By Dr. Joe Chuman
Referring to the prerequisites of a free society, Thomas Jefferson in 1820 wrote the following. “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the people but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not take it from them, but to inform their discretion.” Jefferson passionately believed that in order for a nation to be democratic and free, and to remain civilized, the people as a whole need to be educated and informed. And if they lack that education it is the responsibility of our nation’s leaders to provide the wisdom and education, as Jefferson proposes, to “inform their discretion.”
As America looks to a new presidential administration, it seems more than obvious that the public cannot turn to our leaders to ensure that we are educated and that those in government are responsibly and wisely guiding our discretion. On the contrary, to be an American at this moment feels more like being the victim of a massive swindle, and to be hoodwinked by self-aggrandizing con artists who want to ensure that they aggressively concentrate greater power and wealth in their own hands at the expense of the rest of us. What is the interest of our leaders in ensuring a politically educated public? And, frankly, where is the public’s discretion when it comes to assessing the political issues that affect our nation and our society in profound ways?
What does it say that 60 senators voted to confirm Alberto Gonzalez as the chief law enforcement agent of the United States, a man who affirmed that the president is above the law? What does it say when our senate has just installed as attorney general a man who violated international and federal law as well as the fundamental standards of civilization by sanctioning the use of torture? What does it say about America to the rest of the world, and moreover to us, the American people? When one steps back and looks at this through moral eyes, it is nothing less than an abomination, and we might ask, how did it happen?
Last Wednesday night, in his State of the Union address, President Bush triumphantly heralded the election in Iraq and the virtues of freedom, which he has trumpeted as the cornerstone of his ideology. He let us know that building democracy and freedom in Iraq is worth the cost of now more than 1,400 dead Americans, perhaps 100,000 dead Iraqis, and who knows how many more as we wage this war without foreseeable end. Yet, does he think that our memories are so short that we forget that the primary rationale for this war was not to bring freedom to Iraqis, but to rid Iraq of its putative weapons of mass destruction? It is a war based on monumental intelligence errors and lies, and as such comprises the greatest “bait and switch” scandal within living memory. Yet, most Americans seem to buy it.
How do we explain the fact that a majority of Americans continue to believe that Saddam Hussein was guilty of the 9/11 terrorist assaults on the United States? Could it be that Americans are so inattentive to the news, so superficial in their thinking or so prejudicial in their views, that they draw the blanket assumption that all Arabs who have evil designs are thereby indistinguishable from each other in all their particulars? Again, how are we to explain this?
What does it say about those who won this past election that they were able transform John Kerry (not my favorite candidate) a bona fide war hero into a wimp unworthy of standing up to the terrorists who threaten us, while George W. Bush, who evaded Vietnam with a silver spoon military assignment, and Dick Cheney, who received four draft deferments and publicly stated that he had more important things to do than to go off to Vietnam, are somehow deemed worthy of our trust as warriors?
With the same bravado with which he concocted the false dangers that Saddam Hussein posed to America, Bush is now creating a false crisis over social security, when there is no crisis. 82% of Americans in a recent poll ranked the social security “crisis” as more important than homelessness and poverty and racial injustice. It didn’t take long for this fabricated emergency to preoccupy the concerns and anxieties of the American public and so divert their attention, as social programs are slashed, and tax giveaways to the super wealthy become permanent.
Included in Bush’s State of the Union address was his call for a Constitutional Amendment to ban gay marriage. Has anyone yet articulated how homosexual unions will, in any concrete way, threaten heterosexual marriage? Yet Bush wants to drive us to change the US Constitution over this issue.
There are other issues, somewhat more removed from the national spotlight, though they raise similar issues. Just last Friday, in his column in the New York Times, Bob Herbert wrote, “Only half of America’s high school students think newspapers should be allowed to publish freely, without government approval of their stories. And a third say the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment go too far.” A spokesman for the agency that did the survey Herbert cites concluded that “These results are not only disturbing – they are dangerous.” Perhaps, Herbert ponders, we shouldn’t be too hard on the kids, since after all they may just be following the lead of an administration that has held in contempt our most cherished liberties. Maybe.
This followed another Times article that caught my attention just a few days before. Titled “Evolution Takes a Back Seat in U.S. Classes” it described how many high school science teaches simply avoid or soft-pedal the teaching of evolution, fearful that their principals will come down on them or fearing community backlash.
The denial of evolution and its replacement with creationist theories derived from the book of Genesis is no small matter. Evolution is not a wispy or ambiguous footnote to a major scientific theory. It is one of the pillars of modern science for much more than a century, has been verified under laboratory conditions, and has no serious opposition in the scientific community. To discard evolution is to do away not only with modern biology, but geology, physical anthropology, much of physics and a lot else. There is no country in the industrialized world where upwards of 45% of the population doubts the theory of evolution. To posit creationism as a replacement for evolution is as idiotic as believing that the moon is made of green cheese or the earth is flat. Whatever it is, creationism is certainly not science. But we can hardly look to our president for wisdom on this matter either, or to inform our discretion, because George W. Bush has himself declared that the jury is still out on the theory of evolution. I wonder why George Bush and all other advocates of a strong military don’t realize that there is a dangerous contradiction between wanting to maintain a cutting edge military based on science and technology, and eviscerating from the very guts of science education, one of the primary pillars on which modern science stands. Again, evolution is not a quaint add to modern science; it is foundational.
All communications involves at least two parties – those who utter the communication, and those who receive and interpret it. There is an ethics of speech communication that falls upon both entities. Those who launch the message, especially those who carry the weight of authority, need to be honest, and those who receive the communication need to be attentive and discerning with regard to what is said to them.
What all the phenomena I cite have in common is that they ignore reality. They result in conclusions in which facts are badly distorted and in which facts don’t seem to matter. When one looks at all these disparate phenomena, and the irrationality they can seem to all reveal, one can ask in dismay “What in the world is wrong with this country?” As a Katha Pollitt, wrote in a recent column in the Nation. “It’s as if everyone has been sprinkled with idiot dust.”
The ultimate question we can ask is – how much fantasy, how much neglect of fact-based reality can one society absorb and still remain viable, democratic and free?
As a rationalist I hold to the simple and elegant rule of thumb that one’s beliefs need to be proportionate to the facts, and that my intellectual integrity, and ultimately my fiber as a moral human being depends on exercising that proposition. The philosopher, William James, who was also a scientist, was willing to stretch that standard a bit by arguing that in certain special cases we are permitted to have our beliefs extend beyond the facts. So, for example, if I come to a cliff, and am confronted with a chasm that is three feet wide, and I either successfully jump the gap or lose my life, I am permitted to believe that I can do it, despite the fact that I have never leapt that far before, on the assumption that so believing will maximize my chances of survival. Fail to believe in advance of the facts, and I will surely perish. Dare to have faith in my ability to jump beyond the facts, and that faith may just be the very difference between destruction and survival. In other words, my will to believe beyond the strict limits of the facts, will at times, James asserted, help to create the facts.
I am willing to accept James’s reasoning in a few select cases and will concede that even though my beliefs therefore need not be exactly proportional to the facts, at least my beliefs need to be, we might say, controlled by the facts. They must be responsible to the facts. But beliefs that are completely divorced from facts, I think, is totally disreputable for anyone who possesses a mind, and can often lead to behavior which is not only preposterous but dangerous. Especially if we are citizens in a democratic society, I believe that each of us carries a special responsible to be reflective and discerning about what are leaders are telling us, just as they have a responsibility to honestly “inform our discretion,” as Jefferson put it. But it seems these days, that rather being intellectually reflective, probing, and even just thoughtful, people are willing, often with conviction, to base their beliefs on sounds bites, half facts, slogans, stereotypes, prejudices, and on the cache of imagery, and not on thought.
But why such widespread ignoring of the facts, at a time when, at least formerly, more Americans are more educated than even before. In each of the cases I cite, from believing that John Kerry is a wimp, to believing that Saddam Hussein was behind the assault on the World Trade Center, to 60 senators giving a pass to Alberto Gonzalez, to the refusal of science teachers to teach evolution, there are, no doubt, multiple and complex causes. We can look to the mainstream media, which have substituted probing, analytical journalism, with sound bites, clichés, and name-calling. We might lament the lack of rigor of the school in teaching basic civics, science, and the skills of critical thinking. All this is ominously true.
But I believe there is one other cause that pervades all these issue. And that is that we live in a time of fear.
One dynamic exploited by those in power in order to divert and manipulate the public mind is the element of fear, and its emotional sibling, anxiety. Our political decisions and our political thinking seem, to a great degree, to be driven by fear. The media are afraid or looking too liberal. Democrats are afraid of being marginalized by being called “liberals,” or losing whatever remaining turf they have to Republicans. The left is afraid of appearing too secular or being unpatriotic, and the public at large is feeling at least a bit anxious about the next terrorist attack.
I really do believe that 9/11 has affected the American mind in subtle, but significant ways. It has leeched its way under our collective skins and has taken up residence in our collective psyches. We walk around edgier and more circumspect. I am still hit, from time to time, with a sense of disbelief when I gaze at lower Manhattan, and take in the fact that the World Trade Center, which was a sturdy fixture on the landscape, isn’t there any longer — like the feeling you get when someone whom you knew well and long and peopled your mind dies and disappears forever. The feeling of anxiety, occasioned the terror assault, partly conscious and partly beneath our consciousness, is new to Americans, but is something that Europeans, even of the post World War II generations, know quite well. This anxiety and fear is also something our leaders can exploit for their own political ends, and they do. Fear is a highly effective weapon is the arsenal of those who wield and seek to retain power. It was Niccolo Macchiavelli, who, in his advice to princes who wished to retain the reins of power believed that subjects could be manipulated by either love or fear. But he concluded, “If we must choose between being loved or feared, it is far safer to be feared than loved.” Fear paralyzes action. It causes people to fall in line. Rene Descartes, the French philosopher, counseled that if you are ever lost in a forest, choose one direction to walk in, and then once chosen, never deviate from a straight line, if you wish to survive.
Fear is like that. It keeps our thought processes in a straight line, as it drives out dissenting and conflicting ideas. I remember during the Maoist period in China, when government authority seemed arbitrary and the Chinese legal system was not well codified and subject to political vagaries, government bureaucrats, out of fear would hoe the straightest most conservative line, lest they bring attention to themselves. Fear paralyzes action, and inhibits creativity and initiative. It causes people to fall in line. Frightened people want to appear loyal and eschew dissent. They do not stand out. They do not ask questions.
Deeper and more far-reaching than fearful emotions are the feelings associated with anxiety. Whereas fear is usually conscious in that we fear a specific object from which we can flee or fight, and the fear passes once we have fled or overcome it, anxiety is a state of being which extends much deeper into the nether reaches of our psyche. What usually differentiates anxiety from fear, is that anxiety is more free floating, and vaguer in its sources. Unlike fear, which almost always has an object, anxiety is a state in which we do not know usually from where the threat comes. Fear is relatively superficial, but anxiety seems like a threat to our very being. And it is intolerable.
In my own view, different people have different anxiety thresholds. Some people just temperamentally are more anxious than others. But our environments, environments of stress and of danger, can also induce anxiety, and aggravate it. Anxiety can also have many emotional and behavioral consequences. Anxiety is an uncomfortable, indeed, intolerable state because it makes us feel deeply threatened and powerless, and unlike most fearsome situation, anxiety seems to threaten us at our very core. But anxiety also does other things. It makes us angry; it makes us impatient and it engenders hostility. And, in line with my thesis this morning, anxiety also clouds, befuddles and blocks our thinking. I know from my own experience, when I am especially anxious that’s the time when I cannot concentrate. It is time to exercise, or to do something mindless, not the time to work on my next platform address. It is the emotional condition in which I am most likely to accidentally bang my knee against the bedpost, have an assignment fall out of my head, or surprise myself when I find that I mysteriously put the coffee pot in the refrigerator, rather than where it belongs on the counter. In other words, anxiety induces the shutting down of our minds, and I argue leads us therefore more vulnerable to being led astray by those in leadership who want us to pursue their agendas in the assertion of their political power. It is not idiot dust, but anxiety that dulls the American mind at this political moment.
I believe that these are dangerous political times, in which the health and viability of American freedom and democracy are especially vulnerable. A fearful and anxious populace is a populace open and vulnerable to having their cherished freedoms whittled away as the price to pay for security. An anxious climate, intensified by the fear of terrorism, can readily be swayed to accept as commander-in-chief a man who presents a swaggering image of toughness, even if there is no substance in his resume to back it up. An anxious people can be swayed to accept a Patriot Act, and believe they have too many freedoms, if by yielding those liberties, they can feel more secure. An anxious populace can accept a torturer as their attorney general as a small price to pay if they feel threatened. A populace, anxious over diversity on the American landscape, can readily find refuge in old time religion, with its authoritarian and often misogynist, anti-modernist, illiberal, and homophobic values. An anxious populace can prefer simplistic, feel good image-driven answers to complex problems over reflective, analytic and critical approaches to those problems. An anxious public will forgo dissent and choose conformity. And I ask, where has the cherished, noble freedom-saving tradition of dissent gone in American life. Where is it in American life, and where is it moreover in the corridors of American power; in the Senate and in the House and in the precincts of government?
Authoritarianism is an important concept here. Noting that anxiety is an emotional state that is ultimately intolerable for human beings, and from which we naturally attempt to flee, we will seek to find refuge in what the social psychologist, Erich Fromm, called mechanism of escape. One such mechanism of escape is to attempt to overcome one’s anxiety and sense of powerlessness, by melding with the herd in the service of conformity and by giving oneself over to strong leaders who will quell one’s anxious fears. In other words, anxiety on the social level is the seedbed of fascism. And though I am not paranoid, and believe that our society remains pluralistic and plastic in its creativity, and democracy still retains room in which to breath, and I marvel still at the surprising rebelliousness that is inherent in American individualism, I cannot help but ponder with great concern whether we as Americans are in a proto-fascist moment. But paranoid or not, I firmly believe that just as war is too important to be left to the generals, so freedom is too important to be left to the politicians. To be clichéd, for a moment, “freedom is as freedom does” and the cost of freedom is eternal vigilance. Friends, if we cherish freedom, we cannot be too cautious.
With my thesis this morning, I am not attempting to give a comprehensive theory to explain the dulling of the American mind. The causes are innumerably complex and issue from the designs of leaders and the dispositions of the people themselves. All I am attempting to do is to isolate one factor in a phenomenon that frustrates and disturbs me greatly.
But what is the antidote, and how at least can we respond to the anti-intellectualism and the irrationalism that seems so much a part of our public lives. What are we to do?
I have no exhaustive answers at the moment, and the time is growing short. But let me say, I never thought that to strive to be rational, was an act that requires much courage. But in the face of an administration that claims that it is not “reality-based” to be loyal to reality, to facts, and to reason seems not only to be courageous, but also subversive. But I say “Let us be so!” And let us find the confidence and inspiration from our Ethical Culture tradition, and from the wisdom of all great humanists of the past who understood that reason is a prerequisite for both progress and freedom. And armed with that faith let never falter to speak the truth as we understand it. The times we are in demand it.
Dr. Joseph Chuman
February 6, 2004