OUR MAN IN AMERICA IV: THE DEATH OF EXPERTISE

Article originally published in London in The Jackal

Let’s face it: expertise has not had a very good century. George W. Bush’s foreign policy experts spent their early months scrutinizing Russia; they ignored al-Qaeda. Later the experts called Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction “a slam dunk,’’ and proclaimed subprime mortgages safe, because nobody ever lost money on real estate.

President Obama had his own problems. He was a virtual advertisement for rational decision-making and the authority of experts. Somehow his eight years closed with the conclusion that rationality and expertise wasn’t enough to get the job done.

Donald Trump’s presidency arrived as a repudiation of his predecessors. He wasn’t going to rely on experts or his intellect; he’d go with his gut. An amateur politician, he installed other amateurs as his advisors. “I alone can do it,’’ he told us. And with his putative billions and sexy wife as proof, the guy was obviously a winner.

Trump’s election has invited a massive repudiation of expertise. Oil companies now tell climatologists that global warming is a hoax. Unskilled workers explain to economists that trade agreements don’t work. White supremacists explain to historians that the Civil War had nothing to do with racism.

“Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue,” says the writer Tom Nichols in his new book, The Death of Expertise. “To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything. It is a new Declaration of Independence: No longer do we hold these truths to be self-evident, we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true.”
Aye, but here’s the question: when has it ever been otherwise? Five hundred years ago, no organization on earth possessed more authority than the Roman Catholic Church. Those guys had answers for everything. Then along came Martin Luther, and reformation was the thing. So far downhill has the church’s authority fallen that a few months ago, Pope Francis, responding to a question about homosexuality said “Who am I to judge?’’ Dude—you’re the Pope!

The truth is, we love challenging authority. All our favorite stories are about nobodies who come out of nowhere to confound the experts: Jesus and the Pharisees. Young Arthur and the sword in the stone. Rocky Balboa. Cinderella.

And why not? The know-it-alls have often known very little. Well-respected people practiced racism and antisemitism. Pillars of the community kept hundreds of slaves. Educating women was thought ridiculous and enfranchising them insane. Best medical practices once include bleeding and lobotomies. Until the mid-19th century, doctors thought it was a waste of time to wash their hands. The doctor who campaigned for cleanliness, Ignaz Semmelweiss, was driven out of his profession.

Making authority defend itself is good for all concerned. A study in Nature magazine last year asked 1576 scientists to reproduce the results of another scientists experiments. More than 70 percent failed. Worse, more than half failed to reproduce the results of their own experiments. We should be dubious about trade deals. We should be skeptical about beneficence of technological revolutions.

But even though expertise may not always be right, it still beats ignorance. So far Trump’s presidency-by-instinct has led him to pull America out of the climate accords, which has only diminished America’s international standing; to issue a travel ban on Muslims, which has been rejected by the courts; and to attempt to repeal Obamacare, which only made the program more popular. He couldn’t even manage to repudiate violent extremists. He will return from vacation in early September having passed no legislation, and with a special prosecutor breathing down his neck

“I thought it would be easier,’’ Trump said of the presidency. “Our new president has of course not been in this line of work before and I think had excessive expectations,’’ said his ally, Senator Mitch McConnell. “He’s new to government,” apologized the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.

Some people are wondering whether the President is going to develop more respect for expertise. The real question is whether he is going to be around long enough to develop any of his own.

OUR MAN IN AMERICA III: THE NEW COLD WAR

In my most vivid Cold War memory, I am standing on the asphalt-covered parking lot that served as the playground for the St. Anthony of Padua Parish School, in Baltimore, a short 45 miles from Washington DC. It was lunchtime on some day in October 1962, and my fellow fourth grader Louis Mangione had just informed me that if the world was going to end, it was probably going to be in the next half hour. “President Kennedy gave the Russians until noon today to get their missiles out of Cuba,’’ he told me. “After that—ka-boom!’’

I had no idea. My sister commandeered the radio in the kitchen in the mornings; we left for school lwith the The Four Seasons in our ears instead of intimations of Armageddon. But what Louis said made sense; if the Russians were going to annihilate Washington, they would certainly take out Baltimore. For good measure.

When the Angelus bell rang at noon, we turned our eyes skyward. When five after twelve arrived, and we hadn’t seen any missiles rocketing above housetops and the church steeple and the big Food Fair sign atop the supermarket, we figured we were safe. The Russians must have backed down. We resumed our games. Forty-five miles away, cool heads had prevailed.

As far as I can see, America had a pretty good Cold War (as distinct from the hot wars in Korea and Vietnam.) It was expensive and occasionally tense, but our economy boomed on a torent of defense spending, and we were treated to a pretty exciting space race and some great spy movies full of girls in bikinis, and never did we think we stood a chance of being blown up.

Seldom, anyway Once in a while the Union for Concerned Scientists would move the minute hand on their nuclear clock a bit closer to midnight and we would we would put on black armbands, and chant `End the Madness!’’ while bearing an attitude of morbid poetic despair, which in those days intellectual girls found attractive. The madness, of course, was subsumed in the normalcy– the post-demonstration shag, the James Bond wink. Every day the bombers flew to their fail safe positions, every day the rockets were aimed, and every day nothing happened, leaving us reassured. That was the sublime joke underlying Stanley Kubrick’s great film Dr. Strangelove: the lone madman was dangerous, but only because the entire apparatus was insane. Keep the two separated, and we all get a good night’s sleep.

Cold War II is going to be different. This time the madman has the trigger in his hand. And I don’t mean Kim Jong-un.

Last March Sen. John McCain called Kim the “crazy fat kid that’s running North Korea.” The facts don’t do much to deny the charge. He has ordered all male citizens to copy his dashing George Orwell-style haircut. He has an outsized admiration for Dennis Rodman. He has murdered his rivals, including most theatrically his half-brother, who was sprayed with poison by female assassins in an airport in Malaysia. The police state he rules is poor, corrupt and isolated, and last year bombarded South Korea with balloons filled with poop, cigarette butts and propaganda leaflets. But it maintains a Pleasure Squad made up of 2000 attractive women who provide entertainment and sexual services for top officials, and mandates that all its teachers learn to play the accordion.

For all his weirdness, however, Kim is sane. He knows what happened to other pain-in-the-ass tyrants on the world stage. He knows the fate of Saddam Hussein, who only pretended to have weapons of mass destruction, and to Muammar Qaddafi, who gave his up. Like an obstreperous bee, Kim’s buzzing is designed to chase enemies away from the hive, not advertise his sting.

Does President Trump realize that? Who knows? Trump’s reply — “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States, [or] they will be met with fire and the fury like the world has never seen’’—is just the sort of water-roiling bombast one would expect to hear from a rash, bullying, thin-skinned, short-tempered narcissist–Game of ThronesKing Joffrey with a Twitter account. It’s also the sort of gunslinger palaver that might be used by a desperate president who wants to distract attention from his legislative failures and the headline-making investigation that trails his every move. Rally ‘round the flag, boys, before the indictments are served.

Not to be outdone, North Korea immediately threatened Guam with an “enveloping fire.”

In the old Cold War, Nikita Khrushchev had his moments where he thumped his shoe and shouted “We will bury you!’’ So far, the new Cold War already seems talkier, and more reckless.

OUR MAN IN AMERICA: PRESIDENT OZZY

From the British magazine The Jackal, MARCH 15, 2017

Politics has never been the prime interest of the American people. Oh, we like to gussie up the whole Revolutionary War thing with the `life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’’ mantra, but that was just something Thomas Jefferson spackled over what was basically a tax squabble. Let’s face it, whenever political matters oust Beyonce or the Kardashians or some equivalent circus from the top of the conversational charts, we start running into trouble. We’re a democracy, see, so whenever a political topic gets too big, everybody needs to chime in. Once that happens, the capacity of sensible people to say “enough is enough’’ gets chucked out the window, and the thing rolls on and on until we’ve seen dead bodies at Gettysburg or the semen stain on Monica Lewinsky’s dress. At that point everybody turns away, abashed at the spectacle.

So we try to avoid politics, and just preside over the world. We’re happy that everyone knows that we have a great country and that we believe in a great God, and that while we are a global superpower, we are also very well-liked. Moreover, we have just the right number of minority groups and just the right amount of gay people, and we don’t need any more, thanks anyway. We don’t know why Muslims hate us; but when you get down to it, we don’t even know why Muslims want to be Muslims. We just want to drive our crossover SUVs, and be satisfied that nobody has it better than us.

Sadly, politics in the form of the President Trump saga has squatted all-but-permanently on the national agenda, and nothing seems to possess the potential to dislodge it. Usually a new president comes in, and no matter how many people loathed him as a candidate, he would benefit from a temporary cordiality that would allow him to get organized. In return, he would spend a lot of time smiling and waving, as though to reassure people that meant no harm. By the time his enemies were ready to resume their vituperative bombardment, he should have been able to reassure the remainder of the country that he was harmless, and they could safely return to their iPhones.

President Obama was even more lulling than usual. For eight years, he led a mellow government. It was like Al Jarreau was president. Obama could talk about anything—financial catastrophe, automotive bankruptcy, cops shooting unnamed black men, Syria dematerializing—and the country would walk out humming “We’re In This Love Together.’’ It wasn’t like we were happy about what was happening, or even unified in our desire to solve the problem, or that we even liked him. It was as like we were in this love together.

Now he has given way to his polar opposite. Donald Trump is the stylistic equivalent of Ozzy Osbourne, screeching “Paranoid’’ and biting the heads off bats. He came into office as he campaigned, telling lies, banning Muslims and firing salvos of condemnation at Mexico, Australia, Germany, America’s own intelligence service, judges, the news media and Meryl Streep (though he did find time to praise Frederick Douglass, the very dead 19th century abolitionist whom Trump cited as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.”)

Well, aux armes, citoyens, formez vos bataillons. In a flash, millions had taken to the streets, phones, and other media of the moment to express their extreme disapproval. A more sensible leader might have been chastened, but Trump is not mere mortal. He is a god, a Trinity, three-in-one: the Provocative Populist, who had enough skill to win; the Bullshit Artist, who bullies and blusters his way through life; and the Cry Baby, who can dish it out but can’t take it.

Who will wear out first? The Resistance, so far, seems relentless, inspired just as much by their setbacks as his. But Trump, it appears, has begun to wilt from the long days and shortage of adulation. Lately he appears pale and puffy, and reportedly spends his evenings alone in his bathrobe, watching TV and tweeting, although in response, his press secretary has vehemently denied that Trump even owns a bathrobe. Something’s got to give.

I predict he’ll own a dressing gown by the end of the month.