In this article, Lorna Salzman, an American, looks at her own nation and questions its current inability to think independently and its narrow focus instead of a wide lense on more urgent issues common to humanity, resulting in a raft of ill-conceived ideas and behaviors that defy logic and common sense. In her questioning, she might have already provided some answers. She writes: "Whatever happened to critical and analytical thinking? Whatever happened to that habit of doubt, of those demands for evidence that our courses in science and philosophy taught us? And what is the future for our country when so many minds of so many generations can be deflected away from intellectual rigor and into intellectual rigor mortis?"
by Lorna SalzmanOf all the democracies in the world, the American one has the honor of hosting the most gullible citizenry. One gropes for an explanation of this phenomenon that expands daily despite a free press, a huge higher education and academic infrastructure, a primary school system mandating education for twelve years, a system of secular democracy, and an estimable Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Nonetheless, Americans droop their tails and ears and willingly follow their chosen pack over the cliff. From cults like Scientology to Christian fundamentalist preachers to angry men dictating their doctrine to pregnant women to boilerplate Roman Catholic priests and pope encouraging overbreeding to Muslim imams preaching the sharia enslavement of women to New Age gurus collecting high tuition in exchange for platitudes about spirituality to fraudulent snake oil salesmen promoting herbal "cures" instead of vaccines to Democratic Party leaders promising fire and brimstone to those who don't vote for their anointed leader to hard-line leftists dedicated to annihilating Israel, this country has descended into a Bosch-like hell of false messiahs competing for human minds.
Like the Chinese menu, this one has columns with brain food choices from A to Z. The available food groups of irrationality are almost endless.This is the prototype of the American mall, where the consumer can find an endless assortment of mental madness.
Whatever happened to critical and analytical thinking? Whatever happened to that habit of doubt, of those demands for evidence that our courses in science and philosophy taught us? And what is the future for our country when so many minds of so many generations can be deflected away from intellectual rigor and into intellectual rigor mortis?
Well, all you have to do is look at the state of this country and realize that the future is already here. Raging armies whipped into frenzies of hate by demagogues; fuzzy college courses devised by post-modernists to brainwash the blank-slate minds of students; panicked parents refusing immunization and putting their children at risk of dying from epidemics; creeping Islamic doctrines used to subvert the law and civil society in the name of a global caliphate.....all of which have enriched irrational secular and religious doctrines and doctrinaires that are contributing to a rapid deterioration of citizenship and reason. Any historian would be hard put to conclude anything but that the collapse of the empire is nigh.
The assortment of excuses and rationalizations for these choices is, unlike the choices themselves, astute. These include self-improvement; compassion; dedication to human rights; ethnic and cultural self-determination; assertion of personal liberty and freedom of choice; resistance to "illegitimate" authority (rife on both the left and the right, though for different reasons); empathy with oppressed peoples; resistance to cruel tyrants, corporations or crooked politicians.
Each movement and campaign chooses what suits its political objectives best, depending on its potential audience. Muslim leaders home in on the civil liberties, legal system and tolerance of liberals and the left, claiming discrimination and victimization in their campaign to undermine secular democracy. The extreme authoritarian left plays on the heart strings of liberals by portraying "oppressed" Palestinians and distorting the history of territorial claims and treaties. The snake oil salesmen appeal to parents of sick children by casting doubt on science and medicine and accusing the government of foisting poisons on the public and causing their child's autism; leftist post-modernists, using selective cases of racism and sexism, portray the whole educational system as one corrupt in all its teachings and reliant on outdated methodologies and ancient prejudices (a system they would replace by one that is equally corrupt and far more intellectually prejudiced).
The voices of and for reason struggle to be heard in this Babel-esque clamor and power struggle. It is testimony to the strength of the human need for order, clarity and stability that so many people fall prey to these forces..which of course are causing the social instability we see around us. This conundrum is hard to understand for most of us. But an understanding of human evolution can help us explain it.
Before the scientific discoveries of the late 17th and 18th centuries, and before the Enlightenment that followed, which clarified the relationship of rational thought to social justice and civil liberties, humans in all societies sought non-scientific explanations for why things were the way they were. Religion, whether primitive, pagan , Christian, Judaic, oriental, provided answers that humans had no choice but to accept. (One wonders whether there were atheists in the old days; if there were, they kept their mouths shut). People had no means of either investigating natural phenomenon much less questioning official religious doctrine. The default position of humanity was Irrationality. The only mechanism—invisible and unknown of course—that distinguished between what was "good" or "bad" (i.e., what worked vs. what didn't work) was natural selection.
The appearance of universal moral codes of behavior was a result of observation of the RESULT of natural selection, though no one had any inkling of the mechanism of course. With regard to incest, before science understood the genetics of reproduction, no one knew that incest was biologically a bad idea. What they did know, by observation, was that those who had sexual relations with close relatives either had miscarriages, gave birth to deformed children who died early and didn't leave offspring, or didn't reproduce at all. Because all of these occurred, the result was that those to whom incest was repugnant were more successful breeders: they produced more and healthier children, all of whom retained the same repugnance toward breeding with relatives. Gradually this group outbred those less repulsed by incest, so today the incest taboo is essentially universal.
In other words, there was no INTELLECTUAL understanding of why incest was bad. An epigenetic rule had emerged that sufficed to suppress counteradaptive behavior. Similarly, the rest of human understanding about life was derived from experience and observation, and derived other epigenetic rules.
The default position was Irrationality. But this does not mean that the arrival of the Enlightenment and the later advances and discoveries of science erased Irrationality; not at all. It replaced them in most places because of the spread of the printed word, education, urbanization, travel, wider human interaction across continents, commerce and trade, onto which science and technology were grafted. When we open a textbook today we learn about evolution, the laws of physics, the elements, mathematics, biology. Because of their pertinence and validity, these became the basis for modern science and civilization (except in the Muslim world and some tribal societies which still practice shamanism and rely on trial and error).
But irrationality and the innate human need for explanations never disappeared. It was the genius of tyrants, both religious and secular, to understand and address these needs: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Chavez, Castro, Bin Laden, Nasrullah, Ahmadinejad, Pol Pot, Milosevic, Franco, and the pope. Today, thanks to modern communications and freedom of travel and association, new cults and tyrants are able to find new followers for every myth and fable they concoct.
Meanwhile, in the face of multiple social, economic and political crises, any person can find like-minded people with similar worries and concerns, thanks to the internet, telephone and printed communications. Every tiny personal crusade can become enlarged to the point where it becomes a singular all-consuming occupation, to the exclusion of the larger problems that face ALL of society, such as climate change, economic inequality, overpopulation, resource depletion, and collapse of global ecosystems.
This is America today, and it is not a pretty picture. We lack the vision and leadership that created our republic. We have shunted aside the very institutions and intellectual achievements that have supported secular democracy. We have abandoned citizenship in favor of consumerism. And instead we follow and worship false gods; in fact, if I recall correctly, wasn't there something in the Old Testament about that? Hmm, maybe the Bible does have something important to say.
The author, a graduate of Cornell University, has been an environmental writer, lecturer and activist since the 1970s. Her articles on environment, energy, biodiversity and natural history have appeared in leading journals here and abroad, including The Ecologist, Index on Censorship, Resurgence, New Politics, and Business & Society Review. Her professional career began when David Brower, the leading conservationist of the 20th century in the USA, hired her as mid-Atlantic representative for Friends of the Earth, where she worked on wetlands, coastal zone and nuclear power issues for over a decade. In this period she was instrumental in the preservation of two key wildlife habitats (Swan Pond and Maple Swamp) in Suffolk County, NY.
Later she became an editor at the National Audubon Society's journal, American Birds, followed by directorship of the anti-food irradiation group, Food and Water. In the mid 1980s she co-founded the New York Greens, later the New York Green Party, on whose state committee she served for several years, and became active in the national green movement.
She worked for three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection, focusing on wetlands and coastal zone protection. In 2002 she was the Suffolk County Green Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st CD on eastern Long Island, and in 2004 she was a candidate for the U.S. Green Party's presidential nomination. Her hobbies are mushroom hunting, classical music and birding around the world with her composer-husband Eric. They have twin daughters, one a pop composer and lyricist in NYC and the other a poet and writer based in England. They live in Brooklyn Heights, NY, and East Quogue, NY, and have lived for extended periods in Italy and France.
Copyright ©2012. Lorna Salzman. All Rights Reserved. It is published here with the author's permission. More of her writing can be found at www.lornasalzman.com.