Pearls Before Swine

I’ve argued at book length that we did want to and still should– that mass creativity is a social and economic good that founded the post-war American middle class and its gradual pushing back of the walls of poverty, exclusion, discrimination, unhappiness and non-fulfillment. Reducing material suffering and increasing happiness were two sides of the same coin. We all still say we believe in both. The sole means of a broad increase in happiness is mass creativity–the general development of society as a great leap beyond the lavish development of a small elite.

Chris Newfield, “Quality Public Higher Ed: From Udacity to Theory Y

I’ve had more than one argument with various members of my very large extended family over some political issue or the other. In the end– or, rather, at bottom, because these arguments have no real end– it always boils down to something seemingly simple. They don’t believe in democratic government; in fact, I don’t think they– or most American conservatives– believe in democracy at all. Or, rather, they don’t see the purpose of democratic government.

They aren’t fascists or authoritarians, although I think those are strong tendencies in the Tea Party movement. The loss of democratic understanding creates a vacuum and creepy things rush in. Most of the American right, though, serves our national oligarchy via libertarian and not authoritarian ideas. (The exception seems to be the so-called cultural issues, such as gay marriage and women’s rights, reproductive and otherwise.)

I think my relatives don’t believe in democracy in the larger sense: they see no link between the greater good and any government policy beyond the military. Events in Wisconsin suggest that this disconnect extends even to police, firefighters, and public school teachers.  Newfield suggests, in effect, that this is because they don’t  believe in themselves.  It’s what he calls the X theory,  “the assumption of the mediocrity of the masses.”

Political conservatives, Newfield argues, don’t believe that people can be educated in any meaningful way; the human norm is a kind of dull stupidity. (I can certainly sympathize with that feeling.) When push comes to shove the idea of promoting education has little appeal. It’s tossing pearls after swine.  In more official and no doubt more cynical conservative quarters Newfield is surely right.

I don’t think that my relatives or conservatives more generally don’t believe in human potential, though. I think that they no longer believe that there is any link between  the cultivation of human potential and democracy. This isn’t natural human cynicism or caution. We don’t have a theory of democracy anymore because the Reagan revolution– a decades  long anti-government advertising campaign– has been so successful.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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