What’s the Matter With Bruni?

I

“A man knowes no more of righteousness than he hath power to act.”

That’s Gerrard Winstanley, the prolific spokesman of the Diggers, a radical, socialist sect that came to life during the English Revolution of the mid-17th century, when the crown’s censorship was abolished and just about everybody started speaking his mind (hers, too, there were outspoken women preachers among the Quakers and the Baptists and the Ranters).

By all accounts, the Diggers made the Levellers—the left-wing of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army—look like timid liberals in the face of the Protector’s successful bid for power, which eventually silenced all the sects, including the Levellers.  By all accounts, Winstanley himself was the first communist, the man who identified private property in land as the original sin, which the New Adam born of revolution would erase.

The quoted passage is from A New Yeere’s Gift to the Army, printed in 1650.  Winstanley was trying to persuade the Levellers and their soldier constituency to go for broke, to enfranchise (in the broadest sense) all Englishmen.  He was suggesting that private property in land was the principal source of power in contemporary society—James Harrington was meanwhile perfecting a similar argument—so that the power of any individual to act on anything, even his own belief in God, was as unequally distributed as such property.

Absent the kind of equality that would follow from the abolition of landed property, Winstanley argued, only those who owned the land could be in possession of themselves, and thus capable of the free choices that led to righteousness.  Imagine that: Henry George avant la lettre, by two centuries.

II

I’m reminded of this passage from Winstanley after reading Frank Bruni’s New York Times column today, about how stupid American voters are because roughly 40% of them “don’t even know that [Obamacare] is a law on the books”—and how precarious democracy must be in view of this fact, because a “clueless electorate is a corruptible one.”

Bruni’s column is a reprise of political science from the 1950s and 60s, which discovered an irrational electorate tethered to party rather than program, “mass belief systems” rather than ideologies.  By the same token, it’s a reprise of the Frankfurt School’s discovery of the “authoritarian personality,” which David Riesman translated into the less egregious character he called the “other-directed individual,” and which C. Wright Mills soon after correlated with a “post-modern” stage of western civilization.

Bruni’s lament is also, of course, a reprise of Thomas Frank’s discovery of false consciousness in Kansas, where, as in South Carolina and other states beyond the reach of Massachusetts, the people just keep on voting for capitalism even though it’s never on the ballot!  This amazing discovery catapulted Frank to the platform of guest columnist at the Times, then the Wall Street Journal, on toward his permanent gig as the replacement for Lewis Lapham at Harper’s, where whining about the benighted masses will never cease because the masses will never cease to be benighted, either because they simply are, by nature, benighted, or because the powers that be, whatever they may be, conspire with the culture industry to keep the masses benighted.

III

In other words, Bruni’s lament is by now a tiresome trope, a compulsive repetition, the kind of explanatory complaint you reach for when you don’t want to think—or rather, when you don’t have to think.  So let’s turn the trope around and ask, What’s the matter with Bruni?

You, Frank, believe you know how the world works because you’re smart, well-educated, articulate; your position at the Times verifies and amplifies these implicit claims to authority on behalf of Truth.  You and your readers are unlike the 40% of Americans, who don’t know that Obamacare is an incontrovertible legislative reality.

And yet you, Frank, acknowledge that although already on the books, this law hasn’t been “fully implemented”—it’s not quite on the books!—and that your friends among physicians are just as confused about it as the rest of us.  Suddenly the 40% don’t look so stupid compared to you.  What next?

Well, of course, you move on to the recent surveys showing that Americans, more generally speaking, are clueless.  First, minor fractions of them believe in Roswell, Bigfoot, and so on (ask them about their belief in God and you’ll be forever traumatized).  Second, “65% of us can’t name a single Supreme Court justice.”  Third, about a third can’t name the vice-president or “assign the proper century to the American Revolution.”  (I like the part about assigning a century, because it makes me feel like I just finished an impossible lesson plan for a substitute teacher, so everybody loses.)

Frank, tell me, why do these numbers matter to you?  OK, I got the classical part about a clueless electorate being corruptible.  But why are we supposed to know the esoteric things you do, like, say, that Obamacare is absolutely and already a law on the books?  What does it matter that the American Revolution happened in the 1700s, which we insist on calling the 18th century because we’re stuck with an arbitrary calendar of human events that dates everything from the birth of Jesus?  (I’ve taught history for almost 40 years, and I’m always stumbling over this obvious discrepancy.  Quickly now, Frank, what century would you “assign” to the Black Plague, which first devastated Europe ca. 1349-1351?  Yeah, 1300s, but that’s the 14th century.)

I believe, Frank, that you’re suffering from the “pearls before swine” syndrome that infects many teachers and writers—you know you’ve succumbed when you ask yourself, typically as you’re grading exams or reading rejection letters, this harrowing question: How can I keep speaking the Truth if my audience is made of morons?  You present symptomatically as follows: “We [journalists] purport to interpret an informed, rational universe, because we’d undercut our own insights if we purported anything else.”

Who sounds uneducated, ignorant, or clueless now?  What universe is it that you believe in?  Going to the family reunion in Roswell this year?

IV

“A man knowes no more of righteousness than he hath power to act.”

Broaden the scope of that unforgettable dictum.  A man or a woman knows no more of anything than he or she has the power to enact in this world, not the next.  For the condition of certainty in knowledge, according to the scientific method, is purposeful manipulation of—not contemplative abstention from—the world of objects you propose to understand.  The point is to change it, as Marx said, or rather, you can’t interpret it without changing it, and this world of objects includes yourself.  Without the power to determine yourself, you can’t even know yourself.

But now go farther, take Winstanley at his word.  There is no reason to know anything, or try to be anybody, unless it matters, unless we have the power to act on it.  We address the problems we’re already capable of solving.  We use the facts our models and our paradigms have produced.  Why would an individual want or need to know who sits on the Supreme Court, when everybody knows that this body is as far beyond the reach of political deliberation and personal persuasion as Olympus was from Athens?

Why would anybody want or need to know when the American Revolution or why the Civil War took place, unless it still matters—unless we still have the power to act on it, knowing that our choices made a difference?

When Frank Bruni accuses the electorate of ignorance, he’s convicting himself of the charge.  He’s reminding us that we, the American people, don’t lack either knowledge or education.  What we lack is power–the power to act on our beliefs, and to experience the righteousness that comes of this practical knowledge.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “What’s the Matter With Bruni?

  1. Nicely stated, Jim. Also, I suspect Frank Bruni doesn’t know how to change out a head gasket, but the 40 percent he derides can do it in their sleep.

  2. I don’t know Jim. I have to hurry, and I get your critique here, but it seems to me that Bruni is running up against a legitimate worry (however ineffectively enunciated). To woefully decontextualize Bacon, “scientia potestas est.” There’s something to what he’s noticing, and not because it’s new. It’s not. It’s because, with the presence of the magical “information dissemination tablets” that are our everyday companions at work, at home, and at play, the ability to seek out and verify (or at least contextualize) knowledge is supposed to be so easy as to have some effect upon the culture–if Fukuyama was right, and internationalized neoliberalism (and the gadgets it engenders) is the “End of History,” shouldn’t the teleology culminate in a well-informed public? And yet, anyone on FB knows that, regardless of political persuasion, people will promote nearly anything they hear: even if fact checking it means only a few seconds. The presence of the-world’s-knowledge-but-a-Google-click-away isn’t leading to a more, but rather, it seems, an even less-informed populace (or a populace even more assured of their mis-rendered knowledge).

    I think it’s disturbing, like Bruni, sure, but I also think it’s interesting. If given the option to know the facts or to seek out information that supports your beliefs, most do the latter (as you’ve seen across the ideological spectrum–I’ve even witnessed a couple such encounters). The U.S. has a latter-day imperial sense of entitlement to it, and given its role in substantial matters of global policy (an influence brought upon itself) the contemporary anti-intellectual, anti-science backlash is a little concerning. Everybody thinks they’re an expert on everything because the understanding is that anything worth knowing should fit in 140 characters. I contend that Bruni is identifying a real concern, but he is not, to be fair, doing it in a sophisticated way.

    But that’s the point, isn’t it? If he did, almost nobody (outside of the .96% of Americans with PhDs or the 8% with MAs or a fraction of the 30% with BAs) would commit the more-than-two-minutes to reading it. Everything has to be condensed to egregious simplicity–but of course, the problem with simplicity is that, like Cliff’s Notes, people mistake passing familiarity with expertise, and then reify their preconceptions.

    I think he’s trying to point out that intelligence must begin with an awareness of one’s own relative ignorance, and that’s not a position that’s widely disseminated as either productive, effective, or valuable in the current cultural context.

    It’s not that the U.S. is becoming less informed; I think it’s that the majority mistakenly think they’re informed in a new manner. Maybe I’m wrong on this–it could be that the internet is only now introducing me to the overall vapidity of general opinion. But I think anti-intellectualism is becoming knee-jerk in a way that I’m not sure I’ve seen in *my* lifetime (although to be fair, nothing is new on this earth, and I’m no long-era historian).

  3. At the expense of seeming to quibble, Paul, you may just be speaking metaphorically. After all, Bruni appears to be suffering from a leaking head gasket, which invariably leads to a loss of power. However, I am not sure that the 40% know how to change out a head gasket though many might know where they are located and that changing them out is an expensive operation. I think we impute too much technical knowledge and skill to any segment of Americans. Yesterday, I put this question to my mechanic, Keith, down at Rising Sun Toyota Repair who services all income groups, but particularly folks like myself who cannot or will not pay the high prices charged by the dealerships. Keith’s comment: “Most people know shit about head gaskets or anything else about the modern automobile … We’re no longer working on automobiles when repair was just a matter of changing out or adjusting the points and replacing the plugs … That’s why I make the money … Of course, we have those who do this for a hobby, and I also make money cleaning up their messes.”

    I think we make too much of the la sagesse technique du prolétariat.

    • Jim B., Yes, I was speaking metaphorically to some extent. And from gratitude that they saw through Romney, especially in the TV debates.

  4. jonnybutter

    It’s *Bruni* who has no power to act, evidently. The problem with tiresome tropes is that even if there is a grain of truth to them, so to speak, they aren’t true in a larger sense by virtue of being ‘tiresome’, i.e. reflexive. Bruni or any number of others like him could write the column at hand in their sleep. It’s an important mechanism of power that its culture stay as boring and nauseatingly predictable as possible.

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