David Bosworth’s Conscientious Thinking is a book that approaches America’s problems not by pointing to economic injustices, social pathologies, or (as Bosworth himself did in his 2014 book The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America) a crisis of moral character. Instead, as its title suggests, Conscientious Thinking focuses on the way people think—and not just any people, but America’s professional elite. Bosworth argues that, as a whole, this class has become habituated to an antisocial way of thinking that has caused untold harm in every realm of society. He calls this way of thinking “idiotic savvy.” That may sound like an oxymoron, but Bosworth is using the word “idiotic” in a sense related to its Greek root, idios, which denotes the private or non-social. Bosworth’s proposed remedy to idiotic savvy is a new “conscientious” way of thinking that takes proper account of how one’s personal choices affect society.
Everyone seems to agree our elites have become a problem. What we can’t seem to agree on, however, is just which elite is most to blame. The morally reprobate but culturally influential Hollywood elite? The Washington swamp? The Davos crowd? Wall Street? Silicon Valley? The USCCB? At first glance, Bosworth’s thesis appears to dovetail with the current populist mood in our culture. But Bosworth isn’t exactly a populist. He doesn’t attack elites merely because they have power, but because they are cultural bellwethers who have “reflected and advanced a species of intelligence so self-enclosed that it was losing sight of reality.” This dubious species of intelligence is what he means by “idiotic savvy,” and those who exemplify it he terms “idiot savants.” They are a “class of high achievers who can invent, manufacture, and market powerful ideas like the automobile and the Internet without a clue as to the imminent radical impact on communal life.” This class includes the technicians in charge of the modern liberal state that James Burnham called “the managerial elite” and that James K. Galbraith dubbed “the technostructure.” But it also includes “artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs [who] can create products of increasing vulgarity, violence, or toxicity”—for example, the solipsists who designed profitable and sophisticated investment schemes that brought the economy to the brink of ruin ten years ago. They are intelligent (hence “savvy”) people who can’t think properly about the consequences of their ingenuity.
Bosworth has published poetry and fiction, and he currently serves as professor of creative writing at the University of Washington. Perhaps his literary background explains why he approaches his theme through examples rather than generalities, by examining the careers of “representative men”: captain of industry Henry Ford, painter Andy Warhol, scholar Harold Bloom, and technologist Nicholas Negroponte. Ford was a man of many accomplishments, but he also had a dark side. He created “the affordable car, the first five-dollar-a-day-wage, and the first employee profit plan,” but also infamously said that “history is bunk,” published anti-Semitic screeds (e.g., The International Jew), and used his prestige to promote The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. His Greenfield Village was a “living history” museum that allowed him to indulge his reactionary fantasies about a wholesome American past. Ford seemed blind to the fact that the traditional small-town way of life he idealized was being “actively undermined by the product he sold.”