Thursday, August 2, 2012

America's Intellectual Stagnation

David Brooks is bored. He’s bored by the election campaign. As he looks at the public debate he sees “intellectual stagnation,” a lack of “intellectual innovation,” and a failure to present serious ideas.

All told, it’s putting him to sleep.

Of course, if Brooks wants there to be more serious intellectual debate he might make use of his own prized piece of media real estate to engage in some serious thought.

It’s better than whining about the absence of same.

I do not want to make a special example out of David Brooks, but seriously, if the nation is suffering intellectual stagnation, doesn’t that suggest that the intellectuals, the ones who influence the marketplace of ideas, are somewhat to blame.

As for the election campaign, like it or not, President Obama has presented some of his ideas and policy proposals. It might be more accurate to say that he has demagogued them, but, still, regardless of what he says his media enablers, lacking in intellectual integrity, will defend them.

Obama does not have to exercise any intellectual rigor. The mainstream media will never hold him to account.

On the other side, Mitt Romney is not an intellectual; he is not a policy wonk. He is a manager.

When it does happen that he offers substantive speeches about policy matters, the media tries to drown them out with a cacophony of derogatory insinuations. 

Take Romney’s recent trip to Great Britain, Israel and Poland. The media has now labeled the trip a failure, a fiasco, a disaster, filled with errors by someone who is not ready for the international stage. Rich Lowry has all the gory details.

This same media intellectuals failed to mention that America’s relations with all three countries were seriously damaged by the Obama administration.

The media made a non-story in London into a major international incident.

It downplayed Romney’s excellent relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his support in Israel by repeatedly quoting a leading Palestinian to the effect that Romney was a racist.

The media did not seem to notice that granting credence to a leading purveyor of anti-Semitism was obscene, in and of itself.

Reporters and columnists drowned the story of Lech Walesa’s embrace of the Romney candidacy in favor of an unfortunate incident where a Romney advisor told the press to “kiss my ass.”

Demagoguery, name-calling, propagandizing for one side against the other… is it any wonder that intellectual debate is stagnant.

Now, the punditocracy is analyzing Romney’s comments about the cultural differences between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

To me and to many others it’s a substantive issue, one that has, in some places (including this blog) received some serious discussion.

This morning, for example, a serious thinker named Prof. Jared Diamond, author of a famous book claiming that geography is destiny, critiqued Romney for being overly simplistic in his reasoning.

Of course, the substance of Diamond’s article was that Romney had misread Diamond, a subject of great import to Diamond.

Diamond’s ideas about geography are well worth debating. For our purposes I would point out that no one can explain the difference between Israel and Palestine on geography since it’s precisely they are fighting over the same land.

Israel built a great nation in the same place where Palestinians and other Arab nations failed. Palestinians believe, as an article of faith, that Israelis only succeeded because they oppressed the Palestinians. They have been fighting for decades, engaging in all manner of terrorist activities and allowing their own economy to self-destruct because they are obsessed with the idea that they must take back what was given them by Allah.

That is a cultural issue. It has nothing to do with geography.

Next, Fareed Zakaria, a recognized deep thinker, especially on foreign policy, has weighed in with a peculiarly vapid commentary on Romney’s idea.

One might grant Zakaria’s point that Israel owes its success to free enterprise, but still, you cannot have capitalism without an underlying culture that respects human freedom and the rule of law.

But then, Zakaria shows that he does not understand the argument.

In his words:

The problem is that [Max] Weber singled out two cultures as being particularly prone to poverty and stagnation, those of China and Japan. But these have been the world’s fastest-growing large economies over the past five decades. Over the past two decades, the other powerhouse has been India, which was also described for years as having a culture incompatible with economic success — hence the phrase “the Hindu rate of growth,” to describe the country’s once-moribund state.

China was stagnant for centuries and then suddenly and seemingly miraculously, in the 1980s, began to industrialize three times faster than the West. What changed was not China’s culture, which presumably was the same in the 1970s as it was in the 1980s. What changed, starting in 1979, were China’s economic policies.

Of course, Max Weber, who died in 1920 was the man who first proposed the idea that culture determines economic success. Weber posited that capitalism requires a strong work ethic, among other cultural qualities, to function effectively.

Zakaria does not seem to understand that cultures change. The fact that the China and Japan of Max Weber’s day were retrograde cultures does not mean that they have not undergone any changes since.

It is profoundly ignorant to suggest otherwise.

When it comes to history, Zakaria is equally ignorant. How can anyone imagine that Chinese culture in the 1970s remained basically the same in the 1980s.

With the death of Mao Zedong and the ascent of Deng Xiaoping, Chinese culture underwent one of the most extraordinary transformations in human history.

In 1966 Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. He was trying to rid Chinese culture of any cultural influences, habits of behavior, that would sustain capitalism and free enterprise.

He did it because, after a famine caused by his Great Leap Forward had killed tens of millions of people around 1961, Deng and Liu Shaoqi took over the reins of government and started implementing free market reforms.

Good communist that he was, Mao launched his Cultural Revolution to grab power and to avoid taking responsibility for the famine, but more explicitly to take China off the road to capitalism.

He did not limit himself to changing economic policy. He banned all books and all thought that did not correspond to his. It was a megalomaniac’s delight.

In the aftermath of Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping eventually took over the government. He may not have been personally responsible, but people loyal to him had the remaining leaders of the Cultural Revolution, aka the Gang of Four, arrested shortly after Mao’s death, in 1976. They were tried and convicted in 1981.

When the Gang of Four was arrested the Chinese people were jubilant.

Under Deng Xiaoping the Chinese people were allowed to restore a culture that had long been repressed. Once unfettered it worked hand-in-hand with free enterprise reforms to produce economic prosperity.

Between the 1970s and the 1980s everything changed in China. The culture changed. Economic policy changed.

To say, as Zakaria does, that Chinese culture was “presumably” the same is so inaccurate that one thinks that Zakaria was simply not thinking.  

It is very difficult for a nation to have a vibrant intellectual life when people who are supposed to be serious thinkers leave their intellectual integrity in the cloakroom … all because they believe that they must first discredit the Republican presidential candidate. 

1 comment:

Dennis said...

The answer is simple: American universities have for years, since being taken over by 60's radicals, not been a place of intellectual inquiry. They graduate large numbers of people who have not had to think for themselves. Other than the propaganda force fed into them by a faculty that isn't conversant with the "marketplace of ideas," what is there that has prepared them for a life of independent thought?
It is impossible to read much of what comes out of academe and not wonder that these are the people who want to be our betters. Just to think that some how having an education makes one better than others ought to horrify them, but does not.
Education is a tool and does not necessarily equate to intelligence or any other ability that gives one the right to assume that there are people who are inferior.
One would think that it is hard enough to live one's life without trying to run others? Only a corrupt education environment can create the intellectual stagnation we see running rampant throughout the American culture. I am still allowed to believe there is an American culture????