Unless you believe their experts
Today people power, or democracy if your prefer a more Hellenic term, means little more than mood management. You may express your feelings on a range of options that other presumed experts and high-profile opinion leaders offer you. However, you are not supposed to have any original thoughts or seek alternative sources of information that have not been given an official seal of approval or at any rate deemed authoritative. In debates on scientific issues orthodox pundits love to reference peer-reviewed research, because obviously any findings that challenge agendas essential to vested corporate interests can be easily weeded out or toned down in the peer review stage.
Expertocracy, the power of establishment experts, affects all controversies, whether on scientific, environmental, historical or geopolitical matters. The establishment bias pervades not only news media, but entertainment, drama and above all educational programmes. Popular soaps regularly push agendas and reinforce our preconceptions on a whole range of issues so that highly disputable contentions become generally accepted truisms. I've tried to highlight some of these in previous blog posts. Some questions are loaded, i.e. they only make sense if we internalise a mainstream assumption, such as we need economic growth and therefore any policy that might hinder economic growth must be bad. If we realise we don't actually need economic growth and merely better, more rewarding and less stressful lives, we might reach radically different conclusions on many topical issues.
Two recent events in British media circus have highlighted the public's growing distrust with the establishment media and their preferred experts. First the EU Referendum showed much of public opinion shunned the overwhelming pro-EU bias of the liberal intelligentsia and academia. The BBC and Guardian reminded us every day that leading economists believed continued membership of the EU is essential for job security and extreme labour mobility is just part of our wonderfully dynamic 21st century globalised economy. Their message was clear: Stop asking silly ill-informed questions and leave big questions such as economic management and migration control to the experts. The subtext was even clearer: If you question the rationale behind unbalanced mass migration you must be racist.
Then on Wednesday 6th July another shock unsettled the Westminster establishment. Sir John Chilcot's long-awaited report admitted major failures in the intelligence, justification and planning of the 2003 US/UK-led occupation of Iraq, but naturally fell short of identifying the real reasons for war or accusing any politician of intentional mendacity. I use the word occupation because in the event Iraqi forces loyal to the Baathist regime offered only token resistance. The US-led military coalition easily conquered Iraq and effortlessly overthrew Saddam Hussein's hated regime. Yet three trillion US dollars and over 1 million dead Iraqis later, they have clearly lost the peace. Iraq descended fast into civil war and now much of the Sunni-dominated and oil-rich Western region is under ISiS control. In the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war most establishment experts, at least those favoured by the BBC and UK government, agreed that Saddam Hussein posed a real threat to world peace and failure to overthrow his despotic regime would not only lead to more deaths in Iraq, but would allow an unhinged Saddam Hussein, always referred to by first name in the Western media, to destabilise the region. Of course, if Iraq really did have functioning weapons of mass destruction it would have deployed them in self-defence. Alas in the invent of the US invasion the Iraqi military could barely muster a couple tank divisions. While it was never hard to find Iraqis who welcomed the deposition of their former dictator and Western sanctions had already made most Iraqis poorer, attempts to rebuild Iraq as a vibrant peace-loving democracy along the lines of West Germany in the aftermath of WW2 failed dismally. The rest is history. By any account the region is much more unstable now than it was before the ill-conceived occupation. Other interventions in Afghanistan and Libya have had equally disastrous results. They have made nobody safer and have unleashed a tsunami of refugees on neighbouring countries and Europe.
Yet had we listened to the warnings of specialists that that our mainstream media either ignored or dismissed as mavericks or wild conspiracy theorists, we could have foreseen the likely outcome of these military operations. The UN's official inspector in the run-up to the occupation, Hans Blix, failed to find any evidence of new WMDs, except for remnants of chemical weapons labs from the 1980s when Britain and US exported arms to Iraq. There is nothing the public learned in the Chilcot Report that had not been predicted in Scott Ritter's 1999 book Endgame, in which he suggests a way out of the Iraqi quagmire but warns of the danger of outright invasion. However bad Saddam Hussein might have been, he was far from alone in the long list of tyrants and mass murderers that the US once supported. Iraq is largely a creation of Anglo-American imperialism in the aftermath of the First World War. Lines in the sand were drawn with little consideration given to a territory's viability as a country. The US and UK were happy to support a dictator like Saddam Hussein to suppress Islamic fundamentalism and as a bulwark against Iran. Just as Western governments tolerated Saudi Arabia's human rights' abuses and Turkey's suppression of its large Kurdish population, they turned a blind eye to the Baathist regime's crimes until Saddam Hussein authorised Iraq's 1990 occupation of oil-soaked Kuwait. Those with a long enough memory and an inquisitive mind will recall Saddam Hussein felt it safe to occupy what most Iraqis of the era regarded as their 19th province after former US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie said "We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America".
In a complex society nobody can reach logical conclusions on most subjects without deferring to the experience and technical competence of others. The challenge we all face is to judge whether or not to trust experts that appear regularly in the mainstream media or to seek alternative views. Dissident experts are not necessarily right just because the establishment shuns them. They may be pursuing another agenda, possibly funded by dark forces that do not have our best interests at heart, have deep religious convictions at odds with modern scientific theories or may simply retain faith in outdated beliefs that have lost favour with our new internationalist elite. However, all these charges are equally applicable to the status quo, except we might replace religious zeal with an unswerving belief in technological progress. The establishment does regularly change its mind, which is partly why some apparent dissident experts cling to the old consensus, but has to manage public perception in such a way as to not discredit its authority. When irrefutable evidence proves a product, once favoured by powerful lobbies, such as cigarettes to be harmful, many reputations are tarnished. Yet the marketing of tobacco products played a major role in the promotion of consumer hedonism. Cigarettes have arguably lost their usefulness as effective means of mood management. Modern technology has better alternatives.
Should we let our government build more nuclear power stations? Should we allow hydraulic fracturing in our neighbourhood? Are mercury amalgam fillings safe? Should all girls be vaccinated against human papilloma virus? These are all reasonable questions that affect the lives of millions. Yet which experts should we trust on these matters? Fortunately on all these bones of contention you can still find a diversity of well-researched expert opinion. The mainstream media bias, at least in the UK, is still broadly supportive of nuclear power with all the usual caveats about safety and security. The NHS still defends the use of mercury amalgams and will readily point you to copious peer-reviewed abstracts dismissing the concerns of anti-mercury campaigners. However, opponents of mass vaccination are often dismissed as little more than uninformed quacks likely to believe the scare stories of a few renegade clinicians. Just consider the vast sums invested in the vilification of Dr Andrew Wakefield, apparently personally responsible for each outbreak of measles. In truth Dr Wakefield has only ever advocated safe vaccination and only questioned the safety of the triple vaccine option. I don't want to revisit the MMR controversy here, but it surely highlights the problem with expertocracy. Once we silence dissident experts in the name of public safety, we then effectively only have a narrow set of sanitised policy options.
One of the most dangerous political currents is universal progressivism. Its adherents believe that despite many transient hurdles and occasional setbacks, we are on a one-way journey to a global utopia. In the words of D:Ream's 1994 hit that accompanied Tony Blair's upbeat 1997 election campaign "Things Can Only Get Better". For this illusion to appear true we have to keep rewriting the past and often the very recent past. Moreover, we have to keep discovering new perceived problems that require some form of proactive intervention. We no longer accept our natural limitations. Consider the sad fact that some women cannot bear children. In the recent past if a woman learned she could not procreate successfully for medical reasons, she would have probably felt some temporary despair. But surprisingly most women took such news in their stride, glad to be alive and able to contribute to their family and community in other ways. Now infertility is considered a tragedy, not just an unfortunate fact of life, because the fertility treatment industry have transformed people's perceptions of personal injustice and contributed to a growing culture of entitlement. This attitude emotionalises political discourse. The media present major issues in emotional terms. Thus if you oppose the European Union, you must hate European people. If are concerned about high levels of net migration, you must hate individual immigrants who may be good people. It's very easy to conflate the personal with the social. However, on a personal level we regularly express the most extreme forms of real discrimination. If a young woman rejects the sexual advances of a young man, she is not only discriminating, but may also hurt his feelings. This behaviour seems only natural and healthy until you internalise the crazy logic of social justice warriors in which every perceived personal misfortune is a crime against humanity. Thus if a fat person is entitled to expensive surgery to tackle their obesity and not expected to control their weight naturally through a healthy diet and exercise, there's no reason why a relatively ugly heterosexual male should not be entitled to expensive cosmetic surgery and generous welfare handouts to boost his attractiveness in the sexual marketplace. Employers often discriminate against incompetent or unqualified workers. I don't think many of us would like to be operated on by incompetent surgeon or fly in a plane commandeered by an unqualified pilot. None of this means we should not give everyone a chance to learn new skills or provide healthcare for treatable conditions. We just need to balance personal and social responsibilities, understand our limitations and limit our expectations.
A culture of entitlement leads to extreme interdependence. As we are not all equally gifted or equally able to pursue intellectually challenging jobs, it makes us more, rather than less, reliant on experts. These armies of official advisers are now responsible for every aspect of our lives from eating to shopping and leisure, lovemaking to procreation and child-rearing, communication to transportation, education to work as well as healthcare. Our freedom has largely been reduced to a choice of consumer goods and regulated leisure pursuits. Psychologists now view our opinions mere expressions of our psyche. If we stray too far from the narrow range of permissible dissent, sociologists may regard our views as dysfunctional or delusional or somehow incompatible with the kind of new society they wish to build. In their mindset if you believe, for instance, that fluoride in the water supply is a form of mind control, you are a victim of delusional thinking and the hypothesis that fluoride ingested in excessive quantities can cross the blood-brain barrier and inflict permanent brain damage is barely worth investigating. If you only ever rely on official reports from mainstream media outlets and respected scientific publications, you will probably only ever find out about any adverse effects of our current policies when it's too late. If you believe mass migration is the best way to achieve social harmony, you may have seen all manner of alternative explanations for events that may on the surface not fit your thesis. Could the rise in terrorist incidents in France and elsewhere be related to a growing Muslim population and record youth unemployment ? If you previously believed in something we rather misleadingly call multiculturalism, then you may only accept the latter part of that hypothesis. We know mass unemployment alone does not necessarily lead to terrorism, though it can naturally lead people to support political agendas that would otherwise be unpopular. However, a combination of extreme ideologies within a marginalised ethnoreligious group and neoliberal economics with limited job security could well destabilise delicate social cohesion when rival communities no longer share the same core values. As the universalist neoliberal dream, the idea that global big business can work in tandem with supranational organisations to bring about a better world, crumbles, we had better start listening to more subversive experts and learning, once again. to sort the wheat from the chaff.