Sunday, August 1

Hatching, History, And Hubris

As anyone knows who has read more than a half-dozen or so of these “Skeptic’s” columns over the years, especially those emphasizing some aspect of history, one of my all-time favorite quotes is by the German historian and philosopher of history G. W. F. Hegel:  “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history,” an assertion no less true for being facially self-contradictory. A simpler, more colloquial, and less high-falutin’, way of saying the same thing is “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched”. Many of the comments, predictions, and prognostications being bandied about by the liberal / progressive community in advance of the 2018 mid-term elections sorely tempts me to conclude that, having lost the last presidential election, progressives have apparently renounced the vocation of politics and taken up that of running a poultry farm:  the election of 2016 taught them nothing.  By insisting with square-jawed determination that eggs simply are chickens, my progressive siblings seemed determined to provide one more practical demonstration of Hegel’s wisdom.

At bottom, this determination is founded on a base combining intellectual arrogance and ideological myopia.  By and large, progressives and people on the left generally, while not being doctoral-level students of world history, nevertheless more or less unconsciously think, contemplate, decide, and act within the classically liberal tradition of the European Enlightenment of the 18th century. Even if they are religiously devout, their devotion to their faith is severely tempered by being subject to the tutelage of Reason. They are cognates of the metaphor Plato uses in the Phaedrus:  the spirit and the physical passions are like horses drawing a chariot being steered by Reason. Does Plato’s chariot-metaphor apply perfectly and invariably? Of course not. Even liberals, progressives, and leftists have an amygdala. But, by and large and perhaps above all, without even thinking about it, the default thought-form of progressives and of people religiously and politically left-or-center incorporates several aspects that make it difficult to encounter Trump supporters … and that usually leave progressives dazedly shaking their heads.  Without going into detail, some of these attitudes and world-views are:

G. W. F. Hegel

o Evidence is important

Except for a priori analytic statements, i.e., more or less, statements that are true by definition (e.g., “All bachelors are unmarried”), no assertions are self-validating and therefore require evidence (e.g., “A significant component of global warming / climate change is attributable to human activity”).

o Science has credibility

Why? Because science is evidence-based.  Science is not a particular discipline. It is a methodology. Never mind the technical details of the scientific method. Suffice to say that science is important because evidence is important, evidence that is publicly examinable, repeatable, and empirically derived.

o Logic is important

“Logic” simply refers to the necessary connections between statements and beliefs, both those of subjective taste and those of objective knowledge. I am most emphatically not free to believe “just any damn thing I want”. If I am disgusted by a movie in which a man treats a woman as a “sex toilet,” then logic demands that I require that men not sexually maltreat or harass or assault women. If I am appalled by slavery, then I cannot logically oppose the removal of public statues celebrating and honoring it. It is most likely that very few, if any, people live in a manner consistent with their own beliefs and principles. But such inconsistencies are usually regarded as pathological conditions to be corrected, not as virtues to be cultivated.

Does it seem that I am belaboring the obvious by spending so much time and text discussing self-evident principles? If so, that is because you are probably a progressive. These principles, and others I did not mention, like those enumerated in Steven Pinker's much more comprehensive list in Enlightenment Now, are not shared universally. At one point in his formidable book, Pinker asks

Who could be against reason, science, humanism, and progress? ... Do these ideals really need a defense? They absolutely do. Since the 1960s, trust in the institutions of modernity has sunk, and the second decade of the 21st century saw the rise of populist movements that blatantly repudiate the ideals of the Enlightenment. They are tribalist rather than cosmopolitan, authoritarian rather than democratic, contemptuous of experts rather than respectful of knowledge ...

Sound like anyone we know?

In particular, these Enlightenment principles are not shared by most supporters of Donald Trump and the contemporary Republican Party, e.g., Freedom Caucus Republicans and the Tea Party. The very fact that these principles seem self-evident to so many people -- many of whom, I would argue, know next to nothing about the European Enlightenment, its roots in European history, its architects and luminaries, and its tenets, and who would never think of claiming the label of "progressive" -- the very transparency of these principles is the result of misconceiving of the Trump movement as a political movement instead of what it it really is:  a religious movement, and specifically an atavistic hyper-fundamentalist religious movement, at that. That very disjunction between those who subscribe to Enlightenment principles and those who do not is fair warning against confusing chickens with eggs, and counting the former before they have hatched from the latter.

Not all Christians are fundamentalists, or even conservative. There is a quite substantive left wing among Christians. The Christian left and Christian progressives do accept the principles of the Enlightenment without qualm, and even see those principles as essential safeguards of their own, and their sect's, moral and religious conscience. By no means should all Christians be painted with the same brush.

But among Christians who are to the right of the spectrum, their understanding of the Enlightenment and their assent to its principles weakens as you move farther and farther to the right. (If you want to observe one of the more militant forms of the anti-Enlightenment Christian bias in action, you can do no better than to read two books by the late Francis Schaeffer:  How Should We Then Live? and A Christian Manifesto.) This is why it is so notoriously difficult to discuss science, politics, and religion in conversations between progressives and conservatives:  the two parties are, not only playing the game according to different rules, they are, in fact, playing altogether different games. The rules may sound superficially similar, but they could hardly be more different.  This difference is decisive in predicting how each group will react to different inputs and stimuli, and, perhaps most significantly for progressives, in predicting how conservatives and Trump supporters will vote.

Take one principle in particular:  logic is important. If you believe logic is important and that words and actions should be mutually consistent, then, if you are a Christian, Trump's sexual escapades, and the dissimulation and outright lies he has told to conceal or to mitigate them, will considerably weaken him as a candidate and will weaken the candidacies of those who support him. In fact, this probably will be the result if you are a devout Christian progressive. (Granted, if you really are a "devout Christian progressive," it would be most unlikely you would vote for anyone supporting Trump's agenda, anyway, but Trump's florid sexual history probably would not make you more likely to do so.) But if you are a devout Christian conservative, especially fundamentalist, such inconsistencies may well make you more likely to vote for Trump supporters, not less. Why?  As articles in The Guardian and The Intellectualist argue -- correctly, I think -- at this point on this issue, conservative Christians point to prophecies in the Hebrew Bible predicting that a Persian king, Cyrus, would be God's instrument for Israel's reclamation of the land lost in the Babylonian and Assyrian conquests. In other words, Cyrus would "Make [Israel] Great Again". Cyrus was no one's idea of a good Jew, any more than Trump is anyone's idea of a good Christian. But, argue conservative Christians, God's sovereign supervenience of history overrules any merely political calculus. (The ideological DNA of such a stance extends all the way back to Tertullian's De Carne Christi :  Prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est, arguably the most misunderstood patristic principle, but let's not go rabbit-hunting, shall we?) Of course, conservative Christians are deafeningly silent on St. Paul's repudiation of one possible inference from this principle:  "Shall we continue in sin that Grace may abount? God forbid." But the point is that, in the face of God's sovereignty over history, even logic sometimes must yield in the conservative Christian mind.

As for the veracity of science ... the validity of that has been in doubt among conservative Christians since at least 1859, when the first edition of Darwin's Origin of Species was published, and completely collapsed when The Descent of Man, originally a separate work, was published shortly thereafter. This explains why conservative Christians are not impressed when progressives cite the high-nineties percent of climatologists who affirm the existence of human-caused climate change, and the basically unanimous support for Big Bang cosmology. It also explains why there is such a bull market for creationism and intelligent design among conservative Christians:  both run diametrically counter to science, which renders them more credible to conservatives, not less.

The point of all the foregoing is that, when it comes to predicting the downfall of Trumpists and of Trumpism in the off-year elections, progressives often naively assess the issue exactly 180 degrees backward. They critique Trump, Trumpists, and Trumpism according to the norms and canons of the 18th-century European Enlightenment:  cogency of logic, corroborating evidence, scientific rigor, etc., etc., etc., the usual criteria of Enlightenment-centric liberal society, i.e. the very values and criteria Trump, Trumpists, and Trumpism do not share, that they consider alien to the point of hostility.   Such evaluative methods are -- in the strictly etymological sense -- preposterous:  front-to-back wrong, literally "ass-backwards", in terms of how Trump supporters, and the Trump ideology, view the matter.  That climate change is exhaustively corroborated renders it less credible, not more. That Trump is a sexual predator invests him with more authority as a leader -- remember Cyrus! -- not less. Debating Trump supporters, and predicting the likelihood of their downfall in the 2018 elections, on the basis of Enlightenment standards / criteria is diametrically wrong-headed. You may as well be a Johns Hopkins evolutionary geneticist arguing gene therapy with a witch doctor from New Guinea. 

So forget being a chicken farmer:  do not allow rosy scenarios based on the ideology of liberal democracy to egg you on.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Recently hatched chick ... Photographer unknown ... Public domain
Recently hatched chicks ... Photographer unknown ... Public domain
Flock of grown chickens ... Photographer unknown ... Public domain
G. W. F. Hegel ... Jakob Schlesinger (1792-1855) ... Public domain
Fundamentalist Christian signs ... Flickr ... Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
Hillary Clinton ... US State Department ... Public domain
Donald Trump ... Shealah Craighead ... Public domain
Abortion / anti-Obama protester ... Eric Molina ... CC BY 2.0
"Antichrist" poster ... Artist unknown ... Public domain

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