The Politics of Truth, by C. Wright Mills

The Politics of Truth

I wouldn’t say I didn’t understand this book of C. Wright Mills essays. In the most straightforward sense of “understand,” I suppose I was able to grasp almost all the ideas, at least to some degree.

However, I still feel like I didn’t get nearly as much out of it as I could have. For me it was kind of like hearing only part of a conversation. To really appreciate and fully comprehend serious writings like these, you want to have as much background in the relevant context as possible. So in this case that would be the major ideas and controversies in sociology, politics, academia, etc. from about the 1940s through the early 1960s.

Now, I don’t completely lack knowledge of such things, but I don’t, for instance, know much of anything about the history of sociology as a discipline. So a book like this, to me, is a bunch of trees that I can respond to individually–“Oh, I like that point, I’ve never thought to articulate that quite like that,” “This seems dubious, maybe influenced by his political biases,” “I only have a very vague idea what he might mean here,” “This was probably plausible when he said it, but I don’t think later events bore out his predictions here,” etc.–but I’m hampered by insufficient knowledge of the forest. What are the various sides of the various topics in the literature that he’s responding to? Is he missing the point of what other people are saying? Misrepresenting them? Has he exposed a lot of flaws in the discipline that his targets were not able to respond to adequately?

I don’t know. This is the kind of book that I can only get a limited amount from when I pick it up cold. Again, not because it’s incredibly dense or intellectually beyond my abilities (though it’s not an easy book either), but because I need to understand more about the context in which these essays appeared.

Ideally I would have read this book as part of a course in, say, the history of sociology, with other relevant readings, and a professor able to lecture knowledgeably about Mills and his place in it all.

But with that in mind, I will offer up a few impressions, a few maybe not so well-informed thoughts.

I find myself mostly in sympathy with his roughly leftist thoughts, his skepticism that somehow the American power elite, unlike any other, is trying to do the right thing, using war only when justified as defense against bad guys, etc. His attempts to articulate why a Cuban might support Castro’s revolution and feel wronged by America, for instance, certainly make sense to me.

The political commentary doesn’t stand out to me as unusually insightful or learned, just basically right-headed. Though one must be careful here not to be like the students one of my professors mentioned with a chuckle who complain that Shakespeare is “full of clichés.” When Mills wrote these essays, it was not nearly as common as it became later for people in any kind of position of significance in society to say things that would cause discomfort to the rich and powerful. The radicals and social critics of 50 years and more ago paved the way for the uncountable academics since then who’ve made all manner of leftism–good and bad–commonplace in academia. (Well, in a handful of intellectually elite institutions, anyway. The overwhelming majority of those who teach at non-elite colleges and community colleges and such aren’t the least bit politically radical.)

But if so, that just makes Mills historically important; it doesn’t mean I’m going to learn a great deal from the substance of what he’s saying. Aristotle was hugely important in the history of science, and it’s obviously silly to criticize him just because you can learn more about science by reading virtually any scientist publishing today. But the fact remains you can learn more about science by reading virtually any scientist publishing today.

I’m also not sure what makes a lot of these writings sociology, in the sense of a social science. Many of them read more like armchair political commentary, op-ed pieces. Not some kind of rigorous social scientific research.

That may be just a matter of the structure of the book, though. The editor may be choosing “popular” essays that would appeal to, and be understandable to, a layman. So maybe these are introductions and conclusions to Mills’s work in sociology, rather than the sociology itself. Plus I think some of the essays are more in the nature of commentaries on sociology and academia. And there’s a difference between writing a critique of the discipline of sociology, and doing sociology (just as there’s a difference between writing an essay criticizing the NFL salary cap, and playing football).

I realize that when Mills does do social science he is not overly technical. More than once in this book he has critical things to say about those who rely too heavily on statistical analysis in social science. But that’s not what I mean. Armchair commentary on current events doesn’t just fall short of being highly quantified, highly technical social science; I don’t see that it’s social science at all.

But, moving on, as to this matter of Mills’s dissatisfaction with the overemphasis on statistics and such in social science, I tend to agree. Unfortunately, since I lack the background in the discipline, I’m not sure that how I think of this is really what Mills is getting at. He–and the people he’s disagreeing with–may be debating at a much more sophisticated level.

But what I have in mind is the undesirability of being biased in one’s approach to the subject matter of the social sciences toward that which is most easily quantifiable. That is, just because it’s easier to measure the difference between the Gross National Product (unemployment rate, college graduation rate, Dow Jones Industrial Average, etc.) now versus ten years ago, than to measure the difference in human happiness (freedom, the extent to which people are treating each other with dignity, the proportion of true beliefs to false beliefs in the population, etc.) doesn’t make those quantifiable things more important and more worthy of study.

Quite the opposite. The quantifiable stuff has no importance, no value at all except in terms of its instrumental relation with the stuff like happiness, autonomy, truth, etc. that really matter. Yes, studying the latter stuff is going to be messy, and controversial, and impossible to get a consensus on, and so on, but to me that’s the nature of the beast. No doubt it’s harder to study than just sticking with the things you can easily put numbers on, but that’s what’s worthy of study about human beings and societies.

Heck, maybe it’s impossible to study that stuff meaningfully, and to come up with knowledge at all analogous to that of the natural sciences. But if so, then that’s a tragic and unavoidable limitation on our potential for self-knowledge; it’s not an indication that the subject matter of social science lies elsewhere.

Another point I remember from one or more of the essays is that Mills criticizes the notion of trying to change things by persuading and changing individuals, when generally it’s the structures they’re operating within that are the problem.

I mostly agree, but I felt maybe a little uncomfortable with this as well.

As to the sense in which I agree, actually I’ve thought something like this for a long time, though I’ve never been all that good at articulating it. When people in positions of influence do bad things and make the world a worse place (politicians who are quick to go to war, people who run corporations that are gradually making the planet unlivable in their pursuit of profit, people in the mainstream media who pass along corporate propaganda and celebrity gossip as “news,” etc.), I think you are indeed missing something if you focus on what went wrong with them as individuals, or how you can get to them to show them the error of their ways. Because that ignores the filters, the whole system of incentives and disincentives and all the rest, that explains how people get where they are and stay where they are in a given society.

It’s like being alarmed at the unhealthy physique of sumo wrestlers and trying to get them to diet. It’s not them as individuals that’s the problem; it’s the institution of sumo wrestling. If you somehow convinced one to switch to salads and drop a couple hundred pounds, all that would happen is he’d no longer be effective as a sumo wrestler, and his place would be taken by someone who is. You wouldn’t be having any impact on whatever deleterious effects you think sumo wrestling has on the world.

There’s a “survival of the fittest” principle at work in “making it” in business, government, the military, academia, the media, bank robbery, whatever. The social environment rewards certain traits and punishes certain traits. Sometimes–speaking as a cynic, I would say usually–success in a field is correlated with a lot of ugly, despicable things. If you were to convince someone behaving objectionably to become a better human being, a lot of times all you really would have done is render him or her less “fit.”

Nice guys finish last, as Leo Durocher said. I think Mills would say that those of us who lament that have to focus not on changing the specific individuals in power to be nicer, but on changing the institutions that maneuver the nice guys toward the bottom and the nasty guys toward the top to begin with.

(Or, maybe he’s saying nothing like that, and in my efforts to comprehend his ideas as a layman, I’m totally misreading him and altering his position into something I can understand.)

The sense in which I’m a little uncomfortable with this thrust in Mills is that as a pacifist, I’m sensitive to being criticized as naïve. I’d have to go back and look at the exact wording, but there were times I had the sense that Mills was criticizing those who limit themselves to nonviolent means–and really those who limit themselves to working within the rules of an existing system–for not seeing that sometimes a system is so corrupt that you have to “break a few eggs,” that it’s gone beyond the point when trying to persuade individuals to do the right thing is enough.

Gandhian techniques do indeed focus on changing individuals, on appealing to their better nature, whether it be through rational persuasion, voluntary acceptance of suffering, the power of example, or whatever. But I don’t think (and I’m not sure if Mills does–again I’m just talking about a vague impression I get from some of what I read in this book) that that’s to the exclusion of seeking to influence institutions. Institutions are created, sustained, and changed by individuals. Nonviolent tactics should focus not just on individual acts like entering into a war, emitting pollution, or lying to placate media advertisers, but also all the individual acts that create and shape the institutions that result in people making those decisions in the first place.

I don’t know. I do feel like I’m probably straying from arguing for or against Mills. If so, then maybe the value of the book for me was just in getting me to think about some important issues, even if I sometimes misconstrued what he said about them.

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