Featured Post

Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Friday, April 19, 2024

Ask and ye shall be given

 Nearly two weeks ago, when I concluded a post that referred to George Orwell and Animal Farm by wondering whether a parallel satire might be written about the present day, my old friend and college classmate the critic George Scialabba pointed me towards Lionel Shriver's new novel, Mania.  The library quickly coughed it up, and I read it pretty quickly.   It was the first of Shriver's many books that I had read.  This post will inevitably contain some spoilers but I will leave plenty of suspense for future reasons.  Mania isn't going to sell like Animal Farm did, but it is in my opinion a very telling satire--and so far the msm's reaction to the book is rather revealing as well.

I must say that while I liked the book, I was not bowled over by Shriver's writing.  She can be very funny, but she takes her time about everything.  The book runs to nearly 300 pages and I think 200 might have done the job just as well. Animal Farm has only 144 pages.  The book is an alternative history of the first quarter of the 21st century, written in the first person by a non-tenured literature professor at a mythical Pennsylvania university named Pearson Converse.  (I'd love to believe that "Pearson" is an homage to the great muckraker Drew Pearson, but I'd be surprised as well as delighted to find that Shriver knows anything about him.)   She has a partner, three children, and a lifelong "best friend" who figure very prominently in the narrative.  Raised as a Jehovah's witness, she became a hopeless contrarian, and therefore could not surrender to the ideological fad that swept the country (in the novel) in the early years of the century:  the Mental Parity movement, closely associated with the idea of Cognitive Equality.   Described by its mythical founder as "the last frontier of civil rights," the movement holds that no one is really more intelligent than anyone else, and that the illusion that some people are smarter is just a pretext for the oppression of the many by the elite few.  This has led to very significant changes in language, education, politics, and even in medical care, and has had severe consequences for the protagonist and her entire family, including her two brightest children.  Meanwhiles, her best friend, a television reporter, achieves new fame and fortune by climbing on the bandwagon.

Mania has already received mostly unfavorable reviews from Maureen Corrigan in the Washington Post, Anthony Cummins in The Guardian, Laura Miller New York Times.  While they recognized "cognitive equality" as a new form of wokeness, none of them seemed to share my view that it is an obvious stand-in for anti-racism, extreme feminism, and agitation for transgender rights.  More importantly, they did not acknowledge that those very real movements--along with a general decline in our educational system--have had exactly the same consequences in real life as cognitive equality does in the book.  That will be my topic today.

To begin with, the idea of cognitive equality, seasoned with the moral absolutism with which we have become so familiar, has in the world of Mania led to major changes in the English language.  Words like "stupid," "intelligent," "sharp," "profound," "idiot," "genius," and so on now represent thoughtcrime, and cannot be used in any context, as for instance to describe a sharp knife.  This has happened in our time.  Because slave owners described themselves as masters, the faculty heads of Harvard residential houses are no longer called masters--even though that title has a long academic history here and in Britain that had nothing whatever to do with slavery.  "People who can become pregnant" is now preferred in many quarters to "women" in deference to transgender ideology.  "Slave" has been replaced by "enslaved person," and "slave owner" by "enslaver," even though very few American slaveowners ever turned a free person into a slave.  Here, obviously, I could go on and on, but I don't really think I need to.

In other many other instances, however, I don't need to resort to parallelisms, because developments in the fantasy world of Mania and the one I've been living in for decades are identical.  "I'm supposed to stop focusing on traditionally towering figures of history. John Locke, Adam Smith, Rousseau. . .The point is, in my courses, I'm now meant to celebrate all the historical figures we've customarily overlooked."  That has been the watchword of the American historical profession for 40 or 50 years, and explains why, as Fareed Zakaria recently remarked, a white male who wrote about presidents would have no chance of getting tenure at most universities today.  And Locke, Smith and Rousseau are completely unfashionable, not because they were very smart, but simply because they were straight white males.  On another page, Pearson (the narrator) complains that the AP courses that her son would normally be taking have now been abolished.  School districts in California and in Cambridge, Massachusetts have dropped Algebra I for eighth graders, which allows students to take calculus as high school seniors, because so few black and Hispanic students found their way into it.  (Cambridge has recently reversed that decision.)  When Pearson insists to her friend Emory that "it's a fact," "not an idea," that some people are smarter than others, Emory replies, "According to you."  Postmodernism abandoned the concept of objective fact decades ago.  

And sadly, the thought police we encounter in Mania have real-world equivalents as well.  Pearson has to undergo some re-education on her job after she tries to assign The Idiot to her literature class, because the word is, of course, forbidden, and a few orthodox students turn her in to the dean.  Something very similar has happened to a tenured professor whom I know, who had to give up a very popular course in which he had stepped over linguistic boundaries (in a quotation) for a year.  She also gets visits from Child Protective Services who worry that she is steeping her own kids in false ideology.  In real life, parents in several states have lost custody of children after they refused to accept the child's desire to transition to a different gender.  

And last but  hardly least, the nomination, election, and now very possible re-election of Donald Trump proves that an obvious lack of intellectual distinction is no bar to highest office, and may even appeal to a significant number of voters.  That reflects the anti-intellectualism of the right, but the changes in the humanities that have favored ideology over creativity and judgment reflect an at least equally powerful anti-intellectualism on the left.  At one point in the book, Converse also notes that MacArthur genius grants are now being given to people of no intellectual distinction.  That too as happened with respect to Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Ibram X. Kendi, none of whose writings, in my opinion, display exceptional intellectual ability.  It is even more interesting to compare the list of the first crop of MacArthur Fellows, selected in 1981, to the group selected in 2023.  

There is another critical aspect to our own crisis today that Shriver's work leaves out.  We still have very smart people who get very good educations--but what do they do with their lives?  A very large number of them reach the top positions in finance and industry--and there, because of another set of intellectual and legal changes, they focus all their brains and their energy on short-term economic gain.  That is why Boeing, for instance, can evidently no longer be trusted to build safe airplanes, and why our health care system is more and more corrupted by the profit motive.  That, however, is clearly a matter for another book.

I have been fascinated by greatness in a number of different fields all my life.  In 2017 I published Baseball Greatness, which used statistical analysis to identify the greatest baseball players of all time.  About 19,000 men had played major league baseball at that time--and many times that number had tried and failed to make the majors.  But out of those, my methods identified about 100 of them--less than one-half of one percent--who were demonstrably far superior to all the rest.  I see no reason to doubt that a similar percentage of individuals in any complex field of endeavor are capable of extraordinary achievements, but our whole society has indeed rebelled against that idea. This vast social change has happened much more slowly than the revolution in Animal Farm, but it may have equally fateful consequences. 


Energyflow said...

Perhaps it has to do with mechanization of first mechanical work and now of mental work. In diet circles radicals say that before agricultural humans were carnivores, berry eaters, like wild bears. You could make a similar case that at least since agriculture we are drudges, as in 6 day work week, sweat of our brow. Decadence in Rome of the few was built on mass slaveholding. In modern life we have luxuries that pharoahs and caesars would not have dreamed of without guilt of slaveholding. Through the direct application of effort to mechanical and mental work one learns technique which improves over time. Natural talent, desire appears as genius or similar. Without the necessity to exert energy, due to general automation in every possible area, excellence becomes superfluous as noone must excel. I recall a question of a young man to a holy man. " Why must people suffer?". To which he answered " suffering is the path". I once did a blog entry where I considered all modern life as a big mistake. One conceives first of vaccines, hygiene, nutrition 200 years ago or more and of life extension techniques, etc. Slowly our suffering of early childhood deaths, mother deaths at birth and death by infectious diseases, starvation became rare. Soon we have 10x population, then lazy, bored, " entertain us" (smells like teen spirit). This is the civilizational cycle. Rome used wood of ample forests, slave labor while we used fossil fuels and engines, computers, chemistry. We and they lucked upon an ample supply. Early Amerivcans rapidly diminished forests as well. Once a culture puts no value on effort, excellence then it rootens, decays and lives for pleasure. Other cultures take the lead and replace them. Leftwing lead areas in the USA are ideologically leading us into severe competitive decline. My Mother was raised in Oxford, England and although well read, highly intelligent, singlechild, uppper middle class, put out little physical effort, whereas my Father of the poorest Irish breed, from a big city slum in Montreal, large catholic family, was very hard working, religious, took care of his finances, had only read little. I saw in the closest of circles civilizational decline and rise. I see it in myself and my children. Luck, good or bad, how easy does life treat us and what we are willing to put in determines outcome. Of course genes, luck, upbringing all play a part. Perhaps karma as well. Sometimes a very bad example motivates as much as a good one. America has ridden a wave of success since 1945 and has little longterm perspective, struggle. A good economic collapse, civil war or similar could be a good object lesson.

noribori said...

> While they recognized "cognitive equality" as a new form of wokeness, none of them seemed to share my view that it is an obvious stand-in for anti-racism, extreme feminism, and agitation for transgender rights.

Is it an obvious stand-in? The debate about equaltity seems so old, from twin research to IQ debates, from Atlas Shrugged to Pixar’s The Incredibles. I just can’t see "cognitive equality" as something people would agree on. It’s rather something that a lot of people can agree to disagree on.

> as Fareed Zakaria recently remarked, a white male who wrote about presidents would have no chance of getting tenure at most universities today.  And Locke, Smith and Rousseau are completely unfashionable, not because they were very smart, but simply because they were straight white males. 

Isn’t "equality" rather misleading, because the "wokeness" you are complaining about is creating unequal treatment? In the name of justice, not in the name of equality, a new injustice is considered justified. That's why I consider "equality" to be a blunt sword for a satire about "wokeness".

Unlike in Orwell's satire, the twisted "woke language" has no manipulative function. It is not meant to dumb people down. Rather, the twistedness is actually the core of an ideology according to which the periphery of society is to become its centre. The last shall be the first, and the first last. If I want to criticise that, I prefer to consult Nietzsche.

(And perhaps "wokeness" is nothing other than the ghost of Christianity, which is neither alive nor dead and is up to mischief in the hidden depths of our material world.)