Scorning Expertise: A Review of “Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason” by William Davies (Norton, 2018-19)

Davies navigates the rise of Enlightenment rationalism and the weakening hold it has had on our politics with remarkable clarity. He begins with the split Descartes established between the thinking subject and the body.  The Cartesian body, with all its neurological and emotional states, is a thing to be analyzed by the thinking mind, as is everything else in the universe, such as nature, that does not itself belong to that mind.  Meanwhile Thomas Hobbes, afraid of a future that simply continued the social disruption produced by the religious wars of the seventeenth century, wanted to hand over power to what became the modern state, a political entity strong enough to maintain peace among people otherwise addicted to making war.

The Enlightenment combined the Cartesian treatment of nature and the body as objects of rational analysis with the trust Hobbes placed in strong, authoritative government. That approach had many subsequent benefits, among them the effort of Western democracies to place parliamentary, congressional, and judicial restraints on state power. Rationalism has also led to the successes of modern science in helping us understand the physical world and the advances of modern medicine in keeping us healthier.  But rationalism assumes human minds capable of detached objectivity—of examining the world free from their own special interests. Is such neutrality, however, entirely possible? The more we suspect that the conclusions of experts like climate scientists, economists and the CDC are steeped in their own political bias, the more we distrust them. On the other hand if we simply scorn these so-called urban and intellectual elites, as in the case of the current anti-vaccination movement, we risk enormous harm to others.

The nationalist movements of recent times thrive on this mistrust of expertise, sometimes with good reason. Davies argues that looking at the body and the external world with heartless Cartesian neutrality has had its day. The emotional and nervous states of the body—the  feelings of abandonment in a rural town that has lost its major sources of employment, for example, or among people who can no longer afford decent health care—must no longer be a matter merely of detached public policy. Neither can the lasting social effects of school shootings, PTSD, opioid addiction, and the dramatic increases in suicides along with racial and economic inequality. Politics needs to have as much to do with the causes of these problems as it does with making changes in census taking and the tax code. Davies does not want us either to scorn the supposedly disinterested expertise that was the bedrock of Enlightenment rationalism or naively to assume it. Rather, he calls for a humanizing of our attitudes toward nature and the body that makes compassion for our nervous states as much of a political concern as our warlike suspicions of each other. Surely there is some middle ground between excessively well mannered public discussion of our differences and the mob-like rally?

Davies is especially helpful in tracing the mega-computer, the internet, social media and the tech giants of Silicon Valley from the spying and intelligence gathering that have marked all our undeclared wars from the nineteen forties through the Cold War period until now. Are Western democracies in danger of  losing the sense of a shared reality that Enlightenment rationalism too simply envisioned and will our inability to make peace with each other require, as Hobbes feared, increasingly autocratic government?

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