Wisdom is wasted on the old

Something about the Brexit vote is still nagging at me. I’m honestly not sure why I care – well, aside from the fact that we’re probably watching the opening act for the next generation of racism. I’m not particularly well-informed as to the dynamics of the situation, and the actual consequences of it are likely to be fairly boring after the government jostles and slumps its way into a comfortable position. It’s easy enough to conclude that 52% of any population are uninformed idiots, but this feels like more than just a bad decision. Something about it feels wrong.

The most notable aspect of the voting demographics is the age gap. 73% of 18-to-24-year-olds voted Remain; 60% of those 65 or older voted Leave. The conventional wisdom is that people get more conservative as they get older, but that doesn’t apply here. The conservative choice was Remain; if old people are set in their ways and want to keep things the way they are, that’s how they should have voted. Leaving is precisely the sort of dramatic change that’s considered characteristic of naive young people who want to shake things up.

So what we’re actually looking at here is a values split, and the obvious interpretation is that old people are racist. This is statistically accurate, but it’s a fact that’s never really given its due. We frame racism as a matter of ignorance: racist people supposedly don’t know that there aren’t really major behavioral differences between people of different races. But this is exactly the sort of opinion that should be overcome by the wisdom of experience. The science isn’t difficult to understand, and the topic has been discussed to death; surely anyone who’s been alive for 60 damn years has had enough time to figure this out.

Furthermore, the longer you’ve been alive, the more opportunity you’ve had to be shaken out of your preconceptions by formative experiences. In America, anyone who is in the vicinity of 70 years old today was a young adult during the civil rights movement. As the story goes, this was when Martin Luther King, Jr. calmly and patiently explained to white America that they shouldn’t judge people based on their skin color, so the people who were just becoming politically aware at the time should have internalized this lesson very deeply. Indeed, seeing as today’s young people have not yet experienced a major anti-racist movement, they ought to be the uninformed ones; the demographic situation should be the exact opposite of what it actually is.

From what I understand, British history hasn’t followed the same pattern. Immigration has come up as a big issue only recently, so it seems that even old people have the excuse of inexperience. But then, the same is true of young people, so why the age gap? Again, shouldn’t the situation be the opposite? Shouldn’t young people be reacting naively to immediate events, while old people are able to fit things into a well-developed political framework? The gap, then, must be one of values: regardless of how well-informed anyone is, old people believe in racism and young people don’t (as much). But this is a deeply unfortunate conclusion; it can only mean that values are completely separate from knowledge and experience. If we can’t educate people out of racism, if values fundamentally don’t accord with the truth, then what hope do we have of ever getting this right – of ever getting anything right?

That story about the civil rights movement is indeed the bad kind of myth. What actually happened was that successful political organization resulted in laws and structural changes that made society function in a less racist manner, without changing most people’s minds about it. The result was that subsequent generations were raised under less racist conditions. For example, they were more likely to have childhood friends of different races, interracial relationships were not illegal, and increased financial and educational opportunities meant that adults ended up with more diverse peer groups. The effect was not that anyone’s mind was changed at the time, but rather that a new, less racist generation was created while previous generations stayed the same. The reason people in general are now “less racist” is simply that more racist people have died and less racist people have been born.

(Just so we’re clear, I’m not saying that no one ever changes their values based on experience, just that the effect is dramatically less significant than it’s commonly portrayed to be. Two people can have exactly the same experience and draw opposite moral conclusions from it. Also, I’m not claiming that young people aren’t racist, just that the age gap isn’t merely aesthetic, that it does have some amount of substance behind it.)

This, in fact, is the actual engine of progress: old people fail to indoctrinate the next generation with their ideals, and then they die. The great democratic drama where everyone comes to a rational consensus through reasoned debate is worse than a fantasy; it’s close to being a malicious lie. In the end, the only way to get rid of harmful ideals is to kill the people who believe in them. Right now we’re, uh, fortunate enough to have time taking care of this for us, but if the utopians ever live up to their bluster and do something about death, this would become an immediate issue. Even without resource consumption being a factor, there are certain sets of ideals which simply cannot coexist. We would not be able to avoid choosing who lives and who dies.

Actually . . . this issue isn’t particularly theoretical. There exist people right now who are enforcing ideals that prevent other people from living their lives. If they can be argued out of it, super. If not, well. There are times when moral behavior is not merely desirable, but imperative.

Even with that aside, though, there are still some unsettling political implications here. To be blunt, what the hell are we doing letting old people vote? I mean, it’s sort of a common joke that old people are big voters, but this isn’t just some wacky coincidence. Electoral results are being decided by the people least qualified to be deciding them. To be even blunter, old people aren’t going to get to live in the future, so why do they have any right to decide what it’s going to look like? Given that the Brexit vote was close and the actual implementation is going to be a multi-year bureaucratic process, it’s entirely possible that the vote was decided by people who won’t live to see any of its effects.

There’s a magnificent scene in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner where, after the boyfriend’s father tries to push him around by going on about how hard he worked and how much he sacrificed to raise him, the boyfriend finally snaps and informs his father that he doesn’t owe him shit, that everything he did for his son was merely the fulfillment of his basic responsibilities, and that he and his entire generation has the further responsibility to die and to let the next generation get on with their lives, with the “dead weight” of the past finally off their backs. (Yeah, I’m not doing this justice. Click the link.) While I don’t hold any particular antipathy towards previous generations, I was deeply struck by this scene, as it was the first time I’d encountered the idea that it is parents who owe their children deference, that part of the wisdom of age ought to be the wisdom to know when something is not your decision to make. If we’re talking about fixing democracy, this might, paradoxically, be a good place to start: don’t let people stick their noses into things that are none of their fucking business.

And yet, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Old people are supposed to have precisely this wisdom; they should be the ones telling us this stuff. America is on the low end, but pretty much every culture has at least some notion of respecting the accumulated lifetime knowledge and highly-developed judgment of the elderly. And yet our current model for old people is basically Grandpa Simpson piecing history together from sugar packets. So, like, what happened?

Presumably, the concept of the “elder” came about because old people used to actually know shit, and, when considering simpler forms of social arrangement than what we’re currently used to, this makes intuitive sense. People used to have to survive in smaller units under particular environmental conditions; people who had done so for a long time would naturally have better knowledge about what worked and what didn’t. But today, for those of us comfortable enough to spend our time writing speculative blog posts, survival has stopped being an issue, replaced by prosperity. And the way you become prosperous in a society like this is by finding a functional niche and filling it, by becoming an effective cog in the machine. Hence, the comfortably retired are those who have spent their lives avoiding moral problems and focusing on a single, narrowly-defined task, which is the exact opposite of the conditions required for the development of wisdom. When we talk about old people being “set in their ways,” then, we are talking not about a natural phenomenon but about a constructed dynamic. And we are talking not about a simple status quo preference, for conditions such as staying in the EU, but about traditional values, such as supporting racism.

I don’t know if there’s anything “to be done” about this, exactly, but I do think this means we need to keep our guard up. There’s a real threat here: the future must not be sacrificed to the past. This may be a bit melodramatic, but I really am reminded of the story of Abraham and Isaac. It’s a rather important story, since it asks something that is very close to being the only question that matters: if god commands you to kill your son, do you do it or not? That’s basically most of morality right there. The original story, though, pulls its punch, which is rather unbecoming for a story about the mystical profoundness of faith. The fact that Jehovah doesn’t actually want Isaac to die means there’s no moral conflict; the only problem is that Abraham guessed wrong about his god’s will. And even that doesn’t get the story anywhere, because to believe there was a real decision being made here, you’d have to believe that Abraham would be punished for “disobeying,” meaning he would be punished for making the choice that Jehovah agrees to be morally correct. So the story as it is is incoherent. Faith isn’t merely about obedience, it’s about loyalty to the truth that lies behind individual acts.

There are two possible ways to fix the story such that it actually makes a substantive moral statement. In one, Abraham disobeys Jehovah, saves Isaac, and is punished for his transgression. He bears the burden of his decision for the remainder of his life, but he believes without question that he did the right thing, that his god would never truly command a child sacrifice, that he acted in accordance with the true will of the divine. He dies in agony, unforgiven, with only the implicit comfort of having protected his family, of knowing in the deepest part of himself that, god or no, he did the right thing.

In the other, Abraham kills Isaac, Jehovah declares him to be truly faithful, and everyone lives happily ever after. The end.

Nature isn’t magic, it’s just a mystery to us

I went to see case/lang/veirs last week, basically just out of loyalty to one particular part of that equation (go on, guess). It was a solid show, especially for being the second time they’d ever performed. The differences in their vocal styles filled out the songs really well without feeling superfluous. Also someone threw a bra onto the stage. They surprised me by doing “Man,” which is a little harder than I thought they were going. The band really nailed it, though, and that song has some extra significance coming from a collaboration of women.

They also covered “People Have the Power,” which definitely has some extra significance re: recent events. It’s not like the best Patti Smith song or anything, but it has its merits. The more I thought about it, though, the more I felt like this whole understanding of progress being a matter of “the people” standing up for themselves is getting to be rather behind the times. What we’ve been seeing recently is actually the opposite: successful populist movements are the ones fucking everything up. The people really do have the power, and that’s the problem. Sure enough, I was awakened the next morning by a text message from my sister, informing me that a populist movement in Britain had voted in favor of racist nationalism.

The standard evasion here is that things like this happen when “uninformed” people are “mislead” by “demagogues,” which isn’t exactly wrong, but it’s pretty facile to pretend like this is a real explanation. It’s actually the bad kind of conspiracy theory: an explanation so totalizing that it doesn’t explain anything. All bad decisions are made by evil shadowy elites; all good decisions are made by virtuous ordinary people. This puts you in the anti-analytical and very convenient position where the things you support are the things the people really want, while people who vote for things you don’t want are “voting against their own interests.” The irony, of course, is that this ends up becoming a populist argument for elitism: the people can’t be trusted to make good decisions on their own, so they need the right kind of people as their leaders.

(Sanders fans have been fucking up pretty badly on this front by refusing to accept the fact that their candidate lost in a fair fight. I really don’t think anyone was “mislead” into thinking that Clinton was more liberal than Sanders was.)

The Brexit decision is a pretty clear demonstration of the problem. It’s an instance of the people throwing off shackles that were placed on them by the elites for the purpose of global economic management, but the actual motivation for it was a confused mix of biases and half-baked theories, and the only reason it was even at issue in the first place was because of politicking, resulting in an unnecessary decision that almost everyone agrees will ultimately be harmful if not catastrophic. I mean, it’s kind of obvious that people don’t generally know what they’re doing, but this isn’t a fucking Dilbert comic, it’s a real political problem. Almost everyone takes it as an article of faith that “the people” are the only valid source of moral justification, and I think we have to confront the fact that this probably isn’t true.

Pro-Brexit voters had a number of different motivations. The most obvious was racism via anti-immigrant sentiment, but there were also leftists who supported it as a blow against neoliberalism, and there were even people who didn’t actually understand that they were voting for a real-world action to take place. So the question is: why does this slight majority composed of conflicting and nonsensical motivations have any moral significance? What is the actual justification for the claim that society should do whatever 50.1% of the population thinks it should? There’s nothing magic about a majority. In America, amending the constitution requires 2/3rds support, because it’s “more serious” or whatever, but there’s nothing magical about that number either; it’s exactly as arbitrary as 50.1%. And everyone actually knows this: the filibuster is an American tradition that is respected because it is blatantly anti-democratic; it prevents an issue from being decided by a straight up-or-down vote. That is, it’s respected when it’s our side doing it. We’re fine with claiming moral authority when 50.1% of the population is on our side, and we’re just as comfortable claiming it when we’re the virtuous underdogs battling an ignorant majority.

Gay marriage was opposed by a majority of people until it wasn’t; the answer to the moral question didn’t change over that period of time. When the great state of California voted to ban gay marriage, it was widely regarded as a perversion of the democratic process. At the same time, polls showing majority support for gay marriage were leveraged as an argument in its favor. So, like, which is it? Do the people rule or not? Scalia’s buffoonish Obergefell dissent raised the objection that nine people who had followed one particular path of elite development were deciding the issue for the entire country. Obviously, this was hypocritical as fuck: Scalia wouldn’t have been whining about the tyrannical power of the court if it were on his side. But that’s just it: the only reason we got gay marriage is that the court happened to have the right composition at the right time. In fact, what happened was considerably worse than that. The actual direct cause of the Obergefell decision was that one fickle mushhead wanted to go down in history as having written a big important civil rights decision, and this is actually what everyone had expected all along. After learning about Brown v. Board in history class, we all assume that the Supreme Court will take care of civil rights issues for us, overruling the annoying prejudices of the unenlightened populace. But Scalia was inadvertently much more correct than he knew: court decisions are ultimately as arbitrary as anything else, and no one really cares. When the elites are on our side, they’re representing the will of the people; when they aren’t, they’re Machiavellian schemers.

(Extra credit pro tip: Brown is a terrible example of justice-via-judiciary, because it didn’t work. Schools are still segregated.)

The “people vs. elites” framework omits at least one important part of the scenario, which is expertise. Lumping rulers and experts together as “elites” is a significant analytical failure; there’s huge difference between people who happen to hold power and people who actually know what they’re doing. Unlike rulers, experts actually matter and are necessary. It’s not possible for anyone to know enough to make an informed decision on every issue. And something like Brexit is complicated enough that its consequences are not really understandable by ordinary people, so even in a “real” democracy, there’s no reason to expect that people would be able to figure it out. Of course, the real killer example here is global warming. The expert consensus is quite clear, and it is largely being ignored by the ruling class because it has inconvenient implications (i.e. capitalism sucks). But pawning this off as a problem of the “elites” is too easy, because the rest of us aren’t actually doing our job either. Even now, with the projections widely known and the effects beginning to be felt, people aren’t going to give up their cars and their lawns and their two-day shipping. We know for a fact that a majority of people just doing what seems right can literally destroy humanity. I shudder to imagine the results of a world referendum on global warming.

But simply putting the experts in charge, a theoretical arrangement which is commonly referred to as “meritocracy” or “technocracy,” is less of a solution than it is an evasion of the problem. Experts can, ideally, be trusted on knowledge, but not on values. In fact, the very process of attaining expertise accrues bias. This is most obvious in the case of economists. Expert economists are experts in the operation of the current economic system, capitalism, and are therefore necessarily only going to be interested in working within that system, making their abilities useless to anyone opposed to it for moral reasons. They can warn you about all the terrible economic consequences, but a vote against Brexit is still a vote in favor of neoliberalism, even if it is better than the alternative.

So the idea is supposed to be that these problems are balanced out by a separation of roles. The people express their values, which are then administered by the rulers, with the experts informing them as to the best way to get it done. But all three of these roles are based on fallacies. The part that everyone knows is that rulers are not disinterested administrators, they’re rulers; their goal is to increase their own power; their relationship to the people is purely rhetorical. The technocrats’ blind spot is that fact that expert knowledge is not neutral; all knowledge is contingent on ideology. Expert recommendations are not simply pearls of wisdom to be taken or left; they are formed with embedded assumptions and motivations. And finally, the real problem: “the people” aren’t any better at morality than any other idealized grouping. Racism is currently undergoing a renaissance as a populist phenomenon that the elites are actually trying to resist. Of course, the elites aren’t actually on the right side here; they’re still trying to maintain white supremacy. But their current goal is to promote inclusiveness as a bulwark against systemic change, and that’s a damn sight better than mass deportations and refugee crises.

Back at the show, they also did “Margaret vs. Pauline,” which k.d. lang introduced as the song that made her fall in love with Neko Case. Which is understandable; it’s a probing and deeply sympathetic piece of work. It’s a song about privilege: about the invisible lines that divide the lives of otherwise similar people. Two girls ride the Blue Line and walk down the same street, but one of them leaves her sweater on the bus while the other loses three fingers at the cannery. But it’s important to avoid the trap of romanticizing oppression; losing those fingers does not impart any particular political wisdom. Those invisible lines are as arbitrary as they are vicious; the horror is not simply that some people are fated to live under the gun, but that their suffering is meaningless. The real conclusion, then, is that nobody has a privileged epistemic position on anything; each person is merely an idiosyncratic mess of random experiences and pointless prejudices; there is no such thing as “the people.” Obviously, the phrase is primarily a rhetorical device, but if this is true in a substantive sense, then popular consensus is a phantom, and the concept of democracy loses its meaning. Putting things to a popular vote does not result in a consensus opinion, it results in an arbitrary decision chaotically determined by a writhing mass of misinformation and prejudices. It’s literally worse than nothing.

I may be a conceited motherfucker, but I’m not quite arrogant enough to pretend like I have a real answer here. But there’s a line from “People Have the Power” that struck me: the idea that remaking society involves “redeeming the work of fools.” This conception of the ruling class as “fools” cuts against the usual narrative, whereby rulers are hypercompetent master-planners whose problem is that they’re “corrupt.” In fact, rulers are mostly just a particular type of nerd, ambitious but otherwise boring, and for the most part they really do think they’re making the world a better place. The catch is that being embedded in systems of power has a severe distorting effect; what looks good from the inside tends to look pretty fucked up from anywhere else. Their foolishness lies in their inability to understand their own perspectives as limited. Meanwhile, the myth of “the people” is that true goodness lies in the decency of reg’lar folk with no particular hopes or dreams. In fact, the opposite is true: ignorance and myopia are not conducive towards morality; the people we respect from history are the ones who went against the common sentiments of their times.

I really hate to say this, but rich fucks are people, too. They aren’t actually a different species; they are vicious lizards, but so are the rest of us. The structures of oppression were not created by anything outside of humanity; we did it all by ourselves. They’re in our blood. Specifically, oppression is naturally occurring, it’s how people organize themselves by default. Most people will vote in favor of a society that doesn’t work for most people. Fixing this is not as easy as getting rid of the bad influences and going back to the good old days when everything was fine. There were never any good old days; justice is an undiscovered country. A just society will be something new, something that we have to invent, and then build, using the tools we have available right now.

Which brings us to the corresponding ideal of “redemption.” Despite its many, many crimes, our society has created a lot of things which are important to people. Things like amphitheaters where people can see music they care about and transportation systems that can take them there. It’s no good to aim for some kind of ideal revolution while ignoring what makes the world worthwhile in the first place. This is addressed in a couple of the new case/lang/veirs songs. “Down” points out that there’s beauty even in something as banal as driving down the highway. Indeed, there has to be: if the basic experience of day-to-day existence isn’t worth it, then nothing is worth anything; ideals can only exist as instantiated in mundane reality. But this does not license us to ignore the larger issues. “I Want To Be Here” addresses the bifurcation between the things we care about and the practical operation of society, asserting that the grind cannot quell the flame: “surely they can’t ruin everything.” This is true in general, but not in specifics: economics really does kill people; every day is the end of the world for someone. “Being here” may be what we’re truly aiming for, but if just being here were enough, we wouldn’t have to fight.

So the things we care about have to be preserved, but more than that, they have to be redeemed. A concert stage can also be used to distract people, to placate with cheap escapism, or to sell shit, and we really shouldn’t be allowing any of that to happen. But it’s not as easy as just doing the right thing, because we’re in a situation where things have already been organized incorrectly. The right motivations acting within the wrong structure can be just as harmful as explicit evil. We have to maintain the content of society while changing the structure to point in the direction of right things rather than wrong things.

Again, you tell me how this is actually going to work. There shouldn’t be anything impossible about synthesizing expertise and populism while eliminating the ruling class, but relying on “the people” isn’t going to get us there.