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Some Expertise Deserves to Die. Some Doesn’t.


By Bruce Fleming


The Montréal Review, January 2019


Stephen McKenna Pyrrhus (2012 oil on canvas) at Kerlin Gallery


Most US States have a nickname, which usually figures prominently on their car license plate. My home state, Maryland (adjacent to the capital, Washington D.C.) calls itself the Old Line State, after the Mason-Dixon line dividing the North from the South in the US Civil War that forms its northern border. The small state to our east, Delaware, which has such lax business laws it is considered the US’s version of the Cayman Islands (one unimpressive building at 1209 North Orange Street in its capital, Wilmington, is the address of record for almost 300,000 companies—no, not a typo), calls itself the First State, because it was the first of the original thirteen colonies that gained independence from Great Britain to ratify the Constitution of 1787—or sometimes “Small Wonder,” which is at least amusing.

Missouri, with the famous arch in St. Louis, is the “Show Me” state. And though this is the motto of only one of the fifty US states, it might as well be the motto for the entire middle part of the country, what the coastal “elites” (to whom more in a moment) call the “fly-over spaces,” and which voted heavily, with the exception of the Chicago area and other urban enclaves, for the current president of the USA, Donald Trump. With its emphasis on evidence that the individual can actually see, it begins to explain why people can prefer show to substance, prefer belief to provable fact.

As Wikipedia helpfully explains, “the ‘Show Me’ state got its nickname because of the devotion of its people to simple common sense.” And it goes on to note: “In 1899, Rep. Willard D. Vandiver said, ‘Frothy eloquence neither convinces me nor satisfies me. I’m from Missouri. You’ve got to show me.’” This demand that the world be resented not in complex words but in  the evidence of one person’s eyes, though codified over a century ago, explains the contemporary phenomenon of the common folks’ disdain for what are called “the elite” (or the puzzling plural use of this word, “the elites”) that is one of the defining characteristics of our time, and perhaps earlier times too. For it expresses the reason people who see themselves as the descendants of the hardy pioneer folk out alone on the prairie distrust the city slickers back at home in Boston or San Francisco who didn’t build their own house and don’t grow their own food.

Coastal Americans tend to accept that they are part of a larger web of influences that they will never understand, but “show me” people see themselves to a greater degree as one (wo)man against the universe, dependent on the evidence of their own senses to make decisions all by themselves. They like a candidate who announces that “I alone can fix this” because that is how they also think. If it’s going to be, it’s up to me. And don’t tell me I didn’t build my own business, because I did—even if you mean that doing so presupposed the unseen contributions of countless others. I see me, and what I did. I don’t see what others did. I am the measure of my own world. That’s how you get things done.

“Show me” may be centered on the American flyover spaces, but it’s not limited to them. Indeed, it is associated with all of America, or at least its historic agrarian past that influences even its current view of its largely urban self. (It’s also strong in the states of the former Civil War era Confederacy and in my home region, the Eastern Shore of Maryland.) Nor is it even an exclusively American phenomenon. There’s a Canadian version of it too mostly far away from the border, a tradition of cowboys and now perhaps oil drillers. But it may not be very European, with the denser population and more tightly connected urban centers of Europe, not to mention Europe’s tortured history that makes the conviction that a single individual can take on the world seem simplistic.  

“Show me” is based on what I alone can see and readily understand. That works when I’m judge, jury, and executioner. But it poses problems when the issues are out of the ordinary, or so complex we need advanced degrees to even take part in the conversation. If somebody with those advanced degrees who can talk about them does so, a “show me” type—let’s say it’s me—may well respond by attacking the messenger, or the advanced degrees, or the very notion of information so complex I have no right to an opinion about it. And that is what is behind the much-remarked-on phenomenon in North America, and to some degree elsewhere, of the attack on “the elites” and what they have to say. That seems self-destructive for the “show me” sorts who are denying themselves access to greater knowledge. But the “elites” are frequently to blame for being rejected: more knowledge tends to give people a sense of superiority. But woe betide them when they let others see how they feel. The purpose of being more informed is to share your knowledge, after all, not lord it over others. Lots of the “elites” seem to have forgotten this.

Whether the US’s 2016 election of Donald Trump, who presented himself as rejecting the wisdom of economists and scientists and appealed to evangelicals, the British “Brexit” that just wanted to close the borders to international types, or the more general rebellion by Continental Europe against European Union policies that has transfigured the political landscape, a mass rejection of the  graduate school wisdom of the “elites”, educated at a handful of signature colleges in their respective countries, is the answer to the “what’s new these days?” question. The peasants, according to countless commentators, have picked up their pitchforks and are on the march. The proletariat are finally rebelling. Labor, to put it in Marxist terms, is finally fighting back against capital.

Only this seems puzzling, because another of the “what’s new these days?” answers has to do with increasingly inequality of income distribution, with the upper classes pocketing almost all of the benefits of economic expansion in North America and Western Europe, not to mention in countries like China and Russia.  Are the peasants taking control, or are they not? Clearly in fact they aren’t. But they are certainly making some noise. Have they at least won the war for the Zeitgeist, or at least the air waves? It’s been suggested more than once (by “elite” commentators) that politicians who speak the language of the “forgotten” (wo)man are actually out to get power for themselves and their own class: that the more these politicians talk about the non-elite, the more they are actually defending the interests of those at the top of the heap. Let the people think they are in control, and they will let you do almost anything to fatten your own bank account. Is this the purpose or just an effect? It’s a bit unclear.

Certainly countless commentators have produced threnodies on the decline of (or attacks on) “expertise,” as Tom Nichols’s recent book “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters” calls the insider wisdom of professionals who claim to know things outsiders don’t. Nichols is a professor (I am too) who worked hard for his Ph.D. and who, like me, publishes books. So it’s understandable that he would resist a world where the (wo)man on the street claims just as much knowledge as he does.

So too the horror of “elite” news outlets at President Trump’s rejection of the scientific report just out (commissioned by his administration) that emphasizes the human role in climate change, or his evoking his “gut” (unfortunate metaphor in a wildly overweight man who reportedly lives on hamburgers) to justify his rejection of the decision of the presumably elite Federal Reserve to raise interest rates. “I have a great gut,” he announced on November 26, “and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me.” That’s putting the contrast clearly: uninstructed instinct vs. book learning. It also has the advantage that he doesn’t have to read anything to decide policy or understand the issues, as his gut will tell him what to do.

It’s hard to look away from Trump, whether we are in the US, Canada, Europe, or elsewhere. He’s a one-man band, never tiring of hogging the spotlight and demanding center stage. He’s amazing by any standards, something really different. Most people couldn’t pull it off, but that’s because most people try to play by the rules. Trump, however, is a circus clown who got himself elected ringmaster because people got tired of the same old thing, and who thinks his job is still to clown around there in the center of the big top rather than making sure the acts in the three rings happen on schedule.

This electrifies some people, and horrifies others. The first group never really liked the circus anyway or are so nihilistic they think it’s fun to see the big top fall down. The second group love the circus, know how much work it takes to set it up and keep it going, and can’t bear to watch it be ruined. What’s left at the end of all this sure won’t have three rings and trapezes.

Love him or hate him, it’s undeniable that he’s changed the world he inherited. Similarly, if I were named chief brain surgeon at a major hospital, I’d change things for sure. Or a star tenor at the Metropolitan Opera. The result wouldn’t be brain surgery, or La Bohème. Is that good or bad?  If you want to stay alive or hear Puccini, probably bad. If you don’t care or are an adrenaline junkie, probably good.

Trump’s rejection of expertise is the defining quality of his presidency. And that’s why his supporters love him—that and his theatrical flair which is related to it: trust me, says the person  on the stage before you. And they do: trust doesn’t require book learning. That’s its very nature.

It’s all about the death of expertise, the rise of instinct. Or what is called “belief”—which is why the evangelicals that are all about faith love him so. Belief is just up to me. The people invested in intellect are of course appalled, but the “show me” folks think they’ve found a soul mate: you can tell a good guy just by looking at him. I alone can fix this. Of course it’s anti-intellectual, but it’s not new.

Richard Hofstadter wrote “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” largely about the Eisenhower 1950s, what many people think of as America’s Golden Age. (What else is Trump talking about with his slogan of “Make America Great Again”?) The central chapter of his book is in fact entitled “The Rise of the Expert,” which Hofstadter  thinks is the inevitable result of what he calls “modernity. He contrasts this to religious revivals of the century before, and American business ethos. Makes any self-respecting professor roll her eyes and sigh.

And not just professors. The attack on expertise, even if it’s a recurrent part of the American landscape, is exemplified in many ways nowadays, so many in fact that it’s difficult to tell the symptom from the phenomenon itself.  Seen from an even larger perspective,  it’s clear that Trump is merely the latest example of one of the main strands of Western thought, what we might call the Longinus-Rousseau-Freud strand as opposed to the Socrates-Bacon-Kant strand: the more unlearned you are, the better you are, and besides, thinking is over-rated.  

However almost everyone who focuses on the rise of “I believe” as the ultimate proof nowadays focuses on the rise of the Internet, which encourages us to comment on everything, to review our purchases, current movies and performances, and to comment on every article we read or picture we see. Everyone’s a critic. Books on Amazon show up with numbers of stars determined by reader votes; TripAdvisor gives tourist reviews of hotels the same way. Scores for movies from professional reviewers in Rotten Tomatoes are posted next to those from reader reviews. Even the lamestream media have become Internet-focused, with stories updated every minute, and the printed paper merely a selection of articles that have been available for days. The transformation of the Atlantic ex-Monthly into the Atlantic every-five-minutes and the New Yorker to a several-times-a-day news web site chart the decline of periodicals for which one had to wait a week, or even a month in the old days.

Because the Internet allows anonymous comments, people feel free to burst the bounds of what used to be called decorum. Things get nasty fast. This suggests that William Golding’s view of morality in “The Lord of the Flies” was correct: we’re only moral because others are watching and punishing us for infractions. If we think we can get away with it, we will. And this increasing vulgarity, cruelty, and coarseness in comments have become mainstream both in President Trump’s tweets and in the verbiage at his rallies.

Yes, nowadays it’s the right wing that has slipped the bonds of decorum, because decorum is seen as one of the qualities of “the elites” that has to be opposed. Thinking before talking is out; gut responses saying just what you feel are in. Let it all hang out, baby. But remember that this was invented for the modern world not by the right wing, but by left-wing protesters in the 60s.

For the USA, it was Vietnam that ended the belief that if experts, such as the President and the Secretary of Defense, told people something, it was so. Trump is increasingly being compared to Nixon, both for his documented lies and for his paranoia and self-protection; at this writing it’s unclear how his rule will end. And of course support for Nixon and his war continued strong in the US until close to his resignation, brought on by the fact that Congress declared itself unwilling to defend him from conviction after impeachment. So too the support for Trump, incomprehensible and horrifying to “the elites,” measured between 35% and 40% of the American populace, is not new. Stick around to see how it ends.

What is new is the defense of even some intellectuals of Trump’s lies that people take him “seriously but not literally” (the phrase is usually ascribed to the journalist Salena Zito in the Atlantic ex-Monthly). The other half of Zito’s phrase is that the press (who of course are “the elites”, not to mention sometimes “the enemy of the people”) takes Trump “literally but not seriously,” which means it continues to fact-check his assertions that he has done the biggest, best, and most beautiful X or Y. Usually his claims are either completely false or based on wildly exaggerated numbers. The Washington Post continues to award “Pinocchios” from zero to four based on how extravagant the lies are. But of course the 35-40% of voters who support him don’t care. They don’t read the Post to begin with, and chant appreciatively on cue in unison at his rallies: nowadays it’s not just his opponent for President who should, it seems, be locked up, but anyone who opposes Trump or his business.

Cassandras and many other commentators less extreme see a direct attack on democratic institutions in Trump’s assaults on political opponents, on the party he was a member of for many years (Democratic), on the FBI, on the Justice Department, even on the military leaders he claims to support. And they connect what is happening in the US to anti-democratic developments in Eastern Europe, countries such as Hungary and Poland. And they may be right. Still, at the core of our system is the idea that each person has a vote that is as good as anyone else’s. In the US, it’s the result of the gradual expansion of voters from the days of early independence when the only voters were “the elites,” namely white landowners, to include African-Americans with the 15th Constitutional Amendment, and women with the 19th.

Clearly for our world, the big cesura was the 1960s. The riots of 68 sounded the death knell of a world of crew cuts, malted milkshakes, hats for men and women, and a distinction between street clothes and other clothes. Respect for authority suddenly seemed passé. The demonstrations of 1968 that created our modern world were themselves a movement against expertise, the world of the fathers. To some degree the Freudian Oedipal need to kill the father always means rejecting expertise, which of course the fathers (mothers) will have and the sons (daughters) will not.

Mike Nichols’s 1967 movie “The Graduate” is a good time capsule of this timeless agon. Instead of going in to “plastics” as the family friend recommends the title character Benjamin do, he runs off at the end with his girlfriend, who has just married a fraternity louse. Her alcoholic mother seduced him, but he rejects the parents’ corrupt world. Go, Benjamin! Progress, as we call it, sometimes (always?) consists of rejecting the whole apparatus that the previous generation insisted on and took for granted. It’s what Thomas Kuhn called a “paradigm shift” and is related to Schumpeter’s fundamental notion that capitalism is based on “creative destruction.” You can’t (as Lenin us supposed to have observed) make an omelette without breaking some eggs.

Creative destruction has its losers. Think of the absolute break in popular music from the classical-inflected Big Band sound of the 40s and 50s through Elvis and the Beatles through to the foundation concept of contemporary pop music, namely that you don’t have to go to school to sing, because the machinery does it for you. Or the “primitivist” rejection of the once prized technique-heavy nineteenth-century Salon art by the Modernists. And what artist today takes pains to learn to draw correctly? It’s all conceptual.

The losers don’t like it, if it impacts their very existence (nobody cares about artists). At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, that meant stopping the machines by cramming the wooden shoes (in French, sabots) of the peasants into the works: sabotage. Now it may mean coal miners voting for Trump. That’s their reality, and its either dying or dead. It’s not about theoretical trends or hundred-year points of view. It’s about feeding my family today, this week, this year.

That means, it’s all about the here and now, what you see. Show me. If there is a cold winter, that doesn’t mean the planet isn’t warming over time, but it sure means I experienced a cold winter. Convince me I should set that evidence aside. Most “elites” won’t bother as it’s all too clear to them. If I’m feeling better but the doctor doesn’t like what the tests show, it’s up to her to explain to me what the disconnect is. Not just tell me I’m stupid. My reality matters too.

The here and now isn’t chopped liver, as they say in New York. It has its own validity. It’s up to the experts to explain how the perceived world fits in with the bigger picture, or the underlying trends. For politicians since the Kennedy-Nixon debates that showed the craggy sweating Nixon at a disadvantage, it’s all about the effect on the viewer/listener. For Trump and his supporters, it’s the experience of the rally, choreographed like a rock concert, that counts, not what he says. Words are for sissies. Facts are for sissies. What counts is the effect of the zinger, whether or not it stands up under scrutiny.

“Show me” isn’t just sad and stupid because experts aren’t always right. Expertise often leads to bubble-thinking and reiterated error, so it’s the uninstructed acting on instinct who turn out to have the clearer view of things. The title of David Halberstam’s damning critique of the Ivy League-educated “elite” who led the US into the Vietnam quagmire has been much quoted, usually without the ironic tone he intended: “The Best and the Brightest.” Virtually everybody agrees that the “elites” screwed up, costing many people their lives and changing the course of US foreign policy.

If the experts are denying my reality, sooner or later I will just reject them. I will say that the people in power are “phonies,” to use Holden Caulfield’s word in the so-seminal 50s book “The Catcher in the Rye.” The rebellious coal miners in the US today, or out of work factory workers, are the children of the 60s, whether they know it or not, as are the “gilets jaunes” demonstrating against gas taxes across France in late 2018. What unites them is the feeling that the people in power doing the talking are clueless. Sometimes they are.

Evidence of personal corruption on the part of the experts can be the spark that sets off the conflagration. That’s what a recent Guardian article by William Davies argues, called “Why We Stopped Trusting Elites” and devoted to the attack on expertise in Britain leading to Brexit. Davies focuses initially on the 2009 UK parliamentary expenses scandal, where MPs shamelessly used taxpayer pounds sterling to finance second houses, merely because they could get away with it. Then there was WikiLeaks that showed the mendacity of the US military, the manipulation of Libor, the rate at which banks loan to each other, and many more.

All that, like the lies associated with the Vietnam war in 1968, may well have been the sparks that set off Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the US. But Vietnam wasn’t the sole reason why Benjamin said no to plastics, or why popular music abandoned the conservatory for the microphone and the electric guitar.

The rejection of authority has no intrinsic political valence. It’s the left that invented what we call “identity politics,” the rejection of facts in favor of what a specific group doing the rejection senses or feels. That was the call of out-of-power groups in academia in the 1970s and 80s. Some feminists, such as the much-quoted Luce Irigaray, called for a female way of doing things rather than a male, one that was liquid rather than coldly rationalist, associationist rather than argumentative. The demand for proof over feeling was a manifestation of male authority. (Think Virginia Woolf’s streams of consciousness and her rejection of male certainty in “The Mark on the Wall” and in her fiction.) The canon of texts taught in universities weren’t universal, they were merely the power texts of white males. Everybody quoted Michel Foucault and his Nietzsche-derived notion that all writing was power: if you wrote about something you were out to control it.

But of course Nietzsche, a white male and a professor, had also attacked Socratic rationalism in favor of Wagnerian emotion, preferring one white male over another, so this was a case of using the master’s tools to attack the master’s house, as feminists frequently put things. Or perhaps, just another example of the anti-rational strain of thought that is just as much a part of Western thought as rationalism.

If, in the last half-century, anti-rationalism was the weapon of the left, and it was the right that was appalled—think William Bennett and his defense of “the canon” of college texts (Shakespeare, say, rather than Maya Angelou or Chinua Achebe)—now it’s the turn of the right to brandish feeling and attack book-learning, so it’s the left that’s appalled. Now they are the “tenured radicals” (to use Roger Kimball’s phrase) who want their excruciatingly formalist readings of literature (think deconstruction) and their knee-jerk anti-colonialist readings of texts, as all literature is called, to continue as before dwindling student customers.

Sometimes expertise is nothing but self-serving twaddle. We’d all be well advised simply to reject all these countless pages of useless PMLA articles and read the goddam literature. Only it’s this stultifying literary authority you’ll find nowadays at most colleges and universities, where people happy to have gotten jobs as Assistant Professors will insist you see the hidden racism and sexism and colonialism of Boccaccio or John Donne, or rather bag both of these for Malcolm X and Franz Fanon. It’s what they learned in graduate school, and it justifies what they do. Here, expertise piles so much erudition on things the individual is meant to experience for him- or herself that they are crushed, and the only way to save them is to walk away.

Rejecting expertise is intrinsically neither a good thing nor a bad one. If you do it for the right reasons, say because it’s killing the experience of literature, or it prevents your being moved by Wagner, it’s probably good. If you do it merely because you aren’t able to master the insider knowledge, I’d say it’s petty and pretty destructive: it’s bad. Of course condescension, such as many simpler folk feel from “the elites”, will turn anybody off. But that’s a response not to the material but to the people trying to shove it down your throat—although sometimes it’s hard to tell the two apart.

We have to differentiate between the times where “show me” is the right response and when it isn’t. All of us are ultimately the judge of things that affect us only personally, such as whether we like a potential mate or not. But we’re also tiny members of much more complex webs like economics or climate or medicine where experts disagree. Rejecting expertise all the time on principle is unwise; rejecting specific experts for specific reasons may well be wise. Expertise can help, but it can also become its own end and make people blind rather than opening their eyes. But in order to make a distinction between these, we can’t merely reject expertise because we resent other people knowing more than we do. Or rather we can, but then we may pay the price (cf. medicine, climate).

So sometimes the correct response to what we hear is “show me,”  the response of hardy frontiersmen and -women of Missouri expanding westward whose hands were full with clearing the forest, raising children, and defending their family, not to mention with building and maintaining a house. That’s the right response to things we control. But there’s a lot we don’t control, which I think is actually sad.

Marx thought so too. He saw that people in pre-industrial societies were somehow more complete human beings, because they did it all. As cogs in the industrial machine, they do one small action over and over, and they are pawns in the game set up and run by others. Still, we can’t go back to the pre-industrial age. Modern society is so complex that you can’t understand it all; life is no longer about a good guy with a gun against a bad guy. It’s gone way beyond that.

That’s what the contemporary rejection of expertise consists of, the rejection of a world so complex we can’t understand it and have to rely on specialists. The resistance isn’t so much to what is said as to the frustrating fact that we don’t see it. Of course we don’t see the cancer inside us either, but because it’s our body we are not about to question the doctor, the one expert we worship. But if this winter was colder than usual, that means to the individual that climate change isn’t happening—if we are the final arbiters in a “show me” world.

Marx was in some sense right, and Trump is in the same sense right. Why else do we love fantasy movies about 007 and SEALs and people who can change the world through muscle and a bullet, right here right now? But fantasy isn’t reality, and the danger of confusing the two is very great. The issue isn’t expertise alone, and rejecting it won’t help us. Reject certain experts, sure. Or say that others are insufferable even if possibly right. Or that life isn’t long enough for us to understand the arguments. Or that sometimes feeling wins over intellect. But feeling doesn’t always best knowledge, and not all experts are pompous fools, and the world has changed from frontier days. Make specific judgement calls, don’t just reject expertise.

Sometimes “show me” is the right answer. But sometimes it isn’t.


Bruce Fleming is the author of over a dozen books and many articles, listed at www.brucefleming.net His degrees are from Haverford College, the University of Chicago, and Vanderbilt University. His new book is Saving Madame Bovary: Being Happy With What We Have.


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