THE MODAL MAN

(Title is part of my life quest to get people who mean "modal" to stop saying "average")

The Olympics would be much more interesting if each event included one randomly selected normal person in unexceptional physical condition. When ten of the world's fastest human beings race one another, no one ends up looking that fast. Oh, they look fast. But you can't get a sense of just how fast they are if you have no useful context in which to place what you're seeing. Everyone knows Usain Bolt is very fast. Watching him race a 41 year old truck driver from Omaha would drive that point home.

Obviously this will never happen; the International Olympic Committee realizes that athletics is best left to athletes. Us normal folk can barely manage to avoid hurting ourselves when we try to exert ourselves similarly. People (at least when sober) can look at high level athletes and recognize immediately, "That person is vastly better than me at this thing."

To a lesser extent we recognize that in other areas of our lives, too. We pay professionals for medical, financial, legal, and other kinds of advice. We pay other professionals for skills they have that we lack. And very few people go to a restaurant and demand to be allowed into the kitchen to bark orders at the chef. We might not always be happy with what we get, but generally we recognize that people working in a kitchen should have some vague idea how to cook. If a restaurant's pitch to customers was "No real chefs here – we staff our kitchen with ordinary Americans with common sense!" it is difficult to imagine many eaters taking them up on that offer-slash-challenge. Likewise, no one would submit themselves or a family member to surgery from "a real hard workin' guy" or "a woman of the highest moral character" unless those descriptions happened to accompany actual medical training. We may on occasion act or talk like we know better, but oddly enough people end up going to a real doctor or real lawyer when they're in trouble.

Despite this, Americans remain absolutely convinced in large numbers that the process of governing the third most populous and most economically and militarily powerful nation on Earth requires no particular skills of any kind. Anyone can do it! It's just like running a hardware store or balancing the family checkbook! Even more, many of us actively reject people who have skills or experience that might help them perform the tasks necessary to keep this unwieldy beast in working order. "I'm sick of politicians" is roughly similar to being unhappy with one's doctor and, instead of finding a different doctor, going to one's hairstylist for surgery.

This is not to say or even imply that everyone with skills and experience relevant to governing will succeed. Just as not all lawyers are actually good lawyers, elected officials and bureaucrats can be found at every level of ability and effort. But right now we are seeing the difference between public servants who may not be awesome at their job and a bunch of random people who don't understand even the basics of what they are supposed to be doing. This White House is a bunch of monkeys at typewriters randomly hitting keys in an attempt to produce the complete works of Shakespeare. These are people so clueless about the positions they've assumed that it never occurred to anyone to run Executive Orders past a real, JD-holding lawyer before issuing them. That this could have escaped the thought process of everyone involved is almost beyond comprehension. Then again, I'm at a severe disadvantage to them, given that I have a very basic understanding of the role of the Executive branch in our system.

Sure, politics and governing can be more forgiving than a lot of fields. A man off the street would do better as a Senator than as a surgeon or a bond trader. But that is only because there are institutions built up around these people to help them succeed. When one intentionally dismantles those institutions in favor of yet more people with zero relevant experience or skills, then we might as well give a toddler the job.

At least Americans can no longer wonder what it would look like to take someone who doesn't know anything about governing, politics, the law, or public service and putting them in charge of the country. It looks like this. It looks exactly like anyone who grasps that running the government is not in fact like running a business would expect.

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49 Responses to “THE MODAL MAN”

  1. jcdenton Says:

    "'It was the best of times, it was the… blurst of times?!' You stupid monkey!" – M. Burns

    But seriously, America turns hatred of the expert into its own brand of religion. It's as if the old debate about book-learnin' versus common sense was never really settled in the US as it was in the rest of the world (book learning wins because it can incorporate the broader abstractions of so-called common sense and transform them into falsifiable systems of knowledge, just in case anyone was wondering). I don't think anyone else in the world is as obsessed with no-nonsense, hard-working, common-sense rhetoric as the US is.

  2. Joseph P. Says:

    Great column as usual…

    But is it, "Us normal folk…" or "We normal folk…"?

  3. F Says:

    I'd venture to say that is in large part because people believe that being a leader of any kind requires no particular skills.

    "I have a vague idea of how things should be and a mouth. All I have to do is yell those vague ideas at people until they get it done. And if they don't get it done right, I just have to yell some more."

    It applies in business as much as it does in politics.

  4. Emerson Dameron Says:

    When I was eight years old, I wanted to run for president, assuming I would win handily on novelty appeal. I wish I had had more follow-through.

    My sincere question is, how long are people going to keep thinking this is cute? At what point is there more to life than triggering SJWs? Surely even the most cynical conservatives will eventually hit their embarrassment threshold with this shitshow.

  5. jcdenton Says:

    @Emerson Dameron

    Why would evangelicals, sexists and white supremacists hit their embarrassment threshold? He's their guy. This is their cabinet. They want more blood, not less.

  6. Sarah Says:

    Not to mention that for those of us who work in business, it's pretty obvious that he doesn't even know how to do that. He is good at being a con man and an entertainer, but not anyone who actually does stuff.

  7. Isaac Says:

    Spot on, except a huge chunk of our population rejects real medicine and instead use snake oil, useless (and often dangerous) herbs, and various forms of random bad advice from the internet or their “intuition.” In my zip code there are twice as many quack “medical” offices as real ones, with all manner of Charlatans who collect big bucks from the true believers.

    And science? Who needs that evil lie of the devil when we have the good book to tell us what's what about everything.

    At least a quarter of our citizens are stark, raving mad.

    @F, conversely, people are seen as skilled, knowledgeable, wise, because they are in positions of leadership. Except mostly people get to be in charge because they are white men with luck and a sturdy background of wealth and privilege. And hey, if they talk loud enough they end up in politics too.

  8. Nick Says:

    @Emerson, you're confusing a feature with a bug. To Trump supporters, the whole point is to piss off libtard snowflakes (aka people with functioning moral centers or a basic understanding that the existence of other people, even those who are unlike us, is a normal and acceptable part of life). No matter how uncomfortable Trump may make moderates or traditional conservatives, he'll make liberals even more uncomfortable, so Trump supporters win.

    That said, the silver lining is that perhaps when this gets bad enough, Republican voters who aren't of the "I don't care if I die of preventable disease as long as we TRUMP THAT BITCH" stripe might be forced to admit to themselves that governance consisting of trashing the government might not be superior.

  9. mago Says:

    Tempted to pull out the old canard about Columbus and the egg but will refrain. Punch line: "anyone can do it".

    Will also refrain from responding to the thrust here and just say the cooking analogy is off. Because people eat, they think they're food experts, and they have no problem giving cooks/chefs/whatever/advice.

    Don't tell my dentist how to pull teeth, my accountant how to compute, or my mechanic how to diagnose and repair. But yeah, anyone can do it.

    Running a guvmint? Shit man, no problem. Just order out for pizza.

  10. gakster29 Says:

    Lol…"life quest"….

  11. Noskilz Says:

    Seems a fair assessment of the situation – here's hoping enough people are capable of learning from their mistakes before anything too utterly catastrophic happens.

  12. Mo Says:

    Have we told you lately that we love you?
    –Zombie Richard Hofstadter & H.L. Mencken. And me.

    At least Americans can no longer wonder what it would look like to take someone who doesn't know anything about governing, politics, the law, or public service and putting them in charge of the country. It looks like this. It looks exactly like anyone who grasps that running the government is not in fact like running a business would expect.

    Ooo ooo …

  13. Emma Says:

    Well, I can say — with a pretty exacting degree of certainty — that I was exactly 100% wrong about Trump talking shit for the sake of talking shit to get elected. I remain undeterred about sharing my opinions on the internet, however.

    I think the thing you're really missing, here, is "movies." That's what the morons that constitute the body politic of the United States are really informed by. Especially, like, really bad movies directed by people like Michael Bay. Movies where the eggheads and the so-called "experts" stand aside to let Shia LeBeouf or Adam Sandler or [insert name of whatever minimally-gifted folksy incompetent is currently holding a puppy on the cover of 'People' magazine] run the show. Movies where it counts that you care a lot. Movies where decent Americans are faced with comically evil foreigners who speak accented English and who hate us for our plain goodness. Movies where jovial black people are content to prove you aren't a racist because you've always been so nice to them. Two-star Netflix shit, in other words.

    Until somebody can get financing for a film that portrays climate scientists (played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) as plain-spoken heroes, these shitwits are going to keep siding with the pretend cowboys.

  14. J.D. Says:

    I'm conflicted. On one hand, it's terrifying to have a leader who has no idea how the government works. On the other hand, it's comforting to know that Trump it's going to be really bad at converting his abhorrent ideas into concrete actions.

    I suppose it depends on how things are going generally. If the plane is flying level and there are clear skies ahead, it's ok to take your hands off the yoke for a few minutes. But if you're headed fur a mountain, you need a pilot who knows how to operate the controls.

  15. MH Says:

    "I'm sick of politicians" is roughly similar to being unhappy with one's doctor and, instead of finding a different doctor, going to one's hairstylist for surgery.

    My alternative medical practitioners, let me you show you them…

  16. Amateur socialist Says:

    See also: Dunning-Kruger effect. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning–Kruger_effect

  17. mm Says:

    @emma

    Also too all those 1940s and 1950s movies with those nice white families and tidy houses which show us what things were really like before all those other people came here and those maids and porters who were so polite and deferential started getting uppity. That's when America was great.

  18. geoff Says:

    "When one intentionally dismantles those institutions in favor of yet more people with zero relevant experience or skills, then we might as well give a toddler the job." Or, I don't know, a Giant Evil Baby?

    On the plus side (or maybe not), SecDef Mattis has actually personally invaded other countries. Weird to think that a guy nicknamed "Mad Dog" might be the most rational actor in the new administration, but here we are. Sad!

  19. Skipper Says:

    Run the government? Shit. They don't even know how to turn on the lights. Seriously. According tomthe New York Times.

    "Aides confer in the dark because they cannot figure out how to operate the light switches in the cabinet room. Visitors conclude their meetings and then wander around, testing doorknobs until finding one that leads to an exit. In a darkened, mostly empty West Wing, Mr. Trump’s provocative chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, finishes another 16-hour day planning new lines of attack."

  20. J. Dryden Says:

    I think Emma is onto something (which is just my using Passive-Aggressive-Dickhead-Speak for "I agree, but I also want to say something," so my apologies and bear with me), in that Americans care about appearances more than they do results.

    Say what you will about the new administration (and if you don't use lots of profanity and references to the collapse of Weimar, you're doing it wrong), it's worth noting that they have been making a visible and sustained effort this whole time. That is, regardless of what they have materially accomplished, they've been appearing to work really hard to do it. The stuff Trump promised–and which his supporters wanted–is being striven for by his administration.

    Americans appreciate effort. The ultimate consolation we offer after failure is "Well, at least you tried your best."

    So the fact that the administration has been a clusterfuck is really of little significance to those supporters, because what they really want to see is not so much results, but effort.

    (Worth noting that Bernie Sanders would never, ever have accomplished any of his proposed reforms, not against a determined opposition with a majority in Congress, but can anyone doubt that he would have tried and tried and tried like a motherfucker? I think that's what his more thoughtful supporters knew in their heart-of-hearts–they were voting for Don Quixote. Anyway–)

    The point is, among the Fox-News-fed and Breitbart-nourished masses, it is a Reaganesque given that Government is Evil at most, and Inefficient, Incapable, and Incompetent at best. Which means that when the Trump administrations fails–well, they won't really be surprised, because how could it succeed–it's the government?

    But what they'll appreciate–why they won't turn on Trump–is how hard he and his team appear to be trying.

    Which brings us back to the Usain Bolt vs. the Omana Truck Driver analogy–Bolt will win, of course. But because he will move with such ease and grace, it will look as if he's not trying. (As of course it will not–when you're doing what a team of deities clearly designed you to do, you don't show effort.) The Truck Driver, on the other hand, will look like he's killing himself out there–which he will be–and so the American audience will respond positively to him. (And of course, if he's white, a large number of them will find all sorts of way to regard his effort as being more praiseworthy than Bolt's victory.)

    Truly great–or even just experienced and competent and cool-headed politicians don't show effort. It's not that they're not actually trying–Clinton is a goddamned workhorse and everyone knows it–it's that they don't look like they're trying because this is all second-nature to them.

    But we're Americans. We want to see the effort.

    Which is why Trump's supporters are going to stick by him. If you don't expect success, and all you want is a show of effort, you're gonna love the Trump administration.

    Because nobody makes more effort than a drowning man.

  21. Deggjr Says:

    The "expertise not required/term limits" schtick astounds me. A very experienced and skilled realtor FB friend posted a term limit graphic to trigger the obvious response "Is that what you tell your prospective clients?". The realtor is otherwise not an obvious lunatic. I don't get it either.

  22. Brad Black Says:

    See also "The Death of Expertise" by Tom Nichols.

  23. Michael Says:

    The problem with this is is that the experts have failed so utterly. Watching Obama endorse Perez as though that captain of electoral fail gets to participate after he drove the country and party into a ditch so deep we can access the Mohoroicic Discontinuity is disheartening at best.

    I can tell you, if you have a chronic illness that the docs don't just acknowledge as a problem but immediately start misdiagnosing and calling you a junkie if you don't get well . . . you start being prey to the charlatans. At least they're honest that it might not work.

    Combine that with old-fashioned white male entitlement, and yeah.

  24. democommie Says:

    "people believe that being a leader of any kind requires no particular skills."

    It does require a particular sort of skin–skin that the Emperor Pallidotine has in ample quantities.

    "where decent Americans are faced with comically evil foreigners who speak accented English and who hate us for our plain goodness."

    Did you HAVE to drag poor Melania into this? I think she has enough shit on her plate, already:

    https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/feb/06/melania-trump-refiles-150-million-libel-lawsuit-daily-mail

  25. mothra Says:

    Emma, J. Dryden and mm are on to something. Also, it is always important to note that the Republicans in Congress are unconcerned with the Trump shit show. It distracts handily from their overall plan of fucking up America well and truly forever just so they and their pals in the 1% can stuff their pockets with more and more money.

  26. Alan C Says:

    Actually, I'd love to race Usain Bolt just to see what it would look like. I'm guessing that in a 100 I'd get maybe 30 yards before he reaches the finish line.

    In terms of sports, though, a better analogy might be head coach of a team. No one has illusions that they'd do better than Usain Bolt or Tom Brady, but how many armchair coaches/managers are out there? Especially when the coach looks like Belichick. A lot of guys think they'd do a better job than . . . well, not Belichick, but maybe whoever coached the Browns this year. We've basically put an armchair coach in as Leader of the Free World.

  27. mothra Says:

    Oh, and I want to add to the above that apparently Republican Senators and Reps are now avoiding constituents who have any sort of concerns about their overall plan. They are cancelling townhalls, saying that "agitators plan to come and cause trouble or even harm," their staffers refuse to answer the telephones and respond to any written communication with a form letter saying that only paid protesters are writing in, etc. So, if you think that you'll put the fear of God into these assholes by calling them, apparently that is not the case. They know they will be in for life because part of their grand plan is to take away the right to vote from browns and liberals.

  28. Tim Says:

    @ Emma: "Until somebody can get financing for a film that portrays climate scientists (played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) as plain-spoken heroes …"

    What, Dennis Quaid is a potted plant?

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0319262/?ref_=nv_sr_1

  29. Brian M Says:

    "The problem with this is is that the experts have failed so utterly. Watching Obama endorse Perez as though that captain of electoral fail gets to participate after he drove the country and party into a ditch so deep we can access the Mohoroicic Discontinuity is disheartening at best."

    This.

    There is not an expert out there, and certainly not a mainstream politician, who has real solutions (as in…possible of being implemented and working) to core problems with late stage crony capitalism. Autonomous vehicles could put millions of people out of work. Retail jobs will be replaced by a few mega warehouses owned by one or two large corporations. Skilled white collar professions can be farmed out via penny wage websites like Taskrabbit.

    Nobody has any real ideas of what to do about this stuff. Certainly nobody in the utterly worthless Democratic Party.

  30. KSE Says:

    Every time I hear somebody talking about how we need more down-to-earth, common-sense solutions in politics, I'm reminded of one of my three favorite dictums:

    "Common sense is what tells you the world is flat."

  31. vista Says:

    @mothra: "Republican Senators and Reps are now avoiding constituents who have any sort of concerns about their overall plan."

    They know there will be no repercussions for doing this. They've seen that no matter what they do, they will be voted back into office by these very same constituents. So, unless the senators & reps can be recalled for not paying attention to their constituents or at the very least, not be voted back into office then the politicians have no reason to be responsive to their constituents.

  32. Gerald McGrew Says:

    I saw someone summarize this sentiment much more succinctly…..

    Conservatism vs. liberalism has become the bullies vs. the nerds.

  33. Matt Says:

    There is no ITT tech for becoming president of the United States. Aside from being 35, natural born citizen and having lived in the country for 14 years. There are no requirements. Any other requirements are completely arbitrary and unique to each individual voter. With the size and scope of the office, there's nobody who is "qualified" or "experienced" for the job, save for an incumbent and I doubt you're going to be supporting trump as the most qualified and experienced person for the job in 4 years out of any declared candidates. For a lot of people, Hillary is an unlikable bitch, Obama comes off as a snob, the media comes off as elite and that overrides any "qualification", I wouldn't hire people to work for me if I couldn't stand them.

    Make fun of trump supporters if it makes you feel better but having circle jerks doesn't accomplish much. But having said all that, I remember the last lesson of your US presidency class at UGA you told us that the most important take away was that no one gives a shit what you think.

  34. eau Says:

    Great post ed. As others have said, Emma's comment makes a lot of sense. It's not just movies though. TV shows like X-files, Justified, etc; thriller' novels int he vein of James Patterson, Robert ludlum, lee child, etc; computer game backstories (honestly you could
    finish this list yourself)… One passionate, possibly misinformed dude, usually with a gun or many guns, taking on 'the system', perhaps with a team of slavishly loyal friends, saves the world from/despite the darkies with funny accents, big gub'mint, geeks and nerds and cowardly, cowardly cowards over and over and over again. There's a little stress, maybe a few people die, but 'passionate dude' wins the day by basically just trusting his gut and killing/inprisoning all the bad guys. It seeps into your worldview, even if you are aware it's horseshit on some level. And it's cool. So much cooler than sitting around wringing your hands because of possible collateral damage.

  35. eau Says:

    Apologies for that garbled comment. It is very early and very hot here. Too hot for this early in the morning, really. Fucking Australia.

  36. Skepticalist Says:

    Washington looks a lot like what big corporations have done to radio and television. Government has to be boring and cheap like reality TV so as not to be disturbing. Trump is perfect for this.

  37. Interrobang Says:

    Don't forget The Simpsons and Seinfeld. The Simpsons has been overtly or not-so-overtly making the anti-expert, anti-intellectual argument for a couple decades now…but with funny, and enough snark that people swallow the poison with the bait.

  38. eau Says:

    @Interrobang: Agreed. On an interest and highly upsetting side point, The Simpsons $$$ famously saved Fox from financial ruin at some vital time and paved the way for Fox News, and Dark Lord Bannon apparently made his fortune by investing early in Seinfeld.

  39. Katydid Says:

    @Matt, sounds like you have quite a case of projection going on when you opine: For a lot of people, Hillary is an unlikable bitch, Obama comes off as a snob, the media comes off as elite and that overrides any "qualification", I wouldn't hire people to work for me if I couldn't stand them.

    Well, for a lot of people, they are really deplorably stupid and willfully uneducated. So, what's your point? That the rest of us need to cater to the dregs of society so it doesn't huwwwt dere widdle fee-fees?

  40. JoJo Dancer Says:

    Your heart is in the right place with your quest re:modal. In this blog post though, you pretty much refer to average people.

  41. jcdenton Says:

    @Matt
    "There is no ITT tech for becoming president of the United States." Why not? Given the number of J.Ds in politics, it only makes sense that some familiarity with the fucking law that you'll be overseeing is in order. You know, unlike Trump and his cabinet. Historians also work, since they tend to know something about large-scale, long-term political and economic changes. So do economists and anyone with a functioning understanding of money (you shouldn't need to ask if the dollar being high is a good thing).

    I mean, at this point I'll take anything over a grifter and his band of crooked business kleptocrat, know-nothing religious lunatics (I can add many more adjectives).

    Overall, your argument reads like an appeal to complexity. "It's just too hard to settle on some standards!" Well, some standards (like an education and basic understanding of the economy, history, government and the law) are better than no standards at all.

  42. Gabriel508 Says:

    I find myself oddly torn on this point. Don't get me wrong, I agree 100% that Trump is a nightmare who will inflict god knows how much damage.

    But I have been saying for years you could pull a Trading Places with half the CEO's in the Fortune 500 without causing an ounce of damage.

    Having trouble computing these two statements

  43. Linda Says:

    There is also an overlap with people who think anybody could be president and that every boss they ever had was a moron and that they could do a better job. Many of said people have never applied for a management position in their lives, and mostly wish to armchair quarterback the rest of the world.

    And Gabriel508, I understand. Some work environments are held up by the competency of a lot of middle and upper managers. But if that rots out, the whole place goes down. I've seen it happen.

  44. NickT Says:

    @Matt

    Obama won the presidency twice and is extremely popular. Maybe you are still raging against his arugula-eating ways, but that says more about you than about reality.

  45. Mike Furlan Says:

    The problem with Trump and (GW) is that they are evil, not that they are stupid.

    Blowing up Iraq just for "fun" and calling for a Muslim Ban are horrible things, not ordinary things done stupidly.

    Listening to the BBC podcast on Hannah Arendt, the "banality of evil". Stupid people can do evil, but the problem is evil.

  46. Robert Walker-Smith Says:

    One of the things I noticed in my time at the VA was the tendency for managers/administrators to believe that being able to 'run' a department was unrelated to understanding what that department actually did.

    This persisted despite the repeated examples of it not working.

    It appears that this mindset is also found in the private sector.

  47. Brian M Says:

    Mike Furlan: Given the realities of late period crony capitalism and the attached (like a leech) military industrial complex, ALL presidents are by definition evil to some extent.

    Reaching back in history to one of the kindlier, even saintly presidents of the modern era, Jimmy Carter. Many of the horrors of modern American foreign policy were actually begun during the Carter Administration (ramped up by Ronnie Raygun, of course). Afghanistan. Central America. Bullets for Indonesian genocide.

    Obama, despite his rather professorial affect, is directly responsible for some horrible foreign policy. Yemen. Libya. Syria (although he did not jump in full bore like our War Pigs really called for), drones, panopticon-level spying. Obama has prepared the way for a dictatorial fascist like Trump, and to me that is by definition evil.

  48. postcaroline Says:

    Agreed that appearing to be successful matters more than actual results. Sort of off topic: Gaye Tuchman made this point very well in Wannabe U, her book about the corporatization of higher ed. Which is why colleges/universities are increasingly more focused on restructuring in order to improve rankings than, like, teaching. What matters more is to appear as if the instruction is high quality, than to actually invest in instruction (e.g., opening up more tenure lines).

    Anyway, at the state level we see a lot of these businessman-turned-politician types: Rauner, Scott, Snyder, etc. We have been hearing for decades how government is inefficient, so these guys look like white knights (pun intended) who have come to save us all with their business acumen/heartlessness or whatever.

  49. Mike Furlan Says:

    Brian M is correct.

    There has been a lot of evil done in our name, for a long time.

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