Vulnerability

Perhaps the most insidious thing 45 has been doing is undermining expertise.  If you’re like me you’ll be subject to that sudden, clenching fear that we live in a house of cards.  Everything is built on an extremely tenuous situation and we don’t understand the basis on which it’s built.  (That’s one reason I take such an interest in geology.)  So this morning I climbed out of bed around 3:30 a.m., my usual time.  There was no internet.  This has happened before, and I know enough to turn off power to the router and reboot.  This I did several times before finally calling RCN.  I pictured a tech sitting in a lonely basement at the wee hours, perhaps glad for a service call.  He was very nice.  Still, after having me do the basic checks again, he said he’d have to send a technician.  They, lazily, don’t start work until 8 a.m.

Now here’s where the expertise comes in.  Most of us use the internet pretty constantly.  We don’t know how it works, and when it’s broken we can’t fix it.  I can’t even figure out what some of these devices are.  In all likelihood the technician (my shining prince or princess) will not understand the underlying coding that makes the devices work.  They’ll be able (I hope, and if you’re reading this my hope is not misplaced) to figure out what’s wrong with the hardware.  I suspect even they, however, wouldn’t be able to lay the cable to my house, or repair it, if it were damaged.  We all rely on others farther down the line to know how to do their jobs.  Experts.  House of cards.  With a president claiming experts to be obsolete, I wonder how even the mighty could tweet without an internet connection.

All of this makes me feel quite vulnerable.  I work from home and I need a solid, reliable, steady internet connection.  The day we moved in, literally, two techs came.  It was a Sunday morning.  One of them fell asleep in the office chair while the younger one, who spoke no English, did all the work.  Every time I use the internet, I feel like I’m trying to add a new story to this house of cards.  I don’t know what to do if it goes wrong.  Since phone (and television, at least theoretically) is bundled in this, I can’t even call.  Well, I couldn’t if I didn’t have a cell phone.  My life is tied up with tech, and I can’t fix it if it’s broken.  I made it through a master’s degree without using a computer.  My frame of reference is ancient.  If a bird tweets and there’s no signal, does it make a sound?  Then, without explanation, the connection was reborn, just before 7 a.m.  Who says there’s no such thing as resurrection?

Knowing It All

Reading about the Trump administration underscores once again the traditional American contradiction of, love of, but mostly hatred toward, experts. When you’re lying on that operating table, you stake your life that an expert is going to perform the surgery. When you buy that airline ticket, you’re banking that the pilot will be an expert. If you’re electing the most powerful individual in the world, you’ll excoriate experts and defer to the guy with the weird hair that says whatever he pleases and has never been a public servant a day in his life. This observation isn’t original with me, of course. I’m only an editor. Nevertheless, the same dilemma comes down to my little world of academic publishing as well. Most academics don’t understand this business—I was an academic at one time and I certainly didn’t—and yet don’t like to bow to the expertise of those who do.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m making no grand claims to understanding this industry into which I unwittingly stumbled. I have been involved in it for over a decade now and I’m still learning. One of the things I’m learning is that many academics don’t trust experts. In part it’s academic culture. A doctoral program, if it’s a good one, will make you question everything. Sometimes even experts forget when to engage the brakes. When dealing with the experts at a publishing company, many academics doubt the expertise of those who do this day in and day out for a living. Books, however, have measurable sales records. There’s hard data for analysis. Not that it’s foolproof (but what is?), such metrics are time-tested and based on reasonable data sets. Often that’s not enough to convince an expert that other experts know more than they’re revealing. A personal philosophy, but one which I pursue with appropriate skepticism, is that other people should be left to do their jobs. As I frequently note, those who talk to the bus driver, freely giving advice, often make the situation worse for everyone.

The case of religion, however, is a special can of worms. There are no experts in this field, even among those of us who are experts. Had I realized this when I was younger, I’m not sure it would’ve made much of a difference in what I ended up doing with my life. You see, religion is all about ultimates. The big questions. The sine qua non of every single thing. When I read about things like politics, or entrepreneurship, I think to myself, “That’s all fine and good, but at the end of the day, is it what really matters?” If life is a search for meaning, why not grab it by both hands and try to become an expert at it? Some would say that’s the job of the philosopher, but let’s face it, religionists and philosophers deal in the same currency. One is more abstract than the other, to be sure. Still, don’t take my word for it. Please consult an expert.

United States of Ego

We all know the type. The guy who brags that he can do something complex without all the study and “hard work” (scare quotes theirs) necessary beforehand. When he starts strutting his stuff, and realizes that it is much harder than he thought, he has to find a way of backing down without losing face. We all know somebody like that. Now we all know somebody like that by dint of his being in the White House. Politics, like most complex things, isn’t as easy as it looks. When you’re president of the United States, backing down quietly’s not an easy thing to do. Why not start a nuclear war instead? Better dead than read, as the saying goes.

Thing is, braggarts may convince others that they don’t know what they’re talking about, but they’ll never convince themselves. The truly sad thing is we’ve never lived in a country where it was possible to buy your way to the White House before, based purely on ego. Don’t get me wrong—I know that every president has to be an egoist to some degree. What the previous 44 have had, however, is considerable knowledge of politics. Even the dumbest of them read. They knew this wouldn’t be some simple task that you could simply wing, like a business deal. You have to do homework. A lot of it. And it’s not easy. Even the relatively simple life of a professor of religious studies requires years of training. Hours and hours and hours of reading and thinking. Believe it or not, it’s hard work.

Now we have a chief executive tweeting that it’s hard to be president. Everyone, it seems, except 45, knew that. That’s why most people would never bother to run for the office. Our civilization utterly depends on experts. That surgeon that works on your heart, you swear, had better be an expert. Those guys who build the missiles we lob onto whomever we feel like, had better be experts. And even if your steak comes out of the restaurant kitchen poorly prepared, you send it back for expert treatment. And yet, we’ve elected the least qualified candidate who’s ever run for the office in over two centuries of history. His expertise: pleasing himself. Greed is a poor substitute for leadership. Even now that it’s crystal clear we live in a headless state, his supporters cheer him on. Let’s hear it for the poor uber-wealthy. Those guys need all the help they can get.