01 February 2009

weekend notes #3

• Postscript to the previous post and the idea of 'clever crazies'. In my experience, the exceptionally clever are not 'crazy' in any meaningful sense of that word, at least not the functional ones. They are just not particularly good at office politics, which is something you need to be brilliant at in modern academia to avoid being marginalised. To be good at something requires you to be interested in it. Being interested in (say) the frontiers of theoretical physics is relatively incompatible with being interested in the machinations of a professional hierarchy. And vice versa — which may be why modern scientists tend to be dull, if by 'dull' you mean incapable of having an original thought. Also, office politics tends to be harder for those who deviate in any way from the acceptable norm.

• Re the idea that some of the geniuses missing from science are to be found in the upper echelons of journal publishing. I recently came across a report in Physics World* alleging that the editor of one of the Elsevier stable of science journals has been using his position to ensure his own papers get published. Presumably his behaviour demonstrates some kind of cleverness, though I am not sure it is the kind that expands the frontiers of knowledge. Certainly this approach seems to be the canny way of getting round the absurdly inefficient and corrupt process that most other 'researchers' have to contend with these days to get their 'papers' published — a treadmill that has become an unavoidable component of career progress in modern academia.

• In the previous post I referred to the tendency on both sides of the political spectrum to blame social ills on 'individualism'. A prime example from the Left is provided by pop psychiatrist Adam Phillips's recent article on kindness (co-authored with Barbara Taylor). There may be phenomena worth talking about here, e.g. increasing aggression, but the level of analysis provided by AP/BT is pitiful.
Their philosophical references are dodgy. Hobbes's Leviathan was not a blueprint for individualism but a warning of what would happen in the absence of strong central government. Nietzsche did not despise kindness but behaviour motivated by guilt. And claiming that his alleged sneering at philanthropists is "widely endorsed" is ludicrous — when did you last hear a public figure citing Nietzsche as a moral authority?
AP/BT's explanatory story for the decline of kindness is along the usual anti-capitalist lines. Allegedly, modern western society values "independence above all things", and regards self-sufficiency and autonomy as "cardinal values". These assertions seem peculiar ones to make on behalf of countries that devote over 40% of their national output to public expenditure.
AP/BT's comments on the welfare pioneers' attitudes to kindness are evasive. They point out that Beveridge mistrusted the Victorian spirit of "doing things for other people", and that he planned to approach social problems "scientifically rather than sentimentally". But they refuse to consider the possibility that there might be an incompatibility between welfare statism and the occurrence of personal kindness. Instead, they insist there exists a "universal impulse to help strangers" and that it can be seen clearly at work in the NHS. (Some recent recipients of NHS services may wish to query this claim.)
As someone no doubt familiar with word association, Phillips exploits his Guardian audience's knee-jerk mental connections to good effect. He reproduces the standard leftist platitudes about the source of the problem being 'selfish individualism', without bothering to define terms or provide meaningful evidence.

With the 1997 triumph of New Labour in Britain, and George W Bush's election to the American presidency in 2000, competitive individualism became the ruling consensus ... A competitive society, one that divides people into winners and losers, breeds unkindness ... Capitalism is no system for the kindhearted.
Is communism, then, a system for the kindhearted? And has there ever been a society that did not divide people into winners and losers?
AP/BT describe some of the negative characteristics of contemporary Britain.
People placed under unremitting pressure become estranged from each other ... individuals coerced by circumstances become coercers ... people seek scapegoats for their unhappiness ... A culture of "hardness" and cynicism grows ...
They place the blame for all this on our "competitive society", though no evidence is adduced why 21st century Britain should be thought of as more competitive than, say, Elizabethan society. The symptoms in question could just as easily be attributed to the growth of mediocracy — an ethos that promotes and enforces a degraded view of the individual.

• The FT’s Jonathan Guthrie recently informed us ('If you can fake it, you will make it') of the latest hot concept from the world of business philosophy: authenticity. Not just any kind of authenticity, however: preferably, it should be the fake kind.
At one executive leadership seminar I attended recently, the trainer explained that authenticity was the main attribute delegates needed to radiate, including “different types of authenticity for different audiences”. This means being a technocrat in the boardroom, a pragmatist among middle managers and an Average Joe on the shop floor.
This is one advantage of the private sector: it tends to be more honest about its nonsense, and will at times openly display it for all to see. After all, business is a kind of game. PricewaterhouseCoopers may set up a website asking people “how would you like to change the world” but no one realistic is going to see this as anything other than a bit of marketeering. The public sector, on the other hand, takes its intellectual credentials far more seriously, and would never be as revealing about its potentially mockable ideology — although we do of course get the occasional whisteblower who generously leaks it.
But Mr Guthrie has missed an opportunity to make a much wider point. Fake is now preferable, not just for corporate authenticity, but for many other attributes as well. ‘Cleverness’, for example, has been rebranded, so that it is now a question of being seen to do something which is difficult to mimic correctly without training, rather than a question of underlying ability. Labels are more important than the qualities with which they were once mildly correlated. Appearance is prioritised over reality, as appearance is more easily manipulated.** And an awareness of this reversal of relative status between description and innate quality is important, if you want to be considered sophisticated in a mediocracy.

* January 2009, p.10. Some details about the case are available here.
** For example, you may only be the deputy editor of a chatterati magazine with intellectual pretensions and a declining circulation. Pull a few strings and give a couple of lectures, however, and — hey presto — you are now a "Professor of Journalism Studies".