The Counter-Enlightenment in Our Midst

I’ve been vacationing for a couple of weeks on a Great Lake, swimming, sailing, hitting the local tourist attractions, and reading books on the Enlightenment . On vacation I deliberately try to avoid the news (so I don’t spoil it playing tiny violins after reading sad tales like this one), but somehow I ended up reading a summary account of rabble-rousers and their roused rabble at town hall meetings about health care reform, and the contrast between that and my reading left me feeling depressed.

It was Voltaire, I think, (or perhaps Diderot) who wrote that violent resistance to arguments just meant you were too stupid to form arguments. We have seen this playing out around the country, with right-wing professional idiots (leaders?) encouraging their followers to shout, disrupt proceedings, deliberately avoid debate, and all the other tactics of the stupid and inarticulate in the face of calm reason. The irony is that these leaders and their followers seem to think of themselves as "conservatives" of some kind, but it’s not at all clear what they want to conserve other than the wealth and power of private insurance companies. They certainly don’t seek the ordered liberty so beloved of some who deem themselves conservatives. I’ve long speculated that there aren’t really any conservatives in America anyway. There are only variations of reactionary against the Enlightenment ideals of the founding.

Historians of conservatism–e.g., Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, Jerry Muller–often trace the beginnings of conservatism in the English-speaking world to Edmund Burke and his Reflections on the Revolution in France (though Anthony Quinton goes further back to Bolingbroke, if I remember correctly). Burke himself, though, was a beacon of tolerance and reason compared to aggressive soldiers of the Counter-Enlightenment like Joseph de Maistre. A clubbable man and friend of Adam Smith and a supporter of the American War of Independence such as Burke couldn’t have been otherwise. As the title and movement of conservatism were born and spreading through Europe, it made some sense. The conservatives were trying to conserve, or at least to resurrect, an older regime of authoritarian political and religious order that was actively under assault from Enlightenment values such as liberty, equality, toleration, reason, education, and individual rights against the state.

In America, such a tradition makes little sense, despite Kirk’s heroic efforts to give American reactionaries an historical tradition. America was the first country founded upon Enlightenment values. Granted, Americans themselves have rarely in the mass lived up to those values, and the history of America is to some extent the development of these enlightened  values over the darker forces of our nature for two hundred years. No one with eyes to see could say that America is a perfectly enlightened or tolerant country, but without a doubt the enlightened values of the founding have slowly found favor with a greater percentage of the population. Those Americans resisting the ideals of reasoned discussion and debate, toleration for the Other, individual rights, liberty, equality, and education are thus not conservatives, but reactionaries. They don’t wish to conserve or even resurrect a fallen order, but to impose darkness on the land.

To give some substance to these musings, let’s briefly examine two figures of the Enlightenment who are in stark contrast to the shouting rabble and their beloved leaders in the recent meetings: Immanuel Kant and Adam Smith.

Kant wrote a late essay called "What is Enlightenment?" that summarized some of his views. For Kant, enlightenment meant throwing off the self-imposed shackles of leaders and having the courage to use your own reason to make decisions. The motto is sapere aude, or "dare to know." Enlightened people educate themselves, use their reason, and challenge irrational authority. They are not looking to be lead. The unenlightened desire to be led. They want people to tell them what to believe about important issues–about God, religion, ethics, politics. The unenlightened take on faith, for example, the literal truths of religious texts because they have been told to do so and have rarely had more faith in their own capacity for reason than in the word of another. This is not to say the unenlightened are stupid, though sometimes they are. This is merely to say they are unreasonable. Many of them wouldn’t object to this at all. Recall Tertullian’s famous defense of his Christian belief: Credo quia absurdum est–I believe because it is absurd. De Maistre and other figures of counter-Enlightenment were no different. For them, reason is not a primary value.

In the current debates, as in so many others in the country, we see this playing out. We see people who want to be led, who take their marching orders from radio and television entertainers like Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, or from others hidden inside various advocacy groups. They don’t reason, they don’t dare to know. They certainly don’t balk at the irrational and foolish. They’re encouraged to become part of a mob and they do it in an attempt to forestall any rational debate by any side in the discussion. I heard one woman interviewed on the radio who claimed that she opposed a public health plan because she didn’t want her health care decisions made by "some bureaucrat." Regardless of one’s position in this debate, this response–no doubt fed to her by someone leading her on–is absurd. If she has health insurance now, who does she think is making decisions about her coverage but some bureaucrat, and, what’s more, a bureaucrat with an eye on the profit margin of her insurance company rather than the needs of her health. An enlightened person would say, oppose or defend whatever you wish, but at least have intelligent reasons for doing so.

It’s a more curious contrast with Adam Smith, a mainstay of the Scottish Enlightenment and one of the most misunderstood writers of contemporary times. In this country, Adam Smith has the reputation of being an absolutely laissez-faire economist, totally dedicated to the "invisible hand," opposed to government, a friend of the capitalist class and an implied enemy of those who find themselves losers in a perfectly free market. Both right and left have this illusion of Smith. Rich financiers in the Reagan years supposedly sported ties with Adam Smith’s image, thinking he was one of their kind. Leftists are seldom any better. I once had a strange interaction with a fellow library school student, a socialist of sorts with an M.A. in history, who saw me reading The Wealth of Nations. The student refused to read Smith "because he was a capitalist," thus demonstrating his own lack of enlightenment. He’d been told all he needed to know by some professor or pundit, and relinquished faith in his own power to educate himself and make reasonable judgments based on his own knowledge.

Adam Smith was a defender of what he called the "system of natural liberty," and he did indeed describe and defend the division of labor and free trade that undeniably builds wealth in nations. However, he was not necessarily a friend of the capitalist or an opponent of government, as anyone who has ever bothered to read Smith would know. Does this quote from the Wealth of Nations surprise you?

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.

Does this sound like a friend of the rapacious capitalist? What else are lobbyists and business interest groups but conspiracies against the public? Cabals dedicated to their own interest at the expense of the common good? Or this argument against mercantilism:

Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer. The maxim is so perfectly self-evident that it would be absurd to attempt to prove it. But in the mercantile system the interest of the consumer is almost constantly sacrificed to that of the producer; and it seems to consider production, and not consumption, as the ultimate end and object of all industry and commerce.

How many of our laws, regulations, and subsidies are truly dedicated to protection of the individual and unorganized consumers, and how many to the protection of organized business interests, i.e., the producers? Whose interests are at stake in the current debate, and whose interests are getting the most attention in the media–the consumers of health care or the producers of it? What would Adam Smith the consumer advocate have to say about the shenanigans of the insurance industry?

Despite my commentary on the health care debate here, it’s not health care or the debate as such that interests me so much as the mob tactics associated with it. We have right wing pundits and entertainers calling President Obama a Nazi while encouraging the sort of mob politics the Nazis themselves used to such great effect. In this case, the end of enlightenment is the rise of the ochlocracy, or "rule of the mob." We’ve had people who might otherwise be intelligent and productive citizens showing up at meetings shouting so that others might not be heard. They’ve been acting like Yahoos, another creation of an eighteenth-century writer. In Gulliver’s travel to the land of the Houyhnhnms he encounters creatures he takes to be humans by their appearance, but finds after watching them they’re little more than bestial savages. Watching roused rabble scream and shout affirms Jonathan Swift’s belief that humans aren’t rational animals, but only animals capable of reason.

This disturbs me as a human and as a citizen, but also professionally. American reactionaries, wherever they have power, try to defund education and any other public good. They would rather send a harmless pot-smoker to prison than a smart poor person to college. With no responsible voices on the political right speaking out against the disruptive mobs, does this mean they support the rise of ochlocracy?

There are mobs of every political stripe, as history has shown, but I’m more concerned professionally by right-wing than left-wing mobs. Left-wing mobs have a tendency to destroy commercial property (as in the WTO protests in Seattle a decade ago) or else just appropriate it (as with most left-wing revolutions). I don’t have any commercial property, and am unlikely to acquire any, so that doesn’t affect me as directly. Right-wing mobs have a tendency to attack institutions of education rather than of commerce. They don’t like book-learning, but they do like book-burning.

The Right has been working hard for a couple of decades to reduce the funding of higher education, and thus make it more difficult for poor, or even the middle class, to afford college. This is insidious destruction of a society of educated and thus often critical citizens. With the active encouragement of people to join mobs and shout down opponents, and the lack of right-winge opposition to demagogic voices, how big a leap is it to imagine mobs being encouraged not just to shout down politicians they don’t like, but to start burning books and such at public rallies? If the reactionary leaders don’t like reasoned debate, how long before they direct the mobs against the the institutions most dedicated to reason and debate–our colleges and universities?

Does this seem far-fetched? Perhaps. On the other hand, one right-wing entertainer with millions of followers is ignorant or stupid enough to compare those who believe in equal rights with women to Nazis. It’s not like we aren’t living amidst millions of loud, ignorant bigots. I see no difference in principle in demagogues encouraging their followers to disrupt peaceful meetings and encouraging them to besiege libraries or disrupt the activities of teaching and learning at institutions of higher education. Both involve resistance to enlightenment, the denial of reason, and the embrace of dark, unruly passions.

Leaders and Followers and Me

At the risk of having Walt Crawford never link to one of my blog posts again, I’m going to talk about some things that have been bothering me about the Library Leadership Network. No, that’s not quite right. I’m going to talk about some things that bother me about some of the things the LLN links to, so maybe this is more participating in the conversation than criticizing the LLN, and thus Walt might link to me again one day. I’m not uncomfortable with talk of leadership, but there’s something about the idea of "leaders," and especially their concomitant "followers," that sometimes rubs me the wrong way.

At other points I’ve criticized people who conflate leader and manager, thus designating anyone who happens to be in a supervisory role a "leader." This is a category mistake that should be easy to spot, since I’m sure most of us have known supervisors who were neither leaders nor managers, but instead uninspired and incompetent mediocrities. Or maybe I’m the only one who’s known anyone like that. So I contend it’s a mistake to confuse leaders and managers. To judge by the "leadership literature" LLN sometimes links to, this sort of sloppy thinking is endemic to the field. I’m not sure who’s a "leader" and who isn’t, but anyone incapable of disambiguating the various terms that allow even remotely intelligent discussion of the issue isn’t going to get me as a "follower."

But the literature displays more than just a tendency to insufficiently parse terminology. Tonight I’ve been going through some entries in another LLN category: Leaders and Followers, linked from the latest LLN Highlights. One entry I found especially irksome: "What every leader needs to know about followers." (It’s down a way on the page; the link to the original article is broken.) The LLN summary reads: "This article identifies five types of followers–followers being those who ‘are low in the hierarchy and have less power, authority, and influence than their superiors.’" It took me a couple of minutes just to get past that. This sentence, especially the spurious definition of "follower," implies that everyone who is a "superior" in some sort of hierarchy is thus a "leader" (since leaders have followers, while superiors have inferiors), and that anyone below this "superior" "follows." The sloppy language is made more bizarre by the very obvious fact that some of the types discussed don’t "follow" at all. Just read the description of Isolates, Bystanders, Participants, Activists, and Diehards.

This is another example of using language sloppily and conflating terms, but the writers of this leadership literature have surpassed sloppy categorization and moved on to just making words mean whatever they want them to mean. I don’t see what the purpose could be except to aggrandize anyone in any supervisory position and turn everyone who isn’t into some sort of inferior "follower" who waits breathlessly for words of wisdom to fall from Der Fuhrer’s lips. (The unpleasant connotation explains why, as i understand it, the Germans don’t write much about "leadership.") It also makes nonsense of the very obvious truth that if you don’t have any followers, then you’re just not a leader, despite whatever authority and power you might have to energize people or make them miserable at work.

Let’s back away for the moment from the sloppy thinking of some leadership literature and consider another blog post I read today on professionalization at Rory Litwin’s Library Juice. (Perhaps the confluence of events inspired my own thinking.) In that post, Litwin cites an article listing some of the characteristics of a profession, which includes "Autonomy and control of one’s work and how one’s work is performed." Litwin opines that " it is endemic of the period of deprofessionalization that we are in that library managers have begun to say that ‘professionalism’ means performance of ones tasks according to high standards of quality (as judged by them)."

Though I don’t know if he would agree with this, in the context of my discussion, this would mean that "professionalism" is being redefined to mean whatever The Leader says is good, and the good professional is the Good Follower who does what The Leader says. If this is the case–if all "managers" are "leaders" and everyone else is a "follower" kowtowing to the leader–then it does either lead to deprofessionalization or merely indicate that no professionalism is present anyway.

This brings together much of what bothers me about the intellectually sloppy literature on leadership that I’ve read. It’s not that there aren’t organizations that it might apply to (though this might be the case); it’s more that it doesn’t seem to apply to the sort of organization I work for or the sort of work I do, either practically in my case or ideally in anyone’s case. There are jobs in which pleasing the boss is the job, but librarianship shouldn’t be one of those jobs.

Professional academic librarians should look upon such thinking with disdain, just as professional academics should. The key is the concept of "professional." Here are a couple more entries in the definition of profession:

  • Motivation focusing on intrinsic rewards and on the interests of clients – which take precedence over the professional’s self-interests
  • Commitment to the profession as a career and to the service objectives of the organization for which one works
  • Sense of community and feelings of collegiality with others in the profession, and accountability to those colleagues
  • Self-monitoring and regulation by the profession of ethical and professional standards in keeping with a detailed code of ethics

I interpret all this to mean there is a sense of obligation by each professional to shared standards that determine the appropriateness or quality of conduct, rather than the words of wisdom spoken by Der Fuhrer.

We’re told by the leadership gurus that "Good followers actively support good (effective) leaders and oppose bad (ineffective, immoral) leaders." But in an atmosphere of professionalism, good "leaders" may be entirely absent, yet good work may still be done.

This leadership literature all seems to be written for commercial rather than academic organizations. Thus, in addition to the nonprofessional assumptions that people are "followers" there’s the lack of rigor and intellectual standards that makes so much of this writing no different than the typically execrable self-help literature for the ignorant masses. In fact, part of what bothers me about so much of this is the demonstrated inability to think carefully. In academia, thinking carefully and developing articulate arguments are minimal criteria for being taken seriously. To the masses one may be a leader, while to the educated one is merely a demagogue.

Other organizations and academia are perhaps analogous to dictatorships and republics. Dictatorships operate under the Rule of (One Person’s) Will, but republics under the Rule of Law. A standard definition of a republic is that it is governed by laws, not people. We are professionals precisely because the word of Der Fuhrer doesn’t decide what is right or wrong in our profession. Professionals have shared standards–the rule of law–to which they appeal. Individual supervisors or managers may violate those standards. They may even insist that we violate those standards in order to keep our jobs (or get raises or whatever). But that doesn’t make us wrong for defying them. That makes them unprofessional in their behavior. That’s because, ideally, o
ur profession is one governed by principles and standards and not by the will of The Leader.

Actual leaders rise and attract followers not because they are in a certain place in a hierarchy. They  do worthwhile things and inspire or encourage others to do worthwhile things. Only demagogues are obsessed with whether or not they are leaders. The best leaders in librarianship don’t prattle on about leadership or insist to us that they are "leaders."  They don’t seek followers or the acclaim of shallow praise. Instead, they inspire us to meet the challenges of our own professional principles and standards. They don’t lead by telling people what to do or writing performance evaluations. They lead by making us want to do great things not to please the boss/fuhrer, but to meet shared standards that transcend us all, not to follow their orders, but to do or do better what we should already be doing even if they weren’t around. When those people come along, they don’t need to talk about leadership. We know them for what they are.




Gen X Leadership

According to the Harvard Business blog (discovered via the LLN Leader’s Digest), Gen Xers are the "leaders we need today and tomorrow" because of our accelerated contact with the real world, our distrust of institutions, our looking outward, our acceptance of diversity, our rich humor and incisive perspective, our work-life balance, and our pragmatism. Obviously I’m a Gen Xer myself, and these traits might apply to me. You won’t find anyone who distrusts institutions more than I, except maybe anarchists, and I look outward and accept diversity and all that. My humor is also incredibly rich, and my perspective so incisive some people find it painful. And I was a pragmatic, resilient latch-key child back before that was all the rage. "Contending with a world of finite limits, no easy answers, and the sobering realization that we are facing significant, seemingly intractable problems on multiple fronts"? That’s the sort of thing I do two or three times a day before breakfast.

The description sounds like a more positive spin of the same traits I’ve been hearing about Gen Xers for years. Did my latchkey childhood make me resilient and hardworking? Or did it make me distrustful of figures who claimed authority but never could do anything to benefit me in any way? Did the self-reliant independence just make me comfortable with innovation and technology? Or did it also mean I don’t really need much from others, or that I’m uncomfortable with people who don’t adapt as quickly as I do? And that work-life balance thing, does it mean that I want to be a good parent, or that I’m not going to work myself to death for an institution, and thus am some sort of slacker? Does my rich humor and incisive perspective isolate practical truths, redefine issues, and question reality, or does it mean that I’m really good at mocking incompetence and muddled thinking and have no tolerance for humorless stupidity?

In short, do the traits listed in this article mean that Gen Xers would make the "leaders we need," or does it mean that they’re distrustful of people who claim to be leaders and don’t need much "leadership" themselves? After all, if I’m resilient, hard-working, resourceful, self-reliant, independent, innovative, incisive, humorous, adaptable, then how likely is it that I need leaders for much? And how likely is it that I would want to lead anyone who wasn’t as independent, self-reliant, innovative, incisive, hard-working, resilient, and resourceful as I am? If we’re going to make generational generalizations (which I really don’t like to do), why wouldn’t I tell my boomer elders they just need to suck it up and deal with a rapidly changing world, or my millennial colleagues that I’m too busy being innovative and self-reliant to give them the constant reassurance and feedback the media claims they need to succeed?

Alas, I fear that this generational generalization may be lacking. I’ve known plenty of Gen Xers who are helpless, dependent, authoritarian, timorous, dogmatic, humorless, or some combination of those traits. Maybe those Gen Xers weren’t latchkey children, though. Or maybe this is all spot on, and I’m just being too skeptical and incisive, and thus just the leader you need for today and tomorrow.