Tuesday, June 01, 2010

I Will Not Mention Santayana, I Will Not

Take something everyone with half a brain and/or education knows to be true - evolution, say, or the fact that many of the most important Founders were more deist than Christian - and dispute it with fallacious reasoning "backed up" by a bunch of cherry-picked facts, if not outright lies. Then, demand a "serious discussion" about whether evolution is really real, or whether America was actually founded as a Christian nation.

The only proper responses to this, of course, are to laugh at it or ignore it. Anything else is a complete waste of time that could be better spent trying to grapple with the genuinely serious issues this country faces.

If you ask me (and even if you don't), I'd say that one of the biggest wastes of time I know of is fruitlessly complaining about how things should be different than what they are. What makes this extra amusing to me is seeing how often progressives (rightly) delight in epicaricacy over the way Republicans seen determined to alienate Latinos, the largest minority group in the country, and the fastest growing. Uneducated people, though, can go get stuffed. We're too busy with, uh, genuinely serious issues, like ineffectually boycotting upscale grocery stores, to bother trying to reach them.

This arrogant complacency about settled knowledge and accepted facts, though -- see Roman Empire, Decline and Fall of, The. It took close to a thousand years for Europe to relearn, with a big assist from the Arabs, what the Greeks already knew. Knowledge is not cumulative. There is no guaranteed, orderly progression toward enlightenment. It's only been a month since I last quoted this from John Gray, but it looks like I need to do it again:

In science, progress is a fact, in ethics and politics it is a superstition...Post-modern thinkers may question scientific progress, but it is undoubtedly real. The illusion is in the belief that it can effect any fundamental alteration in the human condition. The gains that have been achieved in ethics and politics are not cumulative. What has been gained can also be lost, and over time surely will be.

History is not an ascending spiral of human advance, or even an inch-by-inch crawl to a better world. It is an unending cycle in which changing knowledge interacts with unchanging human needs. Freedom is recurrently won and lost in an alternation that includes long periods of anarchy and tyranny, and there is no reason to suppose that this cycle will ever end. In fact, with human power increasing as a result of growing scientific knowledge, it can only become more violent.

The core of the idea of progress is that human life becomes better with the growth of knowledge. The error is not in thinking that human life can improve. Rather, it is in imagining that improvement can ever be cumulative. Unlike science, ethics and politics are not activities in which what is learnt in one generation can be passed on to an indefinite number of future generations. Like the arts, they are practical skills and can be easily lost.

Many Enlightenment thinkers accepted that scientific advance might slow down or stop, as in previous periods of history; and in that case social progress would stall as well...What none of the thinkers of the Enlightenment envisaged, and their followers today have failed to perceive, is that human life can become more savage and irrational even as scientific knowledge advances.

And that last line is especially important, because despite Tristero's attempt to consign the whole phenomenon to irrelevance with a dismissive wave of his hand, there are tens of millions of Americans who get their information about the world from people like Glenn Beck. I should know; I'm related to some of them. They apparently didn't get the memo that said they were expected to have intellectually progressed beyond the knowledge their provincial-minded, illiterate grandparents had. They never will as long as people who know better refuse to "waste time" telling them any different, insisting instead that they should, well, pull themselves up by their bootstraps somehow and figure everything out on their own.