Popular Misconceptions, Simplifying Hitler, Romney Contra Rand, Reading Nothing Yet

[On Saturday, you discussed your interest in political literature written before the year of 2008. Are you still exploring that field, or have you moved on to something else?]

Well, I was hoping to complete this literary sojourn before the end of August, but it became clear long before then that I had bitten off a lot more than I could chew. We still haven’t cleared all of the books I intended to read, and I can’t imagine I will get through the last two in time for next month’s midterms.

[What are the last two?]

A People’s History of the United States and Mein Kampf. The latter is one I’ve been staring at for a while, even though it never became of serious interest to me until sometime this year. I expect I will be grateful, when it’s all said and done, that I didn’t read it before Trump entered the scene.

[Do you understand that anyone who reads this will assume that you are comparing, and perhaps even equating, Trump and Hitler?]

Let those people think whatever they want. Anybody who is coming here in expectation of more of the same, more of what they write on CNN and American Greatness, is probably not my most studious reader. But, in the interest of explaining myself, I should point that nobody can make a meaningful comparison between Trump and Hitler without having first brushed up on the latter; in which case, I can’t think of a better place to start than Mein Kampf.

[Are you suggesting that one cannot understand Hitler without first having read Mein Kampf?]

I certainly could not consider you to be an expert on Hitler, an authority on the man, unless you have read Mein Kampf at least once, and more than once, preferably. Otherwise, you’re kind-of just assuming, are you not?

[Elaborate, please.]

If I’m going to elaborate, maybe I shouldn’t start with somebody like Hitler. Let’s start with a fictional character. How about the eponymous protagonist of Uncle Tom’s Cabin? In the modern American lexicon, the term “Uncle Tom” refers to a black man, or a black woman, who kisses up to racist white people. Alas, anyone who has read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel understands that the “real” Uncle Tom was not some gullible sycophant who trusted the plainly mendacious word of his white masters. He understand quite clearly that what the slave-drivers were doing was grossly immoral, and his only tendency to submission was his refusal to resist violently. He didn’t exactly practice self-defense, but the popular characterization of the man, the widespread false memory, as someone who accepted the white man “on his word”, is a simplification, surely.

[Are you suggesting we are simplifying Hitler?]

No, I’m not making allusions to Hitler right now. I’m trying to depict this process of association, of intellectual substitution, that all too commonly passes for knowledge or thought. Basically, if I have never read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and all I know about Uncle Tom is the simplified portrait that has been accepted and promoted by popular culture, then I’m getting further and further away from the truth.

[You’re approaching ignorance.]

Right, but it’s a darker and more menacing form of ignorance, one that, as I said, masquerades as knowledge. You can talk about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and sound like an expert, without ever even having read the book. That’s disturbing, and it raises a number of unsettling questions about who is an expert and how, exactly, he obtained his expertise.

[Did this problem occur to you only this summer? I’m assuming you read Uncle Tom’s Cabin as part of your “older political literature” project?]

Yes, I’ve been aware of the problem of popular misconception for quite some time, thank you very much. I think every child learns, or used to learn, that Frankenstein is not the monster, but the man who made him. But in a political context, I guess it first occurred to me that people were merely associating, rather than reading, sometime in the summer of 2012, when a left-wing critic claimed that Mitt Romney’s economic policies approached “Randian levels of cruelty”. It didn’t take much to see that this person had obviously never read any of Ayn Rand’s novels, and that he was employing the term merely because, as a progressive, he had been taught to associate Rand’s name with fiscal conservatism and a number of other unpleasant things, besides.

[Have you read Ayn Rand?]

Yes, I’ve read several books of hers.

[And do you believe that, if this leftist had read them, too, that he would be pleasantly surprised to find that he and she have many ideas in common?]

No, he would find that she was an arrogant blowhard whose socioeconomic analysis was shallow and contradictory—and unreasonably hard-line conservative, as well. He would be confirmed in his suspicions, and he would find even more reasons to dislike Rand. In fact, he would probably say that Romney, for all of his faults, was nowhere near as unlikable as Rand. But, whatever he would have to say about Rand, at least his opinion would be based. It would have been derived from real learning, from an actual interaction with the text in question. It would not be a hollow echo of someone else’s view, a view which, for all we know, was not acquired directly, either.

[I’m reminded of something you mentioned in our last conversation, something about the public trust that is invested in intellectual authorities. This problem, then, pertains to the broader issue of intellectual integrity, as well.]

You got it. There is all too little hard research taking place today. Everybody wants to be an expert, and everybody wants to be respected as such, but nobody wants to do the work required to become an expert. That kind of work is demanding, exhausting, uncertain, and lonely, and its rewards are, if not limited, per se, then certainly private, lacking the glamour and fashion that, for some reason, we associate so freely with expertise and knowledge.

[Do you believe that the culture of the Internet has something to do with this intellectual laziness, as well as with this latter misconception?]

Oh, absolutely. Facts, which are very different from knowledge, can be acquired so effortlessly today. A group of stoners sit around, arguing about whether Lincoln was the fifth president or the tenth, until somebody enters the man’s name on Google and discovers that he was, in fact, the sixteenth. Any idiot with a cell phone can do that, so why should we respect a trained philologist any more than we should the pothead with the Android?

[Concordantly, everybody already knows that Hitler was a genocidal despot, and such, and if not, then you can very easily acquire that information on the Internet. Ergo, there seems to be quite a limited percentage in diving into Hitler’s history, let alone in reading a book like Mein Kampf, when “the gist of it” involves only a fraction of the effort that it takes you to listen to what I’m saying right now.]

You pretty much knocked it out of the park. And that is exactly the kind of description that tends to accompany expertise: an allusion to smashing, dramatic success. We associate expertise with weaponry, with victory in a televised debate. You’re supposed to be doing something with your expertise, something that other people can witness and be impressed by, something that any random spectator can appreciate and understand. However, as we have already stated, the true nature of expertise is usually much less visceral than that, and so, “real expertise” is seldom respected—or too seldom, at least.

[And what expertise have you acquired in your perusal of Mein Kampf?]

I already told you: I haven’t read it yet.

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