Trump, the Myth of Lateral Competence, and the Lost Art of Crap-Detection

When I worked in a merchant banking firm back in the aughts, the company did an IPO that raised a significant amount of capital. Up to that point, we had been what are called financial intermediaries — pairing up companies who needed capital with those who were prepared, in exchange for generous returns, to provide it. Suddenly, with this influx of our own funds, we were to become deployers of capital rather than intermediaries of it. We were to go from being —in financial argot — advisors and agents to being principals.

The presumption was that because we were very good at one thing, we would be good at another, somewhat related thing — that we could, in short, be laterally competent. This proved itself wrong when the easy money dried up in the financial crisis of the late aughts, our formerly well-capitalized company started hiving off assets at a great rate to meet debt calls, and we were collectively revealed as a bunch who did one thing very well and this new thing not nearly as well as the real world required.

Donald Trump and his supporters daily perpetuate this myth of lateral competence, the idea that because he was a successful businessman (a claim that relies on an attenuated and cynical definition of “success”), he would be a successful governmental executive — indeed, that he would be better at this task than the average career politician, because he came to office unburdened by the personal loyalties and ideological biases (not to mention useful experience) that politicians inevitably accumulate.

But shorn of this sort of populist nonsense, relieved of the myth of lateral competence, what Trump’s ascendency reveals is the utter gullibility of a large swath of the electorate, and its tendency to equate celebrity with competence. Had Trump not appeared on the nation’s TV screens for the better part of a decade, he would have remained a local New York punchline, a figure of pure tabloid fun. Instead, he portrayed a fictional Donald Trump who pretended to fire people in a fabricated TV entertainment, and a large number of adults apparently thought they were watching a weekly documentary about an actually great man.

There is only one solution to the problem of an electorate that can make this kind of observational and ultimately moral mistake, and that is better education. For only a decent education can provide what every citizen and voter needs, and that is what Hemingway called a built-in, shock-proof crap detector.

Back in 1971, when I was in college, an NYU professor of education named Neil Postman came to national prominence as co-author of a book called Teaching as a Subversive Activity (which speaks worlds about where our heads were at back then). It was, as now, a turbulent, divisive time, and Postman put his finger on the central problem faced by any politically divided society when he gave a speech in 1969 before the National Convention for the Teachers of English (pray God such a thing is still held), pithily entitled “Bullshit and the Art of Crap Detection.” Almost 50 years on, it is full of instruction relevant to the age of Trump.

In his speech, Postman summed up the overarching civic goal of a good education as follows:

“As I see it, the best thing schools can do for kids is to help them learn how to distinguish useful talk from bullshit. I will ask only that you agree that every day in almost every way people are exposed to more bullshit than it is healthy for them to endure, and that if we can help them to recognize this fact, they might turn away from it and toward language that might do them some earthly good.”

He went on to identify some key components of bullshit:

  • Pomposity – “not an especially venal form of bullshit, although it is by no means harmless.”
  • Fanaticism – “Now, there is one type of fanaticism of which I will say very little, because it is so vulgar and obvious — bigotry. But there are other forms of fanaticism that are not so obvious, and therefore perhaps more dangerous than bigotry.”
  • Inanity – “With the development of the mass media, inanity has suddenly emerged as a major form of language in public matters. The invention of new and various kinds of communication has given a voice and an audience to many people whose opinions would otherwise not be solicited, and who, in fact, have little else but verbal excrement to contribute to public issues. Many of these people are entertainers. The press and air waves are filled with the featured and prime-time statements from people who are in no position to render informed judgments on what they are talking about and yet render them with élan and, above all, sincerity. Inanity, then, is ignorance presented in the cloak of sincerity.” (Emphasis added.)
  • Superstition – “Superstition is ignorance presented in the cloak of authority. A superstition is a belief, usually expressed in authoritative terms for which there is no factual or scientific basis. Like, for instance, that the country in which you live is a finer place, all things considered, than other countries. Or that the religion into which you were born confers upon you some special standing with the cosmos that is denied other people. I will refrain from commenting further on that, except to say that when I hear such talk my own crap-detector achieves unparalleled spasms of activity.”

Postman acknowledged that “one man’s bullshit is another man’s catechism,” which led directly to what he called Postman’s Third Law:

“At any given time, the chief source of bullshit with which you have to contend is yourself.” (Emphasis in the original.)

Then he comes to the heart of the matter:

“If teachers were to take an enthusiastic interest in what language is about, each teacher would have fairly serious problems to resolve. For instance, you can’t identify bullshit the way you identify phonemes. That is why I have called crap-detecting an art. Although subjects like semantics, rhetoric, or logic seem to provide techniques for crap-detecting, we are not dealing here, for the most part, with a technical problem. Each person’s crap-detector is embedded in their value system; if you want to teach the art of crap-detecting, you must help students become aware of their values.” (Emphasis added.)

For Postman, interestingly, an uncluttered awareness of one’s values derives ultimately from an awareness of one’s mortality:

“About the only advantage that comes from our knowledge of the inevitability of death is that we know that whatever is happening is going to go away. Most of us try to put this thought out of our minds, but I am saying that it ought to be kept firmly there, so that we can fully appreciate how ridiculous most of our enthusiasms and even depressions are. Reflections on one’s mortality curiously makes one come alive to the incredible amounts of inanity and fanaticism that surround us, much of which is inflicted on us by ourselves.”

Postman concluded his speech back in 1969 by admitting that he didn’t really know how to teach crap-detection to students, which is why he called it an art. But he thought that the effort to teach it — the effort, ultimately, to instill self-awareness about one’s values — was essential to the survival of a civil, coherent society.

I come back to the belief that the chief lesson of the election of 2016 is not that Democrats failed to read accurately the pulse of the hinterlands, or that Hillary Clinton was the wrong kind of candidate, or that social media are a threat to democracy, though all those things are true. The real lesson is that we belong to an electorate that can no longer identify bullshit, that we failed in Postman’s project of teaching the children of the Seventies the habits of critical thinking and healthy skepticism that are fundamental requirements of self-governance, and now those children are middle-aged and older voters fully capable of confusing bombast with conviction, and notoriety with character.

I take comfort, however, that this generation of voters will soon die off and be replaced, hopefully, by the children of places like Parkland, Florida, who, having swum in a sea of unmediated informational crap for their entire lives, and having evolved, like primordial amphibians, into beings capable of both breathing it and rising above it, will call out bullshit, and vote for something better.

3 thoughts on “Trump, the Myth of Lateral Competence, and the Lost Art of Crap-Detection

  1. Keith – once again, right on target. My father – of blessed memory – once said that at least half of his success was having a finely tuned bullshit-o-meter. You guys would have really hit it off. I believe your are entirely correct about the current crop of voters and those to come. We could learn a lot from our children. Their critical thinking skills appear much better developed, on average, then the current electorate majority who seems totally captivated by bluster, bombast, and bullshit.

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