A Civilisation in Decline
(VANCOUVER ISLAND) Before the Orlando massacre forced everyone with an audience to respond to yet another American mass shooting, I had intended to write a column about the disturbing anti-intellectualism that is gathering momentum in the United States. The latest and worst American civilian mass shooting, though, has focused most social commentators on issues of gun control, LGBT rights, domestic terrorism, Islamophobia, and law and order. Every one of those issues has once again been thrust into the forefront of our collective consciousness and each is every bit as unresolved as it was before Omar Mateen began squeezing the trigger on his assault rifle.
I believe that the anti-intellectual inclination that is daily growing stronger in the US has something to do with both the shooting itself and with the media’s helplessness in reacting to it. All we can expect now is the usual back and forth over gun legislation, the left calling for common-sense restrictions on weapons, the right, led by the NRA, screaming 2nd Amendment rights, and blah, blah, blah. Already, the hate-preachers of the Christian lunatic fringe are blaming the LGBT victims and assuring us that their slaughter was god’s punishment, and that the victims are now roasting in hell. Other dwellers on the right are demanding that more and more draconian measures be taken against Islamic refugees and any Muslims attempting to enter the country, notwithstanding the fact that the killer was actually born in New York. The reactions to this latest offense are a kind of Rorschach test of where one stands; the lesson one draws from the events in Orlando are a direct reflection of what one already believes socially and politically. And the lack of nuance, of analysis, and of actual thinking is indicative of the anti-intellectualism that I wanted to address.
The early 21st Century in North America is a period in history in which intelligence, thinking, analysing, applying reasoned criticism are all looked at with suspicion and denigrated as elitist. It is an era in which expertise is ridiculed and treated as though it can be trumped by anyone with a strong enough opinion. At this time in history, reasoned argument has been replaced by the rote recitation of memes and personal insults. It has come to the point where science and wishful thinking are competing for acceptance, and science is losing because people simply can’t be bothered to make any effort to understand how it works. We are living in a time when the lowest common denominator is the acme of our aspirations; nobody wants to achieve great things any more because it involves effort.
In a society in which the notion of creationism, or its better dressed cousin “Intelligent Design”, vies to be taught on an equal scientific footing with actual science, one can be forgiven for thinking that the downhill slide to barbarianism has begun. When actual human beings accept the ludicrous proposition that we can unload billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere with zero effect upon the planet, and at the same time reject the science of climate change, it has become evident that critical thinking has been replaced with magic; a sure sign of the degeneration of civilisation. When conspiracy theories replace critical analysis, when feeling carries more weight than logical enquiry, we have crossed the threshold into the foyer of a new Dark Age. When you have a presidential candidate, in the aftermath of the worst mass shooting in the country’s history, suggest that the incumbent president is sympathetic to terrorists, and that is treated as having equivalent validity to any evidence to the contrary of the ludicrous claim, it is fair to say that reason has left the building.
In the mid 18th Century, a time now known as “The Enlightenment”, the zeitgeist was the polar opposite. That was a time during which ordinary people met and discussed philosophy; wrote and read treatises on the improvement of society; shared an interest in the remarkable advances in the sciences, and did their level best to understand how things worked, and how to employ them for the benefit of mankind. The greatest minds in history would get together regularly in salons, in taverns, in university lounges and lecture halls, to exchange ideas and to learn through discussion. In Paris, David Hume, Denis Diderot, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire might all be in the same room at the same time, each learning from and contributing to the knowledge of the others; not shouting one another down and belittling different views. An encyclopedia, which would be an attempt to collate and summarise the entire totality of western knowledge was underway. In America, the Founding Fathers were writing the Federalist Papers and Jefferson was writing the first drafts of the Constitution of the United States. The difference between then and now couldn’t be starker.
Now, the very notion of specialised knowledge is treated with cynical contempt; expertise is suspect because it isn’t understood. But rather than try to understand it, the usual reaction is to dismiss it as elitist bafflegab and replace its conclusions with comfortable “common sense” or gut feelings. A loudly shouted appeal to the basest of instincts is considered more authentic than a quietly stated rational argument. Only in this reason-rejecting atmosphere could a demagogue like Donald Trump be cheered for calling for a ban on Muslim immigration as a response to a mass shooting by an American citizen. Only in this rationality-eschewing era could Donald Trump collect a following of dimwits, marginalised crackpots, angry ignorant social outcasts, and paranoid racists into a coalition of the damaged and rejected. They are stupid and they are ignorant. But frighteningly, they are proud of it.
In lockstep with stupidity and ignorance, of course, march their close relatives: hatred and bigotry. Not being capable of serious thought makes it easy to accept simple minded hostility toward those who appear to be different. And from that, the inclination to acting on racism is a short hop. In just the last year, that inclination to act on racist impulses has become acceptable to a greater and greater number of Americans.
Where, once upon a time, people of profound intellects like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were respected and heeded, now people like Sarah Palin and Donald Trump are celebrated. Duck Dynasty philosophy is respected and its idiot proponents celebrated. They are celebrated precisely for their ignorance; their lack of knowledge is trumpeted as an indication of their authenticity. Intelligence doesn’t count for anything; being like the lowest form of human life; that’s what counts. The degeneration of America is occurring in front of us, and we are all circling the drain along with wisdom, class, intelligence, reason, and human decency.
Unless this election suddenly turns around and sees a landslide victory for the forces fighting back against Donald Trump, we may well be looking at the end of an era of optimism, of positive intellectual growth. Instead we will be seeing the dawn of a period in which our society’s proudest accomplishments are dismantled and the barbarians at the gates will enter and occupy the centres of power. A long, dark, grim winter may well be about to begin.