Mediocrity and the Mega-State: 2 Gether 4 Ever
by Daniel M. Ryan
by Daniel M. Ryan
Some of you who have read my last piece on how big government is kept in place by bad policy may have wondered why I would criticize my own government to a readership mostly made up of foreigners. The reason is one that Americans have long known, but is largely invisible to my fellow Canadians because we've been largely sheltered from it. Airing what appears to be purely domestic dirty laundry to world eyeballs is a way of coping with previous foreign criticism of one's own land that hurt, and of pre-empting future foreign criticism which would hurt more. This is the practical reason behind this maxim: a true patriot is confident enough to criticize the truly bad features of his or her own country in front of foreigners. It also makes such a patriot a more confident source of refutation of untruthful criticisms of his or her own country, by foreigners or by fellow domestics.
There is, I am happy to disclose, a side benefit to this policy if such criticism is done through principle. When another country slips into the same mud which your own has, there is a real delight in taking them to task for it. Thanks to the LewRockwell.com blog, I happened upon an item which would bring pure joy, if of a somewhat shameful kind, to any citizen of a former colony of the British Empire: mediocrity in the U.K. A supposedly distinguished professor of psychology in Scotland has diagnosed-from-a-distance two corpses, both of famous people. These corpses are the ones of two famous British Conservative politicians, Sir Keith Joseph and Enoch Powell, who, this professor related in a fancy dinner in Glasgow (still part of the United Kingdom), supposedly suffered from a mental affliction known as Asperger's Syndrome.
This condition has been described as a social disability. According to WebMd.com, the symptoms of it are revealed when someone behaves so as to:
- Not pick up on social cues and lack inborn social skills, such as being able to read others' body language, start or maintain a conversation, and take turns talking.
- Dislike any changes in routines.
- [Appear, possibly,] to lack empathy.
- Be unable to recognize subtle differences in speech tone, pitch, and accent that alter the meaning of others' speech. Thus, your child may not understand a joke or may take a sarcastic comment literally. Likewise, his or her speech may be flat and difficult to understand because it lacks tone, pitch, and accent.
- Have a formal style of speaking that is advanced for his or her age. For example, the child may use the term "beckon" instead of "call," or "return" instead of "come back."
- Avoid eye contact.
- Have unusual facial expressions or postures.
- Be preoccupied with one or only few interests, which he or she may be very knowledgeable about. Many children with Asperger's syndrome are overly interested in parts of a whole or in unusual activities, such as doing intricate jigsaw puzzles, designing houses, drawing highly detailed scenes, or astronomy.
- Talk a lot, usually about a favorite subject. One-sided conversations are common. Internal thoughts are often verbalized.
- Have delayed motor development. Your child may be late in learning to use a fork or spoon, ride a bike, or catch a ball. He or she may have an awkward walk. Handwriting is often poor.
- May have heightened sensitivity and get overstimulated by loud noises, lights, or strong tastes or textures....
- Have advanced rote memorization and math skills. Your child may be able to memorize dates, formulas, and phone numbers in unusually accurate detail
Briefing-book summary: a preponderance not only to noticeably eccentric behavior which is difficult for the sufferer to control, but also to being disturbed by changes, especially those caused by the actions of other people, whether friend, foe or neither, to the point where the sufferer's own people skills are impaired, with respect to the norm. A few special cognitive skills are sometimes evident too.
How electable is a person with this debility? How electable would such a person be before this condition was recognized as an official disability, never mind after it? How is it even possible for two people who climbed up to almost the top of the notoriously greasy pole in Whitehall to have even a hint of that kind of social maladroitness that would very obviously be pounced on by the Labor party the first time they stood for office period? Why is it that, in the supposed land of excellence, a professor can rate a fancy dinner courtesy of a Royal Society of Psychiatrists for proclaiming that — not two, but three — successful politicians, masters of a field notoriously demanding of superior people skills, have a disability in the same skill which even the local alderman must be good at?
Thankfully, citizens of the United States and residents of Canada still have enough common sense to see the obvious inanity of speculations such as that one. We haven't lost touch with everyday political life to the extent of being oblivious to the effect of competition for office. The next-of-kin of Sir Keith and Mr Powell might be very interested to know that Barry Goldwater took a magazine to court for libeling him in such a manner and won. Here's the case name to slip to the respective solicitor(s): Goldwater v. Ginzberg et al., 396 U.S. [yes, it is a decision by the United States Supreme Court] 1049. It will, at the least, test, at the trial-balloon level, the level of cosmopolitism in U.K. courts of law. (Source of case name: "The Psychology of Psychologizing" in The Voice of Reason, by Ayn Rand et. al., p. 26.)
There's a certain indecisiveness that is elicited by news items of this sort. On the one hand, people living in nations who have had to endure British snootiness with regard to the state of their own nation's intellectuals, on the basis that Her Majesty the Queen and the British aristocracy all-but guarantee excellence in British scholarship, may very well grasp this item eagerly and use it to deliver a mighty comeuppance to that kind of Brit. On the other hand, though, the excellence displayed in the scholarship of fêted Britons in the olden days, along with the U.K.'s traditional rôle of serving as safe haven for great scholars in exile like Friedrich Hayek, does give cause to worry about a degradation of this sort. How is it possible for a plain mediocrity to win such favor in today's U.K.?
If you believe the traditional legend of mediocrity, it is puzzling indeed. This legend claims that mediocrity in scholarship is the fate of new nations. Since nations that are new need the best brains in practical pursuits, the academy is the place where the also-rans in life are put, because there's no pressing use for them. There is, however, pressing need for the better people to stick to the more urgent task of nation-building. This arrangement reinforces a certain cultural bias because it is easy to claim in a new nation that "all book boys are stipend-eaters — all of 'em. No exceptions." This shames the smarter people into development, at the price of inculcating a little yokelism.
This legend would be accepted as fact by a determinist, but what makes it merely a legend is the fact that it is deterministic in its base. The person who is placed in the scholarship field, whether sinecured there or not, has a choice once there to either take it easy or to drive him- or herself hard. Levels of developments and social dynamics may influence such a person's choice one way or the other — not necessarily towards one specific choice or another — but they cannot determine the choice made. What about the person who, when hearing that he or she is thought of as a mere welfare case in disguise, gets steamed enough to buckle down extra hard?
There is also the question of professional standards, too, which do not come from a degree but from one's own conscience. A person who, upon habitually making obviously careless mistakes in a field he or she is supposedly brilliant at, has the option of hanging up the book bag and retiring from the field he or she is in. He or she also has the option of wishing away any intellectual decay displayed by him or her and clinging to his or her position despite it. The same kind of choice applies to the scholar who dirties his or her hands with academic dishonesty. These choices — the choice of how hard to work, how deep to study, how long to stay in the field and why one should get out of it — make any deterministic theory of national mediocrity mythical, and little more than that. (Note the custom of self-exemption in determinist ranks.)
The eruption of "professional" mediocrity in the U.K. has a more sensible explanation, one tied to human responses to incentives. Government financing in a field politicizes it, as the kind of people skills which the typical politician has in superior supply, combined with the well-known insularity of the political class, gives the edge in the grant-hustling game to those who have "got game" too. When government is the patron, and politicians, with the aid of the bureaucrats they promote and demote, are the dispensers of taxpayers' patronage, then academics have an incentive to "write to the patron" through adopting the intellectual and ethical standards of politicians. It is a commonplace that people like saying "yes" to other people who are like them more than to those who are not like them. The only exception to this rule of thumb is pity cases. When government holds the purse strings, therefore, political scholars eventually come to the fore. The resultant mediocratization of standards, as Rand noted in "The Establishing Of An Establishment" (Philosophy: Who Needs It, pp. 168—70) proceeds through not only fear of displeasing the grant-dispensing (and grant-receiving) authorities, but also through inferring that the predominant greybeards in the field no longer care about truth and truth alone — an inference that is conveyed by the workings of a normal person's people sense to him or her. The decay happens slowly because of the overhang of better traditions, but it proceeds nonetheless. It gradually whittles scholarship down to the few, whose endurance can overcome the painful need to act irascibly ("anti-socially") for the sake of advancing truth, and the many, who go along to get along and who thus descend into comfortable mediocrity. Given knowledge of this dynamic, it's simple to conclude that the legend of British excellence as girded by British aristocracy is the result of the aristocrat class rescuing long-suffering geniuses from being martyred by their mediocre colleagues largely out of pity for them. Since bravery of this sort is not a natural birthright of those who have inherited a title of nobility, there is no monopoly on any such rescue efforts held by any aristocracy. The entitled are not needed to set things straight in the academy: as the success of green-skeptic authors has shown, mediocrity can be fought from outside thanks to a still-existing free market in books. A vibrant freedom does suffice as a necessary.
I have to admit that, thanks to government patronage, Canada is mediocrity-ridden also, just as the United States is. Shoddy science does rear its head in Canada too, as do shoddy arts thanks to the growing government swill tills for each. Canada does have an answer to the National Endowment of the Arts, known somewhat derisively as the "CanCon" circuit. The same rudimentary-Hegelian cover-up which American mercantilists are fond of using is also used by Canadian mercantilists to lump in the victims of mediocrity with the mediocre themselves. So, a Canadian like myself does find it hard to point the accusing finger across the border and remain blind to the domestic variant of mediocrity.
With respect to this issue, we're all in it together, folks. The ruinous effect of bad policy works on any nation whose government enacts them, without fear or favor to any specific nation. Traditions only slow down or guide the process of degradation.
July 14, 2006
Daniel M. Ryan [send him mail] lives in Canada — is a Canadian who is living in the same city that the shadows of his four ancestral predecessors live in. He is currently working on a book on Objectivism and is occasionally helping out his father.
Copyright © 2006 LewRockwell.com