This article in The New Yorker, After the Fact by Jill Lepore, considers the current US presidential race in light of a new book by Michael Patrick Lynch, The Internet of Us, subtitled “Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data”. The whole concept of ‘truth’ is in play.
No matter the bigness of the data, the vastness of the Web, the freeness of speech, nothing could be less well settled in the twenty-first century than whether people know what they know from faith or from facts, or whether anything, in the end, can really be said to be fully proved.
(To my mind this issue is perfectly well settled, and well expressed, e.g. in Jerry Coyne’s book Faith vs. Fact. But Coyne’s is an intellectual argument that does not much affect the lives of most people, much less politics.)
In this world, Lepore goes on, Trump is a bully who doesn’t need to reason, Cruz appeals to God, and Rubio appeals to Google. The essay ends:
Is there another appeal? People who care about civil society have two choices: find some epistemic principles other than empiricism on which everyone can agree or else find some method other than reason with which to defend empiricism. Lynch suspects that doing the first of these things is not possible, but that the second might be. He thinks the best defense of reason is a common practical and ethical commitment. I believe he means popular sovereignty. That, anyway, is what Alexander Hamilton meant in the Federalist Papers, when he explained that the United States is an act of empirical inquiry: “It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” The evidence is not yet in.
Isaac Asimov once wrote (somewhere) that to persuade him that reason does not work or is insufficient to arrive at truths, some kind of argument would be required that would itself constitute reason. QED. Or, perhaps he might have said, show evidence (e.g. divine revelation) of truths that could not be reached through reason, something such critics conspicuously cannot do.
Another point, as I often repeat here, is that the modern world around us is physical evidence of things built on principles discovered by empiricism and reason. And not, conspicuously, by miracles or faith. The essay asks for evidence, but the evidence is all around us. The remaining issue is something I’ve not yet gotten a handle on: how it is different people are more or less ‘gullible’, for lack of a better word, about what evidence or authority they use to arrive at what they consider ‘truth’. (Is it the authoritarian impulse, for things to be black or white? The soft-minded unthinking acceptance of revealed wisdom and divine truths? The paranoid impulse to reject ‘elitist’ knowledge, i.e. by anyone who’s smarter and presumes to know better than ‘common sense’? Working on it.)
It would be easy to collect outrageous comments about the right-wing political candidates, but here’s one that’s hard to pass up. Ted Cruz, and David Barton, apparently, are supporters of something called Christian “dominionism”, the idea that Christians are justified, via Bible of course, in dominating all non-Christians, to the point of… slavery.
Here’s an essay at AlterNet: Cruz Super PAC Head Promotes ‘Biblical’ Slavery for Non-Christians by Bruce Wilson.
Does Texas U.S. Senator Ted Cruz yearn to rule and reign over America like a God-anointed king from Old Testament scripture? Short of Cruz himself shouting it from the rooftops, who can say for sure? Still, nothing says “dominionism” quite as forcefully as “biblical” slavery.
Back in 2011, an open letter to Dr. Laura Schlessinger (concerning her radio show statement that, per Leviticus 18:22, homosexuality was an “abomination”) began, “Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law,” then popped the question,
Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?
For David Barton, Cruz’ super PAC head (and the top evangelical power broker behind Cruz by one media account), this is no joke. It’s a serious question for which Barton’s website offers a serious, bible-based answer—an American may enslave both Mexicans and Canadians, but only if they’re pagans.
Much more, of which I’ll quote just one more slice:
Barton’s lifetime endeavor has been the wholesale fabrication of American history—a decades-long propaganda effort to convince evangelicals that scheming secularists and non-Christians have “stolen” America’s rightful heritage and birthright and hounded God from the public square.
It’s the key narrative that has motivated America’s politicized religious right—the movement which now dominates numerous state legislators, that propelled the Newt Gingrich-led takeover of congress in 1994 and the Tea Party-driven takeover of congress and the senate in 2010, that has blocked proactive national legislation to address a wide range of pressing issues, from campaign finance reform to climate change.
In short, David Barton’s pseudo-history has helped to politically paralyze the most richest and powerful nation on Earth.
Barton’s books, videos, presentations, and “walking tours” of the capital undergird and support a right wing narrative of cultural complaint (a modern-day American analog of the post-WW1 German Dolchstoßlegende) which motivates a range of constituencies on the Christian right inclined to back Ted Cruz.
Scary stuff. And not, of course, unrelated to the first item above.