Protecting Our Institutions from “Meddlesome Outsiders”

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by Tim Widowfield

The bewildered herd

Noam Chomsky’s recent piece in the Belfast Telegraph contained a fragment of a quotation from Walter Lippmann. It’s useful, because it helps to show how the ruling elites actually view the public: namely, not as a group of participants with legitimate concerns and ideas to offer, but rather as so much cattle that need to be prodded into going along with their betters.

English: Photograph of Noam Chomsky
English: Photograph of Noam Chomsky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Noting that public opinion and government action are today often at odds with each another, Chomsky explains that for the power elites in our so-called capitalist democracies public opinion is something to affect, something to change via public relations, not something to follow. The governments of modern Western nation-states see the public as “meddlesome outsiders.” This term echoes Lippmann in The Phantom Public:

With the substance of the problem it [the public] can do nothing usually but meddle ignorantly or tyrannically. It has no need to meddle with it. Men in their active relation to affairs have to deal with the substance, but in that indirect relationship when they can act only through uttering praise or blame, making black crosses on white paper, they have done enough, they have done all they can do if they help to make it possible for the reason of other men to assert itself.

For when public opinion attempts to govern directly it is either a failure or a tyranny. It is not able to master the problem intellectually, nor to deal with it except by wholesale impact. (p. 60, The Phantom Public, emphasis mine)

For Lippmann and indeed for today’s policy makers, following the will of the public is a folly that would end in “failure or tyranny.” And so:

The public must be put in its place, so that it may exercise its own powers, but no less and perhaps even more, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd. (p. 145, The Phantom Public, emphasis mine)

Our spectator democracies

That herd, Chomsky tells us, needs to understand its proper function.

They’re supposed to lend their weight every few years, to a choice among the responsible men. But apart from that, their function is to be “spectators, not participants in action” – and it’s for their own good. Because as the founder of liberal political science pointed out, we should not succumb to “democratic dogmatisms about people being the best judges of their own interest”. They’re not. We’re [viz., the ruling elite] the best judges, so it would be irresponsible to let them make choices just as it would be irresponsible to let a three-year-old run into the street. Attitudes and opinions therefore have to be controlled for the benefit of those you are controlling. It’s necessary to “regiment their minds”. It’s necessary also to discipline the institutions responsible for the “indoctrination of the young.” All quotes, incidentally. (emphasis mine)

For any libertarians or conservatives out there, please note that Chomsky has plenty of scathing words to say about the ineffectual parties on the left who, when in power, act exactly the same as conservatives. Public opinion is very much against austerity in Europe, but those destructive policies continue no matter which party is in power.

. . . economic policies have changed little in response to one electoral defeat after another. The left has replaced the right; the right has ousted the left.

Why does nothing change? Because the smarter class, the intelligent minority, knows better than to follow public opinion. “No man can serve two masters,” and we know who the real master is. As John Jay put it:

. . . the mass of men are neither wise nor good—those who own the country ought to govern it.

Wanted: fans not friends, spectators not participants

As it is with politics, so it is with academia, especially in that extremely rarefied realm of Biblical Studies. If you didn’t catch the undertone in the blog posts Neil quoted from in his recent post on kicking Atwill to the curb, let me remind you. Atwill’s theories on Christian origins are pretty far out there. In fact, they’re so far out there that they’re rather easy to debunk on their own merits. Yet that wasn’t enough, was it? We had to be reminded that he didn’t have the proper credentials.

Naturally, our favorite Whovian, Dr. James F. McGrath, Clarence Goodwin Chair of New Testament Language and Literature, had to get into the act with his enlightening and learned mini-essay “Selective Skepticism” on The Bible and Interpretation web site. Yes, James assures us, Atwill’s ideas are really bizarre, but it’s kind of what we would expect from a member of the herd.

He chastises Richard Dawkins for his gullibility.

Apparently he didn’t bother to visit Atwill’s Amazon page, which indicates that his “expertise” in Biblical studies consists of his having read books on the subject

A teaching moment?

Yes indeed. Atwill’s conclusions are poorly researched and badly argued. In fact, anyone who has even a passing familiarity with current scholarship concerning the Roman Empire and the New Testament could easily point out the flaws. A useful, reliable scholarly class would be able to take advantage of the “Atwill event” as a teaching moment. “Here’s how we scholars think,” they might begin. And then they could explain how evidence is gathered, collated, evaluated, argued over, until finally we reach a consensus. Surely that would be the main thrust of McGrath’s article, right?

Of course not.

No, what’s truly interesting is how a press release which calls someone who has no qualifications, no teaching appointment, no relevant expertise of any kind a “scholar” can be accepted uncritically and retweeted by someone whose public activity has been aimed at getting people to be more discerning, to think more critically. (emphasis added)

Should we all think more critically? Absolutely. Our monkey brains are easily deceived. But by what criteria do we decide such matters? Why, by asking the experts, who will tell us what’s right and what’s wrong. Don’t you see what happens when you tamper with the laws of nature? Knowledge flows down from the mountain top, down into the plain.

The public is the audience. We are receivers. It was never intended to be a two-way street. Our proper role is to buy their books, take their classes, write fan letters, applaud politely, and by all means shut up.

Perhaps Neil and I are in the minority here. (Fortunately, I’m an INTP, so it really doesn’t matter to me. I don’t need “fans” to sustain my self-image.) However, what strikes me as rather unsavory is this undercurrent of outrage not at history done badly — not at the content of Atwill’s message — but at Atwill himself.

zOMG!  Fringe!

It’s as if the primary argument, the clincher in this debate, is not the fact that Atwill has made unsubstantiated claims, but that he lacks the credentials to make any claims at all. Naturally, McGrath, respectable scholar that he is, rests his case not only on the genetic fallacy but reinforces his fallacious argument with a modified version of guilt by association.

Atwill’s claims are silly nonsense – so ridiculous that even Richard Carrier, who is himself rather a fringe figure in the domain of history, regards Atwill as the sort of figure who, through association, gives him a bad name! (emphasis mine)

How would that look as a syllogism?

  • Carrier is a fringe figure.
  • Carrier thinks Atwill makes ridiculous claims.
  • Therefore Atwill must be spouting complete nonsense.

It is somewhat astonishing that McGrath manages to employ the argument from authority, the genetic fallacy, and the association fallacy all in such a short amount of space. But fear not: as we all know, the greatest strength of “real” scholarship is peer review. When one scholar stumbles, another steps in to correct him or her. So it’s with great relief that we see fellow blogger-scholar, Mark Goodacre, jump in to correct James. He’ll certainly right the ship, and put us all on the correct course.

I’m kidding. Goodacre commends McGrath for his “excellent comments.”

Show, don’t tell

If you’re trying to convince somebody that an idea is hopelessly wrong, you’ll have more success if you prove your point through sound argumentation rather than by name-calling and foot-stomping. As Neil put it:

I think the Atlantis theory is bonkers. But if I were addressing someone who believed it I would not insult them by saying they were bonkers. If I felt it worth the effort I would argue the case just as soundly as I would expect an evolutionary biologist or palaeontologist to argue against Creationism with a fundamentalist.

Over the past week, our possible teaching moment degenerated into a poop-flinging contest. And the reason is blatantly obvious: The media and (horrors) Dawkins bypassed the experts who would have told them what the truth is. Hence, the outrage in the blogosphere.

Not only did we learn from our respectable bloggers that Atwill is inherently wrong because he disagrees with consensus while simultaneously having no credentials, but we also learned why Atwill behaves as he does. That’s right — with the proper education one gains the ability to discern a person’s motives.

So we’re told that Atwill is deliberately trying to bamboozle the public. It is not clear how Atwill can be both a flim-flam artist who knows he is deceiving people while simultaneously not knowing anything about Christian origins or Roman history. Perhaps he is guilty of being “ignorant with intent.”

Such over-the-top insults simply make education more difficult.

I’ll leave you with the words of Dr. McGrath:

. . . it just makes the work of scholars that much harder, as we try to come up with scholarly reconstructions, float new ideas to their peers, critically evaluate evidence, and offer nuanced conclusions.

I’m not a fan of McGrath’s work but I’m a huge fan of irony.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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13 thoughts on “Protecting Our Institutions from “Meddlesome Outsiders””

  1. Thanks, TIm. This says it all. At one point in my own post I had meant to add something to the effect that there was once a time when people used to say things like “I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.” Capital S Scholars have clearly moved beyond those thoughts in this arena. The reason the ideal could permit one’s right to say something was because it was understood that sound argument would win the day. That was the original idea/ideal behind “Free Speech”, as I indicated with my reference to John Locke.

  2. “I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.” Capital S Scholars have clearly moved beyond those thoughts in this arena.

    -I don’t think so. The capital S scholars are not demanding that Atwill’s nonsense be censored by governments. Also, it is the press and Dawkins that incorrectly called Atwill a scholar. Should capital S scholars ignore this gross mischaracterization? Hundreds of gullible people favorited and retweeted Dawkins’s tweet.

    1. If we will continue with the Chomsky thread, here, it is important to note that we are not talking about government or legislated censorship in modern democracies. It is censorship and the wielding of power through ridicule, mockery, insult, social exclusion, etc. People who find themselves in the seats of power have succeeded in large measure because they have learned what is the correct way to think and treat outsiders. Atwill is offensive because he is attracting popular attention with views that are not part of the establishment — attention that the powers believe should not be diverted from them. Political control, censorship, in modern democracies works far more effectively and cheaply than in totalitarian states. It’s so easy to see right through attempts to manipulate and control in the latter.

      Scientists are much more secure in this. They have no problem confining their critiques of anti-evolutionists to the arguments, the evidence. They don’t dwell on who has the credentials in the same way so many theologians and biblical scholars seem to do. Significantly science is far less ideological than theological and biblical studies.

      McGrath, for one, is so opposed to certain ideas being heard that he has said he refuses to even repeat them in order to critique them lest he risk giving them any respectability at all. Does he really believe in defending to the death the right of a mythicist to make his case? Of course not. No, that’s not the intellectual environment he wants. He wants certain ideas ridiculed and shut down without being dealt with in the normal intellectual manner reserved for “respectable ideas”.

      1. “Scientists are much more secure in this. ,,. They don’t dwell on who has the credentials in the same way so many theologians and biblical scholars seem to do. Significantly science is far less ideological than theological and biblical studies.”

        Absolutely true. There’s something I read once: In science, people are remembered for their best ideas; in the humanities, people are known for their worst mistakes. A typical approach at refutation in the humanities when faced with (arbitrarily) 100 arguments is to do this:

        (a) Find the 5 arguments that have the worst errors; point them out.
        (b) Imply that the author is an idiot who couldn’t possibly be right.
        (c) Waffle around in generalities and suggest whatever you want to suggest instead.

        This makes it a high-stakes game to protect your reputation, rather than an honest attempt to sieve through the evidence.

      2. Neil: “Political control, censorship, in modern democracies works far more effectively and cheaply than in totalitarian states.”

        From the Chomsky article:

        Well, another important feature of RECD is that the public must be kept in the dark about what is happening to them. The “herd” must remain “bewildered”. The reasons were explained lucidly by the professor of the science of government at Harvard – that’s the official name – another respected liberal figure, Samuel Huntington. The reasons were explained lucidly by the professor of the science of government at Harvard – that’s the official name – another respected liberal figure, Samuel Huntington. As he pointed out, “power remains strong when it remains in the dark. Exposed to sunlight, it begins to evaporate”.

        In the the West, we try not to use the government to shut off the voices we don’t like. That would be exposing power to sunlight. No, in our societies, censorship begins at home.

  3. “Public opinion is very much against austerity in Europe, but those destructive policies continue no matter which party is in power.’

    May I pick up on this thought and recommend a progressive economic blog that presents an evidence based analysis of western economic policies.


    The blog of Bill Mitchell, Professor of labour Economics at Darwin Uni [formerly at Newcastle NSW].
    For those in the UK, Europe and the USA be assured he has an international perspective and analyses the economies of those nations as well as that of Australia.

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