We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
— Albert Einstein
In a recent interview on BillMoyers.com about his book Listen Liberal, author Thomas Frank spoke of the professional class that rules the Democratic Party and the orthodoxy instilled in them by their Ivy League institutions. Indeed, every president since 1988 attended an Ivy League university. Not only does this perspective from the professional class cross party lines, their orthodox worldview extends far beyond politics. It is based on an ideology that has served elites well – (semi) free-market capitalism and continuous economic growth. It is an orthodoxy that values corporate interests and personal gain over public good. It permeates all fields of society and American culture.
In their book Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky laid out the media propaganda model of journalism, in which they describe the small parameters of discourse allowable in mainstream media, due to factors such as advertising, corporate ownership, and the dominant elite mindset. The media propaganda model they describe is akin to the Ivy League orthodoxy of which Frank speaks. Disciplines cater to a small span of acceptable dialogue and thought based upon shared assumptions. Within that realm, diversity exists, but that diversity does not usually breach understood boundaries. Some voices reach the periphery of the border, but retract from crossing the line through caveats. Those who traverse boundaries tend to be marginalized, regardless of the substance, depth, and validity of their arguments and ideas. This orthodoxy is maintained chiefly through tacit self-censorship and is internalized by those who practice it.
The professional, upper-class orthodoxy infiltrates more than just Ivy League institutions because all others revere and aspire to it, and therefore tend to mimic it. My educational background is fairly privileged. My secondary school and undergraduate university were filled with students whose families possessed tremendous wealth, power, and advantage. My perspectives, experiences, and way of life from my modest, middle-class background were quite different from the majority of the rich students around me. People like me are subtly urged to fit in because we see that doing so would better enable us to garner the successes of the elite. But students far more disadvantaged than me have a great deal of trouble assimilating, not because they lack the intellectual ability but because they feel isolated. Thus, most who persist and whose backgrounds are anomalous – like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – adopt the mindset of the privileged. They deny or ignore their own histories and the voices they used to hear, voices that may call into question the veracity of the elite orthodoxy.
This elite-generated social control maintains the status-quo because the status quo benefits and validates those who created and sit atop it. People rise to prominence when they parrot the orthodoxy rather than critically analyze it. Intellectual regurgitation is prized over independent thought. Voices of the dispossessed, different, and un(formally)educated are neglected regardless of their morality, import, and validity. Real change in politics or society cannot occur under the orthodoxy because if it did, it would threaten the legitimacy of the professional class and all of the systems that helped them achieve their status.
The orthodoxy is why issues such as poverty, hunger, homelessness, and deterioration of public health and the environment continue unabated. They are eminently solvable, but cannot be solved under the implicit and often defective assumptions accepted by the orthodoxy.
We see examples of orthodox rules that benefit the capitalistic elite, versus independent alternatives which are discounted or overlooked, in all aspects of modern life:
In public education:
Most privileged members of society have never set foot in a public school or taught under the mandates therein. They have little appreciation for the teaching profession, which is filled with intelligent, overworked, over-stressed, caring and devoted individuals who are crippled by lack of resources, lack of time, lack of money, and lack of autonomy. The elite create their unsound educational policies without practical knowledge and evidence – policies which (one could only assume at this point) exist to crumble the public education system and pave the way for privatization. Charter schools, common core, endless standardized testing, and erroneous teacher evaluations do not support the needs of students. The acolytes of the professional class have no clue about what is best for students, particularly students with socioeconomic hardships they cannot and do not fathom. Social support systems for students outside of the classroom, equivalent funding for all students in all public schools, teacher independence, administrative support for teachers, higher teacher pay, and smaller class sizes would do well to tackle some of the fundamental problems in public education, but these out-of-the-box solutions undermine elite authority and corporate prospects. In a similar vein, technological devices – computers, tablets, etc. – have been pushed relentlessly into classrooms, even though their enhancement of learning, according to studies, is questionable or nonexistent.
Even Alan Greenspan admits that neoclassical economics has flaws in theory and practice, yet it continues to be the dominant model at universities and in society. The faulty belief in the uber-rational, self-interested homo economicus probably persists mainly because it is a projection of the people who inhabit the privileged class. Corporate externalization of costs are absorbed by society and forgotten when heralding the successes of industrialists and capitalists. Resource extraction and environmental degradation, which are part and parcel of production, consumption, and consequently, economic growth, are downplayed or ignored. Talk of a basic income, a maximum income or maximum wage, and wealth distribution (except flowing to the top) are left out of practical discourse. This, despite that way back in the oft-mentioned halcyon days of the 1950’s under Eisenhower, the top marginal income tax rate was over 90% and the rich did not seem to suffer a bit from it. That tax rate, effectively a maximum income, could support needed social programs and infrastructure and redistribute wealth to those who have spend the past three decades (at least) earning far less than their rightfully owed compensation given their abundant productivity. But such ideas are considered ludicrous according to the orthodoxy.
In health care and medicine:
The orthodoxy of medicine is to emphasize treatment over prevention. Though increasingly stressed during the past several decades, preventative techniques focus on personal lifestyle factors and rarely account for systemic issues. American medicine tends to deal in proximal causes of diseases, such as changes in physiology, versus distal causes, such as extrinsic factors responsible for the changes in the physiology. For instance, you go to the doctor for newly acquired migraine headaches and receive medicine to lessen the pain. Medicine is a helpful immediate remedy, but you may never get to the real cause, which is the fact that you have new carpeting in your home that is outgassing toxic substances resulting in your having headaches. Industrial causes of disease like pollution and toxic exposure are not commonly accounted for under the dominant orthodoxy. In psychology, social factors are discounted, so depression and anxiety are treated as individual mental health issues rather than stemming from an unjust and untenable society. If you are not on prescription medications for something, you are quite atypical, because health care is a business and always needs new markets under the orthodoxy. In medicine, there is also the disregard for unnecessary and questionable interventions. For example, use of CT scans proliferated before enough adequate research as to their safety and efficacy. Consequently, studies have found that excessive use of CT scans may now result in preventable cancers in at least 1 out of 2000 people undergoing CT. But rather than further understanding the body’s innate ability to heal itself in many situations and rather than utilizing the comprehensive knowledge of well-learned critical diagnosticians, medicine now over-uses technological and pharmaceutical diagnostic and treatment methods. Though these sometimes harm patients more than they help, they serve to enhance capitalism and expand economic markets.
Writers such as George Orwell, John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair, who shed light on the ills of society and the reality of the human condition, would probably not be published today. While dystopian fiction – especially science fiction and fantasy – is quite popular, look more closely and you will find that these novels, while characterizing some of the unpleasant realities of modern society, almost always end on a bright note with hope for the future. The benefits of technology are triumphed and the negative consequences minimized. Positivity is mandated. Narratives are about escape and denial. Protagonists are heroes who almost always save the day. I recently finished the popular Ready Player One, and while it demonstrates some societal issues, each time the protagonist faces an immediate, dire situation, he manages to overcome the obstacle, often because of simple coincidence or blind providence. The tragic heroes in Shakespeare and other classic works, who are doomed to die in the end but are always better for the knowledge and experience gained, are no more. What message is sent when heroes magically overcome obstacles instead of learning lessons about themselves and their world? This narrative orthodoxy of novels also pertains to most fictional films and television series. (Though some cable shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mr. Robot seem to be puzzling exceptions.)
Market-driven, corporate-friendly, and technological solutions to environmental issues dominate the discourse in environmental programs, in the largest environmental advocacy organizations, and in governmental policies. On the topics of climate change, toxic contamination, and pollution, questioning the necessity or sustainability of ever-increasing production and consumption is forbidden in polite company. In a panel conversation I attended about sustainability in agriculture, the discussion turned to ways of feeding a growing world population. Everyone agreed that the problem is not caused by a scarcity of food but by unequal distribution, but no one on the panel seemed to think that fact merited practical consideration. Furthermore, since at least 1/3 of food produced in the world is wasted, addressing the waste stream might mark a point at which to intervene in the problem, but the idea was scoffed at. Pragmatic discussion and research on the issue of food usually assumes the current industrial farming model. Ideas about small, independent, localized, organic systems of food growth and distribution, though favored more and more by consumers and shown in studies to be the sole sustainable method for the future, are not recognized as policy solutions by the orthodoxy. Home gardens, as anyone who tends one knows, could sustain many families fairly easily, but those require land and land is not given away for free under capitalist orthodoxy. Also, they require time, which overworked and underpaid citizens (who are even able to find work) are not allowed to have. So a system of universal gardening is not even considered. As far as toxic substances, one cannot suggest banning an unnecessary and potentially hazardous product or technology. The controversial endocrine disrupting chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) probably does not need to exist at all, as its applications are mostly superfluous to our lives, but not only are policymakers reluctant to regulate it, if they do, they will only apply the mandate of “safe levels” of exposure, even if there is no way to truly determine or evaluate a safe level for human health or the environment. Though there is no credible evidence to support the notion that limiting exposures to hazardous substances, that techno-fixes, or that “win-win” market driven solutions to environmental problems can be at all sustainable in the long-term, these are the only acceptable answers to pollution, climate change, and environmental degradation available within the orthodoxy.
Much is taken as a given under the orthodoxy; instead we might consider:
Why can’t all trade be fair trade?
Why can’t all crops be organic? Two corollaries: why do we call pesticide-laden crops “conventional” rather than “poisoned”? Why not call “organic” food just “food,” as it was prior to the petro-chemical revolution?
Why is single-payer universal healthcare, the model in most countries throughout the world, not discussed in U.S. congressional hearings on healthcare reform?
Why do we automatically denigrate poverty? Why do we not heed stories from the poor themselves?
Why is democracy celebrated as a political structure while only hierarchy is allowed in the workplace?
Why can we not question the ethical implications of wealth and excess with regard to economic inequality or environmental sustainability? Why does our dominant Judeo-Christian society value wealth and excess despite scripture clearly stating its immorality?
Why can we not factually declare the immorality of Wall Street and the general obscenity of commodifying basic necessities of life, such as food, water, and homes (real estate)?
Why is the work ethic venerated, even when that hard work may be only self-serving, or worse, may be generating tremendous harm? What’s the use of being constantly “busy” if your busyness is not useful (and may be destructive)?
Why do we not consider the direct and indirect ways our occupations – and the organizations from which we earn money and power – exploit other species, other humans, and the environment as a whole? What might happen if we were all to do so?
Why do we equate wealth – rather than empathy or altruism – with intelligence and success?
Why can we not fundamentally question capitalism?
The Ivy League-derived orthodoxy of the professional, educated class saturates all areas of American society. Alternative voices and viewpoints are ostracized through a number of means. If you do not possess the expertise and stamp of approval as authorized by the academic infrastructure, your ideas are often dismissed out of hand, however profound and substantive. If you posses the authorization to speak, but step outside of the boundaries of permissible thought (and action), your voice will remain virtually meaningless, or worse, maligned. While scholarship, research, writing, and practices outside of orthodox parameters exist at universities and in other professions, the work of these professionals does not generally penetrate the paradigms of larger society, nor does it affect large-scale public policies. Some academics suffer job loss for their unorthodox views. Steven Salita, Norman Finkelstein, and Ward Churchill are emblematic of the consequences to those who exceed the limits. Whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, John Kirakou, and Thomas Drake who began within the parameters, for moral and ethical reasons violated the border of orthodoxy and paid a price. Environmental, social justice, peace and animal rights advocates like Tim DeChristopher and Jessica Reznicek also know the penalties for defying the orthodoxy.
Our biosphere is in a global death spiral. The sources of life support, for those who can still afford them, are diminishing in quality and quantity. None of the orthodoxy coming from the Ivies and the professional class is effecting change in this trajectory. We need other voices – voices of the disposed, disenfranchised, maligned, harmed, victimized, and powerless – to help find answers. We need to value voices of the indigenous, who have lived as close to sustainably on this planet as we have ever witnessed and whose traditions and knowledge may well be fading into oblivion. We need to respect the voices of those whose knowledge comes from experience, rather than just from books. We need to consider the voices of those whose main purpose is not professional advancement, but public good. We need to consider information from others based on the merits of their arguments and evidence, rather than the letters that follow their names.
Perhaps the worst aspect of the orthodoxy is that we cannot truly speak to that fact that humanity is no longer facing the downfall of a single nation or the destruction of a single empire, but the decimation of an entire planetary ecosystem. If we do not challenge the cabal of political and social power in America and around the world, it will likely be the death knell for us all.