Jonathan Kay’s Among the Truthers was reviewed by Jacob Heilbrunn for the New York Times this past month, and, in discussing the cult-like epistemic closure characteristic of so many people in America, this part of the review jumped out at me:
As Kay sees it, the Enlightenment is itself at stake. His verdict could hardly be more categorical: “It is the mark of an intellectually pathologized society that intellectuals and politicians will reject their opponents’ realities.”
He is referring, of course, to such insane things as Republican Presidential candidates incapable of saying in public that the earth is old and plants and animals have changed over time.
But notice who he also singled out: intellectuals.
Why would he do that? How many people read, or are really exposed to, the thoughts of intellectuals?
And aren’t the vast majority of intellectuals, well, pretty careful academics?
Since the subject here is reality, let’s tell the truth: it’s advertisers, religious leaders, and media personalities who are far more pervasive influencers of the public than either politicians or intellectuals. We live in a culture in which critical thinking and vulnerable Socratic dialogue are valued only in pockets here and there (on university campuses, etc).
Here, in fact, are our culture’s big ten public virtues:
- faith, not doubt;
- nationalism, not internationalism;
- simplicity, not complexity or nuance;
- action, not thought;
- speed, not deliberation;
- psychological rigidity, not flexibility;
- emotion, not objectivity;
- tribalism, not independence;
- self-righteousness (self-exaltation), not humility
- confidence, not inner conflict
I know. I’ve just described Sarah Palin. But is it any wonder that so many people attach themselves to cults, demagogues, conspiracy theories, and other stupidities when there is so little pushback against the above “virtues.”
Here’s another quote from Kay in the New York Times review:
Many true conspiracy theorists I’ve met don’t even bother with Web surfing anymore. . . . From the very instant they first boot up their computer in the morning, their in-boxes comprise an unbroken catalog of outrage stories ideologically tailored to their pre-existing obsessions.
Eh. That’s kind of like how the Drudge Report functions, isn’t it?