Notes from a nameless conference

Sometime this year, I found myself at a conference centered around the theme of “regaining trust.”  For obvious reasons, I won’t name names, but it was a professional gathering of the old regime:  the industrial elites.  In their hundreds if not thousands, I was swarmed by people of good will who were also smart, articulate, and hyper-educated.  They craved, sincerely, to help the disadvantaged and save the earth.  The words “science” and “reason” were perpetually on their lips, as if they held the copyright for these terms – which, in a sense, they did.  And if they were a bit defensive, a tad obtuse, their intentions were the purest I could imagine.

So why, by their own admission, do they no longer inspire trust?

I have met their kindred before, in other glittering places.  They run the institutions that hold center stage in our society, but look on the world as if from a walled mountain fortress, where every loud noise from beyond is interpreted as risk and threat.  They disagree about minutia, but mostly move in lockstep, like synchronized swimmers, with word and thought.  They are earnest but extraordinarily narrow.  In a typical complaint, one speaker blamed the public for hiding in an “information bubble” – yet it occurred to me, as I sat through the conference, that the bubble-dwellers controlled the microphones there.

The same unmodulated whine about present conditions circled around and around, without even the ambition to achieve wit, depth, or originality:

The internet is the enemy:  of rationality, of democracy, of truth.  It must be regulated by enlightened minds.

The public resembles an eight-year-old who is always fooled by tricks and lies.  For its own protection, it must be constrained by a Guardian class.

Populism is the spawn of lies.  Even if it wins elections, it is never legitimate, and must be swept away by a higher authority.

Climate change is a scientific mandate for torturous economic and political experiments, implemented by experts.  To deny this is worse than error – it’s a crime against humanity.

Hate speech, offensive words, fake news, deep fakes, privacy violations, information bubbles, bitcoin, Facebook, Silicon Valley, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Brexit:  all must be controlled, criminalized, exploded, broken up, exposed, deposed, or repeated until the right answer is obtained.

None of this was up for discussion.  None of it was uttered with the least semblance of self-awareness.  In the same breath, a speaker called for the regulation of the web and the education of children in “tolerance.”  If I had pointed out the contradiction, the speaker, I’m certain, would have denied it.  Tolerance, for her, meant the obliteration of opinions she disliked.

In fact, each narrative loop I listed above ends with the elites happily in charge, and the obliteration of the wretched present.  If we wish to understand why trust evaporated in the first place, consider the moral and political assumptions behind this rhetorical posture

***

The industrial elites have lost their way.  In every major profession and institution, they once commanded vast, widely-admired projects that filled their lives with meaning and endowed the entire class with an unconquerable confidence.  But the twentieth century couldn’t be preserved forever, like a bug in amber.  The elites now face a radically transformed environment – and they are maladapted and demoralized.  An inability to listen, an impulse to spew jargon in broadcast mode, a demand for social distance as the reward for professional success:  such habits, which in the past placed them above and beyond the mob’s reach, now drag them down to contempt and mockery in the information sphere.  Among the public, trust has curdled into loathing.  The elites are horribly aware of their fall from grace – hence the conference – but being deaf to the public’s voice, they are clueless about how to respond.

To some extent, this is a family drama:  the last gasp of the Baby Boomers before their children snatch the world away from their palsied hands.  It would be good to believe that a rising generation, at ease with new models and habits, simply by taking over could broker a fair peace between the public and the industrial elites.  But this places too great a weight of expectation on the young. They, too, no less than their elders, can be seduced by behavioral tics and rhetorical reflexes shaped by the imperatives of a vanished age.  Always there have been those young in years but old at heart.

Both cohorts were represented at the conference.  On the matter of the mysterious death of trust, each held a distinct theory of the case.

The senior people, largely white and male, seemed to believe that, in punishment for the sins of their fathers, trust had fractured along identity lines.  Women today were thought to trust only women, for example.  Muslims trusted Muslims, and no one else.  Some archetypical essence of “woman” or “Muslim” made internal communications possible, and separated each group from the rest of the human race.  It was, to be sure, a disaster of biblical proportions – the story of Babel told in the times of the tweet – and it left the men in charge desperate to put forward individuals of a different sex and skin coloration, to say the things they wanted to hear.

For younger elites, trust involves a sort of cosplay of historical conflicts.  They put on elaborate rhetorical superhero costumes, and fight mock-epic battles with Nazis, fascists, “patriarchs,” slave-owners, George III, and the like.  Because it’s only a game, no one gets seriously hurt – but nothing ever gets settled, either.  Eventually, the young cosplayers must put away their costumes, take one last sip of Kombucha, and set off, seething with repressed virtue, to make money in the world as it really is.

I was intrigued by the pathology of mutual dependence between these generational postures.  It’s the way abusive relationships are supposed to work – although, in all honesty, I was at a loss to say who was the abuser and who the abused.

***

We are living through the early stages of a colossal transformation:  from the industrial age to something that doesn’t yet have a name.  Many periods of history have been constrained by structural necessity.  This isn’t one of them.  Rather than a forking path, we face possibilities that radiate in every direction, like spokes from a hub.  Even the immediate future seems up for grabs.  We could see the formation of a hyper-connected liberal democracy, or plunge into nihilism and chaos – or we could contemplate arrangements and relations that are, at present, unimaginable.

The future will be determined not by vast, impersonal forces but by an accumulation of individual choices.  Ultimately, the elites must lead the way.  Whether selected by the public or self-anointed and self-perpetuating, they hold in hand the institutional levers of change:  that’s just how the world works in a complex civilization.  We will not transcend our petty and immobile present with protests or referendums.

The dilemma is that this present is defined by a radical distrust of the institutions of industrial society, and of the elites that control them, and of their statements and descriptions of reality.  The conference organizers got our predicament right.  At every level of contemporary social and political life, we are stuck in the muck of a profound crisis of authority.  The mass audience of the twentieth century has fractured like a fallen mirror.  An angry and alienated public inhabits the broken shards – and nobody speaks for the whole.  The elites who should take the first step into the unknown are paralyzed by doubt and fear.  They utter the words science and reason like incantations, claim ownership to Platonic truth, and believe, with astonishing unanimity, that they have been overthrown by a tsunami of lies.  One need only restore truth to its former throne of glory, with themselves as mediating lords, they imagine, and the masses, as in the golden past, will bend the knee of trust.

But the solid masses are now a fractured public.  Truth, for mediated information, is a question of perspective.  Today the political and media elites must deal with a huge number of competing perspectives:  theirs is but one reedy voice in the uproar.  It never occurs to them, as it never did to my conference-goers, that they would profit from understanding the splintered perspectives of the public:  why, for example, a devout Christian with eyes wide open might vote for a man like Donald Trump.  A canonical explanation for Trump already existed, involving the usual tropes – fake news, Facebook, Putin.  Racism took care of the remainder.

The decisive endeavor of our moment – far surmounting, I believe, any specific policy call – is the re-establishment of trust in the institutions of representative democracy.  Only after the system has been reformed and the public has been reconciled to it can we again talk about truth as a self-evident proposition.  Until then, all we will have is perspectives – fragments of truth circling, randomly, the gravitational power of some opinion.  Appealing to tribal identity only compounds the fragmentation.  Fighting imaginary fascists and Nazis can be no more rewarding than hugging an imaginary friend.  What we need is a rhetoric aimed at the whole and persuasive to the whole – and for that to be possible, the public must be heard, and its perspectives, in their multiple and contradictory reality, must be taken seriously.

I left the conference uncertain about the prospects of the good people I had encountered there.  They belonged to the class that should take all the forward places in the great migration away from this frozen hour, toward the new.  Instead, they were transfixed with longing for a dead past.  And the clock, for them, is ticking.  The flood of events is sweeping forward ever faster.  The public lost patience long ago.  I had the sense of what it must have been like on the upper deck of the Titanic, minutes after the iceberg struck:  the band was still playing, the proprieties were mostly maintained, but the pervasive mood was of hopelessness and doom.

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27 Responses to Notes from a nameless conference

  1. Jim Heirbaut says:

    Thank you very much for this essay. Very stimulating. Sincere question: what set you apart from that crowd at the symposium?

    • thefifthwave says:

      In all honesty, I was probably less learned and a lot more uncertain about what I know for sure than most people there.

      • Billy Joe says:

        “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts while the stupid ones are full of confidence” – Charles Bukowski

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  3. dearieme says:

    I put it to you: although the British say “Fuck off” too readily Americans say it too rarely. Really it’s the best response to these asses. You say they are ‘hyper-educated’ but in my experience they typically know no Science, fail to recognise Shakespearian allusions, and have a grasp of history that is shallow and confused. Some can’t speak, or even read, a foreign language. Their moral standards are, forgive the joke, deplorable.

    They just aren’t good enough to staff the elites that societies need. Fire the lot of them.

    • Maple Curtain says:

      They are a credentialed elite, but they are midwits, not intellectual giants, and not, as you say, educated.

      Leviathan, by definition, is staffed by midwits because there are not enough intelligent people in a society to competently staff a massive administrative state.

  4. Per Kurowski says:

    Soon three decades of risk weighted bank capital requirements that seriously distort the allocation of credit, and which are stupidly based on that what’s perceived risky is more dangerous to our bank systems than what’s perceived safe…and the “elite” says nothing.
    https://subprimeregulations.blogspot.com/2019/07/risk-weights-are-to-access-to-credit.html

  5. Ron Elenbaas says:

    Really thoughtful and exactly the problem. Thank-you for laying it out so well. The only way for trust to come back is to earn it. From my 65 year old perspective, I, on a daily basis, am lied to, misled, spun and disappointed by these “elites”. From the outside I would be viewed as an elite, white, male, prosperous….but I feel exactly this lack of trust. I’m afraid the “Elites” will be humble enough to work a path out for all of us…kind of depressing. Thanks for your excellent thought piece. All the best.

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  8. yoav says:

    We see Tibet with the binoculars of the people
    / W.Burroughs

  9. Gaston Alamachère says:

    As you demonstrated in the book, the kind of trust that was there once cannot be restored. Sorry elites, that’s gone forever. Problem now is how to solve collective issues without the old enlightened authorities. Elites must be prepared to act without permanent trust from the public — I guess they are by now. Short missions, short mandates, no more superiority complex. On the other hand public must be held responsible for bad judgment too. It means personal track record of individual’s take on issues and authorities. That would take care of nihilism.

  10. TomGrey says:

    “Ultimately, the elites must lead the way. Whether selected by the public or self-anointed and self-perpetuating, they hold in hand the institutional levers of change: that’s just how the world works in a complex civilization. ”
    The intolerant elites who lie to themselves about being tolerant can NOT lead the way to truth. They can, and will, act as @Gaston says, act without trust. Short missions, short mandates. Yet with maintaining their superiority complexes. Their actions will continue to be bad, and the directions they try to lead in will be bad, because their highest goal will remain virtue signaling to other “good people” elite in institutions.

    This rot comes from the unwillingness to specify true “truths” — like the fact that children coming from unbroken homes (two married hetero parents) will, on average, do better in life than any other arrangement. This is optimal, all other arrangements are sub-optimal.
    In previous ages, this would be called moral, and other ways (single mothers, especially), would be immoral.

    Elites refuse this truth, just as they refuse truths like in The Bell Curve, or the fact that women get far fewer top (800) SAT scores in math, and that these facts are important parts of “truth”.

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  12. I think this is going to follow a Turchin course. The elite are not monolithic and, like Trump, somebody will eventually spot that $100 bill of populist support that nobody else will pick. Elite rivalries are already forming and will become patent when it finally dawns on them that the pitchforks and torches really are breaking out.

    I honestly don’t see representative democracy and its related institutions surviving this. I expect they will be replaced by a more ownership-oriented model.

  13. Maple Curtain says:

    Why do you use the term “industrial elite” to describe those staffing the upper positions in society?

    Seems archaic. Also, the self-interest of an apparatchiki would not seem to align seamlessly with that of an ambitious ladder-climber in Global Corp.

  14. Maple Curtain says:

    the link to your book at Amazon is not working.

  15. Chester Asterson says:

    Great post. I have a question that I was hoping you’d answer in it as I was reading, though. You apparently reject the “canonical explanation” for “why, for example, a devout Christian with eyes wide open might vote for a man like Donald Trump”. What might you put forward as an alternative explanation? I have my own theory, involving the formative power of alternative institutions (like the Southern Baptist Conference, Wheaton College, Canon Press, and many other less visible and “respectable” little democratic religious things), but am interested to hear yours.

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  22. Bob Change says:

    I USED to be an optimistic person. I spent much of my time helping others, making the world a better place. Today, I do NOTHING to help. The system is totally broken and has NEVER been worse. I think you understand that.

    The explosion of racism and sexism, division, hatred in the last decade or two. As a society, we won’t even acknowledge male victims of domestic violence (EVER). What the hell is wrong with all of our leaders? I have never seen the west turn it’s back on victims because of their sex. Adding to that, let’s also talk about the aggressive sexism now in the education system to achieve “equality”. I swear I feel like I’m in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Violence, abuse, book burning. This is PROGRESS? There is not one leader willing to practice equal opportunity. Without a doubt, the domestic violence campaign has been the most vile thing I’ve ever seen in my life from our leaders (eg. When did you last see a domestically violent mother condemned for savagely beating or killing a child (Google “domestic violence” – not one instance in at least 10 years… un-be-liev-able!). Such hatred! That’s without talking of the systemic bullying of male students in education (and I’ve seen it first hand – it’s systemic!!). One academic staff member said she fully supports the bullying of male students because 189 countries signed a treaty to protect women via the United Nations. It’s psychotic.

    I will never again have faith in the system, ever. There is nothing that can ever be said or done to undo the last decade or two of division and hate from our leaders. Whether it be the NYT’s response to hiring Sarah Jeong (she’s a serial sexist/racist who was fully defended by senior management), James Damore, Nick Sandmann, Cassie Jaye (who was aggressively bullied for even asking if men have rights in the new order). It’s a message of division, hate, toxicity.

    Never again. This hatred can not be undone. Not that these leaders give a toss anyway. They are collectively a force of division and destruction. They deserve NO respect.

    Never again.

  23. Joe M. says:

    For what it’s worth, I happened across your blog two days ago from a link in an essay in Palladium (?) and have already resolved to read it in its entirety and buy your book. I see there’s not a ton of engagement with your posts, but I wanted to say that your effort in writing these is valued.

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