America’s messed up attitude to expertise

While so-called experts pore over Tiger Woods’ sex life, candidates for high office play up their ordinariness.

Wendy Kaminer

Topics USA

‘Why do men cheat?’, TV hosts ask. For the same reason women cheat, I’m tempted to reply: because they can. But I am not among the ‘relationship experts’ to whom the shows turn for ‘analysis’ of Tiger Woods’ indiscretions.

The experts lend gravitas to gossip. Some attribute Tiger’s behaviour to ‘sex addiction’, which doesn’t absolve him of blame, one alleged expert explains: if you suffer from this ‘disease’, you have a responsibility to seek treatment for it. Others recite the usual explanations for ‘why men cheat’ (involving a presumptively masculine fear of intimacy and emotional detachment from sex) familiar to any consumer of pop psychology.

Listening to this palaver you might think that pop culture promotes expertise, even when none is required (much less demonstrated). The thriving self-help industry suggests you’d be at least partly right. But it might be more accurate to say that pop culture promotes expertise especially when none is required. When extensive knowledge and experience are essential, popular biases often favour common sense. ‘There’s no better training ground for politics than motherhood’, Sarah Palin has famously remarked. Her success reflects, in no small part, her obvious lack of expertise: ‘To an extent unmatched by any recent political figure, she offers the erasure of any distinction – in skill, experience, intellect – between the governing and the governed’, Sam Tanenhaus recently wrote in the New Yorker (1).

How do we make sense of a culture that turns to ‘relationship experts’ to explain why a fabulously wealthy celebrity athlete cheats on his wife, but allows an inexpert, intellectually average, ill-educated mother to win a gubernatorial race and stake a plausible claim to the presidency? (I’m not suggesting Palin will run for president or that she would win, but neither possibility can be discounted.)

She would hardly be our first, un-distinguished, under-qualified president; think of Warren Harding or, more controversially, Ronald Reagan. By advertising her domestic experiences as qualifications for high office, Palin is no trendsetter: before Palin introduced herself to the nation as a ‘hockey mom’ in the 2008 presidential campaign, Democrat Patti Murray successfully ran for Senate from Washington state as a ‘mom in tennis shoes’. It hasn’t done her much harm. Elected in 1992, Murray remains in office. She, too, was exploiting a feminist canard.

Women have long sought to turn crippling feminine stereotypes to political advantage. Female reformers in the late nineteenth century, seeking roles in policymaking before women were enfranchised, argued that their presumed moral superiority combined with their housekeeping skills made them unusually qualified to clean up the Augean stables of government. In the late twentieth century, female congressional candidates argued that their ordinary, household-budgeting experiences qualified them to oversee the nation’s economy.

Ordinariness itself is often a virtue in American politics, for men as well as women. Promoting their lack of political expertise was, until recently, a matter of necessity for women, but for men it was often a matter of choice. In any case, there are many ordinary people serving in local, state and federal government who equal Sarah Palin ‘in skill, experience, and intellect’, although she enjoys extraordinary prominence. Many or most of them ascended to office through a combination of luck (which played no small part in Palin’s celebrity), connections, lack of competition, doggedness, and voter apathy. For example, in the recent special primary election to replace the late Massachusetts senator, Ted Kennedy, only about 20 per cent of the electorate voted.

The self-proclaimed political outsider is also a populist cliché, even when the ‘outsider’ in question is a self-funded multi-millionaire, reflecting the sullied image of ‘professional’ politicians and presumed wisdom of the mythic common man (or woman) in American culture. The success of the outside reflects an apparent desire of some voters to elect leaders they’d ‘like to have a beer with’. The ‘best beer drinking buddy’ standard is easily mocked – and it’s not one I embrace – but, in part, the overused ‘who would you like to have a beer with?’ polling question is a way of asking ‘who do you trust?’ The tendency of many voters to base their trust not on competence and expertise but likeability is partly why, in any given election year, there are bound to be some Mr and Ms Smiths hoping to go to Washington.

So the historic appeal of political amateurs, however unsettling, is fairly easy to understand; the popularity of ‘professional’ life coaches, relationship consultants, pop psychologists and other masters of the mundane, however, defies logic, at least at first glance. If common sense is sufficient to govern the nation, it should surely be sufficient to govern yourself. But while outsider politicians simplify the complexities of governing, personal development experts complicate the simplicities of daily life. The experts specialise in mystifying the obvious – with jargon, diagnoses of ‘syndromes’, and the ‘secrets’ of health, wealth, happiness, and recovery from whatever ails you, which they generously offer to share.

Still, like successful politicians, personal development experts must sometimes qualify their presumed intellectual or professional expertise with reminders of their own ordinariness. The recovery movement, for example, celebrated the authority of experience. Experts in recovery from various forms of ‘codependency’ routinely testified to their own histories of addiction, like preachers testifying to their journeys from sin to redemption. The self-help industry partly relies on the ability of experts to distinguish their expertise from elitism.

The trial by tabloid of Tiger Woods reflects the perils of positioning yourself as a member of an elite. If you cultivate the public’s reverence, you risk incurring its contempt. To regain respect, Woods is advised, not surprisingly, to ‘humanise’ himself: ‘You have to make people relate to him now’, media and ‘crisis management’ consultant Miranda Sevcik told the Daily Beast: ‘Everyone makes mistakes. The public is forgiving of people who own up to their mistakes… He has to claim he is addicted to whatever his fault is and then go to rehab and come back and say, “I’m better now”, and then apologise publicly, and start rebuilding his image.’ (2)

Tiger Woods may have the temerity to think he understands his own behaviour and that the public has no business policing it, but Oprah and the experts await.

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist. Her latest book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Read on:

Letter from America

(1) North Star, New Yorker, 7 December 2009

(2) Chaos at Tiger Inc, Daily Beast, 9 December 2009

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Topics USA


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