Trump’s trolling vs. the ‘con­sti­tu­tion of knowl­edge’

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Heather Moore works for The PETA Foun­da­tion. Ge­orge Will ac­cent@ce­cil­ method in or­der to Ge­orge Will is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at georgewill@wash­ The Ce­cil Whig wel­comes let­ters to the ed­i­tor from our read­ers. Let­ters must i

— On the road again, and full of in­dig­na­tion about, or per­haps ad­mi­ra­tion for, what he called “made-up” and “fab­ri­cated” Demo­cratic ac­cu­sa­tions dur­ing the re­cent ju­di­cial con­fir­ma­tion tur­moil, Amer­ica’s feral pres­i­dent swerved into a de­nun­ci­a­tion of a nonex­is­tent bill — “It’s called ‘the open bor­ders bill’” — that, he thun­dered, “ever y sin­gle Demo­crat” in the Se­nate has “signed up for.” Now, be­fore you wax in­dig­nant, if you still bother to, about such breezy in­dif­fer­ence to re­al­ity, you must re­mem­ber this: Don­ald Trump is guilty of much, but not of orig­i­nal­ity.

Be­fore Trump was in the White House, Harry Reid was in the Se­nate. In 2012, while the Ne­vada Demo­crat was ma­jor­ity leader, he brass­ily said dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign that the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee, Mitt Romney, had paid no taxes for a decade. This was wildly, demon­stra­bly un­true: Romney, un­like the Repub­li­cans’ nom­i­nee four years later, did not hide his tax re­turns. Reid, how­ever, re­mained proud as punch of his ac­cu­sa­tion when, three years later, he was asked why he still de­fended it: “Romney didn’t win, did he?”

Al­though 2018 has two and a half more months in which to pro­vide re­dun­dant ev­i­dence against be­lief in progress, it is not too soon to award the tro­phy for the year’s most co­gent dis­til­la­tion of ur­gently needed think­ing. It is this: “We don’t mail Elvis a So­cial Se­cu­rity check, no mat­ter how many peo­ple think he is alive.” No. Mat­ter. How. Many.

This apercu comes from the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion’s Jonathan Rauch. His es­say, ti­tled “The Con­sti­tu­tion of Knowl­edge,” in Na­tional Af­fairs quar­terly is his re­sponse to Trump’s guid­ing prin­ci­ple, as stated by Steve Ban­non, whose body but not whose men­tal­ity has left the White House. Ban­non says: “The way to deal with [the me­dia] is to flood the zone with (ex­ple­tive).” Rauch says: Trump’s pres­i­den­tial ly­ing, which be­gan con­cern­ing the size of his in­au­gu­ra­tion crowd, re­flects “a strat­egy, not merely a char­ac­ter flaw or pathol­ogy.” And the way to com­bat Trump’s “epis­temic at­tack” on Amer­i­cans’ “col­lec­tive abil­ity to dis­tin­guish truth from false­hood” is by at­tend­ing to the var­i­ous so­cial mech­a­nisms that, taken to­gether, are “the of val­i­dat­ing propo­si­tions.”

Moder­nity be­gan when hu­man­ity “re­moved re­al­i­ty­mak­ing from the au­thor­i­tar­ian con­trol of priests and princes” and out­sourced it to no one in par­tic­u­lar. It was given over to “a de­cen­tral­ized, globe-span­ning com­mu­nity of crit­i­cal testers who hunt for each other’s er­rors.” This is why to­day’s fore­most en­emy of moder­nity is pop­ulism, which can­not abide the idea that ma­jori­ties are not self-val­i­dat­ing, and nei­ther are in­tense mi­nori­ties (e.g., the “Elvis lives” co­hort). Val­i­da­tion comes from the “crit­i­cal testers” who are the bane of pop­ulists’ ex­is­tence be­cause the testers are, by dint of train­ing and ef­fort, su­pe­rior to the crowd, “no mat­ter how many” com­prise it.

“Think,” says Rauch, “of the con­sti­tu­tion of knowl­edge as a fun­nel”: “At the wide end, mil­lions of peo­ple float mil­lions of hy­pothe­ses ev­ery day. Only an in­fin­i­tes­i­mal frac­tion of new ideas will be proven true. To find them, we run the hy­pothe­ses through a mas­sive, so­cially dis­trib­uted er­ror-find­ing process. Only a tiny few make it to the nar­row end of the fun­nel.” The au­thors of those that do re­ceive the pres­tige of recog­ni­tion — and the en­mity of pop­ulists, who wor­ship the many dis­par­age the few. Dis­par­age­ment is the de­fault po­si­tion of all lev­el­ers.

Rauch surely knows that he stands on the shoul­ders of Friedrich Hayek. He rec­om­mended to gov­ern­ments epis­temic hu­mil­ity, and preached the su­pe­ri­or­ity, and in­dis­pens­abil­ity, of mar­kets, so­ci­ety’s spon­ta­neous or­der for gath­er­ing dis­persed in­for­ma­tion and test­ing it.

Rauch says that Trump’s “trolling of the Amer­i­can mind” has en­joyed “the ad­van­tage of sur­prise.” But as this di­min­ishes, the con­sti­tu­tion of knowl­edge can pre­vail be­cause, al­though trolling has “some in­sti­tu­tional nodes” (e.g., Rus­sia’s In­ter­net Re­search Agency and Trump’s Twit­ter ac­count), they are, over time, much in­fe­rior in in­tel­lec­tual fire­power to the in­sti­tu­tions of the con­sti­tu­tion of knowl­edge.

Omi­nously, in the most im­por­tant of these, the col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, se­ri­ous schol­ars “are not the dom­i­nant voices.” Trump, bel­low­ing “fake news” and “sham” this and “rigged” that, is on all fours with his left­ist, of­ten aca­demic and equally fact-free de­spis­ers who, hol­ler­ing “racist” and “fas­cist,” are his col­lab­o­ra­tors in the at­tack on the con­sti­tu­tion of knowl­edge. “No won­der,” Rauch writes, “much of the pub­lic has formed the im­pres­sion that academia is not trust­wor­thy.” Im­pos­ing opin­ions and pro­mot­ing po­lit­i­cal agen­das, many aca­demics have de­scended to trolling, for­feit­ing their abil­ity to con­test he whom they emu­late.


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