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Armchair Experts

My colleague on ‘Entanglements,’ Adam Kirsch, posted a perceptive column a few days ago that asked both why we are—as we seem to have been since at least the advent of the middle-class newspaper-reading public in eighteenth-century London, Edinburgh, and Amsterdam—so passionately interested in the affairs of “leaders and nations we don’t know, never will see, and certainly have no power over,” and whether this avidity for consuming news actually brings us closer to reality or instead makes it harder to “see things as they actually are?”

It’s an excellent question, whether or not one agrees (I do not) that the Guardian story Kirsch cites as a prime recent example of this phenomenon—it revealed utterly fruitless 30-year-old diplomatic conversations between Israel and apartheid South Africa about possible sharing of Israeli nuclear technology—was as non-newsworthy as he claims. Rightly, I think, Kirsch associates this interest both with the sense that no matter where we live our fates are interconnected, and that it is simply human nature to move from knowing something to choosing sides.

Kirsch argues that this can be a very good thing. As someone who has become a vertebral anti-interventionist, I cannot agree. I am far more sympathetic to Kirsch’s emphasis on the ever-present possibility of our being wrong in our understanding. But is this view, though true as far as it goes, finally not still too benign? My own view is that Baudelaire was in fact closer to the mark when he wrote that, “Any newspaper, from the first line to the last, is nothing but a web of horrors. I cannot understand how an innocent hand can touch a newspaper without convulsing in disgust.” The reason we do not share Baudelaire’s horror is that what the consumer of news is getting is not reality but that simulacrum of reality: spectacle. Guy Debord, call your office.

This is a global problem, and while, as Kirsch notes, it does indeed date back two centuries to the Spectator of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, in our time it has taken on some new attributes—above all, the general sense that the opinions of individuals who have no background or expertise to speak of in a particular question are just as worthy of respect as those who actually have some competence in the matter. On both the right and the left, this intellectual and moral populism is so commonplace as to have become an article of faith. Put it down to the failure of experts to deliver. Whether it was, at least for liberals of a certain generation, a Robert McNamara or a McGeorge Bundy during Vietnam—‘The Best and the Brightest,’ and all that—or, on the right, a justified contempt for the social engineers of the welfare state, who on balance seem to have done more harm than good, it is hard to escape the conclusion that, in half a century, we have moved from the cult of the expert to the cult of the amateur.

But to call this a disbelief in expertise is only partly right. What many people today believe—the young especially, having never known a world without the Internet—is that anyone can become an expert.

In part, this is the result of the democratization of primary, secondary, and even undergraduate education (outside the sciences, where expertise still rules). Three generations, at least in Western Europe and North America, have now come to adulthood believing that their opinions are, when all is said and done, just as valuable, just as worthy of consideration as those of their teachers.

But of course this psychological language relegates the question of whether these opinions are right or wrong to subaltern status. Could such a worldview have entrenched itself so thoroughly without the Internet? People on the right, obsessed with the ‘treason of the intellectuals’ and whose rhetoric about the May ’68 generation pulling down the temple of civilization has unpleasant echoes of various ‘we were stabbed in the back’ theories too obvious to need recapitulating, tend to believe none of this was inevitable; it is, they usually say, a failure of will. But as usual, the right’s contempt for material reality undermines its common sense: You don’t have to be a Marxist to be a materialist, you know, Weber will do just fine. The reality is that, like it or not, the extraordinary transformations in material reality have undermined the traditional order of things. No, the Internet is not emancipatory, whatever techno-utopians from Silicon Valley to Hillary Clinton’s State Department imagine. But it is revolutionary.

What the Internet, by providing virtually limitless access to information, has done, is made us all feel that we are in some sense experts, at least on any subject that is not so technical that even the most self-congratulatory cannot seriously pretend to real knowledge. Thus young policy wonks in Washington, who have never heard a shot fired in anger, except, perhaps as distant background noise during a fleeting ‘Condel’ to a theater of war, discourse with seemingly perfect self-assurance on U.S. military counterinsurgency doctrine, and bloggers with absolutely no scientific training believe that they have the right to an opinion about global warming one way or the other. But what this belief that we are all experts illustrates is not the democratization of knowledge, but the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

But of course information is not knowledge, but rather only one of several of its pre-requisites. To be sure, field experience, whether in a war zone or an ice flow, is no guarantee of anything either. As someone who was for more than a decade a kind of war journalist, I can say that I never came away from a place without a significantly different view for having been on the ground than the one I had going in, but this didn’t save me from being catastrophically wrong on a number of occasions—notably, I think, about Rwanda. But to be on the ground is to no longer be a follower of the news in Adam Kirsch’s (or Joseph Addison’s) sense.

I sometimes wonder whether if one could smell the corpses on YouTube we would still be able to harbor all of our opinions? But technology and human nature being what it is, I am probably being far too optimistic. Wislawa Szymborska says somewhere that her favorite sentence is, “I don’t know.” In an age when supposedly nothing is unsayable, that is the one phrase few people dare utter.

David Rieff is a New York-based journalist and author. His memoir of his mother's final illness, Swimming in a Sea of Death, was published in January 2008.