Another way is simply to go it alone. A million and a half students in the United States are now being taught by their parents at home, nearly double the number a decade ago, and representing about fifteen students for every public school in the country.11 There is nothing remarkable about wanting to escape unsafe schools and incompetent teachers, or to make sure your children are raised within your religious tradition. What’s remarkable is American parents’ confidence that they can do better themselves. Many of the more-educated ones probably do, though they are hardly going it alone; they rely on a national but voluntary virtual school system connecting them online, where they circulate curricula, materials, and research produced by people working in conventional educational institutions. And they are a powerful political lobby, having redirected their energy from local school systems to Washington and state capitals, where their collective appeal to individualism is irresistible. They are the only successful libertarian party in the United States.
But as the libertarian spirit has spread to other areas of our lives, along with distrust of elites generally, the damage has mounted. Take health care. Less than half of us say that we have “great confidence” in the medical establishment today, and the proportion of those who have “hardly any” has doubled since the early Seventies.12 There are plenty of things wrong with the way medicine is practiced in the United States, but it does not follow from this that anybody can cure himself. Nonetheless, a growing number of us have become our own doctors and pharmacists, aided by Internet search engines that substitute for refereed medical journals, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control
Americans are and have always been credulous skeptics. They question the authority of priests, then talk to the dead15; they second-guess their cardiologists, then seek out quacks in the jungle. Like people in every society, they do this in moments of crisis when things seem hopeless. They also, unlike people in other societies, do it on the general principle that expertise and authority are inherently suspect.
I think Mark Lilla, the author of the piece, is generally on to something about our politics, but, moreover, he’s on to something in our culture. One of the internet’s most efficient outputs has been its displacement of authority, a trend that has long been noticed and commented upon (by me, here). Overall, I’d say the internet’s displacement of authority has been more good than bad, but I think it’s interesting to contrast the internet to the rest of our politics and culture, and the way each feeds on the other. You have, of course, the viral conspiratorial e-mails about Obama and other subjects of that nature. You have the way the internet can crown its own media stars, at least somewhat apart from the established media’s ability to do so. As anyone who’s argued with anyone else who’s politically passionate knows, the most frequent yet also most frustrating citation of evidence is “the internet.” Because who the hell knows what to make of that? The person citing “the internet” or other such vague sources (that person has been me) is in essence creating his own authorities. That works well enough in defining personal beliefs, but it doesn’t much help for debate, as it allows both sides to retreat into pre-defined personal beliefs: the citer knows that the so-and-so he cited on the internet is one of those new media stars; the other side of the argument knows that the so-and-so that was cited is just one of those paranoids in the blah blah blah mother’s basement with pajamas on. So, not spectacularly helpful, because it resolves nothing. This inability to conclusively resolve some arguments has been displayed in abundance in the past year or so, what with the Obama-is-secret-Kenyan thing and the cavalcade of different attacks on the health care plan, many fictitious and weird. No fact that is cited was enough to satisfy the people making these arguments, and though you might argue some of these people were using these lines cynically, at least some nontrivial number of people actually believes it.
The internet, therefore, acts as an accelerant to many of the trends Lilla notes in his essay: when you empower someone, you empower that person to do both good and bad.