In “Dover Beach,” the eminent Victorian, Matthew Arnold, expressed the belief that the tide of Faith was going out. Today, it sometimes seems the tide of enlightenment rationalism has gone down the drain, and that we are sinking into primitive superstition.
Donald Trump didn’t start the retreat from reason, but he certainly isn’t doing anything to stop it. He tweets six impossible things before breakfast each day, and the gullible eat it up. We now don’t object merely to political correctness, but to the idea of objective truth.
Consider recent poll results that show 46% of registered voters believe news organizations fabricate stories about the president, and 56% of Republicans believe the government should have the power to shut down “fake news.” Forty-one percent of Americans don’t believe that everyone should be free to practice the religion of their choice. And 46% of Trump voters believe Hilary Clinton ran a satanic pedophilia ring out of a Washington pizzeria.
What’s next? Burning witches or stoning women caught in adultery hardly seem out of the question. I hasten to add that loony beliefs and the embrace of misinformation are not confined to the realm of politics, in part because we are becoming a nation of dunces.
Only 26% of Americans can name all three branches of government, and 37% can’t name a single right protected by the First amendment. An Independence Day poll found that 14% of teens thought the American Revolution was fought against France and 5% believed the enemy was the wicked Canadians. Twenty-five percent couldn’t identify the two sides in the American Civil War, and 55% believed the constitution calls for “One Nation Under Jesus.”
A 2013 poll of young Americans found that only 51% could point to New York on a map, and 29% couldn’t identify the Pacific Ocean. Thirty percent didn’t know what the Holocaust was, and 20% believed the sun revolves around the earth. If book learnin’ is in short supply, however, fear not. Belief is booming, particularly in ghosts, alien abductions, and a vast array of pseudo-science and outright superstition.
Twas ever thus, I guess, but in a supposedly literate, educated, scientifically advanced country, such credulity is alarming. It is a symptom of a larger loss of faith in all sources of authority. The word of teachers, men of the cloth, judges, scholars, presidents was one thought to be largely trustworthy. Danial Patrick Moynihan famously said a person is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
Shows what he knew. Presidential spokesperson Kellyanne Conway assured us that one’s “alternative facts” are just as good as the truth. Better, if they confirm our prejudices or justify our transgressions. The long slide to this debased alternative reality began long ago.
The Cold War’s Red Scare spawned plenty of merchants of falsity and witch hunters. McCarthy claimed without evidence that traitors were everywhere, including the man who won World War II, Gen. George C. Marshall. The John Birch Society said Dwight Eisenhower was a closet communist.
State and local school boards shy from teaching evolution, ban “controversial” literary classics and adopt history texts that misrepresent our past and contain no discouraging words lest ministers, prudes, or jingoistic patriots descend on them en masse.
The best and the brightest erred catastrophically about how easy winning in Vietnam would be, then systematically lied about the endeavor. Richard Nixon said he was not a crook, but he turned out to be the mastermind of a criminal conspiracy aimed at subverting democratic government. Televangelists turn out to have feet of clay and Catholic priests to be pedophiles. And the WMD in Iraq were a Bush Administration hoax, or delusion.
And now, the internet with its endless supply of really fake news, con games, hacks, trolls, propaganda, cyberbullying, stalking, disinformation and uncurated, unverified alternative facts means we are living in a world where who you trust, who is regarded as speaking with authority is based on no objective measure by tens of millions of us Truth, reality,are in the eye of the solipsistic beholder.
When faith in the veracity of every person and institution has been lost, intellectual anarchy reigns, ognorant armies class by night, and in the land of the fact-free blind, the one-eyed demagogue is king.