A High Priest in the First Church of Anti-Liberalism
Let me tell you about a man named Dennis Prager. An extreme right-wing pundit, Dennis Prager is an idiot cloaked in a thin-veneer of intellect—a white-knuckle blowhard who has trouble telling the difference between loud voices and good arguments. But more to the point, he is also a High Priest in a new religious order: The First Church of Anti-Liberalism.
Normally, it’s considered bad form to fill an essay with ad hominem attacks, let alone start with them. And rightly so—that sort of thing rarely gets us out of the woods and into a place where we can begin to understand one another. Yet it would be perverse to ignore a history of shoddy reasoning and wild fanaticism in assessing the value someone’s work.
In that regard, Prager’s partisan hysteria and thoughtlessness is the core issue. This is a man who has made a career out of enthusiastically mistaking his feelings about how the world ought to be for facts about how the world really works. He even runs a “university” dedicated to the practice. Human as that is, it is also very foolish. Even, I dare say, idiotic. But more to the point, what makes Prager’s particular brand of proud idiocy dangerous is that his primary audience are citizens of a struggling representative democracy where massive social media companies funnel his nonsense into the laps of eager, credulous dupes.
An aide walks into a Republican Senator’s office. She has just finished a report on climate change and is giving the Senator a brief summary of her findings:
Aide: If we continue to burn fossil fuels, there’s a good chance we’ll cause significant ecological, political, and economic disruption. It could get very bad.
Senator: But it’s not 100%?
A: No. But–
S: Okay. Let’s keep burning fossil fuels. Otherwise, some people won’t make as much money on their investments and others might need to find new jobs.
A: Well, if we keep burning them the changes in our climate could be extremely difficult to cope with. Entire species could go extinct. Storms and droughts and wildfires will worsen and become more frequent. Millions of people could be displaced, in which case tens of thousands will surely die. Likely more. Sea levels could rise and inundate hundreds of billions of dollars in property and infrastructure. Maybe trillions. Conditions will be ripe for civil unrest, even war.
S: But it’s not 100%?
Last Friday I read an odd opinion piece about the mostly excellent TV series Westworld. The author argued that the Shogun version of Westworld due to be introduced in season 2 was inherently racist. His reasoning, more or less, is that white people might visit and get a kick out of killing robots that looked like Japanese people.
To assert that there is a special degree of moral depravity in Westworld’s Edo-period sister park simply because the hosts there are phenotypically Asian and some of the people who might visit will surely be white is, at best, a peculiar sentiment. It suggests there is something inherently wrong in a white person killing a sentient robot that looks like a Japanese person that isn’t wrong in a white person killing a sentient robot that happens to share their complexion (and vice versa). That is, killing and torturing robots that don’t look like you is somehow more unethical than killing robots that do, regardless of your motivations.
I once worked part time at a small local library. My first temptation would have been to describe myself as an “accidental” librarian, but that’s a bit misleading. I didn’t get the job by accident. A better description might have been “reluctant” librarian. I got the job on purpose, to float me through the final year of my graduate studies after I was unexpectedly left adrift without a research assistantship.
My duties at the library included the management of books catalogued and shelved among the 500s – “pure science”, according to the Dewey system. My professional and educational background is in science (not pure science, per se, but the peculiar nexus of science and humanities occupied by archaeology) so I approached this assignment with more than a little enthusiasm. It was a good excuse to indulge in a bit of healthy intellectual promiscuity, diving into topics outside the parochial confines of my native discipline.
It is with this background in mind that I ask you to consider my surprise (and chagrin) when, shelf-reading the 570s, I noticed a book by the name of Darwin’s Doubt. For the unfamiliar, Darwin’s Doubt is a 2013 book by a fellow named Stephen Meyer, advocating the position that certain features of the biological world are inexplicable absent the intervention of some kind of intelligent designer. In particular, Meyer argues that the Cambrian Explosion – a massive flourishing of multicellular life that witnessed the emergence of the majority of currently recognized animal phyla – doesn’t make sense when viewed through the lens of modern evolutionary theory. A better explanation, in Meyer’s view, is that the Cambrian Explosion is the work of some unspecified and generally invisible cosmic engineer.
The world can be a scary place. This is a view exacerbated by popular media, which tends to focus attention on sources of violence and despair in disproportion to their prevalence. No surprise there – these things translate into ad revenue more readily than a cold assessment of reality. So it is that polls have the public rating ISIS and North Korea as greater threats than climate change. An exceedingly large portion of Americans also see their own government as a top threat.
There are some good reasons for this. Foremost among them is the loss of legitimacy brought about as private interests seize more and more of the public domain, bending government action toward narrow aims and away from the public interest. The U.S. government has grown exceedingly expensive and unwieldy over the years, even as it has grown less and less capable of acting in the interests of the majority. A desire to rein it in is not misplaced.
However, disguised beyond all this concern over ISIS and North Korea and the U.S. government is a more fundamental threat to the American way of life. That it is so poorly recognized, despite being so well evidenced, is both depressing and disturbing. Because the fact of the matter is that there are forces working to reshape American democracy in a manner most citizens would likely find objectionable. And to significant extent, they are succeeding.
Currently, a cadre of wealthy Americans and right wing intellectuals is working to transform the United States into something rather twisted. Their core motivating principle is that the accumulation of capital takes precedence over all other values. Indeed, it is in their view the ultimate arbiter of value. To them, human worth scales with earnings.
There is growing sense that those interested in finding out what is true of the world are becoming a rarer and rarer breed. Everywhere we look, someone is trumpeting some blatant inanity. Vaccines cause autism. Adding flouride to water is a government conspiracy. Genetically modified organism are dangerous. Organic food is particularly nutritious. Christians are a persecuted minority. The 44th President was a foreign national and communist agent. The 9/11 Terror Attacks were an inside job. The world is only 6000 years old. Humans can’t influence the climate.
Nonsense is everywhere, but the impression that it is more prevalent than ever is mostly a matter of appearances. Humans are innately tuned to focus on the negative aspects of their environment. Good reasons for this abound, easily distilled in the recognition that it is far more consequential for us to spend our time thinking about the things that could be better than it is to spend it thinking about the things that are going just fine. On the landscapes of our ancestors, where decisions about what to pay attention to were a regular matter of life and death, it was vitally important to take note when things were about to turn sour – when herds of prey were about to migrate to a new territory, when seasonal changes were about to reduce the availability of edible fruits, when an unfriendly band of visitors turned up in your neighborhood.