Our Ten Public Virtues and Why It’s So Difficult to Think Clearly

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?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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8 Responses to Our Ten Public Virtues and Why It’s So Difficult to Think Clearly

  1. andrewclunn says:

    I agree with the sentiment, but man, as a political right winger I do get frustrated with how you harp on the Republicans and Sarah Palin so much, as if the green and socialist movements on the political left were any less moronic and religious in nature.

    • santitafarella says:


      Since you are a libertarian (or in the family of libertarians), I would say that you are more a person of the left than the right. You have more in common with an urban progressive than a rural fundamentalist. The “right” today is completely corrupted by Herderian religious nationalism driven in the background by the most cynical Straussian intellectuals.

      You’re (insofar as I can tell) an Enlightenment Jeffersonian.

      As for the Greens, well, yes, there’s a lot of stupidity in such a movement, but do you know of a Green on cable television (or anywhere else) with a mass audience? You have liberals with a mass audience (Rachel Maddow, one of my heroes), but nobody on the left with the equivelent influence of, say, a Rush Limbaugh.



  2. Paradigm says:

    Hm… All those freudians and marxist who rely on false and disproven theories of human nature are mainly intellectual academics. It under the influence of these two that Norman Mailer came up with the idea of using his clout to release a murderer named Jack Abbott from prison. Experts saw in Abbott a psychopath, but liberal intellectuals like Mailer saw a victim of a troubled childhood (Freud) and an evil capitalist society (Marx).

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with the story but Abbott got into a quarrell with a waitor a few weeks after his release, stabbed him and left him to bleed to death. Where was the doubt, thought, objectivity etc? And Mailer was not alone, lots of intellectuals rooted for Abbott.

    • santitafarella says:


      That’s an awful story about Norman Mailer. I didn’t know about that.

      I have read (as you probably have as well) Paul Johnson’s book titled “Intellectuals” (in which numerous public intellectuals through history are skewered by him). Of course, it is not particularly difficult to find irrationality in intellectual circles (especially among our most public intellectuals).

      But I think the distinction that I would make is this: where is there a contemporary crisis in critical thinking and respect for truth?

      I would say that, in more liberal circles (on university campuses, for example) that the postmodern crisis has largely abated and played itself out. Other irrationalities will arise (no doubt), but that was a real crisis and I think it has passed. I think it’s harder and harder to find academics enamored of, say, Derrida, in quite the same way that you might have found such people in the 1980s.

      That’s not to say that they are not there. It’s just that I think that liberals are more impatient with such “thinking” than in the past.

      What is undeniable (in my view) is that the basic respect for the life of the mind has deteriorated most markedly among the right. William Buckley, George Will, David Frum, etc are largely overshadowed by populist know-nothingism. What most people know about the right is Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. It’s just a lot more obvious nowadays—the cultural rejection of science and critical thinking—on the right than on the left.


      • Paradigm says:

        True, anti-intellectualism is more common to the political right. And most likely this is because they are not intellectuals to the same degree as the left. But the communist revolutions were always a matter of anti-intellectualism. And the communist parties were led by people with university education.

        So my conclusion would be that most people will become anti-intellectuals if the can gain from it, regardless of whether they have higher education or not. At this point in time the political right can gain the most from it, they can play on the fears of the world today.

        The big question is why we are in this decline of thought. I think one major reason is capitalism. People do not want to read or watch a political debate that is difficult to follow. They want to be entertained. Critical thinking is rarely considered entertaining to the majority. The left are also picking up on this, shows like “The Colbert Report” will invite intellectuals as alibis but keep the actual content very light.

        There needs to be outside pressure, the wrath of God or whatever, for people to make an effort. (The right do not feel the wrath because they are not really Christians, it’s largely a pose, I think.) Capitalism provides the path of least resistance. And we are all dependent on that system one way or another.

  3. Cody Deitz says:

    I think a lot of the elements you mentioned can be easily summed up into one phenomenon: anti-intellectualism. It runs rampant and seems to exist in the more statist variations of both the left and right.

  4. You post bothers me. Mostly because it is accurate. and while the horrid list of tenets does indeed describe Sarah Palin and many righties, it describes many lefties to an equal degree. Both sides suffer from “beliefism” that belies reality. Santi, you obviously practice introspection. the next time you do, try asking digging in and finding the same problems on the left as the right. It is oh, so easy to do.

    You know from my previous posts that I am an atheist who lives by some humanist tenets. Yet, I acknowledge that it takes determination, education and effort to do so. In the most optimistic sense, lefty policies boil down to everyone doing what is best for everyone else. A noble idea, yet absurd. Social security, welfare, medical care for all – all great concepts. Yet these concepts rely on everyone in the system really doing their best and that there will not be a substantial number of citizens, politicians and companies who instead try to game the system. The bigger the system, the more people that will try to plunder it. In attempts to prevent this, the systems are setup with elaborate rules. And yet, these rules become just another contributing factor to implicitly plundering and unsustainable nature of the systems. As a simple example, look at SS. The average life expectancy at the inception of SS is quite different than now – which is a big part of the problem with SS.

    The SS age challenge is just one of innumerable issues. The world is dynamic, the more rules to prevent corruption, the more the rules fail over time. Evolution is not only a fact in biological systems, but applicable in economics and free markets as well. The dynamic world forces the free market to adjust and to change to account for what is really going on – as it is going on. Static systems will implicitly break down over time and fail to compete. Then they should die, as in biological evolution.

    And while the world has always been dynamic, the rate of change is increasing much, much faster now than ever before. Even the industrial revolution is a blip compared to the computer age. Cultural norms, information flow, pretty much everything, is so much different now than even 20 years ago.

    A great, yet simple example of this dawned on me last night and is timely in this thread. My wife and I started watching “The Ugly Truth.” My 14 year old daughter was headed up to her room and asked if it was ok if she turned it on upstairs. My wife said, sure, as both of us watched rated R movies when we were her age. The movie was hysterical, but holy cow was it dirty. We forgot our daughter was watching it upstairs. It dawned on me how rated R movies now are no comparison at all to the rated R movies 20+ years ago. Cultural evolution making a move yet again.

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