Some of my older readers may recall that in 1987, Allan Bloom, a dyspeptic epigone of the late unlamented Leo Straus, published an angry attack on modernity called the Closing of the American Mind. The book was two parts nostalgia for the classics [Plato, Machiavelli, and such] and three parts cry of horror at the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War Movement, Women's Lib, and all things countercultural. It also contained a thinly-disguised sigh of love to Mick Jagger, but of that, the less said the better. When the book appeared, ACADEME, the journal of the American Association of University Professors, asked me to write a review, which I did. Since the Preface to Bloom's book had been written by Saul Bellow, Bloom's colleague on the University of Chicago Committee on Social Thought, I chose somewhat maliciously to construe the text as a brilliant intellectual novel by Bellow, who had created a wonderfully funny, cranky, bilious U of Chicago professor whose name, "Bloom," was an obvious homage to Joyce. Despite appearing in a rather obscure publication [which I had actually not heard of until they asked me to review the book], the review had something of a success. One sweet but not too bright professor from somewhere in Pennsylvania actually called me to ask whether Bloom was real. She had called the University of Chicago, she said, and had been referred to a Research Assistant when she asked for Professor Bloom. This earnest young man assured her angrily that Bloom was indeed real ["I talked to him this morning."] and said he had been fielding calls all day long from people who thought his mentor was just a character in a novel.
At about the same time, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., a respected University of Virginia English professor, published Cultural Literacy, a cri de coeur occasioned by dismay at the lamentable ignorance of today's young people [i.e., people who were young in 1987, which is to say, today's forty-somethings.] Hirsch, ever the earnest academic, actually concluded his book with a long list of names, places, and things that the culturally literate person should know.
Hirsch made much of the fact that young Black men and women in the ghetto had a very dim idea of world geography. He made it sound as though these benighted individuals were so utterly at sea, topographically speaking, that one could almost imagine firehouses, police stations, and corner convenience stores in Harlem filled with children unable to find their way home. I reflected at the time that Hirsch's notion of culture, much like that of Bloom, did not rise much above the level of name-dropping. I was willing to bet that the sheer number of "cultural items" that a ghetto youth could identify, or attach some association to, was on the same order as that for a suburban boy or girl. But the lists, if compiled, would turn out to be very different indeed.
These thoughts are provoked in me by the current contest for the Republican Presidential nomination, which has showcased a know-nothing celebration of belligerent ignorance that apparently flourishes in right-wing Evangelical Christian circles. Hostility to reason is of course not new to the Christian tradition. ["I believe because it is absurd, credo quia absurdem est " as Tertullian is universally credited with having said, although apparently he neglected to do so.] Still and all, the sheer refusal of the Republican base to admit what is, in Jane Austen's lovely phrase, universally acknowledged, has now infected even its standard bearers and political heroes. Sarah Palin flatly rejects the theory of evolution, but when she was pregnant with Trig [let us not even go there!], she underwent the procedure known as amniocentesis, despite the fact that evolution is the theory on which the procedure is grounded. Rick Perry, when asked about evolution, responded off-handedly, "It is a theory that is out there," but bedeviled by painful back trouble, he underwent a rather controversial experimental stem cell procedure, blithely unaware, I guess, that stem cell research, whether on adult stem cells or embryonic stem cells, presupposes the truth of the theory of evolution. The same is of course true of the annual flu shots that people in my age category get each year. Two years ago, on the occasion of Charles Darwin's two hundredth birthday, a poll revealed that only 39% of adult Americans believe the theory of evolution, so I think we can confidently conclude that there are scores of millions of Americans whose doubts about evolution do not stop them from getting flu shots.
Much the same can be said about Young Earthers -- those who, again including Sarah Palin, think the earth is roughly ten thousand years old or less, and claim that humans walked next to dinosaurs. How many of them, when diagnosed with cancer, piously decline radiation therapy on the grounds that the theory on which it is based conflicts with their beliefs about the age of the earth?
The point of all this is that the Republican Party's rejection of knowledge and reason is a political statement, an expression of ressentiment, not really a cognitively substantive declaration that has any implications for daily life. We live in a world in which it is cost-free to use the latest technology while denying the theory on which it is based.
The Bible implies that the sun goes around the earth [otherwise, God, instead of stopping the sun in the sky to give Joshua time to slaughter the inhabitants of Gibeon, would have had to stop the rotation of the earth -- See the Book of Joshua 10:12-14], but I do not hear any devout Evangelicals denying that the earth orbits the sun. These determined know-nothings are not the real danger to our safety and sanity. The real danger is posed by the Paul Wolfewitz's and John Bolton's, who know exactly where Afghanistan is and can name the President of Uzbekistan straight off, and are now plotting openly to take the United States into war with Iran.
Happy Thanksgiving to all.