devolve into anarchy. That’s what liberalism is, I think – a set of basic rules and attitudes that enable us to do what we need to do together and have the freedom to be our own weird selves.
This might be where part of the right’s critique of higher ed has some bite. So much of conservatives’ frustration with universities has to do with a sense that higher ed has abandoned right reason – that is, a core set of principles – and devolved into an intellectually sloppy and morally destructive relativism.
Some of the time they’re off-base. William F. Buckley spends much of God and Man at Yale griping about the disappearance of Christian teachings from the classroom, and conservatives have spent the last two generations echoing his complaints. But Buckley doesn’t even offer a substantive defense of those teachings, and most of the stuff you hear today about the ‘dangers’ of the secular, humanist university is similarly bad thinking.
Sometimes those conservatives are right, though. During the Cold War, an unsettling number of academics couldn’t see a moral difference between the Soviet system and our own. And when I was in college in the early 2000s, I sometimes heard professors tee off on “capitalism” with a moral righteousness that came with knowing that they were never gonna be held responsible for thinking things the whole way through.
So yeah: Trump is buffoonishly anti-thinking and anti-culture. Of course, Hillary and the Democratic Party aren’t exactly paragons of clear thinking and right reason, either.
That’s fair, and it gets at a basic dynamic of my Facebook feed in the past few months. Even as the liberals and moderates among my circle rip on Trump and his nuttiness, the lefties in the group are ripping on Clinton – her hawkishness, her chumminess with Wall Street, her general status quo-ishness, etc. There are even some who suggest that a Trump presidency may be beneficial, if only because it stands a chance of shaking the nation out of its neoliberal rut. I don’t share that view, but I think I understand it. Suffice it to say that criticizing Trump is not quite the same thing as praising Clinton.
But maybe that raises another question – is our stratified two-party system somehow symptomatic of a lack of culture, or of imagination?
More generally, there is a discussion to be had regarding the distinction between positive and negative liberty – the freedom to develop yourself (and others) into your (and their) best possible self, and the freedom from outside forces that try to limit or coerce you in one way or another. Political freedom is commonly associated with the negative variety, while Arnold leans positive.
It’s also possible to develop yourself while enjoying things that don’t necessarily contribute to that development. I don’t think there is anything at all wrong with having some lighter entertainments in life.
But reading books and exploring ideas and watching MMA is different than, say, not reading books or exploring ideas and watching MMA. The question is whether consuming only “low” culture has detrimental effects on you as an individual and, in turn, on the collective of which you are a part.
This is the part of the conservative critique that I can maybe get on board with. I understand the desire for core principles, a canon, etc, to tell us who we are and to bind us together via shared values. But liberalism demands that these values be broad and inclusive, whereas Buckley and his minions insisted on something very narrow. They continue to do that – and anything less (which is to say, more) is dismissed as “relativism.”
But to the point – I guess I’m imagining Arnold here today, in Central Pennsylvania, driving past yard after yard of “TRUMP” signs and knowing that Trump is loved here for his “toughness” or for “telling it like it is.” Is it prideful (as opposed to humble) to think that these people are exercising objectively bad judgment? Working against their country’s best interests? Or to believe that they are doing it because they have missed out on a certain approach to thinking?
If they think Trump is a good, smart, thoughtful leader, then they’re just objectively wrong.
If they think he’s a better choice in this election, on the other hand – well, that’s at least a more complicated question. I actually think that one’s pretty tough, and not because I think Hillary’s a monster or anything. But the president has a million different kinds of effects (including creating or provoking reactions), and I find it tough to keep ‘em all straight, much less compare them against one another.
That said, I’d want him to fail at most of the things he wants to do, and I don’t think I want him to have the chance to try. (Though I think we’d learn a hell of a lot about ourselves and our country if he does get that chance.)
This all relates to something I’ve been wanting to discuss with you. I find myself alternately horrified and indifferent to this election – horrified for the obvious reasons, and indifferent because it all feels like a circus being conducted very far away, by people who feel like they have very little to do with me or my loved ones.
This isn’t just about living abroad (though I’m glad I don’t have to see the election ads everyday). It’s about wondering what my relationship to my country really is.
I definitely identify more as an American than anything else. (What else?) I share some values and attitudes and traditions with many Americans. But I can’t say I feel like I’m a part of something. I don’t feel much of an impulse to help set my country to rights, or to take my country back, or make it great. It all feels too big and diffuse for that.
I’ve been reading a bunch of evolutionary history, and I keep coming back to the idea that our ancestors lived in tiny bands of 30 or 40, that we were built for a Dunbar’s number kind of world. Since those days, we’ve obviously developed lots of institutions and technologies that allow society to function at much larger scale. But I don’t feel much deep, personal connection with stuff at that level – with politicians and their speeches, governments and their plans. So much of it feels vague, abstract, gestural.
Can you say a bit more? It sounds like you’re in Benedict Anderson territory. Is it even possible to maintain an imagined community of 300 million, in a liberal democracy with everyone doing as he likes?
Not sure! I suppose I’m talking about the ambivalence I feel when that community gets invoked – or rather, about how intensely my feelings oscillate between connection and distance.
Maybe it’s the difference between campaigning in poetry and governing in prose. I found Obama’s 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech more moving than anything I’d heard from a politician in my lifetime. But on the day-to-day level, I find a lot of political talk pretty uncompelling.
And maybe that’s in part because when it comes time to govern, profound human sentiments and value choices often get reduced to decisions about where and how to spend money. Unless you’re a real expert on a particular issue, those debates can be pretty difficult to follow. As a result, it can also be hard to understand what’s really at stake. (How much funding should the EPA get next year? I have no idea.)
Yes, I feel more connected to my fellow citizens in New Mexico or Hawaii than to folks who live in Montreal, but I don’t actually get to see or talk to those citizens. Instead, my care and concern for them is filtered through layers of distant government bureaucracy, and by the time it arrives, it’s often been reduced to nothing but a check (if it gets there at all). I don’t have much sense for what those folks in New Mexico are really going through, or what they need. And I don’t always trust that intermediary institutions – government agencies, etc. – really know that stuff, either.
Sebastian Junger’s new book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging gets at this in a pretty interesting way. The book’s Amazon blurb gets right at the core issue:
We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding–“tribes.” This tribal connection has been largely lost in modern society, but regaining it may be the key to our psychological survival.
Decades before the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin lamented that English settlers were constantly fleeing over to the Indians – but Indians almost never did the same. Tribal society has been exerting an almost gravitational pull on Westerners for hundreds of years, and the reason lies deep in our evolutionary past as a communal species. The most recent example of that attraction is combat veterans who come home to find themselves missing the incredibly intimate bonds of platoon life. The loss of closeness that comes at the end of deployment may explain the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today.
Writers have been talking about the lonely, anonymizing aspects of modern society for decades, if not centuries. And while I can relate to a lot of that, I ultimately don’t worry about it too much – I prefer living in a big city and seeking out the friends and pursuits that resonate with me.
But it does leave me wondering: If the liberal vision is to provide some basic positive and negative freedoms for all citizens and then leave them to their own devices, are we more or less guaranteeing a kind of mutual anonymity at the national level? Am I stuck with my ambivalence?
Well, maybe so! But I think that is part of Arnold’s point. Life in a liberal democracy may be the best sort of life afforded by a political system. But it’s still insufficient, and it needs something more than politics in order to get up onto the next level.