Dr. Samuel Johnson to the podium! “Of the uncertainties of our present state, the most dreadful and alarming is the uncertain continuance of reason.” (Rasselas, the conclusion of the episode of the mad astronomer.)
I’m not concerned about going mad, which was a constant fear of Dr. Johnson’s. I’m worried about collective reason and the fragility of our ability to find out what is really going on in the world and to devise means of responding. For that’s what’s at stake with the whole “post-truth” thing and the attack on educated people and institutions as being an “élite” with self-serving aims. People without experience of advanced education don’t know how it works. They think it’s like sales talk: arm-waving, smoke and mirrors. Just, like, your opinion, man. Etc. And if those are the terms, who can blame them for being skeptical?
But those aren’t really the terms. Peer-reviewed scholarship is the best means we have of understanding history, biology, geology, physics, and culture. This is not to affirm that it is infallible; infallibility isn’t what it’s about. Rather, the institutions of scholarship devised since the Royal Society began meeting in the middle seventeenth century are designed to gainsay any claim to authority by Fearless Leaders or Thought Leaders of any kind. That’s what “nullius in verba,” the Society’s motto, means– “we don’t take anybody’s word for it.”
Reason is not maintained by isolated Cartesians sitting in heated rooms (or unheated attics for that matter). It requires publicly accessible institutions where the rule is that anyone is allowed to speak as long as the basis of speaking is facts and reason. That rule permits us to keep the best of what’s been discovered, as long as it hasn’t been rebutted, and to make room for innovations, however shocking.
Business, however, likes to secure monopolies, and tyrannies brook no rivals.
The fantasy of the power to create truth– you remember the bit in the interview a few years ago about that? “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. … We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Those words seemed to me a damning enough condemnation of the fool who said them, but in many other minds, they represent a maximum desideratum. (Like the quip about pussy-grabbing.)
So I am not too happy about the bossy voluntarists and anti-science people who are propelling themselves into positions from which they can do damage to the American economy of knowledge creation. (The envy of the world, need I say? And suffering from the usual condition of the prophet in its own country.) Wile E. Coyote can tell you a few things about what it’s like to go post-truth. Unfortunately, the mistakes made by this gang of post-truthers are going to fall back on all of us. We need to resist them in whatever way we can.
So, before we all get hysterical about the future, a few facts.
- The majority of the country did not vote for Trump. So hold off on all those ethnographies of poor whites and the left-behinds of globalization. The breakdown is: about half of eligible voters didn’t bother to vote at all (so blame them if you want to blame somebody); under a quarter voted for Clinton; even fewer than that voted for Trump, but with razor-thin margins in a few strategic states that counted big in the Electoral College; and a small percentage for the third-party candidates. So talk of a “mandate” is definitely misplaced. (That will not moderate the behavior of the people who think they have the Electoral College majority, though– they are going all-out with their most extreme nutcase people and policies.)
- Those who did vote Trump were, in part, the meth-addicted denizens of food-stamp counties, but also religious fundamentalists, Gamergaters and wealthy people just looking for another tax cut. It’s a funny alliance of people with little in common but resentment and a desire for power. You won’t find much in the way of principles here. Therefore, don’t ascribe an ideology where none is proven– and above all, don’t suppose that it’s a coherent, overarching ideology.
- Certain institutions can serve as a brake on radical policy change. The Constitution exists for a reason (there are more amendments than the Second); the courts will have their word to say, whatever happens to the Supremes; even the markets are invested in the rule of law and the stability of contracts, and the class of people owning property is much larger than in your usual kleptocracy. Don’t assume that whatever comes out of the mouth of Trumputin is what is going to happen. And donate to the civil-society institutions that have been protecting the Bill of Rights since long before your time. They will put the money to good use.
- This sort of thing has happened before. Read the testimony. I was lucky to find Victor Klemperer’s Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten, two volumes, in the Seminary Coop the other day. A fellow academic, a philologist, chronicling the erosion of language and reality-testing over the twelve years of the third Reich. You can take heart from the survival of such a document. (Plus, it’s printed on paper, and when I open it, it doesn’t spy on me.)
There will be a price for protecting reason and equality. Know that. People from Eastern Europe have been through this before. Some gave up; some didn’t. Be as honorable as you can. Denounce the flux of false news and the sudden respectability of racism, scapegoating and paranoia. Find people who share your values and be ready to disregard some issues (no two people agree about everything) while joining with them to rebuild the conditions for a fact-based, democratic political order.
That’s all I have for the moment.