What does it say about the United States today that this fellowship of the arts and sciences and philosophy is called to affirm knowledge as a public good? What have we come to when the self-evident has to be argued as if—500 years into the Enlightenment and 230-some years into the life of this republic—it is a proposition still to be proven? How does it happen that the modernist project that has endowed mankind with the scientific method, the concept of objective evidence, the culture of factuality responsible for the good and extended life we enjoy in the high-tech world of our freedom, but more important for the history of our species, the means to whatever verified knowledge we have regarding the nature of life and the origins and laws of the universe. . . . How does it happen for reason to have been so deflected and empirical truth to have become so vulnerable to unreason?
For some time now, we have been confronted by a religiously inspired criminal movement originated in the Middle East that advertises its values by suicidal bombings, civilian massacres, and the execution of arbitrarily selected victims by the sawing off of their heads. However educated, well-to-do, and politically motivated the leaders of this conspiracy may be, they have invoked an extreme fundamentalist reading of their sacred text to mentally transport their rank and file back into the darkness of tribal war and shrieking, life-contemptuous jihad.
So that history, as we look to that part of the world, seems to be running backward, as if civilization is in reverse, as if time is a loop.
And here? The scientists this evening may have to correct me as I invoke the term quantum nonlocality. As I understand the term and make metaphorical use of it, electrons shot from an atom will mirror one another no matter how far apart they are driven: a mile, ten miles, a hemisphere apart—you look at one and you have a reflection of the other, a kind of weird subatomic dance in celebration of the mimetic proclivities of everything in the universe, is quantum nonlocality.
This is not to suggest that our waterboarding and sensory-deprivation torture techniques, that Abu Ghraib and the incarceration in perpetuity without trial of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo, are the moral equivalent of 9/11. Only that a declared enemy with the mind-set of the Dark Ages throws his anachronistic shadow over us and awakens our dormant primeval instincts.
Apart from this uncanny synchronous spin, the domestic political fantasy life of these past seven years finds us in an unnerving time loop of our own making—in this country, quite on its own, history seems to be running in reverse and knowledge is not seen as a public good but as something suspect, dubious, or even ungodly, as it was, for example, in Italy in 1633, when the Church put Galileo on trial for his heretical view that the earth is in orbit around the sun.
I am not a scientist and don’t deal in formulas, but as a writer I would, in the words of Henry James, take to myself “the faintest hints of life” and convert “the very pulses of the air into revelations.” That surely provides me with a line to unreason. And so when I read that the president of Iran denies the historical truth of the Holocaust, and when I hear the president of the United States doubting the scientific truth of global warming, I recognize that no matter what the distance they would keep between them, and whatever their confrontational stance, they are fellow travelers in the netherworld.
Two things must be said about knowledge deniers. Their rationale is always political. And more often than not, they hold in their hand a sacred text for certification.
But, you may say, am I not narrowing this issue, politicizing it by speaking of our president? In this discussion of knowledge as a foundation for a democratic society, am I not misusing this forum to broadcast a partisan point of view? Albert Einstein once said that even the most perfectly planned democratic institutions are no better than the people whose instruments they are. I would translate his remark this way: the president we get is the country we get. With each elected president, the nation is conformed spiritually. He is the artificer of our malleable national soul. He proposes not only the laws but the kinds of lawlessness that govern our lives and invoke our responses. The people he appoints are cast in his image. The trouble they get into, and get us into, is his characteristic trouble. Finally, the media amplify his character into our moral weather report. He becomes the face of our sky, the conditions that prevail.
From those fundamentalist leaders who proclaimed 9/11 as just deserts for our secular humanism, our civil libertarianism, our feminists, our gay and lesbian citizens, our abortion providers, and in so doing honored the foreign killers of nearly 3,000 Americans as agents of God’s justice . . . to the creationists, the biblical literalists, the anti-Darwinian school boards, the right-to-lifer antiabortion activists, the shrill media ideologues whose jingoistic patriotism and ad hominem ranting serves for public discourse—all of it in degradation of the thinking mind, all of it in fear of what it knows—these phenomena are summoned up and enshrined by the policies of this president. At the same time, he has set the national legislative program to run in reverse as he rescinds, deregulates, dismantles, or otherwise degrades enlightened legislation in the public interest, so that in sum we find ourselves living in a social and psychic structure of the ghostly past, with our great national needs—healthcare, education, disaster relief—going unmet. The president may speak of the nation in idealistic terms, but his actions demonstrate that he has no real concept of national community. His America, like that of his sponsors, is a population to be manipulated for the power to be had, for the money to be made. He is the subject of jokes, and he jokes himself about his clumsiness with words, but his mispronunciations and malapropisms suggest a mind of half-learned language that is eerily compatible with his indifference to truth, his disdain for knowledge as a foundation of a democratic society.
It will take more than revelations of an inveterately corrupt administration to dissolve the miasma of otherworldly weirdness hanging over this land, to recover us from our spiritual disarray, to regain our once-clear national sense of ourselves, however illusory, as the last best hope of mankind. What are we become in the hands of this president, with his relentless subversion of our right to know; his unfounded phantasmal justifications for going to war; his signing away of laws passed by a Congress that he doesn’t like; his unlawful secret surveillance of citizens’ phone records and e-mail; his dicta time and time again in presumption of total executive supremacy over the other two branches of government; his insensitivity to the principle of separation of church and state; his obsessive secrecy; his covert policies of torture and extraordinary rendition, where the courtroom testimony of the tortured on the torture they’ve endured at our hands is disallowed on the grounds that our torture techniques are classified; his embargoing of past presidential papers, and impeding access to documents of investigatory bodies; his use of the Justice Department to bring indictments or quash them as his party’s electoral interests demand. . . . Knowledge sealed, skewed, sequestered, shouted down, the bearers of knowledge fired or smeared, knowledge edited, sneered at, shredded and, as in the case of the coffins of our dead military, brought home at night, no photography allowed, knowledge spirited away in the dark.
Now, I realize that with these remarks I may be violating the linguistic p
roprieties of an academic convocation. I realize, in the tenor of these times, that anyone who speaks of the broad front of failure and mendacity and carelessness of human life in so much of our public policy, in terms any louder than muted regret, is usually marginalized as some sort of radical—that is, as someone so “out of the mainstream” as not to be taken seriously. But I believe what I have described so far is an accurate and informed account of the present state of the Union.
We must ask if this rage to deconstruct the Constitution and the Bill of Rights has any connection with the prevalence of God in the mind of this worshipful president. We must ask to what extent, and at however unconscious a level, a conflict arises in the pious political mind when it is sworn to uphold the civil religion of the Constitution.
The idea of the United States may have had its sources in the European Enlightenment, but it was the actions taken by self-declared Americans that brought it into focus and established it as an entity. America is a society evolved from words written down on paper by ordinary mortals, however extraordinary they happened to be as human beings. When constitutional scholars speak of the American civil religion, they recognize that along with its separation of church and state our Constitution and its amendments establish as civil law ethical presumptions common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
But if you have extracted the basic ethics of religious invention and found the mechanism for installing them in the statutes of the secular civic order, but have consigned all the doctrine and rite and ritual, all the symbols and traditional practices, to the precincts of private life, you are saying there is no one proven path to salvation, there are only traditions. If you relegate the old stories to the personal choices of private worship, you admit the ineffable is ineffable, and in terms of a possible theological triumphalism, everything is up for grabs.
Our pluralism cannot be entirely comfortable to someone of evangelical faith. But to the extreme fundamentalist—that member of the evangelical community militant in his belief, an absolutist intolerant of all forms of belief but his own, all stories but his own—our pluralism has to be a profound offense. I speak of the so-called political base with which our president has bonded. In our raucous democracy, fundamentalist religious belief has organized itself with political acumen to promulgate law that would undermine just those secular humanist principles that encourage it to flourish in freedom. Of course, there has rarely been a period in our history when God has not been called upon to march. Northern abolitionists and Southern slave owners both claimed biblical endorsement. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement drew its strength from prayer and examples of Christian fortitude, while the Ku Klux Klan invoked Jesus as a sponsor of its racism. But there is a crucial difference between these traditional invocations and the politically astute and well-funded activists of today’s Christian Right who do not call upon their faith to certify their politics as much as they call for a country that certifies their faith.
Fundamentalism really cannot help itself—it is absolutist and can compromise with nothing, not even democracy.
I value the point of view of Professor Mark Noll, who speaks of the “historical American merger of the forces of traditional Christianity with the forces of Enlightenment.” It is a serious misreading of American history, he says, “to portray the tangled cultural and political conflicts of our time as pitting the pre-critical hordes of religion against the hyper-critical avatars of science.” Historically, there has tended to be a religious accommodation of science, according to Professor Noll: in nineteenth-century America, theological conservatives could also be Darwinists. And even in the strident debates of today, fundamentalists still proclaim their allegiance to facts as loudly as their opponents. And theories such as intelligent design and creation science implicitly accept the modern scientific consensus on evolution while maintaining a confident belief in a traditional deity.
But all contrarian movements, like revolutions, devolve to their extremist expression, do they not? The theorists of creation science and intelligent design have marching on their right flank, with or without their approval, if not pre-critical hordes of religion, a militantly censorious, well-funded political movement that a president of the United States has tapped into for his and their benefit. I am not aware that American history as invoked by Professor Noll has a precedent for this. Nor am I aware that the hypercritical avatars of the secular scientific method have an equivalent hard-nosed political organization behind them.
The president has said the war with terrorists will last for decades and is a confrontation between “good and evil.” Whether he means the evil of specific terrorist organizations or the culture from which they spring, his vision is necessarily Manichaean. There is immense political power in such religiously inspired reductionism. Thus, no matter how he lies about the reason for his invasion of Iraq, or how badly it has gone, bumblingly and tragically ruinous, with so many lives destroyed, and no matter how many thousands of terrorists it has brought into being, to criticize his policy or the architects of it is said to aid the enemy. The president’s inner circle of advisers, who conspire in this Manichaean worldview, have the unnatural vividness of personality of Shakespearean plotters. While the original think-tank theorists and proponents of the war have quietly and understandably withdrawn from public view, the vice president and the president’s chief policy adviser have stood tall—the first contemptuous of his critics, his denials of reality and obfuscations delivered in the dour tones of unquestionable authority, the second too clever by half, and because he spent his years developing a theocratic constituency and wearing such blinders as an exclusive concern with party power has attached to him, most clearly has a future in the culture of antidemocracy he has so deviously and unwisely nurtured.
A Manichaean politics reduces the relevance of knowledge and degrades the truth that knowledge discovers. The past seven years of American political life are an uncanny cycle we’ve slipped into, or slid into, that foresees the democratic traditions of this country as too much of a luxury to be maintained. We have seen, since the 2006 election, the struggle for the legislative branches to regain some of their constitutional prerogatives. They struggle not only with a recalcitrant president and vice president who impugn their motives but against the precedents of the imperial presidencies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, each of whom added another conservative shock to the principle of separation of powers. Many of the executive practices today—the blatant cronyism, the political uses of the Justice Department, the evisceration of regulatory agencies and so on—are empowered by these precedents. And so we have marched along from the imperial presidency to the borders of authoritarianism.
To take the long view, American politics may be seen as the struggle between the idealistic secular democracy of a fearlessly self-renewing America and our great resident capacity to be in denial of what is intellectually and morally incumbent upon us to pursue.
Melville in Moby-Dick speaks of reality outracing apprehension. Apprehension in the sense not of fear or disquiet but of understanding . . . reality as too much for us to take in, as, for example, the white whale is too much for the Pequod and its captain. It may be that our new century is an awesomely complex white whale—scientifically in our quantumized wave particles and the manipulable stem cells of our biology, ecologically in our planetary crises of nature, technologically in our humanoid molecular computers, sexually in the rising number of our genders, intellectually in the paradoxes of our texts, and so on.
What is more natural than to rely on the saving powers of simplism? Perhaps with our dismal public conduct, so shot through with piety, we are actually engaged in a genetic engineering venture that will make a slower, dumber, more sluggish whale, one that can be harpooned and flensed, tried and boiled to light our candles. A kind of water wonderworld whale made of racism, nativism, cultural illiteracy, fundamentalist fantasy, and the righteous priorities of wealth.
I summon up the year 1787, when the Constitutional Convention had done its work and the drafted Constitution was sent out to the states for ratification. The public’s excitement was palpable. Extended and vigorous statehouse debates echoed through the towns and villages, and as, one by one, the states voted to ratify, church bells rang, cheers went up from the public houses, and in the major cities the people turned out to parade with a fresh new sense of themselves as a nation. Everyone marched—tradespeople, workingmen, soldiers, women, and clergy. They had floats in those days, too—most often a wagon-sized ship of state called the “Union,” rolling through the streets with children waving from the scuppers. Philadelphia came up with a float called the “New Roof,” a dome supported by thirteen pillars and ornamented with stars. It was drawn by ten white horses, and at the top was a handsome cupola surmounted by a figure of Plenty bearing her cornucopia. The ratification parades were sacramental—symbolic venerations, acts of faith. From the beginning, people saw the Constitution as a kind of sacred text for a civil society.
And with good reason: the ordaining voice of the Constitution is scriptural, but in resolutely keeping the authority for its dominion in the public consent, it presents itself as the sacred text of secular humanism.
When the ancient Hebrews broke their covenant, they suffered a loss of identity and brought disaster on themselves. Our burden, too, is covenantal. We may point to our 200-some years of national survival as an open society; we may regard ourselves as an exceptionalist, historically self-correcting nation, whose democratic values locate us just as surely as our geography—and yet we know at the same time that all through our history we have brutally excluded vast numbers of us from the shelter of the New Roof, we have broken our covenant again and again with a virtuosity verging on damnation and have been saved only by the sacrificial efforts of Constitution-reverencing patriots in and out of government—presidents, senators, justices, self-impoverishing lawyers, abolitionists, muckrakers, third-party candidates, suffragists, union organizers, striking workers, civil rights martyrs.
Because this president’s subversion of the Constitution outdoes anything that has gone before, and as it has created large social constituencies ready to support the flag-waving ideals of an incremental fascism, we’re called upon to step forward to reaffirm our covenant like these exemplars from the past.
Philosopher Richard Rorty has suggested in his book Achieving Our Country that the metaphysic of America’s civil religion is pragmatism and its prophets are Walt Whitman and John Dewey. “The most striking feature of their redescription of our country is its thoroughgoing secularism,” says Rorty. “The moral we should draw from the European past, and in particular from Christianity, is not instruction about the authority under which we should live but suggestions about how to make ourselves wonderfully different from anything that has been.”
To temporize human affairs, to look not up for some applied celestial accreditation but forward, at ground level, in the endless journey to resist any authoritarian restrictions on thought or suppression of knowledge that is the public good—that is the essence of our civil religion.
It is Whitman, our great poet and pragmatic philosopher, who advises us not to be curious about God but to affix our curiosity to our own lives and the earth we live on, and then perhaps as far as we can see into the universe with our telescopes. This was the charge he gave himself, and it is the source of all the attentive love in his poetry. If we accept it as our own and decide something is right after all in a democracy that is given to a degree of free imaginative expression that few cultures in the world can tolerate, we can hope for the aroused witness, the manifold reportage, the flourishing of knowledge that will restore us to ourselves, awaken the dulled sense of our people to the public interest that is their interest and vindicate the genius of the humanist sacred text that embraces us all.
Reprinted with permission from the June 26, 2008, issue of The Nation.