It’s an election year so there will be all kinds of absurd stories over the next several months which spin out of politicians’ compulsion to lie and reporters’ obligation to fact check. This morning I came across one involving Ted Cruz and Obamacare.
The upshot: Cruz claimed to a crowd that he, an Ivy League-educated United States Senator whose wife works for the richest investment bank on the planet, has no health insurance. Why? Because of the evil Obamacare. That is shocking indeed! Or at least it would be if, this morning, some basic fact-checking revealed that Cruz does, in fact, have health insurance.
To the extent this rates as a “controversy,” it rates pretty low. Indeed, I suspect it won’t last past the next news cycle. Politicians lie or exaggerate about stuff all the time, usually about things of greater consequence. Donald Trump will fart into a microphone or Hillary Clinton will dab, whip, nae-nae or do something equally pandering and age-inappropriate this weekend and it will all be forgotten.
But though it will soon be forgotten, this episode reveals something profound about the age in which we live. It’s a perfect example of how we, for all practical purposes, live in a new Dark Age. It’s not Medieval Times, of course. We’re not becoming subsistence farmers in a plague-ridden world lit only by fire. But it’s a dark age all the same in the ways that are fundamentally, not merely aesthetically, significant.
The fundamental trait of an advanced society is not the sophistication of the vehicles in which its citizens travel or the consumer products which are or are not readily available. Rather, it’s the ability for people to communicate and transfer knowledge and information to others in an efficient system. One in which a single reasoned abstraction discovered by a knowledgable person can be transmitted to a larger number of people and which, thanks to the power of the exponential dynamic, educates or enlightens us:
- A scientist discovers something astounding, publishes his results and, soon, society is benefitted by manufacturers or farmers implementing the discovery in such a way as to improve the delivery of goods and services;
- A philosopher has an epiphany, hammers out his theory and, soon, leaders and educators are using the insights to craft policies which improve society;
- A leader perceives a threat to or an opportunity for his or her country, explains it to the masses and society is mobilized to act on it.
An enlightened society is one which is all about the leveraging of education, knowledge and insight and transmitting it via efficient communication to make the world better, rapidly.
The opposite of an enlightened society is one characterized by inefficient systems. One in which tales, anecdotes and the constant reinvention of the wheel is required. One in which mere existence, as opposed to advancement, is the priority:
- A doctor treats a disease, not based on the research to which he is privy, but based on his own experiences and customs. “Hey, bleeding the bad humours from the last patient cured her, so I shall do so once again!”
- A scientist discovers something astounding or a philosopher has an epiphany, but it is ignored as a useless abstraction whose utility to any single person is unclear or, worse, he does not communicate it for fear of reprisals from the powerful who perceive it as a threat;
- A leader makes no effort to mobilize society because he or she is more concerned with staying in power and looking inward rather than looking outward.
This latter set of circumstances perfectly describes Medieval Europe. It also, however, describes 21st Century America with increasing accuracy.
Vaccines are an easy example of this. After centuries of fighting diseases and developing cures, we’re beginning to see the wholesale rejection of vaccinations by some as an efficacious means of, you know, not dying of easily preventable diseases. We’re likewise seeing it in relation to rejection of peer-reviewed climate science which strongly suggests that our planet is getting warmer as a result of man-made phenomena. We are likewise rejecting the idea that society can be mobilized in any reasonable way and mock leaders who suggest it as naive idealists who don’t understand the realities of politics. “You’ll never win an election or stay in power talking like that, Mr. Candidate!”
It’s tempting and oh-so-common to blame this dynamic on stupidity. I’m pretty liberal and have many liberal friends and they do this all of the time. I catch myself doing it too. Slagging on the uneducated for being uneducated, slagging our political opponents for being evil. We’d laugh at all of this if it wasn’t so depressing, but oh what can you do when everyone is stupid except us? Oh well. More wine, dear? The good Sunday night shows are coming on.
But it goes deeper than that. It’s not just that some people are smart and some are not because that dynamic has always been in place. On the whole we’re a more educated society than those which existed during the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. There have always been, for lack of a better term, elites and masses. An advanced and an enlightened society does not need to hit an aggregate intellectual bogie in order to pass muster. The Roman Empire fell and societies of mostly illiterate farmers conquered the world.
Did you see what Ted Cruz did with that health insurance example? Apart from maybe lying? He told a personal story. A personal story about his alleged lack of health insurance. He did it not to garner personal sympathy or to ask for help with a medical bill. He did it for the express purpose of advancing, however clumsily, a policy position. He’s opposed to Obamacare and to show people that it is bad, he told a personal tale.
Which is absolutely nuts.
I’m not going to debate the pros and cons of Obamacare here. It’s enough to know that Ted Cruz is opposed to it, as are most of the people whose votes he is courting. It’s also enough to admit – and I hope that even my liberal friends can admit this – that Obamacare is not perfect and is the subject of legitimate criticism. For as tired as we are of debating it, it is still worthy of debate and it’s still relevant to debate it. Cruz would be crazy not to point out its flaws and not attempt to rally voters to his cause on this count.
But he’s not pointing out its flaws in an efficient manner which hews with how enlightened societies work. He’s telling stories. He’s passing along his personal experience, however inaccurate it may be, as a means of advancing his goals. He’s not pointing out, in clear, supportable terms, that the Affordable Care Act inspires insurers to switch people from PPOs to HMOs, which it very clearly does. He’s not explaining how, in the aggregate, such a thing is bad policy in his view. He’s telling a story. A story which could be accompanied by Medieval minstrels with lyres and lutes. “Oh gather ye children and ye shall know/how a man named Ted joined an HMO!”
Cruz isn’t doing this because he’s stupid. No matter what you think of Cruz, you CANNOT call him stupid. He’s highly educated – Harvard and Princeton remember – and probably has a near genius-level IQ, I’d reckon. But he knows that his audience will not respond to abstract or data-driven arguments. They require or, at the very least, have come to expect, anecdotal stories of monsters (Obama, ACA) and Heroes (Sir Ronald Reagan, maybe). It’s all in service of a political dynamic that is not all that different than the medical dynamic of the doctor bleeding that poor woman of her bad humours. This happened then, so it shall happen now! The dragons which came before (Hitler, Stalin, Jimmy Carter) are nearing the castle gates again! Never mind that there may be differences between this dragon and the last. Can’t you see that here be dragons?!
Cruz and his Republican friends aren’t alone in this, of course. Remember Hillary Clinton dabbing, whipping and nae-nae-ing? What in the Hell is that about? She’s a 68-year-old grandmother for crying out loud. The answer, of course, is she’s doing it to woo young voters. To show them, however ham-handedly she’s doing it, that she understands them and relates to them despite the fact that she’s a 68-year-old grandmother. She could do this by, say, talking about issues facing young people and proposing policies which would benefit them. She could talk about the values she holds, the plans she has and the vision she has and how those things, in the aggregate, would make the country and their lives better. But no, she dabs, whips and nae-naes. The dancing equivalent of personal anecdote and the Dark Ages manner of information transmission. The abdication of an efficient system of idea transmission which is the hallmark of an enlightened society.
Cruz and Clinton can be mocked for this, but like I said, they’re not stupid (Clinton went to Wellesley and Yale). And they’re likely not going to fail (I predict that they will be their respective parties’ nominees). They and their staffs simply know that that is how people process things now. That personal anecdote and near-tribal signaling is more important to people than gathering facts, applying them to values, forming opinions and then positions and then marshaling arguments which directly address society at large. Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul have done that more than anyone, I suppose. The whole “idea communication” thing. Paul is out of the race. Sanders is getting some traction now, but he’s also considered a weirdo and I suspect that, soon, people will tire of him. You’re not going to get anywhere with words these days. People want to feel things and understand, on the most personal and subjective level, how they are affected. “Why should I immunize Cayden? He’s totally healthy! I have never heard him cough! Look at this meme! It explains EVERYTHING!”
We live in the most technologically advanced times in human history. We live in a time when our populace is better-educated than it has ever been. But we also live in a time when actual information and ideas matter less than they ever have. When anecdote and feeling trump information when it comes to determining matters of societal direction and understanding, all of that technology is rather beside the point.
The difference between a dark age and an enlightened age is one in which “you must SHOW me” supersedes “Please explain.” And by that measure, we are entering the New Dark Age.