I’ve heard people say that Trump won this election because the American people lack critical thinking skills. In fact, I’ve heard people blame this alleged lack of critical thinking skills for everything from the failure of democracy, to people’s unwillingness to vaccinate their children, to the homelessness crisis. This kind of talk always makes me cringe. To me, it always sounds like, “The real problem is that the American people are just too dumb to comprehend the wisdom of my position.”
I don’t think that’s the problem at all. I certainly find people plenty skeptical of anything I have to say. People seem clever enough to me, and they don’t have any problem finding holes in my arguments, even where none exist. I don’t have a problem with that. I present unpopular ideas that challenge the prevailing perspective, so I expect criticism. I can always find another way to frame my case, and I’m happy to do so, because I know that you know how to think for yourself.
I don’t think we have any shortage of critical thinking in this country. In fact we probably have too much of it, and most of it gets wasted on the silliest decisions. If you see some product that you want to purchase, you will carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages of ordering from Amazon or buying at Walmart. You’ll consider an off-brand alternative. You’ll try to find a coupon, or get a discount, or you might wait til it goes on sale. You’ll consider a myriad of factors, almost effortlessly, before you make a decision. People invest an inordinate amount of high quality attention on this kind of pursuit. Fortunately for me, there’s nothing on Amazon, or at Walmart that I want, and I have better things to do with my mind.
Even if you’ve never considered yourself a thoughtful person, you know how to think, and you do it all the time. The problem is, most people confine their thinking to the mundane everyday decisions of modern life, while they leave the big ideas, the ideas that shape the arc of our lives, and our destiny as a people, we leave those ideas to the experts and the authorities. If we ponder any of these big ideas ourselves, we do it mostly for sport, and rarely take it seriously.
These days, we have so many entertainment options, I doubt if anyone thinks recreationally anymore. Thinking takes effort, and unless you are willing to bet your life on your own assessment of the truth, regardless of its popularity, you might as well just hang out with people you like, and believe whatever they believe. The truth is mostly overrated, but the people around you matter.
Still, I see no shortage of thinking, and I don’t think people need instructions on how to do it. The problem, as I see it, is not a shortage of thinkers, but a shortage of ideas, and a lack of conviction. The two go hand in hand. For instance: Most of us still believe in democracy, even though we’ve never, ever seen it work in our entire lifetime. We still believe in it, but only because we don’t have a better idea to replace it.
The experts told us that democracy is the best form of government yet devised, and yet we see that it works so poorly. As democracy continues to disappoint us, and we become more cynical, we continue to trust the experts because they’ve already convinced us that we wouldn’t know anything about the world without them. We believe them, because it’s mostly true, and because we’re suckers for any self-confident man in a business suit or a lab-coat who can demonstrate that he has a lot of money behind him.
On our own, we don’t believe anything we think, and we don’t even trust our own feelings anymore. We don’t know anything, and we don’t even know why we think we know the things we believe, and mostly, we don’t care anymore, because we’re way too busy thinking way too much about stuff that doesn’t mean anything. That’s what I mean by a lack of conviction.
Here is the problem as I see it. As a culture, we have run out of ideas. We still believe in democracy. We still want government to work, and we still expect science and technology to save us, and make the world a better place. We expect these things, and invest our lives in them, even though they consistently disappoint us, because we cannot imagine another way. We cannot imagine another way, because we lack the ideas and concepts necessary to evaluate our failed institutions, to understand their failings, and to conceive of an alternative.
Our culture has become an echo chamber ringing with the deafening roar of dead ideas. We shout them all the louder as though we could wake them up and reanimate them, but democracy is dead. Government of the people, by the people and for the people is dead. Science is dead and civilization is dead. They all died a long time before this past election, and nothing we can do will revive them. If you were paying attention, you would have noticed.
Probably, you did notice, but you’ve been praying that God will take you to heaven, or hoping that you were wrong, or just trying to ignore it and make it go away. I think that’s why people focus so much attention on those Amazon v Walmart kind of decisions. No one wants to think about this stuff, let alone talk about it. They’d rather look at stuff, and buy it, or “like” it, or bitch about it, or show it off at the club. We’d rather leave it to the experts, and let the government handle it. Hell, we’d rather work than think about it.
Small minds think alike, and we now find ourselves in a failing culture, surrounded by astoundingly skeptical people, who wouldn’t have the conviction to stand behind an original idea if they ever had one. We desperately need new ideas, and we shouldn’t look to “the experts” to generate them. We need to learn to see things differently, and to think about our situation differently, because we’re staring at a cultural dead-end, and you have to be in deep denial not to recognize that.
I’m not here to humor you. We don’t need any more of the same old, dead, mythology. We need to understand where we went wrong, why what we’re doing here has not worked, does not work, and, most importantly, will not work, and figure out where to go from here. That’s going to take a lot of new ideas, and that’s going to take conviction. That’s why I write this column. Don’t ask me why you read it.