Tom Nichols thinks we’re in a pretty big mess in America. We’re narcissistic in a big way, we are ”obsessed with worship of ignorance,” we’re thin-skinned, we’re unwilling to have serious conversations on serious issues, we wear the fact that we don’t know much as a badge of honor, and we’re deeply divided.
His deep concerns didn’t arise from the 2016 political tumult and the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency. Nichols has been studying and writing about his concerns for several years.
The result is his new book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. And the book led to an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program Tuesday at Marquette Law School.
Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College in Rhode Island and he has worked in government positions. His academic specialties focus on matters such as Russian international maneuvering and American national security strategy. But his intense interest in the state of American public life has brought him considerable attention.
Some of the traits that worry Nichols can be traced back a long time, but things have gotten worse, he told Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy. One thing that has increased is “the actively hostile relationship” between people who know things – experts, in other words – and people who don’t know much but think they do.
Nichols’ thoughts are entertaining on one level and startling and dismaying on more serious levels. In the course of his hour-long conversation, he criticized a host of aspects of American culture, from what news draws people’s interest (Kim Khardasian’s derriere much more than national security) to the unchallenging experience too many college students have (college “is not there to affirm what a great kid you are”) to what isn’t learned by using the Internet as a tool (he compared saying you know something because you found it on the Internet to saying you know how to swim because you got wet in a rain storm) to reading habits now (so few people are willing to read a 250-page book) to people’s low expectations of government (“People are demanding more accountability from the Oscars than they are from their government.“).
And he mocked how so many people act like the character Cliff Clavin on the old television show “Cheers.” Clavin talked like he was an expert on just about everything but actually knew little.
One thing Nichols touched on in only serious tones was the tampering by Russia in the 2016 presidential race in the US. He said he did not believe the Russian efforts changed the outcome of the election, but he has no doubt that tampering occurred and it is part of a serious and continuing threat of American democracy. “Our chief enemy in the world is attacking our democratic institutions and they can’t get away with it,” Nichols said.
Nichols said the Russian goal may not have been so much to help Trump or to harm Hillary Clinton, even though the Russians clearly hated her. He said, “What they really wanted to do was just dump a barrel of hot garbage all over the American electoral system so that they could stop feeling so inferior about their own decrepit electoral system. And they succeeded. . . . . I think we have to respond and recover our sense of trust among ourselves as citizens first and foremost.”
Nichols considers himself a conservative who was unhappy with the choices in last year’s presidential race. He said he has been reassured by some of the picks Trump has made for key international security positions and has been troubled by some picks. Overall, he said he was concerned about Trump’s statements that he has “a good brain” and that that is enough to guide him. “That’s the kind of person I wrote the book for,” he said. Most of the time, he said, “government is a very complicated, boring bit of drudgery that has to be plowed through” with attention to details and with expertise.
How can America snap itself out of its low state? Nichols said he thinks it can happen. He suggested two paths that might do that – or might at least help.
One is passing through a major crisis – a disaster, a war, a truly deep economic depression. Such things have spurred America forward in the past.
The other is more cheerful, namely, for each of us to take steps to reverse the course of things, including showing willingness to learn from and respect others and their points of view.
“When you ask me how does all of this end, the more optimistic advice I will give you is: Just be nice to each other. Stop being so mean to each other.” He cited the way so many people act when they are on Twitter or Facebook. “We are all fellow citizens in the greatest country in the world, and we need to start treating each other like that. And I think that could get us past this, if we only just commit to doing it and start being nicer to each other.”
The answer brought applause from the audience.
Video of the program may be watched by clicking here.