By Dr. Joseph Chuman
Has America lost its mind? With Donald Trump as our leader and the world’s most powerful man, it feels as if we have entered the kingdom of madness. With Trump has come validation of “alternative facts,” the shameless promulgation of lies, a startling indifference to truth. There are numerous speculations as to how this can be. He is unhinged. He is senescent. He is enchanted with his “gut.” He is self-serving without limit. Or, perhaps he is being calculating. He lies for grossly opportunistic purposes. He lies to tell his base what it wants to hear and appeals to emotions that overwhelm claims to truthfulness or even consistency. It all comports well with his vaunting narcissism.
But Trump is not an isolated phenomenon. Rather, he is the culmination and most salient example of social, political and economic trends that have been gestating in American life for half a century. We don’t have to go back that far, however, to recall George Bush’s handlers suggesting that he was a creature of his time because he was no longer plying his politics in the “reality-based world.”
Commentator Kurt Andersen, writing in the September issue of The Atlantic, traces the genealogy of America’s descent into irrationality. The starting points, he contends, were elements of the 1960s counterculture. The mantra “do your own thing” launched us on the road to the relativization of knowledge. Major draws such as Esalen promoted alternative views of reality and implicitly undermined the authority of such stodgy enterprises as mainline science. The New Age and Charles Reich’s immensely popular The Greening of America valorized the coming of a new consciousness dedicated to hippie-dom, sweeping away rationality and facts with it, in the light of a new utopia that was aborning.
Erosion of objectivity
The loftier echelons of academe were playing their part as well. The period saw the emergence of “post-modernism,” in which objectivity was held to be essentially the claim of those who hold the power to make objective claims and thereby frame reality to its own interests. Knowledge is relative, and for many it is subjectivity all the way down. In short, my truth is as good as yours. The “social construction of reality” promoted a further assault on objectivity. What we understand as objective or true does not relate to a reality outside of human experience but are assertions that reflect human interests, usually, again, the interests of those who hold hegemonic power in society. These tools were applied most compellingly in fields such as anthropology, literary criticism, historical analysis, and race and gender studies. We see, again, the elevation of the subjectivity of knowledge and erosion of the pillars of objectivity.
This subjective move opens the door to proliferating assertions of truth, one expression of which is the validation of conspiratorial causes for events that had previously been considered settled. If one truth is as good as another, why not believe that the Kennedy assassination went beyond a sole assassin, or the 9-11 assault was secretly engineered by the U.S. government, or Jewish bankers are plotting to take over the world?
In Andersen’s thesis, the assault on facts, truth, reason and objective knowledge, which was germinated by the left, was picked up by the right and taken much further. We all recall the John Birch Society and the McCarthy campaign, which saw a communist under every tree and even claimed that Ike Eisenhower was secretly a communist. There is a straight line between that phenomenon and the conspiratorial nuttiness of Trump and his followers.
Beliefs go beyond church walls
But other powerful elements have added to the descent. Among them is the entrée of evangelical Christianity and fundamentalism into the political arena. Now commonplace in the culture is the denial of evolution, the crazy notion that Earth is no more than 10,000 years old and an obsession with End Times scenarios. These beliefs go far beyond church walls. Just look at the professions of Republican candidates for the presidency in the last election.
And then there is the Internet. In the pre-digital age, individuals committed to counter-factual ideas lurked in the corners. Finding allies was difficult and kept in check. Today, any crackpot with a computer can espouse his or her extremist and irrational theories and instantly find and mobilize innumerable like-minded followers.
At this juncture, I need to assert a clarifying point. The contentions of post-modernism and social constructivism make a legitimate claim. What we consider true in many cases is subject to and shaded by social processes. Much of what we believe and many opinions that prevail in society are created by human beings and reflect the interests of dominant classes. And different cultures do hold to different values. Truth, to varying degrees and in many cases, is relative.
But the domain in which the debate is most consequential, I believe, is science.
Relativism threatens civilization
In the age of Trump, belief in science has fallen into the murky swamp of relativism, and this is most ominous. It’s a threat to the future of human civilization that ought to gravely concern us. It is often noticed that Trump’s popularity and the defining dynamic of his base of support is contempt for liberal elites, whom they resentfully feel look down on them and whom, in turn, they hold in contempt. And with this contempt is the dismissal of values those purported elites hold dear. Hence, what one deems true is subject to a multi-cultural and class analysis.
There is contempt for the educated, the intellectual, the skeptic and all those values associated with a liberal politics and mindset. In this regard, Barack Obama, beyond his racial identification, is an exemplar par excellence. With these negations comes a cavalier disregard for science as well. It is thrown into the same wastebasket as other elite identifiers. No doubt, there are rampant contradictions here. The same people who deny evolution, the foundation of biological science, at the same time mostly likely have no trouble exploiting their iPhones or calling for more military spending. And American weaponry, needless to say, no less iPhones, rest upon the highest advancements in the sciences and applied technologies.
This anti-intellectualism and dismissal of science is very dangerous for the survival of any modern civilization for reasons that should be obvious. For my October address I plan to look into the relation of science to problems of knowledge and the political environment that threatens it. As a society, we can tolerate a certain indulgence of irrational beliefs. Indeed, we all have them. But that indulgence, for the sake of the future, needs to stop at the door of science. I have titled my address “If We Reject Science, It’s Over.” I hope you can join me then.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.