Posts Tagged ‘Postmodernism’

Boredom, Anxiety and Envy: a Kierkegaardian Attempt to Understand The Trump Question (pt.4)

July 6, 2016

CONCLUSIONS

In Two Ages, Kierkegaard compares the present age to a Roman emperor, fat, bored, wandering through his palace and through life looking for something to amuse himself. He isn’t evil, exactly, so much as simply sullen, lethargic and self-centered, and desperate for something new to stimulate his senses. He torments others simply out of boredom. Likewise, Kierkegaard says, the present age delights in having a tabloid press to torment and humiliate the best and brightest, anyone who stands out from the crowd, simply so the rest of us can watch and be entertained for awhile. Kierkegaard started his authorship with a discussion of boredom, and here when he is beginning a new phase in his career he is returning to it. Boredom and envy are connected, in a way neither is to anxiety, leading Kierkegaard to mention them both in the same breath.

The connection is passion. This seems to be an easy concept to misunderstand; in The Logic of Subjectivity Louis Pojman, who is normally a pretty sharp cookie, compares Kierkegaard’s discussion of passion to Hume’s notion that “reason is a slave to the passions.” This is clearly off target, since Hume’s point is that we have no real freedom to act against our desires while Kierkegaard is saying we should strive to free ourselves from just that sort of bondage to our whims and appetites. Taking what Kierkegaard says about passion in various references and bringing it together, it is clear that the essential quality of the life of passion is that the individual feels that what he or she does matters. Don Juan, lost in the moment of pure pleasure, feels absolutely alive.[1] He is totally immersed; no part of him stands outside what he is engaged with; he is passionate. However, that sort of passion cannot survive reflection or even self-awareness; it starts to collapse as soon as it is put into words. The pre-moral, esthetic life described in Either/Or is a life lived for arbitrary goals, and thus is essentially meaningless; the more one becomes self-aware and reflective, the more one finds oneself standing outside oneself, unable to fully immerse in whatever arbitrary project one has chosen. It is simply too small. And being essentially meaningless, it is essentially boring. Don Juan can pull it off mostly because he is a fictional character in an opera, and exists only in imagination and music; a real person is never safe from the threat of self-reflection. Kierkegaard thus depicts the egoistic, pre-moral life of the esthete as something of a willful self-deceit, where the esthetic person either invests his or her life in some petty project or rotates between petty projects, and avoids boredom mostly by luck if at all.

In the age of revolution, people are swept up in a shared passion. That may not be a good thing; the same passion that led to the overthrow of tyranny also led to The Terror and to the destruction of the Napoleonic wars. Passion, in and of itself, may not be moral; but it is at least alive. People feel that things matter. Without reflection to go along with that passion, you can have wildness, irrationality, and a loss of sense of individuality; but at least you have the vital force. With both reflection and passion, you have liveliness together with self-awareness, and you have a community of moral individuals. With reflection and no passion, as in the present age, you have triviality. Nothing matters, and what’s more, we feel clever because our reflection has shown us that nothing matters so we are not being fooled. We don’t fight for the good or against the evil, because we don’t feel that either matters; we simply don’t think those words apply to us. We might temporarily flare up in some passing enthusiasm, but it soon fades because it is as arbitrary as anything else, and we lapse into bored triviality. I think of how outraged we all were when Cecil the lion was killed, for awhile, but how little most of us think about the extermination of the world’s most majestic species. No one really cares about the moral principle; they just wanted to be part of the moment and part of the crowd gathered to mourn Cecil. If anyone had actually acted on all that outrage, either to avenge Cecil or to dedicate his or her life entirely to saving Earth’s endangered animals, we would have considered it madness. It is acceptable to get angry and to tweet death threats even, to sign a petition and to talk about it endlessly on Facebook for two weeks; but then, really, you have to get on with your life, right?

In an early journal entry, written when Kierkegaard was merely a perpetual student, he wrote that he was seeking “the cause for which I can live and die.” That is what it is to live a life of passion! And that is what is lacking in the present age, according to Kierkegaard. No one has a cause. In the age of revolution, everyone has a cause, whether you are a revolutionary or a reactionary; either way, you are part of the same passion, and the revolution matters. People in a revolutionary age don’t all agree, but they all care about the same thing; even if some love it and some hate it, “it” is the same. In the age of reflection without passion, we have no cause, and those who do seem strange, even fanatical.

In this boredom, when nothing matters, our attention has no common focus and no higher focus than one another. That reflection that tells us that nothing matters turns on our neighbors, as we determine to prove that any claim to “matter” is arrogance. Therefore, we level. Leveling is the prime social expression for passionlessness, which is the literal meaning of “apathy.” The leveling society is the apathetic society, knocking down the highest out of sheer boredom.

The escape from boredom, which Kierkegaard traces through Either/Or to the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, is to choose to live a life where things do matter. As his pseudonym The Judge says, it is not to choose the good, but first to choose to allow the concepts of “good” and “evil” into one’s life. As Ron Green points out in Kierkegaard and Kant: the Hidden Debt, Kierkegaard starts with a very Kantian notion of what “ethics” means: that one lives according to the moral law that one discovers with one’s own moral reason. Just as logic is a purely mental law that dictates what is rational or irrational thinking, so the moral law is a purely rational principle that dictates what is moral or immoral action. To reject either logic or morality is certainly possible; in fact, few of us live totally logical or moral lives. But insofar as a person is not a slave to whims and appetites and irrational impulses, one lives according to these laws of rationality and morality that one finds within one’s own reason. The only way one can escape being determined by the essentially meaningless pursuits of the egoist is to choose the ethical life. When one does this, one has something far more important to deal with than whether one’s neighbor is getting too uppity; so the moral passion of the ethical life can be the antidote to envy.

Thus, the escape from boredom and from envy is the same: reject apathy and embrace the life lived for what matters. However, at this point anxiety rears its head. As Kierkegaard says, to live with the knowledge of good and evil is to live in anxiety. One first becomes aware of the distinction by becoming aware that one has done the evil, and cannot undo it, and might even do it again. The more one tries to escape from anxiety through one’s own power, the more anxious one becomes. Eventually, since anxiety is “the dizziness of freedom,” the only escape from anxiety is to try to escape from one’s own freedom. For this reason, says The Concept of Anxiety, the person may be tempted to try to immerse himself or herself in the trivial and philistine life of social conformity. I find myself to be desperately bored; I realize my life and my concerns are meaningless, and seek to find what really matters, that is, what is good; when I find it, I realize that I have in fact done what is worthless and evil, and that it still remains a tempting possibility; the more I try to live a meaningful life the more stressful and anxious I find this constant threat of falling again into what I now know to be the evil; and finally I choose to simply embrace the soulless conformity of the passionless, reflective society. Thus boredom and envy are not just the problems of those who know nothing more in life; they are much more the characteristics of those many who are actively choosing to live lives without a relationship to what is truly good.

The only true escape from anxiety and envy, according to Kierkegaard, is to choose the religious life. Again, this is a claim that is likely to be misunderstood by postmodern Americans. Most of what we typically call “religious”— social conformity and judgmentalism, blindly following a charismatic leader, allowing others to tell us the moral rules and convincing ourselves that using our own minds is somehow wicked and rebellious—- this is actually what Kierkegaard would consider more of that anxious, envious, self-immolating life that Kierkegaard labels “objectivity,” “idolatry” or “demonic.” True religiousness starts with the attempt to find the good: that is, with the ethical. For Kierkegaard, the attempt to live an ethical life by following one’s moral reason serves much the same function as the Law in Paul’s epistles and Luther’s theology.[2] One must first try to live according to the ethical, and fail, and in failing realize one’s need for grace. At the same time, grace is not there to free one from trying to live a good life; it is there to free one from the burden of one’s past failures, so that one can try again. Grace allows one to finally be free from the overwhelming burden of anxiety, which otherwise leads one to flee the whole attempt to live a life as a morally directed individual.[3] Particularly in Concept of Anxiety, but consistently throughout Kierkegaard’s authorship, “the good” is individuating; to pursue the good is to be an individual, and to try to evade the personal effort of being an individual moral agent before God is to choose the evil.

The irony of envy is that from the religious perspective, it is right. Envy says, “You are no better than me;” the religious person says, “Indeed, I am no better than you; we are both individuals before God, dependent entirely on grace.” Accepting this is what allows the truly religious person to escape the bondage of envy. The faithful person has the complete security of being worthwhile and even loved by God, despite knowing himself or herself to be morally unworthy of that love. The faithful one thus has no need to enviously tear down others, and can rejoice in their value before God as much as in his or her own. Therefore, if you see someone whose sense of self-worth is dependent on asserting superiority over others or tearing them down, you can be sure that this is not “religious” zeal but is in fact faithlessness.

The desire to tear down scientists and scholars and “the elites,” while adulating some self-promoting huckster whose only claims to superiority are the purely mathematical ones of wealth and popularity, is an expression of faithlessness and the bondage of sin, as Kierkegaard understands it. This is true whether the would-be idol is a political demagogue or a religious charlatan, or some combination of the two. It is a sign of an age that has, in Kierkegaard’s words, “annulled the principle of contradiction.” It is an age that fears to let Yes be Yes and No remain No, and wants to eliminate all ultimate distinctions between true and false, good and evil, logical and irrational, so it can avoid having to make a decisive choice. The present age says that all truths are partial and relative and based on perspective, so there is no need to rationally discuss or to question one’s own views; the reflective and passionate view is humbled by reflection but inspired to seek truth nevertheless, admitting that the quest for truth is never-ending while remaining devoted to the quest regardless.

When “the principle of contradiction has been abrogated,” as Kierkegaard said using the language of Hegelian philosophy, there is no absolute truth. Every concept is simply one side of a larger reality. Hegel still had an historical optimism underlying his annihilation of the distinction between truth and falsehood, good and evil; he believed history is progressing towards a state of greater human consciousness, and eventually the race will attain an apprehension of reality that encompasses all of the various perspectives. But for Hegel, that day is not yet; in the meantime, your moral values are simply expressions of your culture’s values and your own class interests. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th and the French Revolution was succeeded by the Munich Putsch, that optimism was harder to sustain. Today we have even more thoroughly abrogated the distinction between true and false, epistemologically and ethically, in what Cardinal Ratzinger called “the dictatorship of relativism.” There is no truth, so anyone who claims to know truth is simply an oppressor trying to impose his (maybe her) will on others; thus the only morally proper and epistemologically correct option is to admit all views are equally valid, even contradictory ones. The problem with that is that the “tolerance” and “honesty” that supposedly demand this admission are themselves moral and epistemological virtues, and thus themselves become victims of reflection. What we end up with is moral nihilism and a contest of irrational wills. As Harry Frankfurt discusses in On Bullshit, today we have a whole category of verbal behavior that is neither truth nor lying, because the speaker is simply unconcerned with either sharing or avoiding the truth. And this may explain Trump’s method and success. Donald Trump does not lie; he bullshits. He says whatever will serve his purpose, and is not concerned with whether what he says is true. Much of the time he does not even know. And to the morally and intellectually vacuous public today, this seems entirely appropriate. In a world where no one can “dictate” truth, and where truth itself cannot dictate, every single person can believe whatever he or she wants to believe. If I want to believe that slavery never happened, or that solar energy sucks heat out of the air and will freeze us all to death unless we burn more coal, or that most American Muslims are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers even though I don’t actually even know how many Muslims there are in America, then I have a right to my opinion. Truth and goodness are replaced by the language of “rights,” and the stupidest and most selfish has as much right as the wisest, for we are all equal. The ability to get others to agree with you is seen not as a triumph for fact over fantasy, but just as a victory of one will over the others. From the point of view of the postmodern person, there is no truth and the best leader is merely the best bullshitter; and the bullshitter who has persuaded the most people to give him or her the most money is clearly the best. From the point of view of the one who is religious in Kierkegaard’s sense of the word, the wisest is the one who recognizes that there is truth, who loves the truth (particularly moral truth) and who attempts to live according to the truth so that his or her life might have some real meaning, but who knows that human existence is always to strive for truth, never to possess it completely. That person will know that anyone might have a piece of truth, and thus anyone is worth listening to, just as Socrates listened to politicians and slaves alike as he went around Athens asking questions. And just as Socrates seemed more than a little odd in a society dominated by demagogues and Sophists, so today any real truth-seeker seems goofy at least, if not absolutely insane. The popular teachers in the days of Socrates were the ones who said “man is the measure of all things, what is that it is, and what is not that it is not;” and the popular leaders were the ones who did not try to make their citizens better morally or better informed, but took them where they were and pandered to their appetites. And in the days of Socrates, that sort of relativism led to moral and epistemological nihilism, leaving nothing to guide the society but the naked ambition of its politicians; and themselves being unguided either by moral principles or factual truth, they led the nation into defeat and destruction. The age without faith is the age without truth, without a love for truth, and thus without guidance how to live or what to choose, a mindless herd following the loudest voice without knowledge of whether it is being led to the sheepfold, or to be sheared, or to the slaughterhouse.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, “The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical Erotic,” in Either/Or, v. I, edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987) pp. 45ff

[2] see W. Glenn Kirkconnell, Kierkegaard on Ethics and Religion, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008) pp. 76-107

[3] see W. Glenn Kirkconnell, Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010) pp. 40-57

 

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pt.2

March 24, 2015

Up to the present in everyday discourse the habit of speaking of moral judgments as true or false persists; but the question of what it is in virtue of which a particular moral judgment is true or false has come to lack any clear answer.

—-Alasdair MacIntyre

 

One of MacIntyre’s more important contentions is that philosophy is a central activity in human culture. True, today’s academic curricula isolate it as an esoteric occupation for professors and wannabes only; it is generally an “elective” course offered in isolation from history, political science or any other field that would give it meaningful context. In turn, the other social and physical “sciences” can carry out their activities without consulting the long history and broad context of human thought which once was encompassed by the term “philosophy.” Political philosophy may deal with what a “just” society would be, what the true function of a political commonwealth is, and so on; but political science primarily discusses only how power is gotten and used, regardless of goals or values. I noticed this myself when, as a young philosopher, I made some brief forays into the world of the political science majors. Their concerns and mine simply had no intersection. They were solely interested in how they could implement their agenda when they graduated; what that agenda should be was no concern of them, or of their professors and textbooks. The assumption was that whatever the leader wants is what is to be achieved, and political science is the study of how to achieve that. Whether it should be achieved is the province of philosophers or prophets, they might say; but they would then say that philosophers and prophets are mere dreamers who can and are ignored by the doers. Thus, the goals of politics are the topic for discussion by people who politicians are not to listen to; the political scientist is supposed to study and advise politicians, and the political scientist’s field is not goals but only means. This is exactly the sort of society MacIntyre says we should expect when emotivism becomes the dominant theory of moral language; when moral language is treated as merely a tool to manipulate others, questions about goals largely drop out and only questions about means to ends remain, regardless of how arbitrary those ends might be.

The hollowness of late 20th Century society can be illustrated, MacIntyre thinks, by considering the “characters” in the drama of our social life. He uses the term “character” as it might apply to a medieval morality play: as soon as The Fool steps on stage, we all know what that person will be like, what he will say, and so on. Values, behavior, and social role are all one in “the character.” Another term might be “social archetype.” And the character that MacIntyre believes is most central and illustrative of today’s society is The Manager.[1] The Manager is supposed to be an expert in achieving any sort of end, the essential leader in any bureaucracy; and since we live in a bureaucratic society, The Manager is the most important character. And the expertise of The Manager, as Weber has shown, is the manipulation of others to achieve whatever the goals of the organization are. It is not The Manager’s part to choose those goals, but only to achieve them. It is not The Manager’s job to bring people together to discuss a problem and find the best solution; it is his (or her) job to so shape the initial assumptions and boundaries of the discussion that the group comes to the conclusion The Manager has already chosen, while believing they actually played a real role in setting the goal so they will fully buy into the plan. This is the very sort of leader that an emotivist society would have, and the only sort it could really recognize: one that claimed authority not on the basis of wisdom or justice, but only on effectiveness. The supposedly esoteric debate over the meaning of moral language, which was thought to be locked away in ivory towers where emotivist philosophers wrote and taught, actually is both the expression and cause of the moral vacuum underlying our society as a whole. The Enlightenment sought to found a fairly traditional morality (don’t lie, don’t kill etc.) on notions of human nature as such, rather than the teleological or theological foundations that had supported morality since the days of Socrates and Moses. That project failed, and MacIntyre argues that it was impossible from the start. We live now in the society born of that failure: a society with no foundation for moral thinking and no consensus what moral language even means, but continuing to use the terms of morality as rhetorical devices to manipulate others to follow the agendas set by the preferences of those with the strongest wills.

To be continued…

[1] Alasdair MacIntyer, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame, IN; University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pp. 27-32

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pt.1

March 23, 2015

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984)

 

….(T)he problem about real life is that moving one’s knight to QB3 may always be replied to with a lob across the net. (p. 98)

Alasdair MacIntyre begins his signature work with a rather audacious proposition: that all of today’s culture has forgotten what morality is, and what moral language really means, and therefore no moral philosophy and no moral agreement is really possible. Once moral philosophy sought to describe the “good life” and those “virtues” (character traits) that are part of the good life. Over time, particularly since the Enlightenment’s rejection of tradition and culture as essential elements of human life, we have lost the shared sense of what a “good life” would be or how to obtain it. However, we have kept the moral language of good and evil, virtue and vice, duty and justice and so on. We all use the same words, but rarely do we speak the same language. Much as an English speaker, seeing “sin” in a Latin sentence might think the Latin refers to wrongdoing (when in fact it is a conjunction meaning “if however”), two postmodern English speakers can use words like “good” or “rights” without realizing that they have different definitions for those terms. By the Twentieth Century, this sorry state of moral language had led to the rise of emotivism: the philosophical claim that all moral language is nothing more than an emotional declaration by the speaker, roughly translatable as “Hurrah for (x)!” or “I approve of (x), you should too!”

 

It is possible to argue with MacIntyre’s historical argument as applied to Western philosophy as a whole. However, it makes even more sense when applied to the United States of America, and the moral culture that arose here. This land was first settled by humans thousands of years ago, and many varied cultures arose. Most of these were destroyed with the arrival of Europeans, through a combination of disease and deliberate cultural genocide. Settlement of North America was not done in a cultural vacuum, but most of the new immigrants from England and elsewhere did not pay much attention to the spiritual or philosophical values of those they displaced. England itself, however, was not culturally homogenous. During the early settlement of the “New World,” England underwent a series of religious upheavals, and the American colonies were settled by disparate and at times hostile groups of Catholics, Anglicans, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers and others. In addition, the New York area was originally settled by the Dutch, with their own values and moral traditions. During the various conflicts between English, French, Spanish and original nations, people from many different cultures came to be “Americans.” Thousands of Germans too came to be in the Thirteen Colonies, first as settlers and then as mercenaries fighting for the British Crown who simply never returned to their native lands. By the time the Constitution of the United States of America was written and ratified, there were many conflicting philosophies and theologies in the various states, as well as regional differences between the states. European nations generally had organic origins. They grew out of prehistoric tribes over thousands of years. The United States had a definite beginning and a definite social contract, in writing. It is, to put it simplistically, an artificial nation. We didn’t wake up one day and discover we had become one culture. We resolved to be a free people and to create a new culture together. As our original national motto put it, we are one made from many: E pluribus unum. And because of this, our Constitution is written largely as a way for those conflicting groups and conflicting values to compete peacefully and politically, rather than on the battlefield. Democracy is basically a way to have conflict while avoiding civil war.

MacIntyre argues that the Enlightenment project of trying to find a universal basis for morality apart from either Aristotelian notions of telos or religious notions of divine covenant and command led more or less inexorably to the rise of emotivism in the 20th Century. We still have the words for ethical thinking, but we have no settled definitions for those words. It is therefore impossible to really seek for “the good” even when we say we are doing so, and even when we think we are doing so. Instead, those words function merely as expressions of approval and as tools to manipulate others into approving of our values. Moral discussions don’t involve rational debate over how to achieve the best human life, but only a contest of wills as the contestants strive to maneuver one another to accepting his or her own preferences. It is for this reason, MacIntyre claims, that public discourse has become “shrill” and “interminable.” It is literally interminable, he says, because it is rationally impossible that any of our crucial debates should find a terminus. There is no agreed-upon standard of what an “end” should be. MacIntyre does not discuss the supposed decision-maker in our Lockean social contract: the will of the people. However, anyone can see that even “majority rule” settles nothing. Sometimes the majority is simply morally wrong, as it was when the majority of the nation approved of slavery. Sometimes the majority is right, or at least not demonstrably wrong. At times contending sides can agree on a framework and engage in something resembling rational debate. More often, however, this does not happen and is not even attempted. For every reasoned debate between two contestants of good will seeking to find a truth both could recognize, we have a dozen televised “panel discussions” of “pundits” and “spokespersons” trying to shout over each other, twisting one another’s words, claiming “facts” that seem to have no root in empirical reality while simultaneously ignoring “facts” that seem to contradict their settled views.

It is the interminability of public disagreement that leads to its shrillness. We know those “others” will never listen to “our” reasons and arguments, so we don’t even try. And often, on some level we know ourselves that our preferred values have no basis beyond our own chosen moral framework. How can I rationally argue that homosexuals should not have the same rights as heterosexuals, if I know that my only reasons are my emotional revulsion and my religion, neither of which you share? And if I cannot even appeal to the will of the majority, how can I continue to argue? Only by sheer volume, or rhetoric, or by political maneuvering.[1] While a rational argument is ostensibly an appeal to or search for truth, what we have instead is manipulation of others and a contest of wills.

 

To be continued…

[1] See “Kentucky Students Get Hard Lesson in Politics from Lawmakers,” ABC News http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/wireStory/kentucky-students-hard-lesson-politics-lawmakers-29565223, accessed March 19, 2015

The Rumble in the Air Conditioned Auditorium 2012: O’Reilly vs. Stewart (review)

October 17, 2012

The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium:  O’Reilly vs. Stewart 2012

A Review

 

 

When I realized that I was one of the few people who had actually managed to watch the entire debate when it was broadcast live, I decided I should write something about it in my blog for the benefit of those who didn’t get to see it.  But then I couldn’t get it to download or to re-stream, and I hadn’t taken notes during the first showing, so I waited until I could watch it again.

First, let me provide a little background for anyone who might read this and not know what the heck I’m talking about.  On October 6, 2012, FOX News pundit Bill O’Reilly and The Daily Show’s fake news anchor Jon Stewart held a live debate in the Lisner Auditorium of George Washington University.  Anyone expecting a real spoof of politics and debate would probably have been disappointed; while both disputants showed considerable humor, the debate was real.  It was moderated by E. D. Hill, currently an anchor for CNN and formerly a reporter for FOX News, who seemed determined to keep a tighter reign than did Jim Lehrer at the Presidential debate three days earlier.  The first hour was done in (relatively) formal style, with both disputants standing at podiums responding to questions posed by the moderator, as well as replying to and rebutting one another.  Following precedent established with candidate Michael Dukkakis in the 1988 Presidential debates, the shorter disputant was allowed a boost; O’Reilly is somewhere between a foot to a person taller than Stewart, so he had a powered platform behind his podium to allow him to appear as tall or taller than O’Reilly at will.

It would be pointless to simply describe the debate, and beyond my powers of recall, and also a bit immoral.  The interview is still for sale at $4.95 (go to http://www.therumble2012.com/index.html for details), and half the profit goes to charity; so telling all the jokes would possibly spoil the experience for anyone who might purchase the download, and if it served as an alternative to purchasing then it would deprive those charities as well.  So I will confine myself to an evaluation of the three major participants, and their positions.

E. D. Hill took her role about as seriously as she should.  Yes, she introduced Jon Stewart as “a hobbit-like 5’7” tall,” but she also posed the questions and sought to hold the disputants to the time allotted for each topic.  This was before the Vice Presidential debate, but after Jim Lehrer had been trampled by Romney and Obama both; she was more assertive than Lehrer and perhaps less so than Martha Raddatz.

O’Reilly and Stewart showed their moderator more respect than did Romney and Obama, even when mocking her; in the context of the “real” debate O’Reilly’s expressions of contempt seemed more like parody than disrespect.  Both of them ignored the first question in order to give their opening statements; and in many ways I found the opening statements the most telling part of the evening.  O’Reilly is a staunch conservative, but is also a fairly independent mind.  He did not attempt to ignore or support Romney’s “47%” statement, but instead modified it; and that modification lies at the heart of his overall position.  O’Reilly stated that in fact there is about 20% of the nation who truly are lazy, feel entitled to free stuff, and couldn’t care less about the consequences for others.  He also said that number was growing, and that this represents a significant danger to our nation.  His primary concern, therefore, is irresponsibility.  He feels that Democrats should stop whining about Bush, who has been out of office for four years; after the first two years, you need to own up to your own responsibility for the state of affairs.  He claimed that liberals are fostering an entitlement mindset, and that it is necessary to curtail government services to force everyone to take personal responsibility.  Taking from the rich to give to the poor means taking from the responsible people to give to those who might not be responsible; and if the poor are to be helped, those that have should take responsibility to do so without being compelled by the government.  If the government gets involved, it will simply foster irresponsibility while delivering goods inefficiently and for political ends, and ultimately destroy the very producers it was counting on to fund things.

Stewart’s statement did not reply either to Ms. Hill or to Mr. O’Reilly.    Instead, he presented a long monologue describing “Bullshit Mountain.”  Its inhabitants, he said, live in a world where normal rules of facticity and logic do not apply.  On Bullshit Mountain, everything was wonderful until about four years ago, when a Kenyan-Fascist-Muslim-Socialist-Communist-Radical Racist was elected President and began destroying everything.  Before Obama, Congress and the President were bipartisan and effective and the economy was solid and we were respected in the world and every individual wanted nothing more than to work hard and lift himself up by his own bootstraps, and he could; now, totally because of one man, we’re polarized and paralyzed and lazy and worthless.  The real problem, Stewart argued, is a failure of our problem-solving mechanisms and the ability of the inhabitants of Bullshit Mountain to perceive or acknowledge reality.

In short, the two men were talking across each other.  O’Reilly was arguing ethics and Stewart epistemology; O’Reilly was arguing values and virtues while Stewart was arguing facts and history and practical solutions to the nation’s problems.  When they began to give real solutions, the two actually were fairly close on a number of issues.  O’Reilly was asked about partisanship, and blamed “haters and assassins” in the media who know they can make a lot of money simply by saying inflammatory things, regardless of truth.  He didn’t name any names and didn’t state any one ideology to which the haters belong.  I’m sure Stewart would agree; he has said much the same thing.  O’Reilly was specific enough to denounce the people who hate Obama and think he is evil and traitorous; he claimed himself to like Obama, while thinking his policies are misguided.  In this, he is clearly distancing himself from Hannity, Limbaugh and most other right-wing pundits, as well as the left-wingers he would describe as equally close-minded.  Stewart would agree with O’Reilly that the profit motive in news broadcasting has created a toxic atmosphere, where truth is second to showmanship and illuminating minds less important than enflaming passions.  Likewise, both men support our military and have taken concrete steps to help the troops in the field and after their return.  When I was a child, a “liberal” was someone who referred to our own soldiers as child-killers and rapists.  By those standards, there are almost no “liberals” left.  There are definite differences between the two; O’Reilly supports trickle-down economics, while Stewart supports a single-payer medical system.  But compared to the ideological schism of the 1960’s, today we hardly seem to be divided at all.  Both liberals and conservatives are patriotic, and at least some on both sides are God-fearing people.  Many of the liberal ideas of today, like the individual mandates in the Affordable Health Care act, were conservative ideas yesterday.

But the real difference between them was their agendas.  O’Reilly wanted to talk about values; on those grounds, he and Stewart were not identical but were not very far apart.  Stewart wanted to treat O’Reilly as “the mayor of Bullshit Mountain,” as if he were identical with everyone else at FOX News and the right-wing echo chamber.  O’Reilly sought to distance himself from some elements of the Right, but Stewart wanted to have that conversation and used O’Reilly as his target.  Stewart’s claim is that the Right exaggerates the problems America faces while simplifying the solution.  While America faces serious problems, they are the same sorts of problems we have always faced:  economic challenges, enemies abroad, questions of social justice and the nature of the social contract.  We have always had a large “entitlement” culture, from the time Europeans arrived in America and thought they were entitled to land occupied by other people.    But the Right speaks as if this never happened before, as if the world has gone completely to Hell just in the last few years, as if we are two weeks away from complete national collapse; and that if we simply give tax cuts to millionaires all these problems will be solved.  It is a combination of factual falsehoods about the past and present, and dubious (or magical) predictions and hopes for the future.

This strikes me as typical of the political debates today.  The so-called Left talks about solving problems, based on what has and what has not worked in the past.  Paraphrasing Stewart, I’m not for smaller or bigger government; I’m for better government.  The “Left” is the party that believes the government can solve problems, and that its job is to solve problems.  For this reason, Stewart emphasizes the need to know facts, to face facts and to act on them.  The Right is not really interested in the facts; the primary problem is not a problem of information but of values.  If we have the right values, we will solve our problems; therefore, we should have good values and then believe those truth claims that support our values.  O’Reilly is not really “the mayor of Bullshit Mountain.”  He does seem to choose to ignore the past failures of supply-side economics because it is most consistent with his ideal of individual responsibility; but in many cases, he is more interested in facts than many conservative pundits, and he is quite aware of this.  The leading citizens of Bullshit Mountain are people like “the assassins and haters,” birthers, paranoid conspiracy theorists, and the congressmen who sit on the House Science Committee while disbelieving science, and openly state that the reason they reject science is because it contradicts their values; for example:

“All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, the Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell,” U.S Rep. Paul Broun said in an address last month at a banquet organized by Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell, Georgia. “And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior.”[1]

 

It’s not that he has different evidence; it’s that he’s chosen to ignore evidence.  Like a good postmodern nihilist, he’s choosing which language-game he wants to play; and it isn’t the Science Game.  He is choosing what will count as believable based on what supports his religious values, not on the laws of cause and effect that govern in science or in normal daily experience, or the opinions of the vast majority of scientists.  That is the real key to “Bullshit Mountain.”  In Harry Frankfurt’s definitive tome on the subject, “bullshit” is defined as the assertion of facts in order to win arguments or status or some other reason, but regardless of whether what is said is true or not.  It isn’t a lie; the liar knows what the truth is but seeks to hide it for some reason.  The mistaken person thinks he or she is asserting the truth, but is simply wrong.  The bullshitter doesn’t care what the truth is.  I’m not sure what Paul Broun is engaged in qualifies as “bullshit.”  Is he trying to persuade, or to score points?  Or is he engaged in some other, completely unrelated activity?  It does seem clear that he is not making his judgment that these scientific foundational beliefs are “lies” is based on his superior knowledge of physics or biology; it is based on a theological/dogmatic judgment.  He wouldn’t say he was oblivious to truth; he would say that science is oblivious to real truth, ethical-dogmatic truth, while he is concerned with these important truths.  He wouldn’t say he is uninterested in solving problems facing the nation and world; he would say the most important problems are not nuts-and-bolts questions like what government policies will give the best possible lives to the most people, but rather the question of how to please God.  When Pat Robertson blamed the 9/11 terrorist attacks on feminism and Hurricane Katrina on legalized abortion, he clearly had a different strategy for solving the problems of protecting our nation from terrorism and natural disasters.  While the “liberal” believes that these things happen for strictly natural reasons and can only be addressed by a government that is robust enough to muster the physical resources required, Rev. Robertson believes these problems have a supernatural cause and can only be fixed supernaturally.

Stewart appears to believe the inhabitants of Bullshit Mountain are all willfully deluded for ideological gain; the world was wonderful, Obama ruined it, regardless of all possible facts to the contrary, so let’s get rid of Obama.  O’Reilly does not seem to be that deluded.  He doesn’t think Obama is a Kenyan or an al Qaeda infiltrator or anything of that sort.  He does have economic views that are disputable, but not insane.  He does believe small government and individual liberty are better.  But his initial impulse seems to be the moral concern.  That was his opening point and his recurring theme.  In that his primary interest is moral rather than factual or pragmatic, he has some kinship to the inhabitants of Bullshit Mountain.  And he does work at FOX News.  Stewart is more concerned with establishing a shared reality, something he quaintly calls “facts.”  His argument with the Right is not whether or not America is worth loving.  To some extent, it is over just how to love America best.  But really, Stewart has made a value judgment, the judgment that facts matter and that objective reality trumps what we think “ought” to be true.  Again, when I was a kid in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the notion that there was one reality which we all had to accept was considered a conservative notion; but now, it is the liberals who seem to be demanding everyone accept “the facts” and the conservatives who say, “I have my truths and you have yours.”

I cannot end without remarking on the greatest oddity of this debate:  that it took place.  Technically, it is true that Bill O’Reilly is part of the “entertainment” programming on FOX News.  But that is still FOX News.  Jon Stewart is on Comedy Central.  The fact that these two are treated as somehow equivalent is truly bizarre.  The line between “fake” news and “real” news has been obliterated.  O’Reilly has a good sense of humor, but he is professionally described as a “pundit.”  The dictionary definitions of “pundit” are either an expert, or someone who speaks authoritatively as if he or she were an expert (as when a college dropout with a history of drug abuse becomes a pundit and an authority figure).  In O’Reilly’s case, he is educated and intelligent, though not really an “expert” on all the subjects he comments on.  But he is not a “comedian.”  A comedian is one whose job is not to be right, or to be authoritative, but simply to be funny.  Somehow, right-wing pundits working for news organizations (whether FOX News, talk radio or both) came to be seen as morally and functionally equivalent to comedians, without anyone reflecting on the fact that the latter are professional fools while the former supposedly are not.  When Rush Limbaugh is criticized for saying something stupid and sexist, he is defended by supporters who say, “Well, look what Bill Maher said.”  An honorary member of the Republican Congressional Caucus, whose bust is in the Missouri State Hall of Fame, called by Ronald Reagan “the Number One voice for conservatism,” among his many accolades and awards, more powerful than many Republican elected leaders, who have more than once been forced to publicly apologize after getting on his wrong side—-this man is compared to a stand-up comedian and the male lead in “Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death.”  This is considered a defense!  When one praises or defends one’s “pundit, i.e. expert and/or authority” by comparing him or her to a “comedian, i.e. a professional entertainer who uses various verbal and physical means to be amusing,” one really insults the pundit.  Or rather, one reveals that we no longer draw a distinction between those who speak from authority and expertise versus those who speak from ignorance and foolishness.

The O’Reilly-Stewart debate did show that when ideological disputants are willing to attempt to find and abide by the same reality, and who are willing to respect their opponents and to laugh at themselves and admit at least some fallibility (in their allies if not in themselves), it is possible to have a civil and substantive discussion.  In that case, it might be able to find solutions to problems that give both sides what they need, at least sometimes.  As Stewart said, the problem-solving mechanisms of our society seem to be broken; but this debate showed that is possible to fix them.


[1] Dan Gilgoff, “Congressman Draws Fire for Calling Evolution, Big Bang ‘Lies from the Pit of Hell,”, CNN, 10/16.2012 (http://www.abc2news.com/dpp/news/national/congressman-draws-fire-for-calling-evolution-big-bang-lies-from-the-pit-of-hell)

The Age of Anxiety (pt. 2)

August 31, 2012

The Age of Anxiety (pt. 2)

 

            With the “postmodern” age, both the confidence in shared truth and in inevitable progress are shattered.  Instead of truth, there are truths, and in the new pluralism it is rude and oppressive to claim that one’s truth is better than anyone else’s.  My belief that individual freedom and self-discovery are merely Western values; the Chinese Communists can claim that individuality is an evil, a threat to social harmony and an intolerable burden for any person; and who is to say which is right?  If I want to say Cleopatra was black because she ruled in Africa and believing she was black empowers my sense of self-worth, who is some historian to point out that her ancestors were all Greek conquerors who never married into the native population, and indeed rarely married even outside the family?  If I want to believe that Washington, Jefferson and all the other Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to free the slaves, who are you to point out that they and most other Founding Fathers actually owned slaves throughout their lives?  Stop imposing your liberal elite historical facts on my truth!

And if shared truth and shared value have been tossed aside, a shared sense of progress is impossible.  How can we possibly all believe in progress, when we can’t agree on where we are going or where we should be going?  After the 9/11 attacks, people of many different religions, political affiliations, nationalities and social classes felt themselves drawn together.  To many, it seemed as if the world had been changed forever.  From now on, the defining conflict of our society, and indeed of the world itself, would be the conflict between civilization and barbarism, rational debate and violent anarchy, rationality and superstition.  And while we mourned the tragic deaths and the future deaths that were certain to follow, we were united in the sense that there was good and right and that the forces of humanity and life were now aligned together against the forces of death and chaos.  What I for one did not anticipate, however, was how deeply threatening that vision was to the people who now call themselves the Tea Party.  To the hard-core culture warriors, the “Religious Right,” this all was deeply threatening.  These were people whose entire defense against anxiety is based on an entirely different reality than that shared by many others.  Where some see nations coming together as equals to talk through problems, they see Satan attempting to enslave the world.  Where some see peace as good, leading towards a better life for all, they see war as good and inevitable, since only when the whole world is plunged into nuclear conflict will Jesus return to save the righteous and establish his reign on Earth.  Where some see the United States as perhaps the best nation, but still one nation that ought to deal with others fairly and respectfully through persuasion, they see God’s nation in a cold war with virtually the entire rest of the world (except Israel).  Where some see Americans, they see Us and Them, Real America versus Liberals.  And their entire identity is tied up in that tribalism.  The day after 9/11, the leaders of the Religious Right began a concerted effort to fight the growing sense of unity Americans felt with one another.  And they succeeded.

Is that good or bad?  In the postmodern world, there is no “good” or “bad.”  There is no truth; there are only truths, each held by its own tribe.  The modern conservatives are the perfect embodiment of postmodernism.  Once it was the Marxists who said that oppressed peoples had the right to reject bourgeoisie truths, such as adherence to science and history, in order to embrace claims that advanced their political-economic struggle.  Now, conservatives claim they are the ones who are oppressed, and thus claim the right to create their own truths.  Once, I saw myself as conservative, because I rejected the right of liberation theologians to write such things as the claim that Cleopatra was black and that Europeans are innately selfish and vicious “ice people” while Africans are naturally peaceful and generous “sun people,” (ignoring the obvious empirical realities that Cleo was a Greek whose family tree was Egyptian only in that it has as many branches as a Nile papyrus reed, while the history of war shows that Africans and Europeans and Asians are all equally human in their capacities for greed and violence, generosity and mercy).  I saw myself as conservative because I believe firmly that all Americans should learn a core curriculum of shared history and cultural values, and learn the good of even the “oppressor” dominant culture as well as of other cultures.  When liberals laughed at the idea of devoting oneself to the study of dead white males, I saw myself as keeping a flame alive, because while I freely acknowledge the many shortcomings of Euro-American culture, I also see good in it, including a capacity for self-criticism.  But now, I find that I am a liberal, without myself changing one bit so far as I can tell; because now it is the conservatives who reject scientific and historical and empirical reality for the sake of self-empowering myths.  If once I was conservative for advocating a certain core curriculum for high school and college students, now I’m a liberal for advocating college at all.  If once I was conservative for advocating critical assessment of the truth claims of liberals, now I’m a liberal for advocating critical assessment.

My point is that, in the postmodern age, there is no point.  There are only points, points on a compass, and everyone runs as fast as possible in all directions.  One anxious person invests his sense of security in his identification as a “real American and true Christian.”  Another invests her sense of identity in being a “good Muslim,” outdoing all the born Muslims in her adherence to all the external rituals of her newly acquired faith.  Another is gay, another liberal, another Latino and so on.  To varying degrees perhaps, each has his or her own unique truth claims, which he or she believes are beyond all rational criticism or justification.  And to varying degrees, all find the others to be profoundly, existentially threatening, because the mere existence of an Other with other values calls my idolization of my particular values into question.  The other must be demonized; he or she is not real, not human, not part of my country or even my world.  For the postmodern person, the Other represents a call to individuality, because the Other is a living embodiment of the reality that one’s own values are partial and perhaps arbitrary.  We could discuss those values, perhaps find a more inclusive truth or at least ways to work together productively; but when the very presence of the Other awakens anxiety, the natural response is to want to do away with the Other.  Whether that “doing away” is achieved by extermination, self-deportation, concealment, or by dehumanizing the Other as some lazy, ignorant, vice-ridden Them, it is all the same; as long as my idol is victorious, I need not think for myself or awaken my own freedom, and anxiety with it.

I call this “The Age of Anxiety” because our anxiety seems so much closer to the surface, and our evasions are so much more fragile.  Once I had to look over the mountain to see a community whose values challenged my self-security; today, I cannot walk ten feet outside my door, or turn on my television or the internet, without encountering Others whose self-certainty challenges my self-certainty.  Athens had one individual, Socrates, and found him intolerable; today, there are Others everywhere, some individuals and some who are just members of a different tribe or clique, wherever I look, their differentness challenging my trust in my private values.  How can I trust my sense of superiority and control, when all around me are others with different values and an equal sense of their own superiority?  The faithful response would be to recognize that indeed I am not superior to anyone else, and to “leap, then, into the embrace of God.”[1]  As a single individual relating to God as an individual, I would find true faith, what H.R. Niebuhr described as “radical monotheism,” and thus not so much escape anxiety but rather be sustained in it.  But most of us all the time, and all of us much of the time fail to sustain such faith and individuality.  Instead, the all-too-human response is to dig deeper into one’s own idolatrous tribalism, to take comfort in one’s own herd and in its values and choices.  In the words of Isaiah 51:10, “Which of you fears the LORD and obeys his servant’s commands?  The man who walks in dark places with no light, yet trusts in the name of the LORD and leans on his God.”[2]  It is terrifying to be in the dark; most of us are like those the prophet warns us against, those who light their own light so they can see for themselves rather than letting God lead them by the hand.  Anxiety is that darkness; it is the possible, the not-yet, the undefined.  Life must be lived forward, choosing without a clear guide, trusting God alone to guide us.  Life is only understood in retrospect.  But of course, we want to go where we can see clearly, which means ultimately we always wish to go backwards, away from anxiety, away from possibility, away from the future, towards the safety of the dead past certainties and dogmas.

Kierkegaard said that anxiety is the mark of the individual; the more anxiety, the more self.  In that sense, living in an age where it is so hard to escape from anxiety is a blessing.  The futility of our evasions and the incompleteness of our idols are always before us.  On the other hand, the depth and omnipresence of anxiety also evokes even stronger efforts at evasion, and even more hostility towards Others.  It is natural that an age where technology and politics and social mores and the very Earth itself seem to be in such rapid flux, that we should also become the most tribal, the most partisan, the most fanatical and close-minded.   Many of us cling to our old myths even to our own harm, with the desperation of a drowning man clinging to a razor blade.[3]  The inexplicable is not that some should insist on the falsehood of global warming and the truth of trickle-down economics despite all empirical and historical evidence to the contrary.  The inexplicable is that anyone should recognize these truths, recognize the challenge they present to the American myth of inevitable progress and the omnipotence of the rugged individual, and yet still remain ultimately patriotic and hopeful that a better future might still be possible, if only by the grace of God.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages:  the age of revolution and the present age; a literary review; translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1978) p. 108

[2] From the New English Bible

[3] Agatha, Christie, Witness for the Prosecution; directed by Billy Wilder, Hollywood CA, Arthur Hornblow, producer:  1957

A modern philosopher in a postmodern world.

February 17, 2012

Well, I do intend to get back to my series on the philosophy of work.  However, I have been grading tests and so on, and thus have not had time to write.  Not, at least, here.  I did, however, have plenty of time to write a chat with my daughter.  Here’s part of it:

[2/14/12 11:21:57 AM] teh.parents: Two weeks is the midterm, then we move into the moderns.  I’m more of a modern philosopher.[2/14/12 11:22:05 AM] teh.parents: Using the term academically, of course.

[2/14/12 11:22:15 AM] JEUNE FILLE: i was about to say, but you were too fast for me…

[2/14/12 11:22:17 AM] teh.parents: Since “modern” actually means 100 years old.

[2/14/12 11:22:39 AM] JEUNE FILLE: ok then

[2/14/12 11:22:42 AM] JEUNE FILLE: half modern.

[2/14/12 11:23:15 AM] teh.parents: I’m still inclined to think postmodernism was a mistake.

[2/14/12 11:23:35 AM] JEUNE FILLE: tu insultes mon pays actuel!

[2/14/12 11:23:52 AM] teh.parents: It’s one thing to say there are perspectives, another to jump to the conclusion that therefore there is no truth at all.

[2/14/12 11:25:06 AM] teh.parents: As Harry Frankfurt says, you can’t survive very long without truth.  Not Truth, but simple recognition of objective reality.

[2/14/12 11:26:07 AM] teh.parents: I think Stephen Colbert may have diagnosed the perils of postmodernism most succintly when he coined “Wikiality” and “Wikilobbying”

[2/14/12 11:27:01 AM] teh.parents: The first says that truth is democratized, so “true” is whatever we all agree that it is; the second says that truth is a commodity to be produced and sold.

[2/14/12 11:27:44 AM] JEUNE FILLE: oui.

[2/14/12 11:27:45 AM] teh.parents: So in the first, the population of elephants is growing, and in the second, Microsoft is a caring company because they pay people to write articles about how caring they are.

[2/14/12 11:27:55 AM] JEUNE FILLE: haha

[2/14/12 11:28:25 AM] teh.parents: And the idea of checking reality to see if these are true seems almost quaint.

[2/14/12 11:28:42 AM] JEUNE FILLE: lol

[2/14/12 11:28:56 AM] teh.parents: wol

[2/14/12 11:29:03 AM] teh.parents: Weeping out loud

[2/14/12 11:29:07 AM] JEUNE FILLE: what has the philosophical response been to it all though?

[2/14/12 11:30:14 AM] teh.parents: Well, I’m not really a 21st century philosopher.  But I’m not sure anyone else is, either, since there hasn’t been a new job created in ten years.  So all the work is being done by 20th century philosophers.

[2/14/12 11:30:59 AM] teh.parents: The Wittgensteinians would say that we all play our separate language games, with some debate over how permeable the borders of different language games are.

[2/14/12 11:31:08 AM] teh.parents: So that’s one for postmodernism.

[2/14/12 11:31:37 AM] JEUNE FILLE: hm.

[2/14/12 11:32:02 AM] teh.parents: The Marxists would say our intellectual categories are created by our material substructure, so the very world we live in is an intellectual construct of our economic situation.

[2/14/12 11:32:07 AM] teh.parents: That’s two.

[2/14/12 11:32:28 AM] teh.parents: Sartre— well, you know.  That’s three.

[2/14/12 11:33:22 AM] teh.parents: Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch and the other new Platonists—-against.

[2/14/12 11:33:38 AM] teh.parents: But they’re hardly discussed, really.

[2/14/12 11:33:52 AM] JEUNE FILLE: i know of people in france and europe thinking beyond etc, but mainly they just take what has been given and analyze according to that, which in turn creates new things, but isn’t necessarily as groundbreaking i think.

[2/14/12 11:34:04 AM] JEUNE FILLE: i see

[2/14/12 11:34:30 AM] teh.parents: Weil is really interesting to me, but I haven’t had time to work on her in years.

[2/14/12 11:35:43 AM] teh.parents: The Objectivists try to stay rooted in objective reality, and to maintain an epistemology of receptivity instead of assuming that we actively manufacture our world (with the further idea that since it’s manufactured, there is no shared reality).

From here on, the conversation wanders to the relative merits of Rand; so I’ll end the discussion.

I know that this is a rather superficial description of “postmodernism.”  And to an extent, I intend it as such, since I’m more interested in its manifestations in popular culture than in the more nuanced formulations that may be put forth by philosophers and literary critics.  I see the abandonment of truth as a widespread social-political movement.  Once it was Marxists who would say that our minds construct our world, and our truths are only the ideologies of oppressors.  Now, one is even more likely to hear this argued by a radio shock-jock with a high school education (and a drug habit and about 400 extra pounds).  In the USSR, people starved by the millions because agricultural policy was set by political and ideological agendas, and damn the science.  Only those scientists who were willing to abandon the essence of scientific method, and conform their “scientific” pronouncements to suit the party’s politics, were listened to at all.  Eventually, the denial of truth virtually destroyed Soviet agriculture, and they were forced to import food from people who did not deny the effects of selective breeding on crops.  In the U.S. today, economic, climate, energy and other policies is largely set by people who deny climate science for political and ideological reasons.  Even a reasonable and harmless gesture towards acknowledging the science, like Chu’s suggestion that we could significantly reduce global warming by lightening the color of roofs and highways, is met with violent resistance, ridicule, contempt and even rage.  Those who use science and observation to reach conclusions are met with the same hatred that the Soviets turned towards those scientists who spoke a scientific theory that seemed to conflict with the economic-political structure of the power elite, and for the same reason.  Just as the Left used to deny objective truth to defend ideological convictions, so now the Right demands the same privilege today.  Just as a Soviet scientist could be branded a traitor for speaking a scientific truth that offended against political orthodoxy, so now the Right brands any scientist whose theories are “bad for business” as a traitor.

The “modern” mindset insisted that there was such a thing as “truth” and that we could find it.  It erred, often, in mistaking some narrow vision of the truth (European, imperial, etc.) for all truth.  For this, postmodernism was and is a valuable corrective.  But what has replaced modern hubris is postmodern chaos.  As the postmodern conception has played out in the wider culture, it has come to mean that there is no truth, not even objective truths about reality going on under one’s nose.  And as Frankfurt has said, a society that doesn’t know what the truth is can’t really function.  It doesn’t know what to do, how to respond to events or even what those events are.  Our politics today seem like the spasms of an amoeba shocked by an electric spark.  Blind and deaf, it can only twitch and try flowing first this way, then that, until the assault either stops or kills it.  We don’t know what to do about climate change, or the recession, or most of the other important challenges facing us, because we refuse to listen to any truth we don’t like.  And in the Disinformation Age, you can find any truth you want, somewhere on the internet, to save you from the inconvenience of objective reality.   You can live in your own world, with the “truths” of your own race or class or party or religion, until actual, objective truth kills you.  Or as Frankfurt might put it, you can choose bullshit and hope for the best, or you can choose truth, simple reality about the world around you, and try to guide your life accordingly.