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August 16, 2011 1:23 PM   Subscribe

The Elusive Big Idea "It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy. While we continue to make giant technological advances, we may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock — to have gone backward intellectually from advanced modes of thinking into old modes of belief."
posted by bitmage (92 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
But it is most unfortunate if the prophet is no longer even killed; if the world has become so mired in education and evil-mindedness as not to notice the prophet at all and to kill him with silence!--Constantin Brunner
posted by No Robots at 1:31 PM on August 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


We have become information narcissists, so uninterested in anything outside ourselves and our friendship circles or in any tidbit we cannot share with those friends that if a Marx or a Nietzsche were suddenly to appear, blasting his ideas, no one would pay the slightest attention, certainly not the general media, which have learned to service our narcissism.

Ah, yes, that's right, I remember those magic golden years when street urchins walked around with dog-eared copies of On the Genealogy of Morality in their back pocket and William Randolph Hearst made sure that A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy was serialized in his papers.

Screw this article. It's the intellectual snob's version of nostaglia for the Leave It To Beaver days that never were.
posted by griphus at 1:31 PM on August 16, 2011 [36 favorites]


The ideas are definitely still here, being generated. The books where one would find those ideas, however, are no longer open on the coffee table of the common man. They sit, unsold and forlorn on the B&N bargain table.
posted by Slackermagee at 1:31 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


If I didn't have any better ideas, I would think that this is some kind of roundabout insult by the NYT to The Atlantic.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 1:32 PM on August 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


Steven Pinker... Richard Dawkins... Jonathan Haidt... A generation ago, these men would have made their way into popular magazines and onto television screens.

Is that really true? They would have received more attention in popular culture than they currently do?
posted by the jam at 1:32 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I bet the next Big Idea to emerge will be in the field of lawn evacuation.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:33 PM on August 16, 2011 [35 favorites]


The author of“Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.” Other than an anthropomorphic mouse what original idea did Disney ever come up with?

We have become information narcissists, so uninterested in anything outside ourselves and our friendship circles or in any tidbit we cannot share with those friends that if a Marx or a Nietzsche were suddenly to appear, blasting his ideas, no one would pay the slightest attention, certainly not the general media, which have learned to service our narcissism. FUCK YOU.
posted by pianomover at 1:35 PM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


When was there a generation that valued ideas the way he's talking about?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:38 PM on August 16, 2011


yes i am pretty sure he was talking specifically about you pianomove
posted by entropicamericana at 1:38 PM on August 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


I think it's pretty clear that, while knowledge and ideas are still being generated at an unprecedented rate, public discourse has deteriorated significantly in the last 30 years - especially in what passes for news media these days. Compare a 1970s newscast to one today and see which one you find more informative.

My personal opinion is that people aren't necessarily more ignorant than they were in the past, but they're FAR more likely to feel the need to express their opinions in a strident way to others nowadays.
posted by speedgraphic at 1:41 PM on August 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


Screw this article. It's the intellectual snob's version of nostaglia for the Leave It To Beaver days that never were.

I don't know. I recognize there's always been yellow journalism and that high literacy rates of any kind (much less in some kind of lettered canon) are a recent phenomenon.

But sometimes when I cast back towards the early/mid twentieth century, it seems to me that there might have been a short period of time when the written word was the mass media, and even if there were equally ignorant or disingenuous players, the playing field itself was more germane to intellect.
posted by weston at 1:42 PM on August 16, 2011


Before I RTFA, I'll admit, based on the reading of the FPP and the comments so far - that I am sympathetic to the view that we may be regressing intellectually. I like to wring my intellectual hands, "woe is us"!

But I think that it's possible, likely even, that it's not so much that we are regressing intellectually in fact, as so much in perception. For example, the numbers of self identified atheists are up, and these aren't people who believe in witchcraft - atheism is tied to rational thought. The perception that we are regressing intellectually is based on the widespread media promulgated "conflict" between Group A and Group B. Group A is rational, Group B is not. They get equal airtime, or Group B gets more airtime, because face it, rationalism is like eating your veggies - neither sexy, media friendly, or particularly fun. The media friendly crazies are out there spewing bullshit, the media lap it up and regurgitate it to us in a vile pablum of predigested fecal faux ideology.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Michelle Bachmann. Our next President.
posted by Xoebe at 1:43 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


The fundamental issue is this: Sure, Marx was smart. But to the average American, what good does it do you to have read him, much less understood him? Understanding Marx's view of capitalism is as useful as understanding Einstein's view of physics: fascinating, but you can't change a thing and it ain't going to put bread on the table.
posted by GuyZero at 1:44 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Can I use this thread to rant for a moment about something that has always made me see red?

OK here goes, and I noticed this a lot more growing up in the midwest but something about the following phrase, delivered sarcastically or not....

"You sure do seem to know alot about _____________"

...delivered with an accusatory slant from the person saying it always made me want to throttle the hell out of the person saying it.

Sure, its a very minor piece of the puzzle, but I think it's telling in a way. People are suspicious of people knowing things, for some reason. It smacks of Bill Hicks and the waitress asking him "whatchoo readin' for?"

OK end rant. That felt good and I thank you for indulging me.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 1:44 PM on August 16, 2011 [18 favorites]


Is that really true? They would have received more attention in popular culture than they currently do?

Is there a modern-day equivalent of, say, Marhsall McLuhan who the general populace knows of and name-drops?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:44 PM on August 16, 2011


Other than an anthropomorphic mouse what original idea did Disney ever come up with?

Actually Ub Iwerks created Mickey Mouse, so not even that. Disney, more or less, invented the modern theme park.
posted by doctor_negative at 1:45 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


What's all this crap about? I still get Reader's Digest delivered to my mailbox and so I am up on just about everything worth knowing. I keep up.
posted by Postroad at 1:45 PM on August 16, 2011 [11 favorites]


Is there a modern-day equivalent of, say, Marhsall McLuhan who the general populace knows of and name-drops?

Maybe, but they still know nothing of his work.
posted by griphus at 1:45 PM on August 16, 2011 [8 favorites]


Arthur Conan Doyle believed in fairies and he was an educated man, not some kind of steam-punk juggalo.
posted by bonobothegreat at 1:48 PM on August 16, 2011 [13 favorites]


“the end of ideology,” “the medium is the message,” “the feminine mystique,” “the Big Bang theory,” “the end of history”

Big bang theory aside, I'm going to say that these are not "big ideas," so much as they are "easily summarized generalizations."

I'm sorry recent ideas haven't been big enough for you, Mr. Gabler. I guess it is a shame that academia has been tending toward greater specificity and basis in fact (sorry, "information"), rather than wild pontification that's expressed in declarative soundbites.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 1:49 PM on August 16, 2011 [10 favorites]


Name one.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:49 PM on August 16, 2011


the average American

There's yer problem right there. Where are the unaverage Americans? What's that? Buried under a sea of enforced egalité? Oh. Okay.
posted by No Robots at 1:49 PM on August 16, 2011


OK end rant. That felt good and I thank you for indulging me.

Feel all better now, college boy?
posted by hal9k at 1:49 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Feel all better now, college boy?

I'm just as God made me, you mountebank.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 1:51 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Name one.

I was being allusive.
posted by griphus at 1:53 PM on August 16, 2011


I'm pretty sure Hicks made that whole story up.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 1:54 PM on August 16, 2011


Ah, yes, that's right, I remember those magic golden years when street urchins walked around with dog-eared copies of On the Genealogy of Morality in their back pocket

"Nietzsche was much discussed and read, and statements about the present state of affairs and poems by Herr Hart were read aloud. For me, there seems to be too much vanity, long 'beatnik' hair, and too few corsets." -- Paula Modersohn-Becker, January 1901
posted by blucevalo at 1:55 PM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sure, Marx was smart. But to the average American, what good does it do you to have read him, much less understood him?

It really is necessary to know your Marx or Einstein (and/or everybody else in the relevant field) when trying to formulate an idea. It will help you leapfrog over all the well-known arguments and counterarguments and possibly contribute something new to the disucssion - shoulders of giants and all that.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:56 PM on August 16, 2011 [15 favorites]


I do (kind of) see the author's point: the current conservative moment in the US is very much an anti-intellectual rejection of modernity. This in itself is not unprecedented: entire civilizations (the closing of Shogunate Japan to the West for 300 years) to small societies (the Amish) have decided to reject the modern world. But it is always a compromised, and often hypocritical, rejection; conservatives want the rewards of science without being troubled by philosophical questions, long healthy lives without stem cell research, a stable society without the thorny issues of birth control.

In all cases, it's a rejection of the complex, and a desire for simple answers and solutions: I want x without having to think about consequences y and z. It's seductive, but it cannot last. Homeostasis never does: there is always the equivalent of Commodore Perry's Black Ships steaming ever closer, just over the horizon.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 1:57 PM on August 16, 2011 [26 favorites]


I think the author is referring to the thinking of, e.g., government officials, and when he refers to intellectual bankruptcy, and I think he has a damn good point. Snarkily observing that the average schmo 100 years ago wasn't necessarily conversant with the great ideas of the time doesn't refute that point.
posted by clockzero at 1:58 PM on August 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


It really is necessary to know your Marx or Einstein (and/or everybody else in the relevant field) when trying to formulate an idea.

I think the underlying point is that no one really cares about formulating a new idea. And if they re-invent old ideas then they get a small feeling of accomplishment because then they think they've done something new.
posted by GuyZero at 1:58 PM on August 16, 2011


"It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy. While we continue to make giant technological advances, we may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock — to have gone backward intellectually from advanced modes of thinking into old modes of belief."

I see we haven't killed the englightenment idea that "rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate" are somehow opposed to "faith, opinion and orthodoxy" or that those people who came before the enlightenment were backward and--shall we say--"unenlightened".

Those preenlightenment figures! How silly of them to think they engaged in debates, condemned superstition as a vice, wrote about logic, etc. etc.
posted by Jahaza at 1:59 PM on August 16, 2011 [9 favorites]


I see we haven't killed the englightenment idea that "rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate" are somehow opposed to "faith, opinion and orthodoxy"

You don't see evidence as being the opposite of faith? Or logical argument vs opinion?
posted by bitmage at 2:08 PM on August 16, 2011


... the current conservative moment in the US is very much an anti-intellectual rejection of modernity.

Are our public schools teaching and rewarding critical thinking skills these days?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:09 PM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


I see we haven't killed the englightenment idea that "rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate" are somehow opposed to "faith, opinion and orthodoxy"

Maybe someone like Michele Bachmann will be elected and eradicate it forever.
posted by fleetmouse at 2:10 PM on August 16, 2011


"Ayn Rand said it. I believe it. That settles it."
posted by Ardiril at 2:11 PM on August 16, 2011


"Steven Pinker... Richard Dawkins... Jonathan Haidt... A generation ago, these men would have made their way into popular magazines and onto television screens.

Is that really true? They would have received more attention in popular culture than they currently do?
"


Oh, absolutely!


In France.
posted by oddman at 2:12 PM on August 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


"It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy. While we continue to make giant technological advances, we may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock — to have gone backward intellectually from advanced modes of thinking into old modes of belief."


I don't think politics was ever especially rational and I think his argument is confused. We may not have "big ideas" with the sweep of Marx and Freud any more—but what we do have is a pretty good clue about where they went wrong and where they were right. We have elaborations of the way ideas fit together in complex, new ways. We know more than ever about what works and what doesn't medically and in terms of social policy—smart people today are as concerned with ideas as they ever were and combine them in amazingly fascinating ways. Sadly, those people are not in power or not wielding it effectively if they are.

It may be the case that science and social science big ideas have subsumed humanities big ideas and that cultural criticism without citation of any type of empirical evidence has lost its cachet. There is loss in that—but also gain in terms of the really woolly stuff that many people accepted without appropriate critical thought.

Intellectuals and scientists are not regressing intellectually, at least if my near-daily interviews with such people are any evidence of the thought that is occurring. Whether their power is more overwhelmed now than in the past by stupidity and ignorance has not been, um, empirically demonstrated by this article.
posted by Maias at 2:13 PM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Is there a modern-day equivalent of, say, Marhsall McLuhan who the general populace knows of and name-drops?

In the 1960's, did the general populace actually know Marshall McLuhan (before Annie Hall)? Did more people know Marshall McLuhan than Richard Dawkins? What about a match-up with Stephen Hawking?
posted by the jam at 2:15 PM on August 16, 2011


I'm not convinced things are quite as bleak as the article claims, but there's obviously some truth to it. The way MetaFilter reacts certainly seems symptomatic: someone says "We have been smarter, and we should be smarter again!" and the kneejerk reaction is to denounce them for being nostalgic about a nonexistent past. I doubt you've done the research, but even if it is true, so what? Why can't a mistaken notion of the past provide a useful guide to the future?

But no. We can't think about the future, because that is unrealistic and utopian; we can't think of the past because that is ahistorical and nostalgic. What are we allowed to think? Nothing at all. Anti-intellectualism is the favored indulgence of today's intellectuals.
posted by AlsoMike at 2:15 PM on August 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


Nonsense. There's plenty of interest in rational, scientific thought as well as the potential Next Big Idea. The key issue is that mass media has less interest than ever in publishing stuff like that, because it doesn't sell papers/ads/clicks anywhere near as well as potstirring bullshit.

This article, especially coming from the Times, is like the a preacher grousing to the choir about how infrequently the scientific method is discussed in church.
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:16 PM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Maybe we need a reality TV show featuring Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Jonathan Haidt doing stunts for prizes on a desert island...
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:21 PM on August 16, 2011


"Heave an egg out of a Pullman window, and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today." - H. L. Mencken, 1925
posted by Rat Spatula at 2:29 PM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


You don't see evidence as being the opposite of faith? Or logical argument vs opinion?

Uh, no? But that's really not my main point. My main point is that if we actually lived in some "post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally" then we wouldn't have this guy trumpeting the enlightenment idea of opposition amongst these things in the pages of the New York Times (the NY Times is mass culture, not elite remnant of enlightened people culture).
posted by Jahaza at 2:30 PM on August 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


"We have been smarter, and we should be smarter again!"

We have never been "smarter." We were just more ignorant about who "we" were. It's a lot harder to ignore the hoi polloi when they're the ones on TV shows instead of Gore Vidal and when the political rallies in the sticks aren't seen only by the people in the sticks.
posted by griphus at 2:30 PM on August 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


That was, almost word-for-word, a Lewis Lapham editorial from a mid-2000 Harper's Magazine. It just needed more allusions to Rome.
posted by benzenedream at 2:31 PM on August 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


Each generation is as wise as another. What changes is how the previous generations approached their problems. I see the result of short-term thinking in the US right now.
posted by mdoar at 2:39 PM on August 16, 2011


We had at one time those few people known as public intellectuals. Not everyone read them but many did. We seem no either no longer have them or have some who are a lot less than public because of the change in media over the years.
posted by Postroad at 2:42 PM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Preceded by the evolution of NBA logos, followed by some fake guy on twitter. Can Brawndo be far away?
posted by nzero at 2:44 PM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Maybe it's just because I've been reading it, but this seems like a strange reading of standard 70's era post-modern theory being trotted out as "THE DEATH OF ..." that's so popular with mass-market non-fiction of the Malcolm Gladwell type.

Looking at the author's summary on Wikipedia shows a pretty poor pedigree. You want to promote big thinking? Don't work for Fox News for six years, perhaps. Maybe glorifying the Disney empire isn't the best approach either.

His body of work seems especially ironic since he namedrops McLuhan in the article.

It sounds like this guy is trying to sell a forthcoming book using moral and technological panic, plus a general feeling of national-level failure.
posted by codacorolla at 2:46 PM on August 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


Maybe we need a reality TV show featuring Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Jonathan Haidt doing stunts for prizes on a desert island...

You're referring to the BBC's Rough Science

It ran for six years, and some of the episodes are amazing.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:50 PM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


we may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock — to have gone backward intellectually from advanced modes of thinking into old modes of belief."

Even if we accept that there are more and less "advanced" modes of thought (which I don't), this seems to suggest that history began in Europe in the 18th century. There's a lot of pre-Enlightenment history where older forms of belief wax and wane without a care for the idea of Progress.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 2:52 PM on August 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


What "Public"?

That's the whole damn problem with all of these articles and doomsayers is that they've abandoned the entire idea of participation within the mainstream or 'public', often to suit either their intellectual posturing or their inherent pessimism. I can't find the full Matthew Standler article, but basically "there is no pre-existing public...the public is created through deliberate, willful acts: the circulation of texts, discussions and gatherings in physical space, and the maintenance of a related digital commons. These construct a common space of conversation, a public space, which beckons a public into being."

Basically the whole idea of some monolithic Public Opinion or Über-Mainstream is the manufactured product of powerful, invested (more often then not, entrenched corporate/neo-aristocratic conservative) interests that use pure volume of publication and assertion to conjure a public that "can justify their own self-interests".

But the most important thing I ever drew from Stadler was this: "We feel lonely and powerless when we accept the myth of 'the main stream public.' When we accept that fiction we relinquish our ability to form our own collectivities and draw hope from them."

The reason I love Metafilter is that it is exactly what Stadler prescribes, a "circulation of texts, discussions and gatherings in physical space, and the maintenance of a related digital commons [that] construct a common space of conversation, a public space, which beckons a public into being". We're a public, and by participating in our public we are actively resisting this hegemonic* imposition of the illusion of capital-P Public or some sort of mainstream throughout the violent and chaotic confluence that is society. I'm sincerely sorry that Mr. Gabler hasn't feels lost and has acquiesced to Drudge and MSCNNBFox. I'm sorry he doesn't find stimulation at the Norman Lear Institute discussing Family Matters. I think if someone directed him here, he'd be quite happy. I hope.

His whole premise, that "Once upon a time, they [ideas] could ignite fires of debate, stimulate other thoughts, incite revolutions and fundamentally change the ways we look at and think about the world", seems to pretty much ignore....everything? I think a sample of FPPs from the last month would disprove that wholecloth, let alone a year. Off the top of my head, just to address that thesis shallowly: ignite fires of debate [civil liberties in the 21st century? Unipolar Power economics? The role of credit and financial actors?], stimulate other thoughts [medicinal uses for previous condemned drugs (mushrooms, x, weed] as a result of the War on Drugs, the structure and definition of 'family' in light of gay liberation and the divorce/marriage crisis, what we define as productive thinking and value both in the workplace and in life, in light of curricular changes in the Liberal Arts and K-12 education system] , incite revolutions [Arab Spring? Youth Protestors in London?] and fundamentally change the ways we look at and think about the world [social media, leaps in genetics and biotechnology].

Big ideas are not 'elusive', nor are the publics dimmer. One must just think a little, and be willing to open one's eyes.


*I really wish there was a better word to use here that was less bandied around and loaded, but this is an actual instance of genuine adjective hegemony
posted by Chipmazing at 2:53 PM on August 16, 2011 [16 favorites]


We had at one time those few people known as public intellectuals. Not everyone read them but many did. We seem no either no longer have them or have some who are a lot less than public because of the change in media over the years.

Black Swans, Freakonomics, The World is Flat (barf inducing, but still widely read), Guns Germs and Steel, Malcolm Gladwell's body of work... I could probably keep listing stuff, but you get the point.

If you're looking for new grand-narratives to explain away your problems, then they're still there, and still pretty widely read. Each one of those was a best seller at some point, and their authors still publish in the big mass-market "idea" magazines the Time, the Economist, and the NYT op-ed pages of the FPP.

I don't think there's anything intrinsically worthwhile about the definitive answers that the titular "big ideas" give us, especially in light of the big ideas that have lead us to the current economic and social state that we're in. Our's is a past littered with big ideas that've worked with varying degrees of success, and I'm sure there'll always be more to come, regardless of what this hack is trying to sell us.
posted by codacorolla at 2:55 PM on August 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


Hey guys! Look what Waffles the Cat was seeing after being spayed!
posted by Xoebe at 3:07 PM on August 16, 2011


We have never been "smarter."

Obama: "It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we c..."

Griphus: "Actually, there's no record of that phrase in any of the founding documents or any nation, nor any evidence that it was whispered by slaves or abolitionists! Even if they had said it, they would have likely used a different style of subject-verb agreement that was common in the pre-Civil War blah blah blah..."
posted by AlsoMike at 3:17 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


The fundamental issue is this: Sure, Marx was smart. But to the average American, what good does it do you to have read him, much less understood him?

To be a responsible cog in our democratic machine?

Honestly, right now, I think that it's more important to understand the historical conditions out of which Marx and Engels' ideology was born.

For instance, if you've studied any past revolutionaries, the London riots should not be the slightest bit surprising. Class warfare has only worked when the masses are mollified. Marx's own personal ideology isn't as relevant as the reasons for his popularity are (as far as revolutionary demagogues go, Marx was actually pretty vanilla). As soon as the word 'austerity' was brought into the mix, a large-scale urban riot was practically inevitable.

God knows what ideology they'll latch onto – it could literally be anywhere along the political spectrum, as long as they've got a leader that resonates with the masses. The only important thing is that they're angry and directionless (the underlying reasons are surprisingly unimportant). Anybody who's studied history should be scared shitless over this fact.
posted by schmod at 3:18 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]



People like the writer of this piece have forgotten how insular the world was before cable and the internet came along.

Of course you remember the intellectual depth of the people around you. You had surrounded yourself with people with intellectual depth. You read the Atlantic Monthly and Scientific American, and so did everyone else you knew.

Meanwhile in another part of America everyone was true the Word of God and had only the vaguest idea about what you might be up to. Starting wars along with the other Best and Brightest as far as they knew.

The thing is that you never had a reason to collide. There weren't enough national television channels to cater to all the different subcultures, so we got a particulary stuffy mix that would appeal to everyone.

With the appearance of cable (and later the internet) everyone in their own insular communities suddenly went "Holy Shit! There are people totally different from me just living their lives out there." And most people followed that with "And they're doing it Wrong!"

The amount of air time spent on intellectual broadcasting is orders of magnitude higher now than it was in the theoretical golden age this harkens back to. As a percentage it's gone way down, but there is no way you could ever keep up with all of the highbrow or even simply educational programming provided.

And you can say that not only about arts and sciences also about home rebuilding, car repair, lowbrow science (hint: it usually ends with an explosion), fashion design, and tractor pulls.
It also includes media spectacle for people who want that.

The American media now reflects the full glory of American culture. For a long time it didn't, which is why everyone has their own version of the Good Old Days.

Personally I'm thankful that cable came along in my lifetime. I know far more about all of the various American cultures than an earlier generation ever could.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:18 PM on August 16, 2011 [19 favorites]


To be a responsible cog in our democratic machine?

You'll have to remind me how much I get paid to be responsible instead of self-interested.
posted by GuyZero at 4:10 PM on August 16, 2011


Obama: "It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we c..."

Griphus: "Actually, there's no record of that phrase in any of the founding documents or any nation, nor any evidence that it was whispered by slaves or abolitionists! Even if they had said it, they would have likely used a different style of subject-verb agreement that was common in the pre-Civil War blah blah blah..."


I am disarmed by your rapier wit, sir!

Wait, did I say "disarmed" and "rapier wit"? I'm sorry, I meant "confounded" and "apparent non-sequitur."
posted by griphus at 4:25 PM on August 16, 2011


What gets lost in the article is that the final pathway to action (through the brain) is through pathways that rule emotion. That's the clincher. That's why post-apocalyptic scenarios resonate in science fiction, because they most closely mirror the most likely scenarios - scenarios we play out as we evolve more technology - i.e. we are still ruled by emotion, not reason. Ideas are also tainted with emotion, very much so. We can't escape that.

In a final irony, Gabler's essay is also that, an emotional argument that puts out "reasoned evidence" (ha!) to prove his point.

Look, until we find a way to redesign ourselves (and even THAT effort will not be free from emotion - so what are we to expect?), we're going to be wallowing in emotion. Let's just hope that the general thrust toward empathic cooperation, hardwired inside our brains, is able to overcome the more serious problems that are sure to arise (and are arising, as we speak/write) as we project emotion-laden ideas - technological ideas, social organization ideas (Democracy, Communism, etc.) - into our world.

It's not about ideas, it's where they come from, and what their motives are. We need to reverse engineer the world of ideas if we're ever to be able to get at their real source, and future implications. Maybe, someday. Pretty meta, huh?
posted by Vibrissae at 4:56 PM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


The amount of air time spent on intellectual broadcasting is orders of magnitude higher now than it was in the theoretical golden age this harkens back to. As a percentage it's gone way down, but there is no way you could ever keep up with all of the highbrow or even simply educational programming provided.

Exactly. Mr Gabler's Big Idea is 'selection bias'. Like its ancestor, statistics, it's a Universal Enprooficator.
posted by Sparx at 4:58 PM on August 16, 2011


What "Public"?

What public, indeed. Of all the thousands who bought Steven Hawking's best seller, how many were equipped to discuss it? Would it have sold a fraction as well had Hawking's personal story not been so tragic? (Nothing new there, btw- Isaac Newton was a catch for seventeenth century hostesses even if no one understood a word of Principia.) Was the public much moved to discuss the thinking of George Washington Carver or Marie Curie or did they admire them as credits to their race and sex?

What public, and for that matter, what intellectual? He's throwing in Einstein, a genuine Everest among minds (albeit better known for a cool haircut than the subtleties of his thoughts) in with people like Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal, best remembered for throwing drinks or punches or invective at each other. (Helped sell the novels, I guess.)

Betty Friedan, Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould? Marshall McLuhan? Well, if you say so. I'd argue a gamut of sublime to ridiculous.

The days when these folks dotted the airwaves and popular magazines (to the extent they did) the editors/publishers/producers had a slight sense of obligation to promote Serious Topics (again, best if the guests could be bitchy, but leave that aside). Not sure that any greater percentage of people back in the day really engaged in Deep Thought and Profound Discussion than do now.

After all, and as said before, for them as are interested, the venues have exploded. Dick Cavett gives way to Charlie Rose. The Atlantic gives way to any number of more dedicated journals. WABC shares television bandwidth with BookTV etc. And, as codacorolla notes, even books, even in these hard times. Plenty of room for Genuine Intellectuals as well as self seeking intellectual publicity hounds. Does he really want to revive the 1950s?

Anyway, I'm not so sure having a bunch of Great Ideas popping up is such a great idea. Bad things can come from Great Ideas. One man's Great Idea can be another man's dangerous orthodoxy, Gabler's rational/irrational insistence notwithstanding. Lot of people these days think the Tea Party is great idea, based on a Great Idea. Certainly it's getting discussed a lot.

Maybe we should have a brief moratorium on Great Ideas.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:02 PM on August 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


we may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock

Little thing called the Dark Ages? You may have heard of it?
posted by eritain at 5:20 PM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Enlightenment didn't lose. Let's be clear: the Enlightenment established a 'space', a 'discourse', where rationalism reigned supreme. Has this space been destroyed? Has it even been diminished? Not at all. The empire that Kant built is still large and charge and will outlast any existing nation-state, perhaps even humanity itself.

What "Public"?

Or even: what "world"? Because there is no world anymore. That God died and we killed him. There are no 'facts'. There's no 'geography'. There is no 'real'. In the end many people couldn't care less about what happens in Baghdad or New York because, for these people, these places aren't really real. They don't exist. At best they're fanciful abstractions, modern-day myths, or, at worst, nothing at all is known of them. Total ignorance. They're not part of the 'world'.

Perhaps this entire notion of a single 'world' shared by all people in a given nation, village, or heck even city block will have to be abandoned. Humans are just too good at telling stories. The energy and cleverness applied to this end is already breathtaking and will only grow. Today it's already possible for individuals to disappear all-but-completely into virtual worlds like WoW for basically all day, everyday. And those are just pixels on a screen. Do you really think you'll ever be able to convince such a person to care about ideas or the economy or even his 'neighbor'? ('Neighbor' is another myth that will likely have to go.) Do you think somebody living in the modern American conservative fantasy-land can ever be persuaded that the free-market isn't magic? Or an extremist Muslim that America isn't out to rape his land, sisters, and himself? (Not necessarily in that order.) No. You might as well be talking to aliens. They're intelligent but they are, fundamentally, from a different world. Any notion of 'understanding' between such worlds is fantasy. That boat sailed long, long ago. I can't imagine anything stupider than arguing with such people.

No, there is no 'post-idea world'. There's just no 'world' anymore.
posted by nixerman at 5:22 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Far be it from me to introduce some "rationality" or "evidence" into this debate but 85% of Americans over 25 have completed high school these days and 27% have received a bachelor's degree. This compares to around 33% and 5% in that golden age post war age when people sat around reading Kierkegaard or polishing their second symphonies instead of listening to Jack Benny and going to baseball. If "science" has been abandoned how does he think the "giant technological advances" he acknowledges are generated? To argue that America lives in a "post-Enlightenment age" seems fatuous although, to be fair, Noam Chomsky counts as a public intellectual these days, so he may have a point.
posted by joannemullen at 5:24 PM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


This article is classic reframing. The first one to pretend to be like Thomas Jefferson wins.
posted by michaelh at 5:38 PM on August 16, 2011


t is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy. While we continue to make giant technological advances, we may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock — to have gone backward intellectually from advanced modes of thinking into old modes of belief.

Has this gentleman ever heard of a small historical blip called The Roman Empire?
posted by jason's_planet at 5:58 PM on August 16, 2011


I'm pretty sure Hicks made that whole story up.

Nope, I've pretty much had that conversation multiple times...or rather I did, when I was younger and less mean-looking. Why do you read so much? Why would you read something boring like that/a book that big? You know, you'll never meet someone with your nose buried in a book, tsk tsk!*

I assume these are the same people (including, I am afraid, some related to me) who vote for Tea Party candidates, because you get the exact same feeling of angry resentment there, one that I find inexplicable. My quietly reading a book rather than doing whatever they thought a person should be doing, merely that, bothered some people so much that they had to say something to me about it. I don't know what the resentment is about, exactly, but it was definitely there.

*Which is exactly how I met my husband.
posted by emjaybee at 6:05 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry, I meant "confounded"...

Let me break it down for you, again. You act like you've hit a home run by pointing out that the author might have a rose-colored view of the past. But you haven't. It might be true, but the rhetorical purpose of looking to the past is to suggest that things could be improved today. Our society once had big ideas, and it could have them again. Your response is "No, that's pure fiction." It might be, but it could be a useful fiction, in the same way that Obama's writing of Yes We Can into the founding documents is a useful fiction. Questioning historical veracity is Comic Book Guy nerdery, nitpicking minor details and missing the larger picture, but it's really quite a nice example. Today, we don't have intellectuals so much as academics, glorified stamp-collectors who can navelgaze about historical accuracy but not say anything interesting and relevant to the public.

One of the worst tendencies of what passes for the American Left these days is abandoning high culture and everything considered great. The false populism of embracing only "low" culture is degrading, it denies the people the right to feel proud about the lasting achievements and cultural legacy of human civilization that rightfully belong to them, even if they don't personally appreciate every part of it.
posted by AlsoMike at 6:15 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Our society once had big ideas, and it could have them again. Your response is "No, that's pure fiction."

What? My response is "it never stopped having them." The author has a rose-colored view of the past in expense of the present. It's not the fact that he looks back to "better" times that is complete horseshit; it's the fact that the erosion of ignorance that is emblematic of the modern day is confused for culture being dumbed down.

The "high culture" is still here. There is no less of it than there was yesterday and, almost inherently considering population growth, there is more. But the low stuff is also much more visible than it ever was. No one is abandoning it, and this blindered view of intellectualism is doing more harm than good. You mentality is the same one that prevented anything but the Western Canon from being taught in universities until the contemporary era.
posted by griphus at 6:30 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think he's hit on something, but I don't think he explains it well. It's something I've been thinking about a lot....perhaps I should preface this by saying, I tend to believe that while stuff changes, people don't change. That is, that people have the same nature and same basic capacities, but cultures do change, primarily because as technology changes we adapt our cultures to the new abilities it gives us.

Put like that it probably sounds like the most fatuous and anodyne remark possible; but what I mean is, we tend to think society advances because ideas change society, that we come up with new ideas that make us more Enlightened than the generations of the past, more advanced, more civilized. I think we're basically as savage/civilized as we ever were --- but that doesn't mean that the rules for how we interact, what we value, how we think haven't changed....

And so I do think that the Internet is affecting us, and part of it is something he's put his finger on here, a way of thinking about the world. There used to be a kind of spitballing people would do, the type of talk while you were sitting around shooting the shit with friends somewhere. Wondering, basically. What happened to that actress who was in that movie, who hit the most home runs on the 1967 Red Sox, what the hell the deal is with those sneakers you see hung over telephone wires by their laces. And unless you happened to be sitting in the Rose reading room of the NYPL --- where shooting the shit is shushed --- you didn't have ready access to that information. You had to draw upon your own interior knowledge of the world, your memories, and construct an argument, which would be disputed, challenged....the subjects I have alluded to above are trivial. But the habit, the wondering, the reaching back into your mind and trying to pull separate strands of knowledge together to account for a given fact...

The method, I think, is part of the core practice, the wax on-wax off foundation, of how you come up with the Big Ideas your man loves so much. The lack of access to data is crux: The Idea is a frame which can encapsulate the unknown. A synthesis, a net you can catch new facts in. The sensation of a lightbulb moment is that of a heretofore hidden structure being suddenly revealed --- you arrive at an insight, an explanation which can account for a few known facts, as you begin to consider it, more and more seem to fit within it, to lock in as a crystal lattice, linking to each other and strengthening the whole. (The risk is that the intuitive appeal of the structure tempts one to disregard stray facts which do not, in fact, fit.)

But I feel like --- and it is just a feeling, an anecdote, but I seem to feel it as I regard my own fairly recent past ---- that that kind of thinking, those kind of discussions, happen less and less. Because we have immediate access to data. I remember talking about this with a roommate, a couple years after Google had been established, how Google killed those kinds of spitballing conversations. I remember the sensation of sheer delight I had, the ease, of having access to anything you could want to know. What movie was she....? Google it. The Sox, was it Carlton Fisk who....? Google it. Even the shoes I'm sure you could at least find a paper on the phenomenon. I've seen it with my parents....my father was one of those guys, who'd see a tertiary character actor on the edge of a frame and spend the rest of the movie openly speculating on where he'd seen him before. Now he makes me call up imdb on my phone.

Having access to the data cuts of the process of synthesis, because you go straight to: Right or wrong? Yes or no? What do the data say? Even in this thread you can see glimmers of it, I'd say:

We know more than ever about what works and what doesn't medically and in terms of social policy

How do we know? Well, because we test, right? We have the data.

Far be it from me to introduce some "rationality" or "evidence" into this debate but 85% of Americans....

I'm not meaning to counter to contest the specific points Maias and joanne were making; merely that the way they frame their arguments seems to me to partake in this newer, more data-driven way we have of approaching the world.

It seems to me that this access to infinite data makes you treat ideas differently...there was a thread a while back on "the internet as external brain" and the majority opinion seemed to be that this was a fine thing --- why clutter up the brain with information so long as you could instantly access that information? And to be sure there are lots of questions to which there is only one correct answer, and that answer is already known...but this lack of desire to know fact troubles me, and I can't quite but my finger on why. I think it has to do with feeling like its the facts you know which enable you to come up with better question to ask, and treating the universe like Jeopardy often results in bad questions being asked, faulty, weak frames....But I'm mixing my metaphors left and right and have already gone on far too long. So I'll stop.
posted by Diablevert at 6:36 PM on August 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


You mentality is the same one that prevented anything but the Western Canon from being taught in universities until the contemporary era.

No, my mentality is that a false division between high and low culture coding for class was recently invented to serve the interests of the upper middle class. Your mentality is the same one that continues to deprive the working class of cultural achievements that were stolen from them.
posted by AlsoMike at 6:51 PM on August 16, 2011


idiocracy wasn't just a movie. it was a prophesy.
posted by photoslob at 6:52 PM on August 16, 2011


Is it time again for me to wheel out my anecdote about being stuck in a truck stop on route 15 in Pennsylvania and overhearing a guy in a John Deere hat, obviously a trucker himself, quoting from Robert Zuprin's THE CASE FOR MARS to the cash register girl?
posted by newdaddy at 7:22 PM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


'Cause that really happened, and it blew my mind.
posted by newdaddy at 7:23 PM on August 16, 2011


Nixerman....I'm usually quite good at this...but I can't tell if you were being satiric or serious because it reads to me as a withering combination of both?
posted by Chipmazing at 7:27 PM on August 16, 2011


doesn't TED almost single handedly refute there are no more big ideas being promulgated?
posted by forforf at 7:58 PM on August 16, 2011


Particularly this guy.
He's insane, but it's the good kind.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:21 PM on August 16, 2011


emjaybee, I remember one day I was reading How We Die, and my then girlfriend came into the room, looked at my book and said, "Why are you reading that?" In retrospect, that was the end of our relationship right there.
posted by sneebler at 9:01 PM on August 16, 2011


It's coming from both sides. Anti-science from the Right and pro-nature from the Left. OTOH, its a bit 'same as it ever was'. You can make these complaints in every age.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 10:57 PM on August 16, 2011


Diablevert, you have enlightened me! I'm generally pretty bullish about Google cognition, but...

I guess thinking, speculating, and drawing formal and informal hypotheses are what we do in the absence of data. Data glut therefore atrophies those skills.
Does this vindicate educated stupid, or tl;dr? Help!
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 11:09 PM on August 16, 2011


Particularly this guy. He's insane, but it's the good kind.

That was one of the most useful TED Talks that I've ever sat through. Thanks for posting that. That guy is awesome.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 11:54 PM on August 16, 2011


I see we haven't killed the englightenment idea that "rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate" are somehow opposed to "faith, opinion and orthodoxy"

Maybe someone like Michele Bachmann will be elected and eradicate it forever.


She'll take us back to the good old Pre-Renaissance days.
posted by homunculus at 12:02 AM on August 17, 2011


joannemullen doesn't like Noam Chomsky; Overweight/Bespectacled Bill Murray is understandably shocked at this departure from the expected.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 3:37 AM on August 17, 2011


If our ideas seem smaller nowadays, it’s not because we are dumber than our forebears but because we just don’t care as much about ideas as they did.

How is he measuring "ideas" to make this claim?
posted by BuffaloChickenWing at 6:15 AM on August 17, 2011


Hopeless late in the day it comes to me- the guy's been watching Sunset Boulevard again.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:19 AM on August 17, 2011


I would blame part of this on the notion that it's "impolite" and "doesn't make friends" to point out that stupid things are stupid. We are supposed to listen to someone blather on about homepathy or creationism or birth certificate nonsense and say, "Yes, that is a fascinating and wholly valid view! Perhaps if you would allow me, I could tell you about an alternative idea which, though not as rock-solid and unassailable as your own well-reasoned conclusion, might at least amuse you for a moment!" so as not to ruffle feathers and to somehow "win converts". We've given "tolerance" such a wide purview that we're now expected to wait until someone stops clubbing us on the head and gives us permission to speak before attempting to explain that while the clubbing was certainly one of many appropriate actions, we'd like them to at least consider an alternative.

It's not just the media pretending both sides are equally valid to satisfy some ridiculous notion of fairness; we also ask this of our thinkers. Witness the many people in any thread about Richard Dawkins, Michael Moore, or Keith Olbermann who feel they have to point out that, as thoughtful liberals, they are often embarrassed or put off by the stridency of these folks.

Simply put: the merchants of stupid will happily bulldoze anything that opposes them, and the opposers will happily allow themselves to be bulldozed.
posted by Legomancer at 6:24 AM on August 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


Legomancer: the merchants of stupid will happily bulldoze anything that opposes them, and the opposers will happily allow themselves to be bulldozed.

"The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell."
-Confucius
posted by FJT at 7:44 AM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Want Enlightment? Jump in your time machine and return to the Enlightenment. Now interview Goethe and Voltaire--and 100,000 peasants. Or just return to the 1930s. Interview Mohandas Gandhi and Felix Frankfurter--and also 100,000 Okies. Fundamental difference: the peasants and Okies had no way to speak except to each other, they were not heard. Now they're all commenting on YouTube and providing sound bites at rallies.

No man who is correctly informed as to the past will be disposed to take a morose or despondent view of the present.
posted by jfuller at 11:29 AM on August 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


I bet the next Big Idea to emerge will be in the field of lawn evacuation. posted by Dr Dracator

It's exceeding rude, no matter how cantankerous geezer you're dealing with, to evacuate upon their lawn.
posted by Skygazer at 11:34 AM on August 17, 2011


Millions of artisans, craftsman and makers with access to rapid prototyping tech like 3-d printers, hackable micro-controllers, and new materials. Nothing could possibly emerge from those workshops. A generation if kids raised in shows like Mythbusters and Junkyard Wars. Those same kids getting access to hackerspaces and sharing their inventions via YouTube. This is the golden age of making crazy shit. Soon the adults will arrive and take all the good toys away.
posted by humanfont at 6:29 PM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


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