OK, here’s a question – what do these two have in common?
No, it isn’t that they are both ludicrously cartoonish rich white men with a Messiah complex. Rather, they represent two ends of a strangely compelling spectrum in Western culture. On the one hand, a man who is a nerd, a geek, a cosplayer who loves Iron Man so much that he shouts his love from the rooftops. He is practically shooting repulsor beams into the sky spelling out how much he LOVES technology and art when they work together. The other man, of course, is the most recent rebirth of the Know-Nothing Party, Donald Trump.
Something has happened since the mid-twentieth century. More people are getting higher educations than ever before. The middle class has been told that if you want to keep your position in the hierarchy, you really need to go to university. That mass of people whose love of culture and technology used to be a reason to avoid them like lepers now gather together in HUGE conventions worth billions of dollars. They are literally the drivers of popular culture. Today, education (skills and knowledge) is available for everyone in a way that it hasn’t been ever before. You can grow up in a small village in Mali and learn how to use mixing software through YouTube and become a major musician and producer, because education is ubiquitous.
At the same time, the rich and powerful have only become more rich and powerful than ever before. To mark what sets them apart from everyone else in the West, the wealthy and the powerful can’t turn to, say, religion (“we were sent by God to rule over you”) like James I and Louis XIV did, and they can’t turn to blood (“we have inherited our position to rule”) like aristocrats have done for centuries. They have to mark themselves out by another means and increasingly this seems to be a kind of stubborn resistance to the fruits of education.
I think this is one of the reasons why everyone was so surprised when Justin Trudeau explained Quantum Computing so easily:
Learning ain’t for the powerful, after all. Lerning is fer the peeples whos gets stuff dun. We just tell thems whats to do and they duz it.
If, like me, you are an educator, you are probably thinking, “This is terrible! Just… terrible!” Fear not! I don’t think we have to worry about this too much. (I mean, worry about it, fight against it, but ultimately I think that we can contain the damage of this asinine backlash against education.)
1. It Has Happened Before
I mentioned the Know-Nothing Party in the US, which was a surprisingly influential group in the mid-1800s that ran on an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-anyone-who-wasn’t-white-Protestant-and-male platform. In fact, Trump has been seen as the latest face of the Know-Nothing trend in American politics that goes back into the 1600s, if you believe it.
At their worst, the Know-Nothings rioted in New York and Baltimore and riots broke out in Louisville in 1855 that killed dozens of people. Now, before you say, “Yeah, but the party wasn’t made up of elites, it was made up of everyday people (whatever that means)” remember that the people who have the most to lose from economic change also have the most to gain from keeping things as they are. Just as Trump’s minions are drawn from all walks of life yet they ultimately serve the goals of an ideology that privileges very, very few of them, so the Know-Nothings acted in service of a political and economic model that disadvantaged most of them but greatly served a few of them.
Before you start getting all nationalistic about this, let’s not forget that Canada and the UK had their own versions of this kind of reactionary protectionism (and no, I’m not talking about Stephen Harper and David Cameron).
A recent article by Heather Davis-Fisch in Theatre Research in Canada/Recherches Théâtrales au Canada describes how in the days of the Family Compact in Canada, we weren’t much better than the Know-Nothings. The Types Riot in June 1826 saw a group of younger members of the Canadian elite known as the Family Compact storm into the print shop of William Lyon Mackenzie dressed as “Indians” and destroy his press, throwing the type and the press into Lake Ontario.
A single riot does not a movement make, but the vice-like grip the Family Compact had over colonial Canada is well documented and made such a lasting impact that most of our oldest institutions are still named after guys who thought it would be a good idea to beat up a journalist and his workers because he had written some damning stuff about their dads. These guys mistook violence for power and, in a few decades, found that they lost both.
Which leads to…
2. Ignorance Can Lead to Social Justice (in a strange way)
When you are faced with violence and people full-throatedly calling out their pride in their own ignorance (funny how those two go together, no?), it is hard to think about how this might just be a symptom of increased social justice, but just hear me out…
Movements like the Know-Nothings, the Regency Period’s gangs of aristocratic dandies who beat up middle- and lower-class artisans, and the Family Compact’s (literal) sons are a sign that the powers-that-be are unable to exert power in the ways that they once were. Hannah Arendt notes in On Violence that violence is distinguishable from power. “Power needs no justification” while “Violence […] is distinguished by its instrumental character” (46-48).
When the movement towards ignorance gains traction, it is a sign that the systems of power to which we all subscribe (simply by being a part of a social order) are under duress. Power is beginning to fail to be coercive and other mechanisms of control have to be put in place to ensure that order is maintained. Violence (and I see willful ignorance as a kind of violence) is a technology of coersion that is instrumental, but is not a long term solution. Heck, violence in general is not a long term solution for a society. Eventually people become desensitized.
Arendt goes on to say “When power disintegrates, revolution is possible but not necessary” (49). This is what has happened. After the Family Compact was squeezed out of politics in the 1840s, suddenly there was a movement to get Canada recognized as an independent Dominion of the Empire. After the Know-Nothings and the full on Civil War that followed them, you have the Thirteenth Amendment. After the Regency Period dandies stopped being quite so dandy, you have the Abolition of Slavery and the Reform Acts.
Remember, it isn’t that these parties of ignorance are themselves directly responsible for the movement towards greater social equality, but that they were a symptom of the elite losing power and not knowing how to deal with it in any way other than through violence. In that intermediate period when society is being restructured, while power is being reorganized, while we are all reassessing the contract by which we agree to live together, social progressives can slip in and start making real changes for the better.
Of course, there is a reason why the violence peters out after a while…
3. Ignorance is an Unsustainable Model of Governance
It isn’t just that a society gets tired of being led by people who have shit for brains, but that the exercise of power stems from the ability to navigate a system of social mores and customs by which we have all agreed to abide. Violence, the coercive arm of ignorance, only needs a drone, or a gun, or maybe a pitchfork. Unless you are able to threaten everyone with your pitchfork all at once, you simply can’t coerce them into doing anything.
But wait, you say. They are able to do that! They can rain down drone-based hellfire from the sky on any one of us at any time that they want, anywhere in the world. They effectively have a gun to our head at all times. We are living in a fascist state, man!
To which I say… First, you watch too many Jason Bourne movies. Second, let’s say that technology were there, that the amorphous “they” could literally kill any of us at any given time just because… so what? The ability doesn’t grant the right to do it.
See, in the Cold War, we all granted our governments the right to kill everyone (like, literally, EVERYONE) if it came to that, because we had been convinced that a certain system of social power was worth existential annihilation. That system of governance worked for about 30 years, but even then it had major detractors on both sides of the geo-political divide. From the 50s to the 80s, societies of the global North all tacitly agreed that this was the way we would run things, through the threat of global violence. Violence became an integral instrument of power.
The threat of or use of violence a great way to keep everyone in place for a short amount of time (historically speaking). “Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert, but it derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together rather than from any action that may follow” (Arendt 52). That’s why so much attention is paid to the Fathers of Confederation or the Founders of the Constitution. Legitimacy is derived from that foundational moment, and present violence is, by definition, an illegitimate form of coercion.
Eventually (historically speaking), the elite begin to see that their grip on power and their access to legitimacy is even more undermined by the use of violence than it would be by not using violence. They suddenly realize that willful ignorance (a form of self-violence) only ends up harming their ability to exercise power even more than just renegotiating the terms by which we share the social system would.
That point at which the violence shows itself to be without legitimacy is the point at which those who believe in working for social justice can really pounce. That’s when the mask is taken off. That’s when everyone realizes that the reason the elites are in charge is because they are in charge is because they are in charge is because they are in charge.
I started off by asking what a guy cosplaying Iron Man had to do with Donald Trump. The fact is that Iron Man (and superheroes generally) are a cultural attempt to understand and rationalize the use of violence and individual strength in service of the larger systems of cultural power. Violence, by its very nature, is instrumental and can only serve to shore up legitimacy for a short term. It cannot actually supplant or replace power. Ignorance, which is a form of violence enacted by the self against the self, cannot last because at some point someone is going to ask why?