Tuesday, September 22, 2009 • 12:00 AM Comments ()

A Fact-Free World

posted by Pleun Clara Bouricius

Is it stupid to deny evolution? Is someone who questions at this moment that Barack Obama is an American a pigheaded idiot? Are those who think the President supports “death panels” nothing but extremely gullible victims of cynical health insurance puppets? And what about a Holocaust-denier like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

How can anyone think these things?, I felt until yesterday. How is it possible for anyone who reads to believe that stuff? Why don’t people figure out for themselves what is true, instead of losing all their manners and lashing out in anger at the behest of smooth operators and demagogues? So much good information is now readily available on the Internet. “Above all,” I would argue very insistently, “this is a grotesque failure of public education.”

Rachel Maddow says the conservative “birther” and “deather” jihad against President Obama consists of people with sinister agendas who are extremely well organized to influence others — note that those somehow get their intelligence by reading Web sites and are thus at least minimally literate — people who have in common with each other that they live in a “fact-free world.” It is not meant as a compliment.

A fact-free world. It’s a catchy phrase that has suddenly caught me. It is true: Birthers and Deathers deny the validity of facts, facts per sé. In other words: they live outside the world in which the scientific method is the only road to good information. For them, Truth has a different source. This needs to be taken very seriously.

Try it on for size: most of us grew up in a world where the scientific method rules. Everything hinges on hypothesis and thesis; observation, measuring, and repeatability; empiricism and refutability (a thesis has to be refutable in order to be valid. Example: all apples are green. Disproved by finding one red apple. If you never find one, empirical evidence has it that all apples are green — until we find a red one.) But how many people check their facts? How do we know what is true? It would be a lot of work to check everything. Read all those healthcare bills with all their proposed amendments, for instance.

In everyday life, we take a shortcut to empiricism by believing in those who have been given a valid certificate of expertise. That would be your doctorate from an accredited university, as part of a checks and balances system, that, we assume, takes away credits from bad (red?) apples. Even about faith (I am operating on shaky ground here; faith is not my thing) we say, in effect: this is outside of the rest of the everyday world, but is important spiritually, so it doesn’t need to be part of that system of checks and balances. That’s the “leap.” It’s not part of things, but it underpins them. Somehow. A little bit of magical thinking that allows the rest to stand.

But what if you end up with a world view that cannot share a platform with the scientific method? You can’t have a little bit of science and a lot of magic side by side. You’d have to completely deny one or the other. What if in your eyes everyone who hands out “facts” is a smooth operator and the world is a gargantuan conspiracy in which it doesn’t even make sense to try check things (who knows — all those House and Senate bills may be planted hoaxes) because all of it is part of the system that keeps you on the bottom: outside or away from centers of power? What if you are dependent on that very system for your survival?

What you have then, is a popular Medieval world view. Or at least, that is what we tend to call popular belief systems characterized by static interdependent hierarchical social relations, revealed truth, and the special power of that which is neither observable, repeatable, nor refutable: magic.

 In most of the modern and post-modern (a different kind of fact-free) world, the adjective “medieval” is not a compliment. But with a capital “M” it does, unlike how I saw the Birthers and Deathers until yesterday, connote a complete world view, a closed system that makes internal sense, and that serves its participants. Umberto Eco will tell you all about it if you let him.

It’s all in who bites you more. To survive, you have to believe in the system. Medieval peasants believed in magic because having a place in religiously ordained hierarchies was the only possible way to survive. Simply put: no place in the system, no land to till and no food. Also, if you stuck out your head, chances were it could get chopped off. Similarly, believing that Barack Obama is for real means that that the system you just manage to survive in could be overhauled (not that he’s all that much into overhauling of any radical nature, but that’s just what makes him so threatening: it might just happen), and then what do you get?

When I drove a truck, hauling Godknowswhat from New Jersey to Texas and back, I found out what it was to be at the bottom of the working world. But not quite. Because when push came to shove, when I got chewed out for the umpteenth time for something I couldn’t do anything about, I upped and quit. I believed enough in my ability to work the system to risk walking away from a job. I did not have to believe in my place in the truck, because my place in the system is to be mobile – I have accreditation. This is the American Condition. To believe in Democratic Capitalism is to believe in our personal mobility, even if we don’t have the resources. I would call that faith the Magic of (social) Mobility.

The Magic of Mobility is knowing you can’t quit, ever, and still believing in the posibility of bettering one’s position. Along comes this guy who very reasonably says that we can do something to make it all better if only we all act as one and put our shoulders to the wheel— that kind of realism would force you to give up the Magic in a heartbeat. Take your place in the line and put your head down. There’s work to be done.

The scientific revolution was a turning away from a relational world view that we are all woven into a net of interdependence, and moving away from your place could rend the net and the world asunder. If the world is asunder, you fall into a deeeep hole. The first American Puritans were of this point of view. The thesis of John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill” sermon was that “GOD ALMIGHTY in His most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission,” and success depends upon each keeping his or her place, as in the sermon’s oft-quoted ending passage about working together to make it in the New World.

But soon came slavery, the clock, Benjamin Franklin, sugar, Louis Agassiz and fish fossils, railroads, more clocks, and, finally, rather at the end but just before germ theory and relativity, Darwin. And with all that came the popular embrace of social mobility – walking hand in hand with empiricism, industrialization, and all of the other miracles of modernity.

Stephan Thernstrom argued years ago that real wages and real power of (American) workers  went up even as the Industrial Revolution created its most hideous side effects. I never wanted to believe him, even as I read his numbers (what was I going to do — count again?)* But now I do. Because that slooow and painful advance stopped around 1975, and the real power of the people, including buying power, started going down in the short term and stagnating in the long, and with it the believability of facts disappeared from that part of the population for which the system of facts made sense no longer. (Farley and Haaga, p. 64)

It seems to me that this is an end of Capitalism no one foresaw: not in workers’ revolution but back into the pre-modern relentless net of interdependence that allowed the Inquisition to rise to power. Why buy it if it doesn’t get you anything? You’re better off with Magic. Even sleazy “you can fool all the people all the time” type sleight of hand. I can see that. That’s my hypothesis. It makes me want to weep and hide in a corner.

NOTES

* Thernstrom, Stephan. The other Bostonians: poverty and progress in the American metropolis, 1880-1970. Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 1976.

Farley, Russell, and John Haaga, eds. The American People: Census 2000. New York: Sage, 2005.

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