Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Saturday, January 10, 2004  

All the talk of religion lately has got me pondering (I'm thinking here of the analysis that a Democrat must appear devout if he hopes to win the presidency). The US has always had an ambivilent relationship to God and reason. On the one hand, we trace our roots back to the devout, somewhat quixotic Puritans. Just as strongly, we claim the founders, products of the enlightenment who crafted a country from the values of reason and science.

As those two tensions have struggled, science has tended to win out in the end. No country on earth has come close the US in terms of innovation or discovery over the past 200 years. By the chrome-plated 1950s, America was more or less convinced it could think itself out of anything--including a world war. By the 1960s, we could think our way to the moon.

The counter to this line of thought emerged in the 1980s--the hated postmodern critique, in which it was argued (by the damn French, no less), that there is no such thing as absolute truth. Everything is colored by subjectivity. While it was the religious who despised this notion most, it's had a perverse effect: it has lead to the ascendancy of belief over thought. Perversely, postmodernism made it possible for faith to shoulder its way back onto the stage with science. All of this hit me when I read this story in the paper this morning:

How old is the Grand Canyon? Most scientists agree with the version that rangers at Grand Canyon National Park tell visitors: that the 217-mile-long chasm in northern Arizona was carved by the Colorado River 5 million to 6 million years ago.

Now, however, a book in the park's bookstores tells another story. On sale since last summer, Grand Canyon: A Different View, by veteran Colorado River guide Tom Vail, asserts that the Grand Canyon was formed by the Old Testament flood, the one Noah's Ark survived, and can be no older than a few thousand years.

We've become a nation of belief, not reason. This puts us in a special kind of bind. Before postmodernism, the supremacy of belief always depended on at least passably connecting to science and reason. This is why scientific discoveries were so devastating to the religions whose views they contradicted.

But now belief no longer has to be tethered to reason. Postmodernism has set it free. It won't be enough for those who disagree with religious beliefs to merely disprove them--they have to win the hearts of the believers. This is why the Democrats are worried. And why, I suppose, Bush can sustain his bizarro world policies. How exactly to you defeat views that need nothing other than their mere assertion to achieve legitimacy? Iraq has WMD. Tax cuts for the wealthy will benefit workers. Deficit spending has no long-term consequences. These aren't statements of reason, they're statements of belief.

I don't want to overstate this--Americans aren't ninnies. But if our society has an achilles heel (and all societies do), ours is that quixotic devotion of the Puritans. The antidote, and our other propensity, is reason. But what happens when, as a culture, we start systematically abandoning one for the other? Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper's, has been worried by this phenomenon since Bush took office. Back in March 2002, he speculated on that question. I'll give him the last word.

Defined as a ceaseless process of change, democracy assumes the pain of contradiction and new discovery not only as the normal but also as the necessary condition of existence. As has been said, a hard act to perform, and one that failed and was abandoned by nearly every country in Europe n the generation between the First and Second World Wars. In place of truthful and therefore possibly unpleasant argument, the Bush Administration offers warm and welcome lies, advising us to lay aside the tool of thought and rest safely on the pillows of glorious and world-encircling empire. We accept the invitation at our peril.

posted by Jeff | 10:11 AM |
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