Category Archives: Truth Seeking

Unsheltered

The Unsheltered Search for truth

by Barbara Kingsolver

It is a pleasure to read a novel by Barbara Kingsolver right after reading one by Toni Morrison. Both are outstanding novelists, but they are different from each other. As I have said before, Morrison’s novels are difficult. You really have to work at them, but the rewards for doing are immense. With Kingsolver, reading is effortless. You can breeze through her books, but that does not mean the book is an “easy read.” It is and it isn’t.

I recommend you take things slowly. I am a meanderer. Even when I read, I meander through the book. That means I have to go back to the beginning or somewhere else earlier in the book. With Kingsolver that is also worth the trip.

I recently read her book Unsheltered. It is a story about 2 families more than a century apart with a strange connection. The connection is a ramshackle old house in Vineland New Jersey that is about to fall apart and crumble into oblivion because of an unsound foundation. It just takes a century or more to do that. Is she trying to say something about America?

The book is about more than that however. It is about a search for truth and the importance of summoning the courage to speak that truth. The Thatchers are the first of the families to occupy the house. They do so in the late 19th century. Thatcher Greenwood is a science teacher at school and “he felt his soul touched by light.” Thatcher thought, “an active mind should be fed the meat of the world…wonderments, of any kind that compel her. Things that are real.” He saw “the world divided in two camps, the investigators and the sweeteners.” Sadly, his lovely wife is on the side of sweetness while he is searching for truth and that gets him into trouble. The truth is not always sweet, no matter how we wish it were.

The second family to occupy the house has done everything right but is assailed by bad luck. It is led—well sort of led—by the matriarch Willa Knox a magazine journalist out of work because the magazine has folded. Similarly her husband, Iano is a lecturer at a small college that has also folded. This family is floundering in its dubious shelter about to collapse. But the family has a steady and surprising rock, the daughter Tig, fittingly named after a Greek tragedy, Antigone, but amazingly resilient. Her name means “worthy of her parents” and that she is. She is the unlikely solid foundation of the novel.

Thatcher is a teacher who is enthralled with the new ideas of Charles Darwin but is forbidden by his principal from teaching them. How can he get in trouble by seeking and speaking the truth? He will lose his job if he does not renounce those ideas. Thatcher knows “we are often persuaded that what is convenient is also right.” He also knows that this is the enemy of truth seeking. As Nietzsche said, desire is the enemy of truth.

Thatcher knows that to his students “Science was a bewilderment they approached with fixed expressions of disbelief, the young ladies adding to this sulkiness owned by their gender, peering up at teacher from under an eave of curled fringe.” How can he abandon his charges?

He is trying to get his students to see what is not visible. It must be inferred. His students are dubious. He holds up a bottle that contains a gas, but his students are sceptical because they can’t see it. Yet one male student admits that we can’t see it “but we smell it sure. When my pa passes gas you’ll know in the next room. Specially if he’s been at the liver and onions.” This wisdom came from Willis Chester who looked startled when his classmates burst into laughter.” While Chester is wise, his Principal, Mr. Cutler, is not and Thatcher must deal with that. He knows it is a horrible task. “Thatcher wondered what task could be more wearisome than shoring up a stupid man’s confidence in his own wisdom?”

Thatcher wants to treat his students to the wonders of the scientific method. “We study unseen particles by observing their effects. Discovery comes from the small increments of weight and measurement we call data, providing answers to questions we have carefully framed.”

The poor students have a brilliant teacher saddled with a dead-beat Principal Mr.Cutler  who gets his science from the Bible. “Experiments alarm him. Modern scientific theory enrages him, discussion of Darwin particularly, but not only this. The suggestion of taking students outdoors to study nature, he treats as blasphemy.” Reminding me of the current President of the United States, Cutler, “reads nothing. It might interfere with his knowledge of the universe.” Cutler  instead holds, “to answer all his questions, using scripture bent back on itself like a fish hook.”

Thatcher is aided by his neighbour, a brilliant scientist, Mary Treat, who explains that humans are often blinded by fear of the new ideas. “A humanity derived from the plain stuff of earth frightens them even more…Presumptions of a lifetime are perilous things to overturn.” Mary gives Thatcher a very difficult task: “Your charge is to lead them out of doors to see evidence for themselves, and not to fear it. To stand in the clear light of day, you once said, unsheltered.”

It is not easy to stand up to a mob. Even a mob dressed in proper clothes like attendees at a school debate. With clear echoing of modern events, where another mob in another place, shouted in front of a modern demagogue, Thatcher says,

“I wonder what service is possible, Mary.  When half the world, with no understanding of Darwin at all, will rally around whoever calls him a criminal and wants him hanged.

She said nothing to this. But it was no exaggeration: the crude effigy dangling from a noose, the monkey’s tail pinned to the stuffed trousers, the murderous crowd chanting lock him up! The provocateur was an itinerant preacher in a threadbare rabat and pieces of an infantryman’s uniform, boots, and greatcoat he must have pulled from a dead soldier. Thatcher had stood astonished, watching violence in its own bloody birth canal.”

To this Mary replies, again echoing modern events, “When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order.” Thatcher makes the scary reply, “If that is our nature, then nature is madness. These are more dangerous times than we ever have known.”

Thatcher’s friend, Carruth, also seeks the truth and decides to tell it, no matter what the consequences. Again, as in modern times, Carruth wonders how people can be bamboozled by demagogues against their own interest.  How is that possible? Thatcher explains, “They are happier to think of themselves as soon to be rich, than irreversibly poor.” Carruth nodded thoughtfully, “A delicate business, telling the truth.”

Cutler,  Thatcher’s superior at the school, knows nothing of Darwin. Nor does he want to discuss the scientific method of searching for the truth. “His brand of science is an edifice built of scriptures and saints.” It is a strange science. One willing to convict Thatcher of being a veritable witch entirely without evidence. Such men fear the truth. “Men like him dread new views, for fear they’ll set aside their hard-earned credentials and begin their climb again at the bottom rung.” He compares these men to persecuted Darwin: “Darwin explains geographic distribution with beautiful simplicity, compared with the buttresses and gargoyles of Cutler’s angel bridges. His strange science is a falling house. If I train young eyes to be observant, they will see cracks in his construction of the universe.” Cutler’s “science” is as shaky as Thatcher’s house.

Cutler “speaks to those who want nothing new. And that is most people nowadays. They hunger for any crumb of explanation that sustains their old philosophies.’ Thatcher thought of the riot he’d seen in the Boston square, the scarecrow Darwin hanging from a lamppost, the crowd terrified witless at the prospect of shedding comfortable beliefs and accepting new ones…People want comfort.” Yes people want shelter. Being unsheltered is scary.

But I have been neglecting the modern family. They too face being unsheltered, and no one finds this more challenging than Willa the matriarch. Her husband seems oblivious to the danger. Her son is off chasing money. But her daughter, Tig, who never got anything right, so it seemed, finds she can deal with it. She is resilient.

In fact Tig is critical of Willa and her father. They kept searching for the security of tenure, by moving from town to town, and in the end when he finally got tenure, it dissolved in his hands.  As Tig says, “You made such a big deal about security that you sacrificed us any long-term community.” Now her mother is worrying about a shaky house when the world as they know it is dissolving. Here is part of their conversation:

“Mom. The permafrost is melting. Millions of acres of it.”

Willa tried to see a connection. “And I’m just worried about my house. That’s your point?”

Tig shook her head.  “It’s so scary. It’s going to be fire and rain, Mom. Storms we can’t deal with, so many people homeless. Not just homeless but placeless. Cities go underwater and then what?  You can’t shelter in place anymore, when there isn’t any place.”

Willa tucked her hands between her knees and declined to believe those things.”

Willa desired a different truth. So Tig like Thatcher more than a century earlier has to deliver the bad news—truth in other words—to people who don’t want to hear it. They just decline to believe it. The world is collapsing but people just don’t want to hear about it. They want to worry about their house without a foundation, when all of civilization has no sound foundation.

Willa can’t see changing their lifestyle.  She tells Tig, “I’m human, Tig. We live, we consume. I think that’s just how we have to be.” To this resignation to collapse Tig replies, “Of course you think that. When everybody around you thinks the same way, you can’t even see what you’re believing in.”

Tig envisions the world to come. So different than the world of her mother. Her mother wanted her kids to have more than her. A natural motherly reaction. Are we parents not all like that? But the world has changed and the old one is not coming back. Someone has to face that truth. People seek comfort and instead get uncomfortable truths. Dusty, Willa’s grandson won’t have the same life his grand mother had. He will have to deal with it.

As Tig says to Willa,

“He’ll have to learn to be happy with what he’s got. He doesn’t’ get a choice. He got born in the historical moment of no more free lunch. Friends will probably count more than money, because wanting too much stuff is going to be toxic. We didn’t’ ask for this, it’s just what we got. ”

“Thou shalt not want.”

Something like that. Waste not, want not.”

But Willa cannot face this truth from her daughter. It is not the truth she wants.

“…You’re offering me this Mad Max scenario of pirates taking everything they can grab, and I just can’t accept it. It’s to horrifying.”

“Seriously Mom? It’s here. One percent of the brotherhood has their hands on most of the bread.  They own the country, their god is the free market, and most people are so unhorrified they won’t even question the system. If it makes a profit, that’s the definition of good. If it grows, you have to stand back and let it. The free market has exactly the same morality as a cancer cell.”

Only Tig in her family can face this ugly truth. Like Thatcher earlier. In a court of law, of all places, he finds another truth that  the people of Vineland cannot face—that their lord and master, killed a man without justification. The jury does not want to face that truth. That truth is also too ugly for them. It is too uncomfortable.

At last Thatcher sees light and air coming into the court when a court reporter lifts the window. This was a “heaven sent vision.” Thatcher realizes he cannot say more. He has done his bit to deliver truth:

“He was finished with declaring himself to a public without ears to hear his language. Without shelter, we stand in daylight, she’d insisted once, and he had thought only of death. Simple man. He might sleep in a bed of cactus thorns or a tree under the stars, but he could choose the company he kept and it would not be this fearful, self-interested mob shut up in airless rooms.  They would huddle in their artifice of safety, their heaven would collapse. His would be the forthright march through the downfall.”

So both owners of the house fail to bring the truth to people who can hear. But—perhaps—not all is hopeless. There is some slim hope. Ilana Masad, commentator on National Public Radio reviewing the book may have got it right by saying, “Kingsolver doesn’t give us solutions, but she reminds us to take comfort in one another when we can, and that hope is necessary even when all seems lost.”

Bernard-Henri Lévy: Nouveaux Philosophes

I spent about 45 minutes listening to a French philosopher courtesy of the CBC radio app.  The philosopher was Bernard-Henri Lévy. I had downloaded an interview with him by Anna Maria Tremonti on The Current. I had also heard him recently on Real Time with Bill Maher.

Lévy is a is a French public intellectual, philosopher, media personality and author. In Europe many just call him BHL because he is so well known. In France philosophers and artists can be rock stars. I love France! Lévy was one of the leaders of the a group started in 1976 known as “Nouveaux Philosophes” no doubt after the famous wines.  According to The Boston Globe he is “perhaps the most prominent intellectual in France today.” Famously he also said, “I am more afraid of Puritans than those who admit the weakness of the flesh.”

Sometimes we just need a French philosopher to set things right. For me, basking in the hot sun, listening to CBC radio all the way from Arizona, was one of those days. He is currently flogging his book The Empire and the 5 Kings. Based on this interview I think it would be worth a read. Being a cheap Mennonite I will wait for the paperback of course.

Apparently the 5 kings of the title of the book are 5 countries that he calls “totalitarian,” namely, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, and Turkey. I think the “empire” he refers to is the United States, since Lévy lamented the fact that the US was pulling out of Europe, leaving the way open, he believes, for the 5 dictators. He admitted that the US as an empire was far from perfect, but it was much better than the 5 kings that will inevitably take its place. He may have a point.

Lévy said that the 5 Kings (I would add Trump here) have declared war on truth. He reminded us what Joseph Goebbels the Nazi Minister of Propaganda said, “I will decide who is a Jew. I will decide what is truth.” This is not unlike Donald Rumsfeld’s famous remark when he talked about the War in Iraq. Rumsfeld was George W. Bush’s Mininster of Defence who said, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” This is the madness of some political  political leaders and Lévy wants to expose it.

Lévy is also critical of the Internet. He once said, “There is no better instrument for incubating idiocy than the Internet. Nowhere is this more clear than in the United States.

In the interview Lévy passionately set out his critique of contemporary political life and his philosophy: “There is a battle between wisdom and idiocy; between the courage of moderation and the cowardice of extremism, between the respect of art, and beauty, and intelligence and the idea that all these values have to be torn to pieces.” Bernard-Henri Lévy also said, “Populism is a new word for fascism. Lévy said that when he was young, in 1968, he and his friends were fighting for all the people to have access to beauty, wisdom, and truth and now the populists, or fascists, want to destroy that. When they want to eradicate the elites, they also want to rid the world of truth and beauty. That is what he is fighting against, and that is why I like him so much.

The Court of Public Opinion

 

The court of public opinion does not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The court of public opinion makes its own evidentiary rules. In the court of public opinion we can consider hearsay, we can hear opinion evidence given by non-experts, we can accept leading questions, and can violate all kinds of other valuable rules of evidence. But all of us sitting in judgement in the court of public opinion should learn from the courts of law. They have some good ideas.

In the court of public opinion we should remember to listen to both sides. We should exclude dubious evidence. We should reject specious arguments. We should make our decisions based on the best evidence we can muster. We should not rely on second hand stories. We should be on guard against bias. We should keep an open mind. We should not base opinions on junk science. We should cross-examine those who testify to us (if we can). We should employ reason in weighing the evidence, rather than faith, emotion, feelings, or instincts. We should not guess or leap to conclusions. We should be diligent. We should do all these things (and more) if we are actually trying to discern the truth. We should try our best to be ideal observers.

Of course if we just want to mouth off none of this is necessary.

Whisper words of Wisdom

I am still struggling with the concept of moral humility–an elusive but important goal.

A good friend of mine, much smarter than me, told me that he does not feel he can do more than ask gentle questions. He is very effective at avoiding excessive arrogance. He practices moral humility. I aim to move in that direction.

That does not mean I should be silent. I think that if we see someone acting badly, particularly if that person is in power, we should speak. We should do that respectfully, but we may and should do that. I am trying to teach myself to criticize gently, without pontificating. That is not easy.

Today I learned something valuable for a fellow walker in our walking club.  He is a strong Christian—even an evangelical Christian I would guess—and said he had learned something valuable recently.  He said when talking to someone he never tried to convert the other person. Rather, he said,  “I ask questions,” he said, “all I want to do is leave a stone in the other person’s shoe”.

I know that I have been pontificating too much. For example, I have been very critical of capitalism.  I have never denied that capitalism has done a lot of good. It has pulled hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty into poverty. That is a momentous achievement. We need to do even better, but that is not nothing. It is a lot. I doubt that I have converted anyone.

Yet that does not mean we must give capitalism a free pass. We cannot allow capitalists free rein to destroy life on the planet as sometimes they seem bent on doing. We must criticize, but do so with humility always remembering that we mightbe wrong. Recall the uncertainty principle. Act as if we might be wrong.

As the Beatles said, “Whisper words of wisdom. Let it be.”

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Like the Republic of Imagination that I read last year, this book, Reading Lolita in Tehran that I read this year in Arizona, was brilliant. Both are written by Azar Nafisi. This one is an odd little book. It is written by a young Iranian professor of English literature who now teaches at an American University, but tells us about her first years as a professor in Iran during and after the time of the Iranian Revolution. She started sort of a book club at her home when she felt suffocated by the oppressive regime while teaching  in the University of Tehran. She went home to escape and took some of her female students with her. The professor and her students rebelled. They rebelled not with guns, bombs or conspiracies. They rebelled by reading American and English literature! In their hands that was a revolutionary activity.

All of the women lived in a totalitarian society where officials were wary of the Professor but didn’t really know what to do about her. Some of them learned how to resist. Some of them suffered serious consequences, but that is not really what the book is about. The book is about literature as rebellion.

Nafisi denied that a book was in the ordinary sense moral. She did say this, “it can be called moral when it shakes us out of our stupor and makes us confront the absolutes we believe in.”

One of the most amazing scenes in the book is when her class at the University decides to put the book The Great Gatsbyon trial.  Her students play the roles. The prosecutor is a strict straight-laced Muslim regime supporter. The defense counsel is one of her more radical female students from her book club. It is a remarkable achievement. According to Nafisi, “a great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals , and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil.” It is a revolt against moral hubris in favor of what I have come to call moral humility or restraint.

The Iranian officials tried to prescribe what all the people should do, how they worship, how they love, what they read, and what they think. It tried to restrain them totally.  The women became revolutionaries not by any overtly political acts, but only by readingand thinking. None of them fired a gun. Yet, the women learned how literature can defeat ideology. This is what Nafisi in her second book called “the Republic of Imagination.” Nafisi sees literature as revolutionary force opening the mind to possibilities. Imagine please, Jane Austen as a revolutionary!

Its books like this we should read when we are forced to confront authoritarianism. Times like now.

The Uncertainty Principle

Moral humility is born out of uncertainty. Bertrand Russell, the great British philosopher was inspired by John Locke. Locke always emphasized that all knowledge is uncertain.  People should always take into consideration that they might be wrong. This should be remembered whenever we deal with others who have different opinions from us. This leads directly to tolerance in practice. Live and let live. Reject fanaticism in favour of moderation.

Russel called this the liberal outlook. it lies not in any particular beliefs but rather in how they are held. Instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively with the understanding at all times that new evidence may show we were mistaken and will then abandon our beliefs. This is the opposite of how theologians hold beliefs.

Critical thinking is not utopian. It adopts instead what I have called the Russell principle, after Bertrand Russell. He said, “it is wrong to inflict a certain harm to achieve a dubious good.The more uncertain the future goal one is trying to achieve, the less the harm one must employ to obtain it.” It might be permitted to inflict violence to avoid a certain greater harm, but it makes no sense to inflict a certain harm to avoid an uncertain future harm unless that future harm is much, much worse than the means. This always requires a rational analysis of the probabilities. The more dubious the future goal the more gentle must be the means employed to obtain it. The problem with many modern revolutionary utopians is that often they inflict a certain substantial present harm to achieve not just a dubious future goal, but an impossible goal!

I prefer modest goals and modest means.  Many believe such views, especially in religion or politics, is too tame. They prefer missionary zeal. I don’t. I prefer moral humility.

 

On Being Judgmental

I know moral humility is something I have to learn. I wish I had more of it. often it is too easy to be judgemental. From my blogging post it is too easy to pontificate. High horses are difficult to get off with grace.

This is what a friend recently posted on my Facebook page in response to one of my epistles, “Some years ago, while working through some structured Spiritual Exercises, I came to the awareness that there is so much depravity in me… that anyone else’s shortcomings were just not properly on my agenda.” (I have changed his words slightly. I think this was a mild rebuke of me. And I appreciate it. I will tell you why.

I hate to use the defence that Trump’s new lawyer  Rudy Giuliani recently used when he basically admitted his client was guilty of all charges. Not the best defence for a lawyer to use.  Yet that is exactly my defence.  I agree with this subtle charge. Not only is this right it is profound.  I should look at my own shortcomings before looking at those of others. After alI have plenty to go around. It is too easy to be judgmental. Remember Omer Simpson’s prayer, “Please God let me go to church regularly so I can learn to be more judgmental.”

Moral humility requires that we abandon the search for perfection and accept the limitations of the human.  As has often been said, but not often enough, perfection is the enemy of the good.

I think one of the most profound passages in the Bible is Micah 6:8 which says, “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”Right now I want to emphasize “humbly”, though the other two are important too.I really need more humility and I need it badly.

I have been pontificating too much. That does not mean I won’t criticize others when I see something is wrong in my opinion. I think that would be abdication. After all I think we should point out important errors others are making, particularly if they are powerful people. We all benefit from criticism. But I must always remember that it is just my opinion. I have not found absolute truth. I must remember my own flaws first before pointing a finger at others. If you know absolute truth how can you be humble? If you don’t you mustbe humble.

But I wil continue to speak. I just hope more wisely.

The Post

On a cool day, we decided to see a movie. Like last year, I was hoping we could see as many as possible of the movies nominated for the Academy awards. We saw this one before the nominations came out, as we believed rightly it turns out, that it would be denominated for Best Picture

As a result we went to see The Post, a movie about the Washington Post and its owner, editor, and newspaper people reporting on the Pentagon Papers after the Nixon administration got an injunction against the New York Times who had started reporting on them first.

This was an outstanding movie about the costs, risks, and benefits of standing up to power. As Katherine Graham, the owner of the Washington Post (ably played by Meryl Streep) said, “If we don’t hold government to account why do we have a newspaper?” That is an important question, no more so than now in the age of so-called Fake News. Unfortunately there is a lot of fake news out there but it does not come from the New York Times, the Washington Post, or The Guardian and other first rate media. It comes from “fake news farms,” and other disreputable outlets. It is really sad that Donald Trump has tried to catch on to this issue. He was the primary beneficiary of fake news. He may have even contributed to its emergence (though that at least in the case of the Russian intervention in the 2016 Presidential election that has not yet been proven).

The film is extraordinarily relevant at a time when the current President of the United States, is not just attacking one newspaper, as Richard Nixon, did in the case of the Pentagon Papers, but is attacking an entire industry as fake news.

The Washington Post was threatened with lawsuits including potential prosecutions of the owner, Katherine Graham and the editor Ben Bradlee played by Tom Hanks. The timing is also extreme, because the Post was just in the process of going public on Wall Street at the time and the publicity of these threats could scare off the bankers and potential investors. It took incredible courage for Bradlee and Graham to go ahead with publishing under these circumstances. They might have gone to prison.

The film shows us this powerful jeopardy they experienced. Bradlee, who had less to lose, said bravely, “We can’t have an administration dictating to us our coverage just because they don’t like what we print about them in our newspaper…”

         Until this event, Graham had been considered a light-weight newspaper owner. As one of her colleagues said, “Kay throws a great party, but her father gave the paper to her husband.This dismissive assessment, not without a large dollop of male chauvinistic prejudice was widely shared in her newsroom.

The issue was whether or not these two would have the courage (or lack of sense) needed to publish the Pentagon Papers while facing the President of the United States through his Attorney General, in court? It amazed me that even though I thought I remembered the result, the tension was palpable. No doubt this is the sign of craftsmanship in  film-making.

Finally the film gives a nod to the United States Supreme Court who ruled “the founding fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfil its essential role… to serve the governed, not the governors”

Why are so many children and young people taking guns to school?

 

Chris and I were talking about the latest shooting in the United States on February 14, 2018 in Florida. A young 19 year old former student allegedly walked into his old school, turned on the fire alarm so that students would rush out of building where he was waiting with an AR 15 automatic rifle. At  least 17 students were murdered  and 15 more were injured.

The latest shooting raises many important issues and I want to comment on them later. Today I want to concentrate on one issue? Why are so many young people in America the richest country in the world taking guns to schools to shoot students?

On the 24th of January 2018, I heard on the radio that the United States had experienced its 11th shooting at a school this year. 11 in 24 days! I guess there are just not enough guns in schools yet to deter shooters. In fact, so far in the US there has been a shooting at a school every 60 hours!

This issue is particularly important because of where we are now living for 3 months: Arizona. One of those school shootings occurred here in Arizona. I learned this week that Maricopa County, where we spend a lot of time when we are here, has more guns shops than any county in the United States. A gun shop is a place where guns can be purchased. In fact, Maricopa County has more gun shops than MacDonald’s Restaurants! Added to that,  the United States has more gun shops than there are Starbucks on the planet! So guns are part of the problem and I will discuss that on a later blog.

But what about the uncomfortable fact that so many of these involve school shootings? Yesterday right after we heard about the shooting, we stopped at a pizza restaurant for supper and asked Maya our young waitress who is a high school student what she thought of it. I asked her if she felt safe in school. She said she did. Of course she said, her school had a hired security officer on duty every day. The school in Florida, I was told, also had a security officer. That did not solve the problem. Maya, contrary to arguments of the National Rifle Association, did not think more guns in school were a good idea and would not make her feel more safe. On the contrary, she said, she feared if the security had guns they might be trigger-happy and makes things a lot worse. That was an astute comment. American soldiers for example, are famous for killing their own soldiers or soldiers of their allies in “friendly fire.”  That is because they are trained to be trigger happy.

Chris mentioned something very important. That is the startling extent to which extremism is rampant here. People here can’t talk to people they disagree with politically. Extremism is prevalent everywhere, but in few developed countries if any, more than the United States. Extremism is as American as apple pie. It always has been and as a result perhaps always will be. After all the country was born in an ugly holocaust against the indigenous people and that was quickly followed by centuries of importation of black people from Africa to be enslaved in support of America enterprise. Those were certainly extreme events and as we all know, extremism leads to  extremism.

The Great Divide is not a geological phenomenon; it is a social phenomenon. Liberals/Democrats can’t fathom the idiocy of Conservatives/Republicans. Conservatives and Republicans return the sentiments. They can’t stand each other. The statements about the others are astonishingly  extreme. No the word “extreme” is not extreme enough.

In America, and much of the modern world, but most spectacularly in America, there is a profound gulf between people. Often it seems that opposing sides come from different planets. This became pronounced  during the 2016 American presidential election campaign, in which a blatant extremist—Donald Trump—got elected and half the country loved him and the other half hated him. There was little in between. As Bill Maher said, “each half of society does not want to live with the other half.”

According to a PEW study, “81% of Americans can’t agree with the other side on basic facts.” How is it possible to have rational political debate in such circumstances? And if rational political debate is no longer possible, what is the alternative? Violence is the obvious answer. And America is a very violent society.

In politics people seem to be driven not by support for their own party so much as hatred of the other side. Increasingly they voice that hatred. And guess who is listening? The young people are nourished in that environment of corrosive hatred. Is it surprising that some mentally unbalanced youth resort to violence?

At the Republican National Convention, in 2016 a senior member of Donald Trump’s campaign said that Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party presumptive nominee at the time, “should be put in a firing squad and shot.” CBC radio went to Virginia to talk to Trump supporters. They were treated to many extreme statements. One said that “Hillary is a murderer and a liar I can’t even see how she is eligible for President.” One said this about Trump, “Donald Trump may be a loose cannon but perhaps that is what the country needs.” Another said that ‘she is the closest we will get to a civil war if she pushes her agenda. Can things get more extreme than this? Trump himself suggested that American gun supporters should take care of her.

Of course Democrats were no  better. They compared Trump to Hitler. Some called him a fascist. Many have called him a pathological liar.

How much more extreme can things get?

Jonathan Haidt was one of the speakers at the Arizona State University’s year long exploration of truth seeking, politics, and freedom of speech that Chris and I have been following. We missed his talk but caught it on TV. He is a social psychologist and had fascinating things to say about the state of America. He pointed out that “the more angry you are the more pleasing it is to encounter fake news. Even if part of you doubts it is true, it just feels so good.” We want it to be true and desire is always the enemy of truth.

Haidt puts the blame on the strong American tendency to make politics religious. American politics is about the sacred. And this polarizes. This creates “our side” where all good resides, while all the bad resides with “the other side.”

As he said, “when you start to think like this, then anyone who disagrees, anyone who challenges, anyone that leaves your group, they are apostate, they are heretics, they are blasphemers and the most satisfying thing to do with them is not to lecture them, or ground them, or spank them, it is to burn them. It just feels so right to burn them at the stake.” Strong words.

Again is it surprising that the children of the partisans, who see the hatred, reflect that same hatred in their disputes with their “enemies”? People can’t talk with those they disagree with, so unsurprisingly they resort to violence. After all when the other side is evil, a refusal to use violence against them seems like a breach of trust, a sacrilege. Hatred breeds monsters and our children are the first victims. Both the children who became killers and the children who are killed.

Freedom of Thought and Expression: Civic Friendship

This is the third and final part of the discussion between Cornell West and Robert George at Arizona State University. They have what they refer to as a civic friendship. That is another important concept. Even though they are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, making them what someone called “an ideological odd couple,” they are truly friends. That was obvious by watching them talk. Even more importantly that was obvious by watching them listen–to each other. They really did listen. Clearly they respected each other.

To be civic friends you must have something in common. For example, if one of the two is not interested in seeking truth they will not be able to be friends. The friends must find that something in common to become friends. It can be many things. Truth seeking is just one, but it is a good one. It is hard to find for many of us because our differences today run so deep. After all this is the age of extremes as Eric Hobsbawm called it. Since then the chasm between the extremes has only deepened. The challenge is to find that common ground. Sometimes you have to dig deep to find the common ground. Other times it is just below the surface.

It is not enough for two sides to share something. That was proved conclusively in the United States before the differences led to Civil War. They shared a lot, but for awhile forgot what they had in common or rather, perhaps, until they were overwhelmed by their differences. In fact it certainly looks like Americans are being tested right now. Can they find their common ground or will they let their differences overwhelm them again?

George said that to be civic friends, or a nation, we must believe in some substantive fundamental civil rights and liberties that cannot be compromised. That does not mean we must agree on everything. We can have substantive differences. We can even have important disagreements on very important matters. But we must recognize that we each of us have some common fundamental rights that all of must respect–like freedom of thought and discussion for example. If we have a shared belief in the freedom to think and discuss then we have a basis for a democratic discussion. Then we will respect each other even if we disagree. To do that, “we must have a fundamental belief in the dialectical process of truth seeking.”

George and West both agreed on one more important thing. That is that there is such thing as truth. Both reject relativism. That does not mean we will agree on what is true. We may have strong disagreements about what is true. We must remember that even if we think we have discovered truth, we could be wrong. Like John Stuart Mill said, you must listen to the other no matter how unlikely it is that you will agree with anything the other has to say. All of our ‘truths’ must be open to revision. We always have to remember that we are not infallible. We might be wrong. This is not relativism. It is just a recognition of our fallibility.

West always brings it back to music. “Artists are the vanguard of the people, and musicians are the vanguard of music,” West said. He said that we have a choice of indescribable pleasures or deep joy. He chooses deep joy. “It is the job of the artist to radically unsettle us.” It is the same of education. As West said, “if you have never felt your fundamental ideas rested on pudding, you never had any real education.” He also said, “There is no rebirth without dying first.

To that George added, “If at any University experience is constant reaffirmation of what you believe, you are not being challenged and you have not had a real educational experience.” Only if you think your beliefs through and reach the same conclusion as before is that acceptable.

George added, “We need open-mindedness because we seek truth and want to be challenged. George’s position is, I believe, like that of John Stuart Mill who said, we should thank everyone who tries to dislodge us from our settled opinions. They are doing us a big favor. If they persuade us to change our minds that is great. We are better off because we discarded an opinion that was not defensible. If they do not persuade us to change our minds, at least they have made us think about our opinions and how they could be defended. We come to understand our opinions better. We are actually in a better position to defend them in such a case. So again we should thank them. We should never try to shout them down or stop them from arguing with us. For our own sake we should let them speak.

According to George, after a history of having our opinions challenged “we become our own best interrogators. We become our own best critics.” That should be the goal. It should become our goal if we love the truth.

West took this opportunity to argue in defense of scepticism. Scepticism is not relativism. Scepticism is critical thinking. That is what we need. We do not need absolute scepticism that believes in nothing. The scepticism he advocated was exemplified by Malcolm X. In other words a scepticism that is suspicious of received opinions from power. Malcolm X was sceptical–for good reason–about American democracy, which all around him claimed to be an absolute good when it was filled with flaws. He pointed out some of its flaws to others, and that made him very unpopular with much of America. So be it. Some people don’t like to hear the truth.

John Dewey argued in against wholesale scepticism, but in favor of retail scepticism. Retail scepticism can lead to truth. That is what we are seeking. Wholesale scepticism hides from the truth. As West said, “We have to be sceptical about scepticism.”

George added to these remarks. He said, what is vital is questioning. We must be ready and willing to question all opinions. “Scepticism can become a dogma,” George said. Scepticism should never become so pervasive that it leads to indifference and despair. Then we lose all ability to act.

Henry David Thoreau went to jail because he refused to pay taxes to support the war with Mexico. He called it a land grab. It was colonialism and exploitation at its worst, in his opinion, so he refused to pay and was put in jail for that refusal. Of course, what about the far larger original land grab when Europeans who settled in North America and South America grabbled the hemisphere from the Indigenous people that lived here and in the process caused the death of 95% of the population of the Western Hemisphere? It was the greatest holocaust in history!

West also said we had to leery of micro-suffering. People who take offense at the mere mention of abuse must be challenged. Especially in a University, but not just there, we must be willing to engage in a discussion of all issues, even those that are painful to some people. We must do that with respect and consideration, but we have the right to discuss those issues. No one has the right not to hear offensive things. West said, “As a teacher it is not my responsibility to provide a safe place for learning. In fact, the place of learning should be a place that is unsettling. ” If it is not unsettling it is not doing its job.

As George said, “The point of education is not to show off our learning, or gain prestige, it is to seek the truth. That process should be unsettling even to our most cherished beliefs, even our fundamental beliefs. We must be willing to expose even our religious views to scrutiny. For some of us that will be hard.” West also reminded us, “Education is not indoctrination”.

This puts a heavy responsibility on teachers. They should put forth both sides of a dispute to their students. In fact, teachers should not tilt the scales in favor of their favored views. This means putting forth best arguments for both sides of an argument. This is what Plato did in his dialogues. Try to figure out ‘why do well informed, intelligent people disagree with me?’ We must each do that. We must each be our best interrogators.

George said that he frequently reads Nietzsche because he does not agree with him. He knows that Nietzsche is a brilliant thinker and writer so he wants to contend with the best arguments on all issues. He frequently tests himself to see if he can still contend with Nietzsche. And you have to be honest with yourself if you do this. Otherwise you are just fooling yourself.

George said that each of us needs self-reflection to challenge our most sacred views. We must learn to be our best critics. We should also seek out a good friend to debate issues. This means a friend who is willing to tell us when we are wrong. A deep friendship allows a friend to criticize us. Criticism is always for our own good.

We must expose ourselves to the best counter arguments. This does not show a lack of passion. This allows us to grasp an issue more deeply. And West concluded with this remark, “In the end we talk about living.” Socrates was right: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” We want to seek the truth to make our life better. Even if we don’t find the truth, the search for truth improves our life.