Are We Losing Our Power To Think?

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“the major virtues of liberal society in the past was that it made possible such a variety of styles of intellectual life – one can find men notable for being passionate and rebellious, for being elegant and sumptuous, or spare and astringent, clever and complex, patient and wise, and some equipped mainly to observe and endure. … It is possible, of course, that the avenues of choice are being closed and that the culture of the future will be dominated by single-minded men of one persuasion or another. It is possible; but insofar as the weight of one’s will is thrown onto the scales of history, one lives in the belief that it not be so” — Richard Hofstadter.

My head hurts. — popular saying


Many of my daydreams fixate on a life chock full of intellectual stimulation.  I wonder what it would be like to live in New York City (at all) in the mid 60s, mingling with Holocaust survivors, the jazz scene, seeing opera at the Met, playing chess in the parks with strangers (I’ve always been a hit-or-miss chess player) immigrant communities, the budding youth movement, beats and other artists in the Village.  I’ve lived close to two college campuses–UCSD and Southern Oregon University in Ashland, and spent a lot of time at or near near Portland State University, Reed College and Lewis and Clark.  Perhaps you’ve seen the little old ladies and gentlemen who march on in, even though it rains in these places, just to hear a lecture, catch some theatre, or listen to gentle or rich orchestral tunes.

I once took an Ethics class to meet a humanities requirement; in truth, the class was one option out of many. The professor was the most engaging teacher on campus.  A retired couple, non-academics and in their late 60s, had signed up and paid good money just to read and listen just–for fun.  What a damned waste of green if ever I heard of one! Some might say.  I’m not being glib, it’s the kind of reaction I’ve encountered throughout my life, although usually phrased with more subtlety.  Perhaps you and I find that kind of thirst for knowledge a most humbling testament to the power of the mind.

Susan Jacoby writes that we Americans are “a people in search of validation for opinions we already hold.”   A pretty damning assessment. Then again, it’s no worse than anything Twain ever had to say.

Usually the counter-argument is anecdotal and diametrically opposed for the sake of subscribing to the Panglossian view of history.  That in the end, everything ends up better, and each generation is better off than before. (Environmental research alone shows us not so, nor look at indigenous peoples, raped every way even were the epidemic of disease treated by medical improvement).  Jacoby has irrefutable evidence.  For starters:

“In the last quarter of the 19th century, Americans jammed lecture halls to hear Robert Green Ingersoll, known as “the Great Agnostic,” attack organized religion and question the existence of God. They did so not because they necessarily agreed with him but because they wanted to make up their own minds about what he had to say and see for themselves whether the devil really had horns.

“Similarly, when Thomas Henry Huxley, the British naturalist who popularized Darwin’s theory of evolution, came to the U.S. in 1876, he spoke to standing-room-only audiences, even though many of his listeners were genuinely shocked by his views.”

Some one hundred years after the packed Transatlantic lecture circuits those stragglers are a last vestige. If not dying (and I doubt they’ll ever be extinct) then endangered.

For the sake of nuance, however, those Scotch-Irish and German common citizens also had no television or radio, a limited stock of songs (to what you can remember to sing or  play) and even more impoverished choices for taverns and entertainment.  But this is a fairly small point.  For all the comparable New-Age type fluff back then, Pastors read real books and exposed themselves to brand new ideas, and church picnics usually brought out the whole town or neighborhood. While not academically-oriented, certainly ties to intellectual arousal and initiation when you consider the dearth of pedestrian communal opportunity today.  You can always strike up a conversation with a stranger, if you dare, but that’s not the same as having the vibrance of a linked community resonate in your bones.

And in our increasingly isolated way of life (first the car, the phone, then television, now using the internet to view and foray into the outside world) where millions of Americans don’t list anyone as a close friend there’s been the attempt to “revise” our history about our lack of choice as well as our (as a group) stunning lack of curiousity.  

We’re told the two party system is an American tradition.  But in which manner?  Even when my great-grandmother was having kids there were real, honest-to-God debates and fights over conservation, voter enfranchisement, proto-feminism, labor unions, that this country is actually (let’s face it) and Empire entangled in countries we don’t know anything about, the links between Big Business and war, ad nauseum.  This was in 1916.  If there were dominant parties it was still not the choice between Republican and Democrat but between progressivism in every variation and populism.  Some progressives were imperialists, some bore an eerie resemblance to neo-cons with their state-building.  And then there were anti-war isolationists and then there were pacifists–the two were not confused.  There were also Socialists and the Communists and the Anarchists and the Unions as healthy, influential voices.  At least heard, if not viable.   There were the fights over evolution and athiesm.  Progressive Christianity and the Social Gospel were actually very potent and no less Christian in American eyes, though there were also the xenophobic Father Coughlins and the simplistic Billy Sundays throughout our history.

The point is, there were choices.  It was not an either-or world.  George Lakoff says it is, that we’re either political mothers or fathers, we’re either about nurturing and opportunity or control and order.  And I haven’t been able to have a debate with a rightwinger for some time without watching their eyes at the moment I say the one thing that decisively makes their mind shut down and say: step away, this is some terrorist loving liberal full of gobblety gook.How long’s it been for some conservatives and libertarians at the other end of the two-way street?  How long for those who haven’t defined themselves at all?

I’ve been a long time reader of Redstate, though not frequently, because I like to expose myself to “the other side” as it were.  Just as I’ve read Freerepublic because I like to stay in touch with how people I’ve known really do think, or at least sympathize.  But there are hundreds of sides, not two.  

While Jacoby might be on the right note about that side of our decline, there is at least the backlash against the media for telling us how to think, for reducing every story, every political battle or black woman shot by a cop or neighborhood effort to prevent child molestation or crackdown on a “religous cult” to TWO SIDES.

We Americans do like our personal freedoms.  If we don’t love truth and exploration as much as we should, as a people we resent being told to shut up and tow the line, which is exactly what our institutions, from the media and the Republicans on down, have done for some years, and its part of why they’re suffering.

But we are not immune in the blogosphere, either.  There are healthy debates but then there’s also area for an expansion of discussion.  With the ferocity of debate over Obama vs. Hillarycare you might be surprised to learn that there are many different approaches to health care, some of which are far better in the eyes of people who know a lot more about it than I do. Were you not paying heed to the smaller, more sane discussions here and there.  You might also be surprised to learn that both health care approaches are very similar, even were you taking the 15 million people left out difference and making it forefront.  

The health care debate is but one fine example of our ever-cookie cutter, pre-made world: two choices ultimately more similar than not, when the mind can grapple with so many other options.


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    • nulwee on April 21, 2008 at 4:35 pm

    and thanks for reading!  I didn’t intend to make the point about health care, but I had to wrap this up there before it grew even longer. 😉

  1. other political influences in America, at least before World War II. I suppose the abundance of entertainments in the current age has made us lazy, compared with our forebears, and reluctant to pursue intellectual or political life (reminds me — have to catch American Idol tonight! — : ) ).

    Our absolute ignorance of history has made us what Gore Vidal calls the “United States of Amnesia.”

    When the media say that “both parties were included in the debate,” or “both parties were approached for comment,” it reminds me of the answer (from the Blues Brothers) to the question “What kind of music do you like?”:

    “Why, both kinds — Country and Western!”

  2. there is an inevitability to a 3rd party. We will finally have something to`thank HRC for

  3. that what you point to in your essay is due to the shear scale of the human world….

    I have watched over the decades as the scale surpassed the average individuals ability to encompass and think cogently about it…..

    I watched as the eyes glazed over and the simplifying assumptions where aquired….

    all of the old well worn ruts of human exclusivity…..

    us/not us……

    religion, nationalism, racism, elitism…..

    all simplifying assumptions designed to allow a disociation from actuality…….

    all to allow a funtional form of schizoprenia…..

  4. We have trained ourselves not to think.

    I am guilty of it myself.

    America is under the spell of a “certainty delusion” we have to be unequivocal and absolutely right about everything all the time. Indeed, that is how the right demonizes debate, by refusing to admit there is a grey zone where many people used to live.

    I could care less about Obama vs HRC because it is an argument about who is more likable.

    Myself I am from Canada, and while that health care system is far from perfect and it has many flaws, for average people on average incomes, like my family, it is the better system.

    If you actually need a transplant or a new hip, you get one. You might wait a little longer if you aren’t experiencing life threatening symptoms ( because the entire health care system is built on triage and serving the greatest need for the greatest number of people) and that can be both inconvenient and unpleasant but you get it. You don’t mortgage your house or declare bankruptcy.

    I will say this, wealthy Canadians DO travel to the US for medical procedures but that is because they chose to. And in general, it is wealthy Canadians and Canadian conservatives who don’t like the system.

  5. what a word. What is the mainstream? For a lot of people it’s believing in the myths they have been sold via TV, religion and even the new religion science and technology and progress. We have been trained not to think except in terms of what’s in it for me. We seem to be ever pitted against some demon or another that threatens our so called life styles.

    Pundits tell us what to think, propaganda which paints a sanitized reality, about the war, the ‘culture wars’, the run amok capitalism, all issues actually. As for health care, I found huge differences between the two especially in the application, long term and the basic philosophy. To me to mandate Insurance for all is insane. I cannot for the life of me see how making a broken system that has nothing to do with health, but only profit for the insurer and drug guys, mandatory will allow any change other then more money for those that hold us all hostage. I have no faith in ‘affordable’.  

    I think there are huge differences between the candidates.  Likeable has nothing to do with it. It’s not in individual answers with detailed ‘policy’ it’s in world and life view, in philosophical differences that view democracy, governance and most importantly, common good. Not just for our tribe our culture but the worlds. The fact that Obama speaks of adversaries, not enemies, not threats to us, or evil, may seem like nothing but for me it’s everything.

    Apparently a lot of others are not buying as the reaction to the last debate showed. We are polarized on all levels culturally and politically and most are cooked up by those that seek to keep it that way.

    Thanks great essay. I have been reading on and off for the last year, Democracy in America by De Tocqueville. Although written in the 1830’s it makes you realize that our national character has always had the strains we see today. Our governance has always  broken into parties that have opposing philosophies in regards to the nature of power and limitations of rights and equality.

    Perhaps this is an era of revolution not the violent kind but the political kind. It seems to me that while intellectuals ferment the ideas that bring change, you need a party and coalitions which are able to bring people to look beyond their ‘side’. The propaganda that feeds, greed fear and hatred, can only spin so far. I think the realities are so obvious that it’s hard to ignore them. It’s also hard for people to admit that they have been sold a false reality.        


  6. “shitty” BS degree in business administration I can point out why the construction of “news” in most all mainstream media venues subliminally reinforces one of the 14 characteristics of fascism.

    Media, education, health, labor just about all arenas of human endeavor have been altered to fit a profit margin.

  7. Nice essay.  All I’d have to add though is that perhaps it has seemed much the same to people throughout history in various cultures.  The fascinatin’ energizin’ stuff is always over there.  And if one lives in the boonies, that is likely enough true.  But I’d bet almost every major city in the world has it’s salons of friends, it’s brilliant and thoughtful people, some kind of civic intellectual life which is unprecedented, a snapshot of history writ in people’s lives and time.

    Sadly, many people never learn how to think, to argue, to construct discussion or create clash.  And public policy has long been determined by the lumpen proletariat.  We are probably utterly doomed as a species.  But there are — I swear — many excellent conversations to be had along the way, here at the party at the end of the world :}

  8.  I would not have thought, by any preconceived notion, that the concept of “comfort food” might be true.  Yet, by many measures, measures of stress responses, that it is true.  My pre-conceived ideas did not include that.  We tested it.  We found it consistent.  In retrospect, it makes sense.  We did not predict it, at first; not without the initial evidence we and others gathered, that caused us to suggest otherwise.  In retrospect, it makes sense.  We turned it into a proactive theory, afterwards, but we had not the idea then, tho some of us suspected.  Without actually testing these ideas, nothing would have advanced, because in the absence of testing, we don’t know.  Testing ideas rocks.

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