Apathy, Lippmann and PT Barnum

My colleague Russ Wellen has a nice piece over at Scholars & Rogues that asks “is apathy socially redeeming?” I especially like how he manages to get through the entire post without once resorting to the word “sheep”….

Snark aside, there is much to consider here. For sure, the complexity of modern life is a problem. People, even dumb ones, can often find their way to workable solutions when they’re dealing with something they can get their heads around. But as you note, there is so much to know that it’s impossible for even the most brilliant minds in our society to know it all. Walter Lippmann described this phenomenon in striking detail – if you were to read key passages from Public Opinion you’d never believe he was writing in the 1920s. He so perfectly describes our present society, and I think a lot of us tend to think that the world early in the last century was probably a lot easier to comprehend.

How can people who don’t understand an issue (or a lot of them) possibly make good policy decisions on those issues? Well, they can’t, and if you don’t understand an issue you can’t make a reliable decision on who to vote for to make those decisions for you, either. All of which led Lippmann to propose a system of meritocractic bureaucracy, whereby complex decisions were entrusted to those who actually did understand the issues.

Not a perfect solution, but it’s impossible to argue that it’s worse than what we have without a blind resort to pure dogma.

In a context such as this, frustration is bound to mount. You try and make a good decision, but it keeps going to hell on you, and a certain class of corrupt opportunists, who fully understand how to profit from a baffled citizenry, seem to be the only ones getting by. The worse it is for you, the better it is for them.

Circus be damned – if he were alive today PT Barnum would be president. For life.

So we find ourselves in a world where apathy is the only way to survive. Caring is a behavior that gets punished, routinely and brutally.

Ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s a survival trait.

Great piece, Russ….

One comment

  • However large looms the temptation to call Americans “sheeple,” the point is not to condescend to them.

    Meanwhile, as I read the respected and convincing work of political science called Stealth Democracy, the public, in fact, yearns to be ruled by an “elite” group. We just have to find an adjective that’s less of a lightning rod thatn elite..

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