Written by Corey McLaughlin for Common Culture and The Big Slice.
Many people these days appear liable to believe the very worst about their president and/or their government.
Bafflingly, they base their inclinations not on evidence or exacting scrutiny, but instead upon the hunches they feel in their gut. Somewhat presciently, Stephen Colbert labeled the phenomenon ‘truthiness’ back in 2005, and if anything, the development now dominates the mindset of the average American.
The truthiness crowd elevates hunches, instincts, and intuition to the same stature as hard data and empirical analysis. Such behavior, while often amusing, is absolutely irrational, serving only to corrode America’s collective spirit, to sap our strength, and to degrade our national character.
To remedy this condition, Many Americans desperately needs remedial lessons in both philosophy and history, because they have groundlessly adopted a philosophy of absolute skepticism; they have done so due to the infusion of fundamentalist evangelicalism into mainstream American culture and politics since the late 1970’s.
Part One of this essay details the philosophic aspects of this argument, while Part Two deals with the historical elements therein.
The NSA Case
There is an uproar this week in the press and in the general population over the data-mining methods of the National Security Agency (NSA). The program in question (named PRISM) is not new, nor is it doing anything illegal, according to the federal court in charge of oversight.
Some facts of the case remain classified; however, standard compliance with the FISA court has been maintained throughout the program’s existence, and senior intelligence officials have stated that American lives have already been saved with PRISM’s assistance. Many of the original, outlandish claims were subsequently disproven, as the whistleblower continues to look less and less reliable as a source. Little remains undetermined, and yet in spite of all this, a lot of Americans are absolutely convinced that Obama and the NSA are guilty of every accusation levied against them.
The Assumption of Innocence
Now in America, the rule of law is intended to be administered with a presumption of innocence, always. So the burden of proof is supposed to lie on the accuser, and not on the accused. This standard applies toward individuals as well as the groups, businesses, and the institutions that they create.
The presumption of innocence isn’t just some arcane rule of thumb, either. It is central to the American identity, and a fundamental principle of American Law – innocent until proven guilty – that’s as American as apple pie, right?
Since the federal government is being accused of wrongdoing, the presumption of innocence should undoubtedly apply to it as well; there are no exceptions to such a rule. And yet, the case against the NSA is based in its entirety upon unsubstantiated claims derived from questionable sources, while contradictory evidence is being ignored. The NSA’s culpability has already been presumed!
A Third Red Scare?
Much of the press and the public are foolishly fixating on the federal government and our president for alleged misconduct, rather than letting the investigation turn up the truth on its own. Accusations are preceding evidence; the cart is getting out in front of the horse, so to speak.
Ordinarily, allegations such as these would be verified and thoroughly vetted in our courts of law as well as in our media; this is the rational process established over the 200-odd years of our nation’s history.
This is the American way of doing business, devised to deliver maximum liberty and justice for all – and this approach is being subverted from within.
America has suffered through at least two other periods like this present crisis, where enemies were seen around every corner, and infiltrators were imagined in the highest offices. The “Red Scare(s)” of 1919–1921 and 1947–1957 were shameful chapters in our nation’s history. Sadly, it would appear that such sensationalism and fear-driven sophistry are in season once again.
The Golden Mean
Shifting gears, Aristotle taught about a concept called the Golden Mean. Here, a ‘mean’ is considered to convey something midway between two extremes – a happy medium, so to speak. Too little or too much of any particular virtue was to be avoided. For an easy example of the Golden Mean in action, consider acts of generosity.
The act of donating resources to the poor demonstrates some degree of virtue because it provides for (or improves upon) the general welfare of the giver, the recipient, and the society within which they both transact their lives.
But if you give more than you can afford, it diminishes the welfare of you and your household both physically and mentally; health and happiness do not reach their optimal levels, which necessarily indicates that a less-than-ideal degree of virtue was demonstrated. Likewise, if you give less than you can afford to give you are also behaving less virtuously, because the ideal ratio of health, peace of mind, and overall welfare are not attained in that instance, either.
There is, therefore, a happy medium to be reached when donating resources to the poor. Similarly, there are optimal balances to be reached when employing patience, kindness, cleanliness, skepticism, or any other virtue. Since skepticism is a virtue, then it follows that some degree of skepticism is always a good thing, but too much of it qualifies you as a cynic.
The difference between cynics and rational folk, then, is that a cynic employs too great a degree of skepticism when evaluating the merits of policies, people, or institutions, whereas rational folk’s aim is truer to the Golden Mean.
In recent years many Americans have succumbed to a personal philosophy of absolute skepticism, which one might also call cynicism. Cynicism is the perfect complement to truthiness. Where cynicism tells you to distrust anything you don’t already believe, truthiness tells you to accept only the truths that feel comfortable to you. When cynicism and truthiness are demonstrated in the same person, or groups of people, they become obtuse to a fault.
No amount of evidence can persuade a cynic to switch positions or beliefs once they have made up their mind. Cynics insist that their feelings are truth itself, because their emotional states feel “true” to them. These supposed instincts seem true because such a conclusion already supports their preexisting beliefs; they accept the answer that presents the least amount of conflict.
Stated more succinctly, cynics won’t change their minds because their minds are already made up.
Psychological research has supported the argument that humans, regardless of political affiliation, are naturally inclined to accept opinions that dovetail smoothly with their established systems of thoughts. This is our natural tendency as human beings – it is just easier to believe what fits into your worldview.
Humans are also naturally skeptical creatures, but we can suspend our disbelief. Rational people will elect to curtail their skepticism in light of evidence and systematic scrutiny, whereas cynics cling to their beliefs stubbornly. All too often, this translates to a conflation of political ideology with religious faith.
Some cynics have made up their mind on religions, others toward a political party or issue, still others against a particular president (ahem). When one is already convinced, then nothing the leader or institution does can ever be correct; no other policy could be the “right” one; no other religion can be legitimate. We’re talking about a militant cynicism, here.
We live in an age awash in pessimism, an time when those skeptical of authority and top-down institutions are as numerous as they have ever been before. We live in an era when three million people tune in daily to crackpots like Alex Jones, with an additional three and a half million devoted to the sophistry of Glenn Beck. We exist in a period of such skepticism that when a technician makes serious and unsubstantiated claims through a previously discredited blogger / activist / lawyer, even the journalists accept the narrative without question…or evidence.
The current NSA scandal-of-the-week owes its very existence to this absolute form of skepticism fused with truthiness. The incessant parade of accusations and sideshows threatens the health of our very Republic.
There tends to be a propensity toward such irrationality on the political fringes – and that holds true for both liberals and conservatives. This predilection now dominates – indeed, poisons – public opinion. It certainly cripples our institutions of state and nullifies the national will. All we can do when we get like this is bicker.
Our collective vision is plagued with a crippling cynicism, and the nation itself grows more dysfunctional with each disbelieving breath. In order to remedy this affliction, we will first need to understand its origins. Much of the current truthiness crisis owes its origins to fundamentalist evangelicalism, and the faith’s infusion into mainstream American culture in the late 1970’s.
Part Two of this essay will explore the historical underpinnings of the crisis.
Written by Corey McLaughlin for Common Culture and The Big Slice.
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