In the last year we’ve learned all too well that Donald Trump is seemingly immune from scandal and impervious to shame. Not a week goes by that he doesn’t say or do something that would end anyone else’s political career. We’ve lost count of the things which have happened in and around his personal and political orbit that would stop a politician’s agenda dead in its tracks. At the moment his top advisors are being investigated for conspiring with Russians to subvert our democracy. That’s something which got people executed in my parents’ lifetime.
Despite this, the Trump train, however slowed in the public opinion polls and however assailed by the public opinion pages, continues to chug, more or less, forward, announcing policy initiatives that will likely pass and which will shape our country for decades to come. No one in a position to stand up to Trump and say “no” seems willing to do so.
A little over a year ago I wrote a post about the troubling manner in which politicians and public figures talk about complicated subjects. About how they seem to increasingly rely on anecdote and references to their personal experiences when addressing matters of policy, ethics or morality rather than on facts or ideas. About how, for some reason, they could not talk about, say, sexual harassment without referencing their “wives and daughters” or they could not talk about taxes or social policy without making reference to some local farmer or businessman who would be affected.
On some level I get why they do this. People like stories and first person accounts. We respond to them well. On a geologic scale we’re barely removed from a time when oral tradition was our primary means of understanding the world, so it makes sense that we respond to personal appeals.
Our public discourse seems to have gone too deeply into the personal and anecdotal, however, to the point where tales, rather than facts, data and ideas, have come to dominate the conversation. Yes, my friend, I’m glad that you care about the advancement of women now that your daughter is getting her MBA, but can we talk about the advancement of women who are not your daughter? Sure, I suppose I’d be curious to know how this new regulation personally affects Joe Smith from East Alton, Illinois, but it’s probably more important to know what it means in objective terms — defined by facts and figures — for the country as a whole, wouldn’t you agree?
The point of that essay was that we spend too much time creating narratives when it comes public life and policy, often baseless ones, and not enough time thinking. We spend a lot of time talking about our feelings too — using the language of anger or personal offense for the most part in recent times — but we do it in a rather self-centered way, lacking in empathy for anyone beyond ourselves or our immediate circle. That’s an acceptable way to run a village, maybe, but it’s no way to run a county of over 300 million people.
I wrote that post a month before Donald Trump was elected, in response to the 2005 “Access Hollywood” video in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women. I wrote it because everyone asked to comment on it referenced their wives and daughters and did little if anything to say, full stop, that such behavior should be condemned as unacceptable even if you don’t have a wife or a daughter. Little did I know when I wrote it that such a scandal — the sort of scandal which would definitively wreck any politician who came before him — would be a mere footnote on Trump’s way to claiming the presidency, regardless of how many wives and daughters were invoked.
Little, also, did I know that what would transpire since the election would validate a warning I first heard 26 years ago, which explains both that which troubled me a year ago and that which is transpiring today.
Back at Ohio State, in the early 1990s, I had a history professor named Alan Beyerchen. I wasn’t a history major — ours was merely an intro to western civ class and most of the curriculum was outside of Professor Beyerchen’s specific area of research — but he was more engaging and enthusiastic about teaching freshmen and sophomores than most professors I ever had. He’d often digress from the day’s lecture to talk about larger cosmic issues. One he hit on, time and again, was about how history is animated by its actors defining their personal identity in opposition to that of their enemies (people proclaiming that which is “self” vs. that which is “other” explains oh so much over the centuries). Another one of the big cosmic issues he talked about was how, in his view, we seemed to be on the verge of entering a “high tech dark age.”
Beyerchen seemed focused on what he felt as the then-primordial information age’s attack on literacy and personal agency. He worried about us moving away from writing and books — he was particularly upset at how poor his students’ writing skills were, mine included — and suggested that computers and the ability to edit without a lot of hassle was partially responsible. He talked about the prospect of virtual communities supplanting real communities, the ethical hazards of technological advances (which then, as now, were so often promised to be benign) and what all of that might mean for an enlightened civil society. He wasn’t necessarily alone in these preoccupations, of course. A lot of people were worried about that stuff then, albeit on a much more superficial level than Beyerchen was. Just look at the science fiction of the mid-90s and all of its virtual reality and Internet panic as evidence.
It went deeper than that for Beyerchen, though. He wasn’t some guy merely grousing about technology and all of its alleged perils. For him the most serious risk of the coming high tech dark age was an epistemic crisis. A crisis in which, due to the waning influence of institutions that characterized enlightened society such as libraries, universities and governmental bodies run by and for a literate, educated and engaged populace, simply agreeing on what truth and knowledge and information is would be a challenge. If knowledge was less etched in stone than transferred via ephemeral means, would it not risk becoming intangible? Mutable? And if it did, what value would it truly hold for people?
Once you’re in that situation — a situation in which people find it simple and even preferable to disagree on basic facts — truth itself is a malleable concept. Once human beings aren’t sure what is true, they tend to revert to superstition and fear. Once you have a population of fearful, superstitious people who don’t know what is true, those in power are able to warp reality even more and are able to exert control over them more easily than they already do. If the people are afraid enough, they’ll be quite happy to allow it.
That, for all practical purposes, is the definition of a dark age. It’s a dark age even if we have a lot of shiny technology and even if we’ve eradicated the plague.
This afternoon I read something which makes me believe that the epistemic crisis which would usher in a new dark age is already upon us. It’s from David Roberts at Vox, and it describes the way in which the right wing political and media establishment has rendered facts malleable and increasingly meaningless:
The US is experiencing a deep epistemic breach, a split not just in what we value or want, but in who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know — what we believe exists, is true, has happened and is happening.
The primary source of this breach, to make a long story short, is the US conservative movement’s rejection of the mainstream institutions devoted to gathering and disseminating knowledge (journalism, science, the academy) — the ones society has appointed as referees in matters of factual dispute . . .
. . . Pundits and yellers in right-wing media compete to freak out the base and reinforce its allegiance to Donald Trump. The base leans on politicians. And most elected GOP officials are in seats safe enough that they fear a primary challenge from the base more than a Democratic challenger. The only way to stave off a primary is to pay obeisance . . .
. . . As always, the goal of this media/political offensive (there is no longer much distinction) is less to present some coherent alternative account of the facts than to fill the atmosphere with fog, to give those on the right enough cover to slough off the charges as yet another liberal plot.
It sounds right. It’s not driven solely by technology, the way my old professor worried it might be, even if it’s driven by it a good deal. Mostly it’s driven by a craving for power and an utter lack of scruples or shame. Any way you slice it, it sounds like the stuff of a new dark age.