Cathedral Round-Up: Should I read Nichols or Pinker?

Harvard Mag had interesting interviews/reviews of both Tom Nichols’s “Death of Expertise” and Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now“.

From the article about Nichols:

Several years ago, Tom Nichols started writing a book about ignorance and unreason in American public discourse—and then he watched it come to life all around him, in ways starker than he had imagined. A political scientist who has taught for more than a decade in the Harvard Extension School, he had begun noticing what he perceived as a new and accelerating—and dangerous—hostility toward established knowledge. People were no longer merely uninformed, Nichols says, but “aggressively wrong” and unwilling to learn. They actively resisted facts that might alter their preexisting beliefs. They insisted that all opinions, however uninformed, be treated as equally serious. And they rejected professional know-how, he says, with such anger. That shook him.

Skepticism toward intellectual authority is bone-deep in the American character, as much a part of the nation’s origin story as the founders’ Enlightenment principles. Overall, that skepticism is a healthy impulse, Nichols believes. But what he was observing was something else, something malignant and deliberate, a collapse of functional citizenship.

What are people aggressively wrong about, and what does he think is causing the collapse of functional citizenship?

The Death of Expertise resonated deeply with readers. … Readers regularly approach Nichols with stories of their own disregarded expertise: doctors, lawyers, plumbers, electricians who’ve gotten used to being second-guessed by customers and clients and patients who know little or nothing about their work. “So many people over the past year have walked up to me and said, ‘You wrote what I was thinking,’” he says.

Sounds like everyone’s getting mansplained these days.

The Death of Expertise began as a cri de coeur on his now-defunct blog in late 2013. This was during the Edward Snowden revelations, which to Nichols’s eye, and that of other intelligence experts, looked unmistakably like a Russian operation. “I was trying to tell people, ‘Look, trust me, I’m a Russia guy; there’s a Russian hand behind this.’ ” But he found more arguments than takers. “Young people wanted to believe Snowden was a hero.”

I don’t have a particular opinion on Snowdon because I haven’t studied the issue, but let’s pretend you were in the USSR and one day a guy in the government spilled a bunch of secrets about how many people Stalin was having shot and how many millions were starving to death in Holodomor (the Ukrainian genocide.) (Suppose also that the media were sufficiently free to allow the stories to spread.)

Immediately you’d have two camps: the “This guy is a capitalist spy sent to discredit our dear leader with a hideous smear campaign” and “This guy is totally legit, the people need to know!”

Do you see why “Snowden is a Russian” sounds like the government desperately trying to cover its ass?

Now let’s suppose the guy who exposed Stalin actually was a capitalist spy. Maybe he really did hate communism and wanted to bring down the USSR. Would it matter? As long as the stuff he said was true, would you want to know anyway? I know that if I found out about Holodomor, I wouldn’t care about the identity of the guy who released the information besides calling him a hero.

I think a lot of Trump supporters feel similarly about Trump. They don’t actually care whether Russia helped Trump or not; they think Trump is helping them, and that’s what they care about.

In other words, it’s not so much “I don’t believe you” as “I have other priorities.”

In December, at a JFK Library event on reality and truth in public discourse, a moderator asked him a version of “How does this end?” … “In the longer term, I’m worried about the end of the republic,” he answered. Immense cynicism among the voting public—incited in part by the White House—combined with “staggering” ignorance, he said, is incredibly dangerous. In that environment, anything is possible. “When people have almost no political literacy, you cannot sustain the practices that sustain a democratic republic.” The next day, sitting in front of his fireplace in Rhode Island, where he lives with his wife, Lynn, and daughter, Hope, he added, “We’re in a very perilous place right now.”

Staggering ignorance about what, I wonder. Given our increased access to information, I suspect that the average person today both knows and can easily find the answers to far more questions than the average person of the 80s, 50s, or 1800s.

I mean, in the 80s, we still had significant numbers of people who believed in: faith healing; televangelists; six-day creationism; “pyramid power”; crop circles; ESP; UFOs; astrology; multiple personality disorder; a global Satanic daycare conspiracy; recovered memories; Freudianism; and the economic viability of the USSR. (People today still believe in the last one.)

One the one hand, I think part of what Nichols is feeling is just the old distrust of experts projected onto the internet. People used to harass their local school boards about teaching ‘evilution’; today they harass each other on Twitter over Ben Ghazi or birtherism or Russia collusion or whatever latest thing.

We could, of course, see a general decline in intellectual abilities as the population of the US itself is drawn increasingly from low-IQ backgrounds and low-IQ people (appear to) outbreed the high-IQ ones, but I have yet to see whether this has had time to manifest as a change in the amount of general knowledge people can use and display, especially given our manifestly easier time actually accessing knowledge. I am tempted to think that perhaps the internet forced Nichols outside of his Harvard bubble and he encountered dumb people for the first time in his life.

On the other hand, however, I do feel a definite since of malaise in America. It’s not about IQ, but how we feel about each other. We don’t seem to like each other very much. We don’t trust each other. Trust in government is low. Trust in each other is low. People have fewer close friends and confidants.

We have material prosperity, yes, despite our economic woes, but there is a spiritual rot.

Both sides are recognizing this, but the left doesn’t understand what is causing it.

They can point at Trump. They can point at angry hoards of Trump voters. “Something has changed,” they say. “The voters don’t trust us anymore.” But they don’t know why.

Here’s what I think happened:

The myth that is “America” got broken.

A country isn’t just a set of laws with a tract of land. It can be that, but if so, it won’t command a lot of sentimental feeling. You don’t die to defend a “set of laws.” A country needs a people.

“People” can be a lot of things. They don’t have to be racially homogenous. “Jews” are a people, and they are not racially homogenous. “Turks” are a people, and they are not genetically homogenous. But fundamentally, people have to see themselves as “a people” with a common culture and identity.

America has two main historical groups: whites and blacks. Before the mass immigration kicked off in 1965, whites were about 88% of the country and blacks were about 10%. Indians, Asians, Hispanics, and everyone else rounded out that last 2%. And say what you will, but whites thought of themselves as the American culture, because they were the majority.

America absorbed newcomers. People came, got married, had children: their children became Americans. The process takes time, but it works.

Today, though, “America” is fractured. It is ethnically fractured–California and Texas, for example, are now majority non-white. There is nothing particularly wrong with the folks who’ve moved in, they just aren’t from one of America’s two main historical ethnic groups. They are their own groups, with their own histories. England is a place with a people and a history; Turkey is a place with a people and a history. They are two different places with different people and different history. It is religiously fractured–far fewer people belong to one of America’s historically prominent religions. It is politically fractured–more people now report being uncomfortable with their child dating a member of the opposite political party than of a different race.

Now we see things like this: After final vote, city will remove racist Pioneer Monument Statue:

As anticipated, the San Francisco Arts Commission voted unanimously Monday to remove the “Early Days” statue from Civic Center’s Pioneer Monument, placing the century-plus old bronze figures in storage until a long-term decision about their fate can be made.

The decision caps off a six-month long debate, after some San Franciscans approached the commission in August 2017 to complain about the statue, which features a pious but patronizing scene of a Spanish missionary helping a beaten Indian to his feet and pointing him toward heaven.

In February the city’s Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously to recommend removing “Early Days” despite some commissioners expressing reservations about whether the sculpture has additional value as an expose of 19th century racism.

Your statues are racist. Your history is racist. Your people is racist.

What do they think the reaction to this will look like?


But before we get too dark, let’s take a look at Pinker’s latest work, Enlightenment Now:

It is not intuitive that a case needs to be made for “Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” stable values that have long defined our modernity. And most expect any attack on those values to come from the far right: from foes of progressivism, from anti-science religious movements, from closed minds. Yet Steven Pinker argues there is a second, more profound assault on the Enlightenment’s legacy of progress, coming from within intellectual and artistic spheres: a crisis of confidence, as progress’s supporters see so many disasters, setbacks, emergencies, new wars re-opening old wounds, new structures replicating old iniquities, new destructive side-effects of progress’s best intentions. …

Pinker’s volume moves systematically through various metrics that reflect progress, charting improvements across the last half-century-plus in areas from racism, sexism, homophobia, and bullying, to car accidents, oil spills, poverty, leisure, female empowerment, and so on. …

the case Pinker seeks to make is at once so basic and so difficult that a firehose of evidence may be needed—optimism is a hard sell in this historical moment. … Pinker credits the surge in such sentiments since the 1960s to several factors. He points to certain religious trends, because a focus on the afterlife can be in tension with the project of improving this world, or caring deeply about it. He points to nationalism and other movements that subordinate goods of the individual or even goods of all to the goods of a particular group. He points to what he calls neo-Romantic forms of environmentalism, not all environmentalisms but specifically those that subordinate the human species to the ecosystem and seek a green future, not through technological advances, but through renouncing current technology and ways of living. He also points to a broader fascination with narratives of decline …

I like the way Pinker thinks and appreciate his use of actual data to support his points.

To these decades-old causes, one may add the fact that humankind’s flaws have never been so visible as in the twenty-first century. … our failures are more visible than ever through the digital media’s ceaseless and accelerating torrent of grim news and fervent calls to action, which have pushed many to emotional exhaustion. Within the last two years, though not before, numerous students have commented in my classroom that sexism/racism/inequality “is worse today than it’s ever been.” The historian’s answer, “No, it used to be much worse, let me tell you about life before 1950…,” can be disheartening, especially when students’ rage and pain are justified and real. In such situations, Pinker’s vast supply of clear, methodical data may be a better tool to reignite hope than my painful anecdotes of pre-modern life.

Maybe Nichols is on to something about people today being astoundingly ignorant…

Pinker’s celebration of science is no holds barred: he calls it an achievement surpassing the masterworks of art, music, and literature, a source of sublime beauty, health, wealth, and freedom.

I agree with Pinker on science, but Nichols’s worldview may be the one that needs plumbing.

Which book do you want me to read/review?


Further thoughts on the end of America

I do feel, quite deeply, that America is changing rapidly; a certain old essence is disappearing, even faster than when I was young.

In such cases I think of my father, an old-stock American, Vietnam vet, lover of God, Guns, and Glory–basically all your red state stereotypes.

While chatting with parents down at the local playground, one of the moms claimed to “love” her HOA. Why? I inquired, distressed, because all mine does is wreck the landscaping and eliminate parking. After a moment’s thought, she responded that the HOA prevents people from leaving their trash cans out overnight and stops them from painting their houses strange colors.

Goodnight! Who joins an organization just to meddle with their neighbors?

Of course there are corners of America where people still mind their own business, but we are increasingly squashed into corporate-molded cities where neighbors spend more time worrying about their property values than interacting.

Anyway, I tracked down the book I referenced in the previous post: Childcraft, Volume 11: Music for the Family, with copyrights from 1923-1954 (presumably the copy I hold hails from ’54, as its photos are that era, but the text may be somewhat older.)

Most of the book is children’s songs, but there is a section at the end with biographies of famous composers: Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert,Chopin, Verdi, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Humperdinck, MacDowell, Debussy, Sousa, and Gershwin. Here are a few excerpts:


“No!” said Father Handel sternly. My boy shall never be a musician!”

In that day in Germany, musicians were often treated like servants. Father Handel wanted his son to be an important man, not a servant. It was splendid to be a barber-surgeon–like Father Handel–and be called to the castle to trim the duke’s mustache or treat his indigestion. It was even more splendid to be a lawyer, and earn rich fees for giving advice to a prince or a king. But little George Frederick Handel wanted only to be a musician.


In the same year that George Washington was born, an Austrian peasant family named Haydn celebrated the birth of a fair-haired baby boy. They named him Joseph.

Joseph’s father made wheels for wagons and coaches. His mother was a cook for noble families. both parents loved music. In the evenings, by candlelight, the family often sang songs of the people, or folk melodies…

At one time Haydn played a joke on the powerful Prince Esterhazy, who had hired him as music director. The prince kept his musicians at a palace in the country. He seldom allowed them a vacation. Many of the musicians longed to visit their families. Haydn wished that he might  help them. But he did not see what he could do. He did not dare speak directly to the prince about it.

One day Haydn announced that he had written a new symphony. Prince Esterhazy and his court gathered in the great hall of the palace to listen. As the orchestra began the final movement, one by one the players blew out the candle on their music stands and left the hall. Finally only two violinists were playing. They they too departed, and only the director remained.

Haydn turned and bowed to the prince. “Your Grace,” he said, “I call this the Farewell Symphony.”

The prince looked perplexed, then began to smile at Haydn’s musical prank.

“I can take a hint from old Haydn,” he said “The musicians may start their vacation tomorrow.” As you may imagine, all the musicians were grateful to their beloved “Papa Haydn.”


By the time Wolfgang was twelve years old, he had played in many great cities of Europe. He was the favorite of queens and princesses. Princes and kings gave him money and jewels. Many musicians envied the young Mozart, because it was then the custom to teat musicians like servants.

It would seem that Mozart’s early life was just one gay adventure. But the boy grew very wise about kings and queens, princes and princesses. He learned that kings and noblemen were just like ordinary people. Some were wise and just. Others were stupid and cruel. Some princesses were gracious and kind. But others had very bad manners, and sometimes young Mozart told them so. He knew that many ordinary persons had better manners and were better people than some of the nobility.

Mozart began to believe that bad and stupid kings had no right to tell people what to do. These were dangerous thoughts, for king often punished person who had ideas about freedom. Mozart put hi ideas into music, rather than speech.

When Mozart grew to manhood, he wrote operas which poked fun at king and noblemen. One of these operas is the Marriage of Figaro, which had many lilting melodies. Another is Don Giovanni, in which we hear the lovely “Minuet.”


The music Beethoven wrote shows that he loved people, because it is written for all the people, and not merely for king and princes. But Beethoven also felt that cruel people had bought much evil into the world. he was happiest when he could be outdoors, in rain or sunshine, and listen to the songs of Nature.


The Patriot Composer of Poland

Father Chopin began a merry Polish folk tune on his flute. Little Frederic sat still and listened. Soon a tear rolled own his cheek and dropped on his blouse.

The music of the flute rose higher. It danced like a happy peasant girl. It trilled and shistled like the song of a bird. Little Frederic’s chin began to tremble. He opened his mouth wide and began to cry.

Father and Mother Chopin loved Frederic deeply. But they also loved music, and they were sad because their little son seemed to dislike it so. …

Upstairs, the boy who should have been asleep lay awake listening. He squeezed his pillow tight against his eyes to keep the tears back. How could they ay he he hated music! His tears were not tears of pain, but of joy. Frederic loved music so much that the sound of it made him weep. But he was so young that he could not find the words to tell his parents how he felt. …

Young Chopin began to compose his own music almost as soon as he could play the piano. His compositions were influenced by the kinds of music his parents loved best. His father had come from France, and often played the music of that country on his flute. Frederick liked the French music, but most of all he loved the  songs his mother sang–songs of his native Poland. It is the Polish music he wrote that is most popular.

Frederic’s mother told him that Poland had once been a proud and free country. Then neighbor nations had taken away its freedom. The Polish people remembered the days when their country was free, and sang songs about the land they loved. Frederic used these national songs in his compositions for the piano. …

Chopin’s love for his country speaks through his music, like a beautiful language which the people of all countries can understand. Chopin’s stirring music still has the power to make strong men and women of any country weep, just as a little boy wept over a Polish folk tune many years ago.


Now let’s take a look at Mathematicians are People, Too: Stories from the lives of the great mathematicians (copyright 1990). (I would like to note that this is not a bad book; I am just trying to highlight the change in political tone/emphasis over the decades.) It covers Thales, Pythagoras, Archimedes, Hypatia, Napier, Galileo, Pascal, Newton, Eurler, Lagrange, Sophie Germain, Gaus, Galois, Amalie (Emmy) Noether, and Ramanujan.

There is a sequel which I have not yet read, published in 1995, which covers Euclid, Omar Khayyam, Fibonacci, Descartes, Fermat, Cardano, Maria Agnesi, Benjamin Banneker, Mary Somerville, Ada Lovelace, Babbage, Sonya Kovalesky, Neils Abel, George Polya, and Einstein.


But Hypatia was not only a well-known scientist and mathematician’ she also became a highly respected philosopher. Her father had taught her to be open-minded about ideas. Like many Greeks, he believed people should keep questioning rather than settle on one version of truth as final. He introduced her to a variety of religions, and she learned to value the good in each. Because of this, he taught her students to ask lots of question, even about ideas that government or religious leaders said they should not question. Eventually, this caused trouble for Hypatia.

Hypatia got caught in the middle of a struggle between two leaders in Alexandria. Orestes, prefect or governor of Alexandria, was Hypatia’s friend. They enjoyed talking together and often wrote letters about the latest ideas. Cyril was the archbishop of Alexandria, the head of the Christian church in that city. He was suspicious of anyone who did not accept his religious views. Conflict developed between the two men and their followers, and Cyril became convinced that Hypatia was behind it. …

An angry mob of religious fanatics, fired up by false rumors of Hypatia’s teaching, kidnapped her one day as she rode through town on her chariot. They dragged her through the streets to the cathedral, where she was brutally murdered and he bones burned. Her death marks the end of the great age of Greek Mathematics. …

Although Hypatia made many important contributions to mathematics and science, few women have adopted her interests–until recently. Some historians believe that Hypatia’s horrible death may have discouraged other women from becoming mathematician. Still others believe that Hypatia’s life–not her death–is the perfect symbol of what women or men can achieve when they work hard and stand up for what they believe is right.

(A lot of mathematicians in this book, including Pythagoras, Hypatia, and Archimedes, were murdered. Apparently mathematician is a much more dangerous profession than composer.)


Lagrange’s influence was beginning to be felt throughout the scientific communities of Europe. King Frederick of Prussia had formed a prestigious college of mathematics in Berlin. Frederick sent this rather impressive invitation to Lagrange: “The greatest king in Europe must have the greatest mathematician in Europe in his court!”

Clearly, Frederick was not as modest as Lagrange, but he was an avid supporter of science and mathematics. …

Lagrange was quick to praise persons who had encouraged or influenced him. He applauded when Napoleon ordered a tribute to Lagrange’s father, still living in Italy. He acknowledged the greatness of Euler, He mourned with the chemist Lavoisier was sentenced to death by guillotine. And just as he recognized those who had affirmed him, he was quick to encourage younger mathematicians.

Once, while teaching at the Ecole Polytechnique, he received and impressive paper from Monsier LeBlanc. … After some research, he discovered that the mystery student was really a young woman named Sophie Germain. Only men were allowed at the Ecole, so Sophie had borrowed lecture notes from friends and asked them to smuggle her paper in among theirs. Lagrange went immediately to her home and made her feel like a true mathematician, helping launch her important career.

Sophie Germain:

When Sophie was very young, her parents had welcomed her interest. They allowed her to use her father’s library whenever she wished. But soon they decided that she was studying too much. They agreed with the popular notion that “brainwork” was not healthy–maybe even dangerous–for girls. They told Sophie that he could not study mathematics anymore.

But Sophie would not give up. Night after night she crawled out of bed and studied after everyone else had gone to sleep. …

“Oh, Father, I’m so sorry, but I just can’t stop,” Sophie cried. “These problems are so fascinating! When I work on them I feel like I’m really alive.”

“But, Sophie,” her mother said softly, “remember, you’re a girl. It isn’t good for you to fill your mind with numbers.” …

With that her parents gave up. Sophie was allowed to study to her heart’s content. Fortunately, her father had an excellent library. As wealthy citizens, the Germain family knew many educated people in Paris and throughout France.

When Sophie was young, however, traveling and visiting were restricted by the political turmoil in France. The French Revolution began in 1789 when she was thirteen, and Paris was an unstable and dangerous city… Sophie’s parents shielded her from the fighting and conflict. She eagerly filled her time reading and learning. …

In 1816 mathematicians and scientists around the world heard about Sophie Germain. In that year she won the grand prize from the French Academy for her work on the law of vibrating elastic surfaces…

Sophie Germain enjoyed only a brief moment of recognition for a lifetime of dedicated study. The barriers to women in mathematics certainly hampered Germain’s development–but they did not prevent her from following her quest.


Galois could have coped with normal disappointments, but so many setbacks took their toll on him. Bitterness filled him He began to distrust all teachers and all institutions. He tried starting his own school, but no one enrolled. Then, because he wanted to fight injustice, he got involved in politics. He joined the Republicans, a forbidden radical group. They spoke out for justice, especially for the poor, and for freedom of the press. They wanted a better standard of living for the common people, instead of for the wealthy few.

Galois ended up in prison for his political activities, then got killed in a duel at the age of 20.

My goal isn’t to dissect the truth of these stories (often children’s biographies are at least a bit fictionalized), but to examine what the authors chose to highlight. We are often don’t even notice the political beliefs of our own age (“Of course they did it that way. It’s only natural,”) but can easily see the politics of another age.

The cover of the Childcraft book on music features two children holding a book (on the book’s cover are two more children, holding a book…) Mathematicians are People, Too, features Amalie Noether happily studying math while her flustered mother (dressed like a maid) looks on in consternation. Volume two has African American Benjamin Banneker on its cover. (Silly me, I would have put Euclid and Newton on the covers and probably not had as many sales.)

It took a bit of digging to find the full list of mathematicians in Volume 2–the book’s blurb on Amazon only lists Omar Khayyam, Albert Einstein*, Ada Lovelace, and “others.” Clearly, during the production of Volume 1, the authors were thinking about how to emphasize women in mathematics; by Volume 2, they wanted to emphasize diversity. The publishers didn’t even think it worthwhile to list Euclid!

*I love Einstein as much as the next guy, but he’s not a mathematician.

To be fair, there are probably more people looking for biographies of Ada Lovelace or Einstein than of Euclid, though personally I spend a fair amount of time thinking “When do we start Euclid? Is there a children’s version of his Elements?” and not much time thinking, “When do we start Ada Lovelace?”

So one of the major difference between these two works lies not in the explicit phrasing of the stories, but in the frame of the particular people they chose to highlight. Why Benjamin Banneker? Unlike Omar Khayyam, he didn’t contribute very much to mathematics, and we have not exhausted our list of great mathematicians such that we need to go searching for obscure ones. Surely Turing, Erdos, von Neuman, al-Khwarizmi, or Aryabhata contributed far more–but perhaps that doesn’t matter, as the book’s target market can hardly understand advanced math in the first place. Banneker was chosen because the authors believe that it is important to have an African American character in order to appeal to African American readers.

The conclusion of Hypatia’s story is more explicitly political–Hypatia wasn’t killed because she was a female mathematician and her story certainly hasn’t discouraged women from doing math–if the authors thought it did, they wouldn’t have put it in the book!

Do the political messages in children’s books matter? Do they create culture, or are they created by culture? Chickens and eggs. Either way, culture has changed. Politics have changed. People have changed. Technology has changed.

1950s civics class didn’t happen in a vacuum–and I don’t think the political culture that created it is coming back.

“Cultural Collapse”

Tablet recently had an interesting essay on the theme of “why did Trump win?”

The material-grievances theory and the cultural-resentments theory can fit together because, in both cases, they tell us that people voted for Trump out of a perceived self-interest, which was to improve their faltering economic and material conditions, or else to affirm their cultural standing vis-à-vis the non-whites and the bicoastal elites. Their votes were, from this standpoint, rationally cast. … which ultimately would suggest that 2016’s election was at least a semi-normal event, even if Trump has his oddities. But here is my reservation.

I do not think the election was normal. I think it was the strangest election in American history in at least one major particular, which has to do with the qualifications and demeanor of the winning candidate. American presidents over the centuries have always cultivated, after all, a style, which has been pretty much the style of George Washington, sartorially updated. … Now, it is possible that, over the centuries, appearances and reality have, on occasion, parted ways, and one or another president, in the privacy of his personal quarters, or in whispered instructions to his henchmen, has been, in fact, a lout, a demagogue, a thug, and a stinking cesspool of corruption. And yet, until just now, nobody running for the presidency, none of the serious candidates, would have wanted to look like that, and this was for a simple reason. The American project requires a rigorously republican culture, without which a democratic society cannot exist—a culture of honesty, logic, science, and open-minded debate, which requires, in turn, tolerance and mutual respect. Democracy demands decorum. And since the president is supposed to be democracy’s leader, the candidates for the office have always done their best to, at least, put on a good act.

The author (Paul Berman) then proposes Theory III: Broad Cultural Collapse:

 A Theory 3 ought to emphasize still another non-economic and non-industrial factor, apart from marriage, family structure, theology, bad doctors, evil pharmaceutical companies, and racist ideology. This is a broad cultural collapse. It is a collapse, at minimum, of civic knowledge—a collapse in the ability to identify political reality, a collapse in the ability to recall the nature of democracy and the American ideal. An intellectual collapse, ultimately. And the sign of this collapse is an inability to recognize that Donald Trump has the look of a foreign object within the American presidential tradition.

Berman is insightful until he blames cultural collapse on the educational system (those dastardly teachers just decided not to teach about George Washington, I guess.)

We can’t blame education. Very few people had many years of formal education of any sort back in 1776 or 1810–even in 1900, far fewer people completed highschool than do today. The idea that highschool civics class was more effectively teaching future voters what to look for in a president in 1815 than today therefore seems unlikely.

If anything, in my (admittedly limited, parental) interactions with the local schools, education seem to lag national sentiment. For example, the local schools still cover Columbus Day in a pro-Columbus manner (and I don’t even live in a particularly conservative area) and have special Veterans’ Day events. School curricula are, I think, fairly influenced by the desires of the Texas schools, because Texas is a big state that buys a lot of textbooks.

I know plenty of Boomers who voted for Trump, so if we’re looking at a change in school curricula, we’re looking at a shift that happened half a century ago (or more,) but only recently manifested.

That said, I definitely feel something coursing through society that I could call “Cultural Collapse.” I just don’t think the schools are to blame.

Yesterday I happened across children’s book about famous musicians from the 1920s. Interwoven with the biographies of Beethoven and Mozart were political comments about kings and queens, European social structure and how these musicians of course saw through all of this royalty business and wanted to make music for the common people. It was an articulated ideology of democracy.

Sure, people today still think democracy is important, but the framing (and phrasing) is different. The book we recently read of mathematicians’ biographies didn’t stop to tell us how highly the mathematicians thought of the idea of common people voting (rather, when it bothered with ideology, it focused on increasing representation of women in mathematics and emphasizing the historical obstacles they faced.)

Meanwhile, as the NY Times reports, the percent of Americans who think living in a Democracy is important is declining:

According to the Mounk-Foa early-warning system, signs of democratic deconsolidation in the United States and many other liberal democracies are now similar to those in Venezuela before its crisis.

Across numerous countries, including Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States, the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations. …

Support for autocratic alternatives is rising, too. Drawing on data from the European and World Values Surveys, the researchers found that the share of Americans who say that army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing had risen to 1 in 6 in 2014, compared with 1 in 16 in 1995.

That trend is particularly strong among young people. For instance, in a previously published paper, the researchers calculated that 43 percent of older Americans believed it was illegitimate for the military to take over if the government were incompetent or failing to do its job, but only 19 percent of millennials agreed. The same generational divide showed up in Europe, where 53 percent of older people thought a military takeover would be illegitimate, while only 36 percent of millennials agreed.

Note, though, that this is not a local phenomenon–any explanation that explains why support for democracy is down in the US needs to also explain why it’s down in Sweden, Australia, Britain, and the Netherlands (and maybe why it wasn’t so popular there in the first place.)

Here are a few different theories besides failing schools:

  1. Less common culture, due to integration and immigration
  2. More international culture, due to the internet, TV, and similar technologies
  3. Disney

Put yourself in your grandfather or great-grandfather’s shoes, growing up in the 1910s or 20s. Cars were not yet common; chances were if he wanted to go somewhere, he walked or rode a horse. Telephones and radios were still rare. TV barely existed.

If you wanted to talk to someone, you walked over to them and talked. If you wanted to talk to someone from another town, either you or they had to travel, often by horse or wagon. For long-distance news, you had newspapers and a few telegraph wires.

News traveled slowly. People traveled slowly (most people didn’t ride trains regularly.) Most of the people you talked to were folks who lived nearby, in your own community. Everyone not from your community was some kind of outsider.

There’s a story from Albion’s Seed:

During World War II, for example, three German submariners escaped from Camp Crossville, Tennessee. Their flight took them to an Appalachian cabin, where they stopped for a drink of water. The mountain granny told them to git.” When they ignored her, she promptly shot them dead. The sheriff came, and scolded her for shooting helpless prisoners. Granny burst into tears, and said that she wold not have done it if she had known the were Germans. The exasperated sheriff asked her what in “tarnation” she thought she was shooting at. “Why,” she replied, “I thought they was Yankees!”

And then your grandfather got shipped out to get shot at somewhere in Europe or the Pacific.

Today, technology has completely transformed our lives. When we want to talk to someone or hear their opinion, we can just pick up the phone, visit facebook, or flip on the TV. We have daily commutes that would have taken our ancestors a week to walk. People expect to travel thousands of miles for college and jobs.

The effect is a curious inversion: In a world where you can talk to anyone, why talk to your neighbors? Personally, I spend more time talking to people in Britain than the folks next door, (and I like my neighbors.)

Now, this blog was practically founded on the idea that this technological shift in the way ideas (memes) are transmitted has a profound effect on the kinds of ideas that are transmitted. When ideas must be propagated between relatives and neighbors, these ideas are likely to promote your own material well-being (as you must survive well enough to continue propagating the idea for it to go on existing,) whereas when ideas can be easily transmitted between strangers who don’t even live near each other, the ideas need not promote personal survival–they just need to sound good. (I went into more detail on this idea back in Viruses Want you to Spread Them, Mitochondrial Memes, and The Progressive Virus.)

How do these technological shifts affect how we form communities?

From Bowling Alone:

In a groundbreaking book based on vast data, Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures– and how we may reconnect.

Putnam warns that our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.

Putnam draws on evidence including nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century to show that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We’re even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues. Putnam shows how changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women’s roles and other factors have contributed to this decline.

to data on how many people don’t have any friends:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) reported in its General Social Survey (GSS) that unprecedented numbers of Americans are lonely. Published in the American Sociological Review (ASR) and authored by Miller McPhearson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew Brashears, sociologists at Duke and the University of Arizona, the study featured 1,500 face-to-face interviews where more than a quarter of the respondents — one in four — said that they have no one with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs. If family members are not counted, the number doubles to more than half of Americans who have no one outside their immediate family with whom they can share confidences. Sadly, the researchers noted increases in “social isolation” and “a very significant decrease in social connection to close friends and family.”

Rarely has news from an academic paper struck such a responsive nerve with the general public. These dramatic statistics from ASR parallel similar trends reported by the Beverly LaHaye Institute — that over the 40 years from 1960 to 2000 the Census Bureau had expanded its analysis of what had been a minor category.  The Census Bureau categorizes the term “unrelated individuals” to designate someone who does not live in a “family group.” Sadly, we’ve seen the percentage of persons living as “unrelated individuals” almost triple, increasing from 6 to 16 percent of all people during the last 40 years. A huge majority of those classified as “unrelated individuals” (about 70 percent) lived alone.

it seems that interpersonal trust is deteriorating:

Long-run data from the US, where the General Social Survey (GSS) has been gathering information about trust attitudes since 1972, suggests that people trust each other less today than 40 years ago. This decline in interpersonal trust in the US has been coupled with a long-run reduction in public trust in government – according to estimates compiled by the Pew Research Center since 1958, today trust in the government in the US is at historically low levels.


Interpersonal trust attitudes correlate strongly with religious affiliation and upbringing. Some studies have shown that this strong positive relationship remains after controlling for several survey-respondent characteristics.1 This, in turn, has led researchers to use religion as a proxy for trust, in order to estimate the extent to which economic outcomes depend on trust attitudes. Estimates from these and other studies using an instrumental-variable approach, suggest that trust has a causal impact on economic outcomes.2 This suggests that the remarkable cross-country heterogeneity in trust that we observe today, can explain a significant part of the historical differences in cross-country income levels.


Measures of trust from attitudinal survey questions remain the most common source of data on trust. Yet academic studies have shown that these measures of trust are generally weak predictors of actual trusting behaviour. Interestingly, however, questions about trusting attitudes do seem to predict trustworthiness. In other words, people who say they trust other people tend to be trustworthy themselves.3

Just look at that horrible trend of migrants being kept out of Europe

Our technological shifts haven’t just affected ideas and conversations–with people able to travel thousands of miles in an afternoon, they’ve also affected the composition of communities. The US in 1920 was almost 90% white and 10% black, (with that black population concentrated in the segregated South). All other races together totaled only a couple percent. Today, the US is <65% white, 13% black, 16% Hispanic, 6% Asian and Native American, and 9% “other” or multi-racial.

Similar changes have happened in Europe, both with the creation of the Free Movement Zone and the discovery that the Mediterranean isn’t that hard to cross, though the composition of the newcomers obviously differs.

Diversity may have its benefits, but one of the things it isn’t is a common culture.

With all of these changes, do I really feel that there is anything particularly special about my local community and its norms over those of my British friends?

What about Disney?

Well, Disney’s most profitable product hasn’t exactly been pro-democracy, though I doubt a few princess movies can actually budge people’s political compasses or vote for Trump (or Hillary.) But what about the general content of children’s stories? It sure seems like there are a lot fewer stories focused on characters from American history than in the days when Davy Crockett was the biggest thing on TV.

Of course this loops back into technological changes, as American TV and movies are enjoyed by an increasingly non-American audience and media content is driven by advertisers’ desire to reach specific audiences (eg, the “rural purge” in TV programming, when popular TV shows aimed at more rural or older audiences were cancelled in favor of programs featuring urban characters, which advertisers believed would appeal to younger viewers with more cash to spend.)

If cultural collapse is happening, it’s not because we lack for civics classes, but because civics classes alone cannot create a civic culture where there is none.