NOTEBOOK: The Intellectual Elite vs The Rest of Us, 41 countries living longer than Americans

Why are people of greater education more accepting of circumcision?

Why is it that the argument over circumcision tends to be between circumcised men in circumcising countries? Isn’t this an argument largely between the circumcised?

Why is the impact of dedicated human rights activists, doctors, legal professionals and public policy advocates opposing circumcision so slight and incremental and virtually invisible to the media?

How can non-MDs in the current era, such as Bailey, Halperin, and MDs of an earlier era, such as Fink, Schoen, and Wiswell, garner worldwide (or national for the latter group) headlines on the flimsiest of evidence touting circumcision when others pointing out the  harms, e.g. medical, psychological, and social, get virtually no play at all? (It took 30 years and thousands of studies to convince much of the scientific community of the carcenogenic effects of cigarettes, by way of comparison.)

There are no satisfactory answers to these questions. Nothing to suggest anything but a future of hard-slogging to end gratuitous genital mutilation. Still, I think we can make a fair guess that education eases the way into acceptance of normative views; circumcised men have ample psychological and other reasons to reject and defend circumcision; the opposition camp is a minority in a majority circumcised country, such as the US; and finally Bailey, Halperin, Fink, Wiswell, and Schoen are in the majority camp, and therefore are swimming with the stream and not against it.

In a related vein, Noam Chomsky recently gave an interview where he discussed how  “[t]he community of technical intelligentsia, and weapons designers, and counterinsurgency experts, and pragmatic planners of an American empire is one that you have a great deal of inducement to become associated with.” Quoting from an earlier response by Chomsky the interviewer said, “The  inducements, in fact, are very real; their rewards in power, and affluence, and prestige and authority are quite significant.”

I thought this was a profound point in understanding why certain points of view in the HIV/AIDS public health policy debate get major play and other equally (or more) valid points get drowned out, ignored, or labeled non-sense. In a significant (and long) quote, Chomsky continues. As you read through the following, think of the circumcision lobby when Chomsky refers to the military-industrial complex, or imperialists, or whatever label he may use to refer to other technical/technocratic groups.

From where may we trace the development of this  strong coterie of technical experts in the schools, and elsewhere, sometimes referred to as a ‘bought’ or ‘secular priesthood’?

It really goes back to the latter-part of the nineteenth century,  then there was substantial discussion — not just in the United States but in Europe, too — of what was then sometimes called ‘a new class’ of scientific intellectuals. In that period of time there was a level of knowledge and technical expertise accumulating that allowed a kind of managerial class of educated, trained people to have a greater share in decision-making and planning. It was thought that they were a new class displacing the aristocracy, the owners, political leaders and so on, and they could have a larger role — and of course they liked that idea.

Out of this group developed an ideology of technocratic planning. In industry it was called ‘scientific management’. It developed in intellectual life with a concept of what was called a ‘responsible class’ of technocratic, serious intellectuals who could solve the world’s problems rationally, and would have to be protected from the ‘vulgar masses’ who might interfere with them. And, it goes right up until the present.

Just how realistic this is, is another question, but for the class of technical intellectuals, it’s a very attractive conception that, ‘We are the rational, intelligent people, and management and decision-making should be in our hands.’

Actually, as I’ve pointed out in some of the things I’ve written, it’s very close to Bolshevism. And, in fact, if you put side-by-side, say, statements by people like Robert McNamara and V.I. Lenin, they’re strikingly similar. In both cases there’s a conception of a vanguard of rational planners who know the direction that society ought to go and can make efficient decisions, and have to be allowed to do so without interference from, what one of them, Walter Lippmann, called the ‘meddlesome and ignorant outsiders’, namely, the population, who just get in the way.

It’s not an entirely new conception: it’s just a new category of people. Two hundred years ago you didn’t have an easily identifiable class of technical intellectuals, just generally educated people. But as scientific and technical progress increased there were people who felt they can appropriate it and become the proper managers of the society, in every domain. That, as I said, goes from scientific management in industry, to social and political control.

There are periods in history, for example, during the Kennedy years, when these ideas really flourished. There were, as they called themselves, ‘the best and the brightest.’ The ‘smart guys’ who could run everything if only they were allowed to; who could do things scientifically without people getting in their way.

It’s a pretty constant strain, and understandable. And it underlies the fear and dislike of democracy that runs through elite culture always, and very dramatically right now. It often correlates closely with posturing about love of democracy. As any reader of Orwell would expect, these two things tend to correlate. The more you hate democracy, the more you talk about how wonderful it is and how much you’re dedicated to it. It’s one of the clearer expressions of the visceral fear and dislike of democracy, and of allowing, again, going back to Lippmann, the ‘ignorant and meddlesome outsiders’ to get in our way. They have to be distracted and marginalized somehow while we can take care of the serious questions.

Now, that’s the basic strain. And you find it all the time, but increasingly in the modern period when, at least, claims to expertise become somewhat more plausible. Whether they’re
authentic or not is, again, a different question. But, the claims to expertise are very striking. So, economists tell you, ‘We know how to run the economy’; the political scientists tell you, ‘We know how to run the world, and you keep out of it because you don’t have special knowledge and training.’

When you look at it, the claims tend to erode pretty quickly. It’s not quantum physics; there is, at least, a pretense, and sometimes, some justification for the claims. But, what matters for human life is, typically, well within the reach of the concerned person who is willing to undertake some effort.

Given the self-proclaimed notion that this new class is entitled to decision-making, how close are they to actual policy, then?

My feeling is that they’re nowhere near as powerful as they think they are. So, when, say, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about the technocratic elite which is taking over the running of society — or when McNamara wrote about it, or others — there’s a lot of illusion there. Meaning, they can gain positions of authority and decision-making when they act in the interests of those who really own and run the society. You can have people that are just as competent, or more competent, and who have conceptions of social and economic order that run counter to, say, corporate power, and they’re not going to be in the planning sectors.

So, to get into those planning sectors you first of all have to conform to the interests of the real concentrations of power.

And, again, there are a lot of illusions about this — in the media, too. Tom Wicker is a famous example, one of the ‘left commentators’ of the New York Times. He would get very angry when critics would tell him he’s conforming to power interests and that he’s keeping within the doctrinal framework of the media, which goes back to their corporate structure and so on. And he would answer, very angrily — and correctly — that nobody tells him what to say. He wrote anything he wanted — which is absolutely true. But, if he wasn’t writing the things he did he wouldn’t have a column in the New York Times.

That’s the kind of thing that is very hard to perceive.

People do not want,or often are not able, to perceive that they are conforming to external authority. They feel themselves to be very free, and indeed they are, as long as they conform. But power lies elsewhere. That’s as old as history in the modern period. It’s often very explicit.

Adam Smith, for example, discussing England, quite interestingly pointed out that the merchants and manufacturers, the economic forces of his day, are the ‘principal architects of policy’, and they make sure that their own interests are ‘most peculiarly attended to’, no matter how grievous the effect on others, including the people in England. And that’s a good principle of statecraft, and social and economic planning, which runs pretty much to the present. When you get people with management and decision-making skills, they can enter into that system and they can make the actual decisions within a framework that’s set within the real concentrations of power. And now it’s not the merchants and manufacturers of Adam Smith’s day, it’s the multinational corporations, financial institutions, and so on.

But, stray too far beyond their concerns and you won’t be the decision-maker.

It’s not a mechanical phenomenon, but it’s overwhelmingly true that the people who make it to decision-making positions (that is, what they think of as decision-making positions) are those who conform to the basic framework of the people who fundamentally own and run the society.

That’s why you have a certain choice of technocratic managers and not some other choice of people equally or better capable of carrying out policies but have different ideas.

What about degrees of responsibility and shared burdens of guilt on an individual level? What can we learn about how those in positions of power or authority often view themselves?

You almost never find anyone, whether it’s in a weapons plant, or planning agency, or in corporate management, or almost anywhere, who says, ‘I’m really a bad guy, and I just want to do things that benefit myself and my friends.’

Almost invariably you get noble rhetoric like: ‘We’re working for the benefit of the people.’ The corporate executive who is slaving for the benefit of the workers and community; the friendly banker who just wants to help everybody start their business; the political leader who’s trying to bring freedom and justice to the world–and they probably all believe it. I’m not suggesting that they’re lying. There’s an array of routine justifications for whatever you’re doing. And it’s easy to believe them. It’s very hard to look into the mirror and say, ‘Yeah, that guy looking at me is a vicious criminal.’ It’s much easier to say, ‘That guy looking at me is really very benign, self-sacrificing, and he has to do these things because it’s for the benefit of everyone.’

Or you get respected moralists like Reinhold Niebuhr, who was once called ‘the theologian of the establishment’. And the reason is because he presented a framework which, essentially, justified just about anything they wanted to do. His thesis is dressed up in long words and so on (it’s what you do if you’re an intellectual). But, what it came down to is that, ‘Even if you try to do good, evil’s going to come out of it; that’s the paradox of grace’. And that’s wonderful for war criminals. ‘We try to do good but evil necessarily comes out of it.’ And it’s influential. So, I don’t think that people in decision-making positions are lying when they describe themselves as benevolent. Or people working on more advanced nuclear weapons. Ask them what they’re doing, they’ll say: ‘We’re trying to preserve the peace of the world.’ People who are devising military strategies that are massacring people, they’ll say, ‘Well, that’s the cost you have to pay for freedom and justice’, and so on.

But, we don’t take those sentiments seriously when we hear them from enemies, say, from Stalinist commissars. They’ll give you the same answers. But, we don’t take that seriously because they can know what they’re doing if they choose to. If they choose not to, that’s their choice. If they choose to believe self-satisfying propaganda, that’s their choice. But, it doesn’t change the moral responsibility. We understand that perfectly well with regard to others. It’s very hard to apply the same reasoning to ourselves.

In fact, maybe the most elementary of moral principles is that of universality, that is, If something’s right for me, it’s right for you; if it’s wrong for you, it’s wrong for me. Any moral code that is even worth looking at has that at its core somehow. But that principle is overwhelmingly disregarded all the time. If you want to run through examples we can easily do it. Take, say, George W. Bush, since he happens to be president. If you apply the standards that we applied to Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, he’d be hanged. Is it an even conceivable possibility? It’s not even discussable. Because, we don’t apply to ourselves the principles we apply to others.

There’s a lot of talk about ‘terror’ and how awful it is. Whose terror? Our terror against them? I mean, is that considered reprehensible? No, it’s considered highly moral; it’s considered self-defense, and so on. Now, their terror against us, that’s awful, and terrible, and so on.

But, to try to rise to the level of becoming a minimal moral agent, and just enter in the domain of moral discourse is very difficult. Because, that means accepting the principle of universality. And you can experiment for yourself and see how often that’s accepted, either in personal or political life. Very rarely.

41 Countries exceed the US in life expectancy

I thought it would be fun to go over the recently released list of countries’ life expectancy generated by the US Census Bureau to see how many of the 41 countries that beat out the US are intact. But the report is in no way straightforward, and therefore the exercise would require more time than I have this morning. You can do it yourself with the data found here. Still, I would note that with the possible exception of Singapore, none of the top ten longevity-blessed countries circumcise their young. And they generally have very low HIV rates as well. The last ten are split about half and half. And for the record, I understand that the reasons for longevity are complex and likely have very little to do with whether or not the population generally circumcises. Rather it’s the obverse point worth noting here. That is to say circumcision doesn’t decrease life expectancy, but it certainly is no marker for longevity in any way whatsoever.

About David Wilton

fronterizo, public defender, intactivist, gay
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1 Response to NOTEBOOK: The Intellectual Elite vs The Rest of Us, 41 countries living longer than Americans

  1. Ed says:

    You do an excellent job of bringing common sense to this topic. Unfornately, common sense is not common and our efforts will take a long time to overcome the inertia that exists.
    Thanks for all that you do.

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