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Friday, October 15, 2010


While I make last minute preparations for my brief trip to New York, I would like to take a moment to put into words something I have been thinking about for a bit. [By the way, my son has made a reservation for us this evening at what looks like a very upscale restaurant south of Houston called Public -- on Elizabeth Street. Anyone ever been there?]

As many, many people have observed, there seems to be an epidemic of sheer anti-rational craziness abroad in the land, manifesting itself both in the expressed views of the general public and in the statements of right-wing political candidates. Let me simply list some of the more egregious forms of nuttiness. Pride of place must be given to the Fundamentalist Christian [or, as some commentators have started to call it, Christianist] belief that the earth is only ten thousand years old, that there has been no evolution of life forms, that human beings walked the earth with dinosaurs, and that the end times forecast in Revelations are upon us. Frequently associated with this is the denial of global warming. Both of these determined refusals to recognize simple facts have been with us for some time. More recently, we have seen millions of Americans claiming to believe that Barack Obama is not a native born American, and that he is a Muslim [or, as the folks at like to say, "a muslin."] This led The Onion to post a wonderful little spoof asserting that 18% of Americans now believe that Obama is a cactus [I may have the percentage wrong]. Add to this, if you wish, the weird belief that Sharia Law threatens to replace the American legal system, and any number of other nuttinesses.

These bizarre beliefs are associated with a level of sheer free-form rage that was not seen in America even during the height of the Red Scare in the 50's. There have already been a handful of violent acts apparently traceable to these beliefs, and there may well be more. We are seeing a political form of road rage.

Now, it is easy enough to scoff at the people who express these beliefs, or to laugh at them, or to call them simply ignorant or stupid. But what interests me is something different, namely, the fact that all of these beliefs seem to be abstract and functionally irrelevant to the behavior of the people who express them. Let me explain.

If you believe that the end times are upon us, and that the rapture will occur at any moment [a belief shared by scores of millions of Americans, if you are to believe their responses to pollsters], then presumably you will not buy life insurance, or invest in a retirement plan, or continue with your schooling, or take out a mortgage, or save for your children's schooling, or have regular dental checkups [since when the rapture comes, the fillings will be left behind.] There have over the millennia been many people who both expressed millenarian or fundamentalist beliefs and also acted on them. In this country, the nineteenth century Christian Science sect started by Mary Baker Eddy led many people to refuse medical treatment for themselves or their children on the grounds that the body is unreal and only spirit is real. In some cases, this resulted in the death of people whom even in those days primitive medical science could have saved. Somewhat less dramatically and more charmingly, we see the Plain folk, the Amish and Mennonites, who incorporate their religious beliefs into the daily conduct of their lives. But there is no evidence of which I am aware of Fundamentalists neglecting their studies or declining to contribute to their 401(k)'s on religious grounds. The beliefs that they espouse so vehemently seem to be totally disconnected from their daily behavior.

The same can be said of the scores, if not hundreds, of millions of people in America and overseas who deny the reality of evolution and the age of the world and demand that it not be taught to their children in school. Now, virtually all of modern medicine is so intimately intertwined with the theory of evolution that it would probably be impossible to find any high-powered modern medical treatment that does not rest in one way or another on that theory. Every time you get a flu shot, every time you are given antibiotics, every time you get radiation therapy or an MRI, you are, in effect, behaviorally acknowledging the truth of evolution, in one way or another. But there are no reports of scores of millions of Americans demanding to be treated with nothing more than leeches and purgatives. Once again, there is a total disconnect between the beliefs that vast numbers of people angrily assert and their observed daily behavior.

Starting with the Frankfurt School and the work of Horkheimer, Adorno, and others, it became fashionable in philosophical and literary circles to look askance at the Enlightenment, to see it as a covert project for domination, to call into question what came to be viewed as its naive faith in the power of reason. Well, be careful what you wish for. I for one am enough of an Enlightenment man to wish that we had a good deal more old-fashioned rationalism and skepticism of superstition. We have seen this sort of free-floating irrationalism and anger before. The last time round, it was called fascism, and even though the trains ran on time, it did not end well.


jeff house said...

Not well-known in the US is the fact that President Chavez of Venezuela has indicated that he believes humans have been on the earth for twenty to twenty-five centuries.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

So Plato missed the cut? That is another good example. He is free to say wacky things like that because they have no behavioral consequences. I am beginning to long for the good old Roman Catholic Church. At least it gave reasons before it burned yu at the stake.

Barry Loewer said...


I live next to "Public" and have eaten there a couple of times 3 or 4 years ago. It can be noisy and the food was just OK. Curious what you think.

By the way I have been reading and admiring your blog for the last four months. It is terrific. Although I am a philosopher of science (actually chair at Rutgers NB)we have only met once I think and that was when I was an undergrad at Amherst.

thanks for the Blog


English Jerk said...

A quibble: Adorno and Horkheimer, at least, are very explicit that their project is to figure out why the Enlightenment, which promised to humanize the world in almost every way, instead resulted in babarism (they had in mind the rise of Nazism, of course, which caught them both by surprise, since they thought the German workers movement was more robust than it turned out to be--but Adorno, later on, points to Vietnam and the like as examples). The aim of Dialectic of Enlightenment was not to abandon or to resist Enlightenment, which for them would mean just embracing a primitive barbarism little better than the mechanized barbarism of Auschwitz. (Adorno often remarks that only an advanced technological society has any hope of freeing people from material scarcity sufficiently that their more humane impulses might flourish, though all sorts of questions remain about the limitations of scientistic rationality.) The project of DoE was, as Simon Jarvis puts it, "to make enlightenment enlightened about itself." So their agenda, I'd say, is very similar to yours (and Adorno shares many of your reservations about the ways in which current lefty political projects face deeper barriers than they recognize, as well as your anxiety about the persistence of reactionary irrationalities that are irreducible to perfect economistic calculation).

On another note, our objective evaluation of the present reactionary craziness might, I would think, be distorted by the fact that our primary mode of access to it is through the mass media. Is it possible that, were we able to reduce this distortion, the present would not seem so anomalous? After all, if we include other countries in our assessment of the current situation, we'd have to note that the US has spent most of this century creating and sustaining business-friendly right-wing dictatorships built on bizarre irrational beliefs. And the US itself has always had a large population of crazies, at least since North America was invaded by European religious fanatics.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think that is more than a quibble. It is a very helpful and interesting elaboration and clarification. Thank you. It is difficult to maintain some ironic distance from one's own experience of craziness, I am afraid. I am in such despair about the direction of our public life that I find it hard to preserve a dispassionate analytic stance. This is partly a consequence of the fact that at my age, I do not have twenty years to wait out the current upwelling of irrationality.

I agree completely that an entire generation of the most sophisticated European social theorists were obsessed, and properly so, with trying to understant how the sheer brutality of naziism could emerge from what was the most culturally and intellectually advanced country in Europe. I am not sure we understand that yet. It is what frightens me so about the present eruption of irratationality in America. That this is not the first such eruption I am all too aware.

But thank you for, as they say these days, the intervention.