There’s an ironic critique of amateurs in The Big Lebowski. Walter (played by John Goodman) keeps complaining about “f***ing amateurs.” But Walter is an amateur. He is a caricature of the great American “do-it-yourself” ethos.
He claims that other people don’t know what they are doing. But neither does he. And so Walter keeps f***ing things up.
Some things ought to be left to the professionals. A professional has specialized training, lots of experience, and a certain talent or skill. But Americans distrust professionals. We think that since we are all created equal, we should be able to do-it-ourselves.
Our suspicion of professionalism has some connection with Trumpism, the anti-vax movement, and the American distrust of science. Professionals are elites. But we don’t like elites. We’d rather diagnose our own diseases and interpret the data for ourselves. We think we are smarter than the doctors, the scientists, and the “mainstream media.”
As we’ve seen, this can lead to disaster.
The conflict between professionalism and amateurism is an ancient one. Plato criticized democracy as a rule of amateurs. According to Plato, this is a terrible idea. Plato’s ideal republic is a nation run by professionals. He describes a rigorous training method for selecting the rulers. And he suggests that tyrants have not successfully completed the program.
Tyrants are the worst of the amateurs. The etymology of the word “amateur” gives us a clue. The root of the word is “love” (ama-). Tyrants love power. But they don’t want to develop the skill, virtue, and expertise necessary to rule. They grab power without training themselves in wielding it wisely.
This is not to suggest that all amateurs are tyrants. There is something admirable about a dedicated amateur. Amateurs do things because they love them. They are not in it for the money or the fame. But a virtuous amateur understands that some things ought to be left to the professionals.
Things have changed quite a bit in recent decades when it comes to the difference between amateurs and professionals. The Olympics, for example, used to ban professional athletes. And while amateur athletes are inspiring, the pros are better.
In some fields, the professionals have been kicked to the curb. In other fields, increased specialization makes it impossible for amateurs to survive. Often this is about money: who makes it, who controls it, and where it flows.
At one time, Youtube was a place for amateurs to share videos. But Youtube went commercial and the professionals staged a comeback, elbowing out the amateurs in pursuit of advertising revenue.
Similar struggles have played out in other corners of the economy. Ride-sharing apps like Uber compete with professional cab drivers. Airbnb circumvents the professionals at Hyatt and Hilton. Amazon allows self-published authors to reach a wide audience. And so on.
Each of these stories is complicated. In some cases, the rise of the amateurs has allowed for an outburst of creative entrepreneurship. In other cases, you end up with crappy self-published books and weird cars driving you around town.
There is also lots of confusion about what’s true, what’s real, and what’s beneficial. The Covid-19 debacle shows us what’s at stake. Rather than trust the scientists, the amateurs are playing doctor.
Early in the pandemic, non-experts claimed that Covid-19 was no worse than an ordinary cold or flu. Then the amateurs doubted professional advice about masks and social distancing. And now the non-professionals are skeptical of vaccines. Meanwhile, the pandemic rages on.
Plato was right that in an ideal world we’d put the professionals in charge. But in a democratic country that values individual liberty, the amateurs will resist. The solution is better education. But that’s a long-term and ongoing solution. In the meantime, we’re left with a mess.
At one point in The Big Lebowski, the Dude (Jeff Bridges) says to Walter: “Walter, I love you, but sooner or later, you’re going to have to face the fact you’re a goddamn moron.” This is us. Let’s face the fact that we are a bunch of amateurs and morons, mucking things up. What’s not to love?