Digital Dum-dums

From the 19th century up through the early part of the 20th century, European intellectuals such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Friedrich Nietzsche, and José Ortega y Gasset expressed grave concerns about the rise of literacy and education among the masses. For these unapologetic elitists, a great many more people learning to read and becoming educated would eventually result in the debasement of language and of educational, cultural, and aesthetic standards.

Today, considering the state of high culture (or rather, the lack of it) in this country and across the Atlantic, it is difficult not to think those men have been vindicated. Here it is literacy, perhaps, that furnishes the strongest proof. Larry Sand, in an article published last Sunday at American Greatness, notes that

In 1840, before compulsory public schools existed, literacy rates were about 90 percent.

But today?

According to the Literacy Project, 45 million Americans today are functionally illiterate, unable to read above a 5th-grade level. Half of all adults can’t read a book at an 8th-grade level. In California, 25 percent of the state’s 6 million students are unable to perform basic reading skills….

What are the causes of this grim decline? Undoubtedly there are many: the statist takeover of schools at the local level; incompetent teachers; lazy students; lazy parents who fail to keep their children accountable; dumbed-down, uniform curricula (in part in order to promote equal outcomes, or less unequal outcomes, among racial groups).

The most unexpected cause, I should say, is the digital revolution that in the past few decades has transformed not only our way of life, but perhaps also human nature itself. Aided—or perhaps hindered—by our new technology, we are perpetually multitasking. Yet according to the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, “Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation.” In the words of the neurologist Richard Cytowic,

We ask our stone-age brains to sort, categorize, parse, and prioritize torrential data streams it never evolved to juggle, while in the background we have to stay ever vigilant to change in every sensory channel…. Screens of all sorts serve up rapidly changing images, jump cuts between scenes, erratic motion, and non-linear narratives that spill out in fragments…. Is it any wonder people today complain of mental fatigue? Fatigue makes it even harder to sort the trivial from the salient and navigate the glut of decisions modern life throws at us.

We are, one might say, embarked on a kind of strange technological experiment whose effects we are far from fully understanding. Of course, this ignorance is not new in human history: From the printing press to the automobile to contraception, human inventions have made for all sorts of unexpected and unpredictable changes.

“If you can’t read well, you are sure to live a shallow life and to be a stranger to your very self.”

But though this will continue to happen, we shouldn’t assume that change is necessarily a good thing. Tucker Carlson was quite right, for example, to argue a little while back that self-driving automobiles, by eliminating jobs for many Americans, would not serve the national interest. Trade-offs need to be evaluated, and to this end, it is desirable for our citizenry to be as intelligent, as well-educated, and as well-informed as possible.

In a thoughtful essay in the current issue of National Affairs, the political scientist Adam Garfinkle reflects on our digital dumbing down:

Deep reading has in large part informed our development as humans, in ways both physiological and cultural. And it is what ultimately allowed Americans to become “We the People,” capable of self-government. If we are losing the capacity for deep reading, we must also be prepared to lose other, perhaps even more precious parts of what deep reading has helped to build….

[P]eople who cannot deep read—or who do not use and hence lose the deep-reading skills they learned—typically suffer from an attenuated capability to comprehend and use abstract reasoning. In other words, if you can’t, or don’t, slow down sufficiently to focus quality attention—what [Maryanne] Wolf calls “cognitive patience”—on a complex problem, you cannot effectively think about it….

[I]f you do not deep read, you do not cultivate a capacity to…imagine, and create; you therefore may not realize that anything more satisfying than a video game even exists. Fully immerse yourself in digital “life,” and timelines will flatten into unconnected dots, rendering a person present-oriented and unable to either remember or plan well. That permanently “zoned out” person will become easy prey for the next demagogue with an attractive promise and a mesmerizing spectacle.

All this is well said. Many people are losing the ability to think in a non-shallow way, and many of us, especially the young, are not developing that ability at all. The Jews and the Chinese are two peoples who are exceptionally successful wherever they go. Why is that? Ethnic solidarity alone is not a sufficient answer. Indeed, in-group bias is the rule, not an exception, among peoples, while the Jews and the Chinese are notable for accomplishments that are not universal. These two groups, it should be recognized, have traditions of “deep reading” that are not the norm in history and around the world. Meanwhile, the negative cognitive changes that Garfinkle and others have described not only make our citizenry ill-suited for democracy, but also profoundly vulnerable to “the next demagogue.”

“If you can’t read well, you are sure to live a shallow life and to be a stranger to your very self.”

And yet, what has democracy been historically but demagoguery, in the main? “To hear these defenders of democracy talk,” wrote Joseph de Maistre in his Study on Sovereignty, “one would think that people deliberate like a committee of wise men, whereas in truth judicial murders, foolhardy undertakings, wild choices, and above all foolish and disastrous wars are eminently the prerogatives of this form of government.”

For our Founding Fathers, who intended this country to be a Constitutional Republic, democracy meant mob rule, nor would they have wanted any part of our universal suffrage.

Consider, too, just how clueless so many of our intellectuals have been and remain with respect to Trumpism and the rise of populism and nationalism throughout the West. You could go on Twitter at this very moment and see any number of highly literate people—people who have read and pondered Kant, Proust, J.S. Mill, and scores of other highbrow figures—whining that Trump embodies “fascism,” “white supremacy,” “neo-Nazism,” and other wearisome lefty clichés. Surely such hysterical opinions are not to be attributed to the digital revolution. In truth, we are essentially passionate animals, and therefore often irrational when our comforting expectations are thwarted, or when things don’t go as we wish.

Hannah Arendt was widely criticized for her notion of “the banality of evil,” which she conceived well before our latest fancy gadgets were in use. Although she thought the deeds of Adolf Eichmann and other Nazis were “monstrous,” Arendt thought they stemmed not from evil, but from mindless conformity combined with the need to belong. As she put it, “Going along with the rest and wanting to say ‘we’ were quite enough to make the greatest of all crimes possible.” Whether Arendt was right about Nazism or not, her description of Eichmann’s “curious, quite authentic inability to think” applies, I’m afraid, to a great many people. If you don’t think so, try dealing with a bureaucrat or college administrator regarding just about any matter whatsoever.

For Garfinkle,

The decline of deep literacy, combined with the relative rise in status of the superficially educated, may well be the main food stock for the illiberal nationalist forms of the contemporary populist bacillus not just in America, but in much of the world at large….

Populism of the illiberal nationalist kind is what happens in a mass-electoral democracy when a decisive percentage of mobilized voters drops below a deep-literacy standard.

Let us be charitable and grant that the nationalist and populist movements are owing at least in part to the phenomena Garfinkle references. The world, after all, is a varied place, and big movements tend to have multiple, complex causes. The problem is that neither in this passage nor elsewhere in his mostly excellent essay does Garfinkle indicate that throughout the West, large numbers of people have sensibly used nationalism and populism to express opposition to: (1) globalization, and the loss of local industry it entails; and (2) excessive immigration (whether legal or not), and the wage stagnation it entails, as well as the thorny problems of cultural compatibility it produces.

Neither do I see that “illiberal” is the right word in regard to what Garfinkle views as the “contemporary populist bacillus” in this country. What exactly makes the Trump administration “illiberal”? Garfinkle is wary of “an extreme form of conservative nationalism, the nation defined as white Americans and tolerated non-whites, in which the state provides social and economic security to the Volksgemeinschaft while strictly policing both its literal and figurative borders.” The Trump administration is not, however, a “white nationalist” one, and its immigration policies have not aimed to preserve what Peter Brimelow calls “the Historic American Nation.” (I also don’t see anything particularly “illiberal” about Boris Johnson or Brexit.)

Garfinkle, it seems to me, harbors an all-too-human prejudice: He disagrees with nationalism and populism, so he thinks there’s something “wrong” with those who support these things. But, sticking just to friends of mine, I find Trump supporters (at one time or another, in some way or another) in Paul Gottfried, Anthony Esolen, Amy Wax, Peter Paik, Jack Kerwick, Ilana Mercer, Tom Piatak, Mike Sabo, Pedro Gonzalez, Titus Techera. These writers, I need hardly say, are not lacking in “deep literacy” or “superficially educated.” How, then, would Garfinkle account for their Trumpism?

What about the people who write for or edit American Greatness, First Things, The Claremont Review of Books, The American Mind, Modern Age, The American Spectator, Law and Liberty, The Federalist, and other more or less pro-Trump publications? Like the figures I’ve listed above, these persons could all give considered reasons for their Trumpism.

It must be said frankly that the idea that illiberal nationalism is tantamount to some sort of intellectual deficiency is just dumb. It is by no means obvious that liberal cosmopolitanism or liberal internationalism is the destiny of mankind, or that any regime is suited to human nature in some necessary, ahistorical sense. Illiberal nationalists include Adrian Vermeule, Patrick Deneen, Yoram Hazony, Aleksandr Dugin, Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt. Whatever one may think about these men, who have many differences among them, unreflective and lacking in “deep reading” they’re not.

Garfinkle is the founding editor of The American Interest—a neoconservative journal—so one is hardly surprised by his liberal bias. His weird use of the German word Volksgemeinschaft (the “people’s community”), certainly not merited in context, suggests a distinctly Jewish paranoia concerning nationalism and the ethnic interests of non-Jews, common to David Frum, Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz, and other Jewish neoconservatives. (That they’d deem that last sentence “anti-Semitic” is yet another standard characteristic of these boringly predictable men.)

Garfinkle’s prejudice and blind spots, as it were, are rather regrettable since there’s a lot to like in the essay from which I’ve quoted. I admire in particular his acute emphasis on how central “deep reading” is to the development of culture and to the cultivation of one’s inner life. The most depressing aspect of the digital revolution, to my mind, is that many people don’t know how to make the most of their solitude. If you can’t read well, you are sure to live a shallow life and to be a stranger to your very self. In these hard and lonely days of the coronavirus, it’s as good a time as any to take up some old books so as to prevent or correct that awful condition.



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