Entry from October 29, 2014

Party On . . .

Remarkable. An organization rather vaingloriously calling itself "Intelligence Squared" tells me that it is holding, or has held, a debate on the motion: "Income Inequality Impairs the American Dream of Upward Mobility." Surely, you would think, even intelligence unsquared must be equal to the task of reasoning required to see that it is only income inequality that could make the American Dream of upward mobility possible in the first place — and thus that the motion is nonsense? Too bad I only received an invitation to take part in this nonsensical debate, now available as a DVD or podcast, on the same day it took place. I’ve got to think they really didn’t want my input after all but were only pretending to invite me because they thought I would be flattered by the pretense of my inclusion, even via spam, in such highly intelligent company. I’m not. I tend to agree with Stephen Hawking that "people who boast about their I.Q. are losers." Sorry Mensa. I have a slight curiosity to see if any of the IQ2 initiate were bright enough to understand that the content of their "debate" was a null set, as they would no doubt put it. But not enough to take the trouble to find out.

Meanwhile, Daniel Finkelstein, a columnist for The Times of London but at heart still a British election strategist writes of the insurgent UKIP challenge to the Conservative party over Europe and immigration that "the electorate is changing and becoming more culturally and socially liberal while the UKIP vote is intense and angry, but represents a growing proportion of an inevitably shrinking group." The "inevitably shrinking group" is old people, in case you hadn’t guessed. They’re inevitably shrinking because they’re dying off. "The problem for the Conservative party is severe," he continues. "It relies heavily (more than Labour, making its problem worse) on an older, culturally conservative vote that is shrinking, and yet if it seeks support among the growing sections, and sentiment, of the population it risks exacerbating its problems with UKIP. In the long run the answer is obvious. The Conservative party cannot choose the shrinking, ageing, groups over the growing, young ones. This way death lies. Literally."

Obviously, there is a lesson here for the Republican party in America, which is the more culturally conservative of the major parties, though it is interesting to me that Lord Finkelstein — he actually is a lord, by the way — takes it for granted that the young are wedded to their social liberalism and unpersuadable by the inevitably shrinking (and dying) oldsters that there is something to be said for socially conservative views. He’s probably right, but it does go to show the extent to which rational persuasion, which used to be thought the essence of politics in a democracy, is no longer expected to have any place in our public life. That is also the assumption behind the phony "debate" promoted by IQ2. The pretense of rationality is exposed in that case by the logical flaw in the wording of the motion, but it is implicit in most political argument nowadays. Even when we are ostensibly engaged in persuasive efforts we are really only banging the drum for the superiority of our side and for the benefit of those who want to join the winners.

There’s a similar problem with David Brooks’s piece in yesterday’s New York Times on the evils of what he calls "Partyism." The more interesting question to me is why has the natural human tendency to tribalism (as it should be called) become politicized in Western democracies? That is, we have come to base our tribes not on familial or regional or ancestral ties or on religion, as they do in most of the world and have done through most of human history, but on our views about abortion or taxes or income inequality or, God help us, "climate change." It’s a very odd thing when you think about it. Ultimately, I guess, you’ve got to blame Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, aka Lenin, for persuading so much of the Western world and its media that all the big questions of human existence boil down to simple power relationships, or who is oppressing whom. That’s the intellectual hell from which there is no exit.

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