Saturday, March 11, 2017

The fate of truth in America today

I am always glad when two good writers come my way, each saying something important on a similar theme. This week it was an interview with George Saunders, the noted author, and an article by Andrew Sullivan (

Sullivan is reacting to the violent student protest recently at Middlebury College when a conservative (and controversial) speaker, Charles Murray, was invited to speak. More and more on liberal arts campuses, where one expects a respect for free speech and the open exchange of ideas, there is an ideological move to prevent a speaker whose views are politically incorrect, according to the prevailing culture.

Those who saw the video of students shutting down the talk by Murray, whose work I don't know, called it frightening. Sullivan compared the event to the shunning of heretics in 17th century Puritan New England. He finds the academic orthodoxy on such campuses alarming because it insists that all experience must conform to the prevailing ideology of gender, race, class, and sexuality; if a view differs, it is to be banned.  "Shut it down!" the students at Middlebury chanted. "We see this talk as hate speech."  Yet they didn't want to listen to what the man had to say!

As I read about this latest event in campus un-freedom of thought and expression, I wonder, Why not listen to an opponent's views and try to respond to  them intelligently? If they are factually wrong, offer a reasoned response that corrects them.  Why not respect an invited speaker's right to speak on a campus where ideas are meant to be aired and challenged?
Isn't that what an education is all about?

The irony, as Sullivan notes, is the bizarre similarity of this episode to the Trumpists among us who insist on discounting facts, and truth, if they do not correspond to the ideology of the ruling party.  Donald Trump and his followers show hostility and contempt for facts that don't fit their view of reality. A judge who challenges him is called a "so-called judge."  Experts in intelligence gathering at the CIA are ignored or maligned as politically motivated. This notion that orthodoxy of any kind is superior to facts and reason is dangerous and alarming.

It is one thing for him to try to distract the American public from his problems by making wild allegations (Obama bugged his phones?); it is quite another to undermine truth by scoffing at facts and at those who uphold them. Or to have his appointees to high office hold views on the environment contrary to that of established science. It would all be laughable if it were not so serious.

This is where George Saunders comes in: He sees America today as fragile, for the first time; the American experiment could actually fail, he says, because of "the horrible degradation of our notions of truth, decency, and civility have undergone." Notice, our traditional notions: the received wisdom of our laws and traditions are being questioned, along with common sense.

He, like Sullivan, and many others refer to the present situation as Orwellian.  This is especially frightening when this also applies to what happens at a prominent liberal arts college.

Saunders has the final word: "Writing and reading and speaking with specificity and skill has never seemed more important to me than it does at this moment.  It's what's between us and chaos."

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