And the Higgy Goes to… Plato

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We had a particularly strong set of Higgy nominees, mostly because things are so awful that the list of those contributing to that awfulness has grown quite long.  In a normal year Joe Biden might make for a fine recipient of the Higgy, given his wild claims, multiple incidents of plagiarism, and grossly inflated status as a respected politician. But Trump makes one pine for the days of ordinarily unimpressive politicians of which Biden may be the archetype.  Kimberlé Crenshaw would also make a worthy recipient of this dishonor for her intellectually lazy and politically disastrous idea of intersectionality.  But these days outrage at the defects of PC is so commonplace that there is little need to pile on.  TIFs are a truly horrible idea that fuel the public corruption of handing tax breaks to favored industries or friends while righteously claiming to be creating jobs.  But the Higgy cannot go to the entire city of Cerritos, California for pioneering this vehicle for Petty Little Dictators since the dishonor really needs to identify an individual.

This year’s Higgy has to go to the “ur-Bossy Mcbossytoga” — Plato — who has provided Petty Little Dictators across the generations the intellectual defense and respectability they crave to lord over others while claiming that reason and science justify their actions.  Greg may well be right that Plato’s Republic should be read as a metaphor for the well-governed soul rather than a proposal for what seems to me to be a nightmarish dystopia.  And he may be right that Plato articulated a more appealing political vision elsewhere, but the fact remains that The Republic — even if it is a common mis-interpretation — is the most horrific political dystopia ever-described.  It puts 1984, Brave New World, and the rash of recent Young Adult dystopias to shame because at least you hear villainous music in your head as you read them.  The Republic is so pernicious because it is completely awful while also being completely righteous.

It is this righteousness that makes Petty Little Dictators so insufferable.  They have complete confidence that they are guided by reason and science.  Anyone who fails to submit is anti-science or motivated by base interests, requiring re-education and denunciation.  It is incredibly painful to acknowledge, but I believe that education reform — an effort to which I have devoted the bulk of my professional life — has been almost completely captured by Petty Little Dictators, including its researchers, advocates, journalists, and practitioners.

I sometimes wonder whether we might have been better off leaving things alone.  I wish I had listened more closely to the great political scientist, Ed Banfield when he warned us of the dangers of “reform.” Instead, we Young Turks in grad school generally dismissed Banfield as the old and out-of-touch emeritus professor whose office had been moved to the basement of Littauer Hall as a sign of his declining relevance.  In fact, Banfield had something more important to teach us than all of the “science” we were learning to fix the world — wisdom.  Unfortunately, I and my ed reform peers were all young and generally lacking in wisdom.  The mystery to me is not that young people in ed reform can be so lacking in wisdom, it is that there seem to be so few grown-ups who have acquired wisdom from hard experience and are able/willing to restrain the next wave from trying to foist their brave new world on all of us.  It is as if even the older ed reformers suffer from some sort of Peter Pan syndrome where they never grow up.  Rick Hess’ new book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer, is a refreshing exception to this Peter Pan syndrome but his is largely a lonely voice standing athwart history, yelling “stop.”

The damage wrought by Petty Little Dictators is not just in their faux-scientific bossiness, it is in the backlash they generate, which is the essence of Trumpism.  If PLDDers want to impose their will in the name of science, Trumpites dismiss science altogether and focus exclusively on the triumph of their will. As they see it, science, facts, truth are all just a charade to disguise one’s interests, so their interests might as well prevail.  Petty Little Dictators fuel this oddly post-modern rejection of objective evidence by the Trumpites because they behave exactly as the Trumpites think one should behave — imposing their will arbitrarily — even if the PLDDers are simply more self-deceptive than the Trumpites about what they are really doing.

There is an alternative to invoking Science as the club to beat others into submission and advance toward the perfection of human beings or rejecting science altogether — it is called Conservatism.  Unlike the Trumpites, Conservatives believe that there is such a thing as objective reality and give deference to science and reason.  But unlike PLDDers, Conservatives are keenly away of how flawed we all are and do not trust themselves (or anyone else) enough to be the True Guardians of science and run roughshod over everyone else.  They believe people can never be perfected and that it is dangerous to try given our deeply flawed nature.  The best we can do is to preserve the traditions and institutions that hold our flawed nature in check while using science and reason to improve things on the margins.  In short, Conservatives emphasize humility while PLDDers suffer from over-confidence.

It’s true that Plato (via Socrates) displayed much humility in works such as the Meno, emphasizing how little we really know.  Then again William Higinbotham also did much good by contributing to the development of video games.  But Plato is worthy of the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award because the damage done by The Republic — even if it is simply by permitting a common misinterpretation — outweighs the good.  Plato joins last year’s winner, Chris Christie, and Jonathan Gruber the year before that.

(edited for typo)

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9 Responses to And the Higgy Goes to… Plato

  1. matthewladner says:

    The fact that it took 30+ years to enact my revenge on Plato just makes it all the more sweet!

  2. benracer1 says:

    For next year’s Higgy, a whole book of worthy contenders.

    http://ij.org/ll/april-2017-volume-26-issue-2/ijs-new-book-adds-bottleneckers-american-lexicon/

    Congrats Matt!

  3. Greg Forster says:

    This takes all the fun out of it. You can apparently get the Higgy without deserving it – because you did great work and then PLDDers misused it. Where’s the fun in that?

    “Conservatism” is a word that no longer means anything because the people whose job was to police the boundaries of what is or isn’t conservatism mostly signed up with Trump. It turns out “conservatives” didn’t actually believe their own rhetoric about Truth or Reason or That We’re All Flawed or That Dictators Are a Bad Idea or any of the rest of it. There are some honorable exceptions, but there are a roughly equal number of honorable exceptions on the other side as well, so it doesn’t look like conservatism has much to do with believing these things. Conservatism is now “but I want my side to rule, not yours!”

    • Writing The Republic is like leaving a loaded gun around children. Even if you have it for defense you should expect that it may be used for bad.

      And you are entirely right that many of those who should denounce or at least disassociate from Trump have failed to do so. But I see that as a much bigger problem for Republicans than Conservatives. I can name a fairly large number of Conservative intellectuals and commentators who have refused to embrace Trump. Maybe it’s just my little bubble, but I see some hope that Conservatism may survive this.

  4. Dan says:

    I have to sympathize with Greg on this one. Plato may have left a loaded gun with the kiddos, but he probably didn’t consider himself our parent. Some minor editing would perhaps have better clarified the personal nature of his metaphor, but, notably, even Jefferson and Adams each misunderstood it, although prior to the first English translation — so I’ll cut them some slack. Human history may well have played out a bit differently though, but more due to a less than fluent interpretation of Greek than anything else. Alas.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Poor Greek scholarship does in fact explain a surprising amount of bad philosophy (and bad theology!) between the decline of Greece and the advances in ancient Greek scholarship after the 19th century.

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