For me personally, the most chilling of the many chilling statements I’ve heard from the Right in the course of our recent ‘double whammy’ – the Brexit vote and the election of the Donald – was Michael Gove’s last June: ‘I think people in this country have had enough of experts.’ (https://www.ft.com/content/3be49734-29cb-11e6-83e4-abc22d5d108c.)
Michael Gove is a curious figure. He is widely regarded as an ‘intellectual’, because, I think, he used to be a Times leader-writer, has ‘big ideas’, and is supremely confident – you might say ‘cocky’ – in expressing them. I first took against him when I watched him giving evidence at the Leveson Inquiry, where he offered a little potted history of the British Press – in order to make the point that it has always been the same as it is now – which I knew, from my ‘expert’ studies of the press over the last 200 years, to be utterly false. No-one challenged him, because there was no newspaper history ‘expert’ there. Gove was one of the prime defenders of the Murdoch press at that inquiry. The Times, of course, is a Murdoch paper. I’m not saying that this influenced him in any corrupt way, though we can never be sure; but being a leader writer for a paper that doesn’t particularly care for ‘truth’ as one of its major concerns, as compared with promoting what its (right-wing) readers want to read and its proprietors want them to think – in other words, propaganda – must have had an effect on him. You can see why he derides ‘experts’. They can so often get in the way of propaganda; or, at the very least, encourage you to think.
Of course Gove’s throwaway line isn’t the worst thing that’s been said in the course of the Brexit and presidential campaigns. Trump has trumped it a hundred times. Farage has said some pretty despicable things, too. It may be that Gove’s dismissal of ‘experts’ got under my skin particularly because I’m one of them myself: only in certain areas, of course, which doesn’t mean I’m free to pronounce authoritatively in others – of course I can hold opinions, but only on the condition that I will change them in the light of evidence – but in a way that makes me shudder at a leading political figure who can seem to undervalue ‘expertise’ wholesale. Of course ‘experts’ are often wrong; but their saving grace is that other experts will usually step in here, with evidence or rational argument, to put them right. It’s called the ‘scientific method’. It lies at the base of everything we scholars and intellectuals do. But beyond that, I also believe that the core of it – discovering truth objectively, or as objectively as is humanly possible – is essential in the wider political sphere in order to enable people to test and counter some of the more outrageous claims made by the likes of Trump and Farage. We have to keep hold of our rationality.
Over the last few months that hold has certainly slipped. There have always of course been anti-rational strains in both American and European society. Nazism could be said to have elevated irrationalism into a philosophy. In America the powerful ‘anti-intellectual strain’ in her politics was noticed and written about as early as 1963, with this path-breaking book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Anti-intellectualism-American-Vintage-Richard-Hofstadter/dp/0394703170/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1479474812&sr=1-1&keywords=anti-intellectualism+in+american+life. There, as in Britain, ‘intellectuals’ were often associated with ‘elites’, which is what helped fuel the disparagement of them by ‘ordinary folk’ or ‘middle America/England’ or the ‘silent majority’, to whom both the Trumpist Republicans and Ukip sought to appeal. The social media are currently another powerful vehicle of irrationalism, as seen in the myriad of crazy ‘conspiracy’ sites that have appeared, as well as Right-wing so-called ‘news’ agencies like Breitbart. We know of one internet troll who knowingly fed anti-Clinton lies into this polluted stream, as ‘satire’, he claims (he is in fact a Democrat), and now deeply regrets it: ‘I think Donald Trump is in the White House because of me’. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2016/11/17/facebook-fake-news-writer-i-think-donald-trump-is-in-the-white-house-because-of-me/.) Poor fellow; but even more, poor us.
The Right knows it’s dissembling. Just a day or so after that notorious ‘£350 million-a-week’ slogan appeared on the side of the Brexit ‘battle-bus’ in June, the claim (that Britain was losing that amount of money to the EU, which could be spent on the NHS) was nailed conclusively as a lie – and yet the Brexiteers continued with it to the end. Currently it is being challenged in the courts, as having possibly broken electoral law (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/11/07/cps-considers-complaint-that-leave-campaigns-misled-eu-referendu/); but by the time the courts have ruled, of course, it will be too late. The interesting thing is that the purveyors of these untruths – especially Boris Johnson, who was frequently photographed in front of the offending vehicle – don’t seem to care in the least when their deceptions are revealed: so long, I imagine, as they’ve had their desired impact on voters. Everyone – or at least many people on the Right – appear to accept the ‘post-truth’ culture, as it is now coming to be called. Any lies are acceptable, so long as they sell. (Capitalism again!)
Which is why I put Gove’s statement about ‘experts’ at the head of my list of deplorable statements made during the campaigns that have just saddled us with these two awful outcomes. Trump’s ‘pussy’ boast, and libelling of Mexicans, and criminalising of Hillary Clinton, are of course much worse. The point is, however, that if America and Britain had been sensible, rational societies, willing to listen (critically) to ‘experts’, or people who knew, all these lies could have been more effectively challenged, and hopefully emasculated. (The use of a male metaphor here is deliberate.) Experts, and in particular the thinking processes that contribute to expertise, are our last line of defence against all kinds of democratic dangers; including, in this case, incipient fascism. Experts of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your – what? Tenured positions in a Trumpian/Goveian world?