Conservative Doesn’t Mean Mindless

Instead of my usual opening image, I will start today with an aphorism. I chose it because of the obvious irony. I am into irony these days. It helps me through the days.

It is better to be be slapped with the truth than kissed with a lie. (Russian proverb)

It is very difficult, even I would say impossible, to get where you are going by using only the rear view mirror. That’s true unless you are heading to a distant past. This may be the right destination following some sort of collapse or serious setback, but hardly the right one to head for when everything seems to be working reasonably well. Especially in contrast to times in the past. Today I am going to comment on a development where the present plans would seem to take us back to times when we struggled to move forward.

Conservatism, like liberalism, means many things to many people, but I cannot find any arguments that it refers to going backwards. The classic case is to stick with what you have instead of trying out new, unproven ideas. In the real, complex world, this never made sense and it doesn’t today. We live in a world with many flaws in the fabric of our ideals. They are there because the explanatory models and structures built on them fail to match the reality of the world. Unlike scientific facts that do a good job of matching the parts of that world, our beliefs and institutional facts, which may have come close to reality sometime in the past, have become obsolete and mismatched to the present world.

Complexity demands a certain level of humility, a willingness to accept the virtual certainty that anything we say about the world can only approximate, at best, what is going on out there. Even science struggles when it comes to explaining the real, complex world. The best, perhaps the only, way to deal with complexity is via pragmatism. Pragmatism is a way toward understanding complexity. The better we understand how any complex system, like the real world, writ large or small, works, the more likely our attempts to guide it towards our desires will be effective. In changing times, the very reason to try new and different approaches is that the old ways no longer fit the world, and in fact created many of the problems to be addressed.

With this short preface, let me connect it to what has been going on. The last time human societies attempted to operate without facts was the Dark Ages. We owe almost everything we would argue is “good” for us from the marvelous realization in the Enlightenment that facts matter. Life until that time had been ruled by articles of faith coming from two sources. One, obviously, is religion whose dogma was largely responsible for the darkness of the Dark Ages.

The second is what emerged in the early times of the Enlightenment as scientific facts. I write “as scientific facts” because they are not what we would call such facts today. They were pronouncements of philosophers, like Descartes, Hobbes, or Smith, about eternal truths that were picked up and used to build the early modern world we still live within. But they are not scientific facts at all. Today, we accept as scientific facts only those that have emerged from the rigorous application of the scientific method, which ironically was an idea of Descartes. The facts produced by the early Enlightenment thinkers are what have been called institutional facts, social constructs, legal fictions, even imagined realities. They take on the power of true facts about the world simply because they become heard as such, usually because the first person to utter them has some sort of authoritarian legitimacy.

John Searle, the philosopher, offers another category of facts he call “brute facts.” They are simply truths about the world that speak for themselves. I am a male is an example. I am composing this blog on an iMac is another. So is the size of the Inauguration crowd a brute fact. Occasionally there may be good reasons to argue over brute facts, but not usually in a society of shared meaning about the physical nature of the world. The concept of “alternate [brute] facts” is nonsense. It is simply a denial of reality that comes with a great loss.

Denying brute facts destroys trust in the speaker very quickly. Without trust, new institutional facts, the critical kind necessary for any form of social existence from families to nations, even to the whole planet, will not be accepted as true or valid. If and when this happens, the fundamental underlying principle of American democracy, governing with the consent of the governed, is broken. I understand our American society is built on a network of principles and rules, but if this one goes, nothing else matters.

A substantial number of Americans have already made this judgment that the government cannot be trusted. Supposedly that fact was a major factor in Trump’s victory. Now, that number is being rapidly magnified by those who have already losing or have lost trust in the new government. Not by any past act, but by the blatant, deliberate lying since the election. This distortion of the truth in not the same as the argument George Lakoff makes about the framing of issues. He points to the power of context to guide the way we think and act, but always within the bounds of fact.

If this were not enough to wonder about the path ahead, the new Administration is showing an utter disregard for science. I guess that is because science has been legitimized as the best source of facts about the world we can trust, not because they are true in the sense of brute facts, but because they enable us to construct material and institutional structures that generally work the way we want. They also point out changes in the world that threaten those structures and the norms/ideals they stand for. The consequences of this disregard for both scientific and brute facts include one obvious, but chilling, outcome: a return to the Dark Ages. Not the Dark Ages of pre-Enlightenment times, but one of our own making.

We are not the first to face the possibility that our acceptance of a pack of lies or alternate facts has led to the very loss of freedoms we feared or never even knew they were available. I have lived through times when many souls lived and died under the heels of authoritarian leaders who survived largely by suppressing truth. I will finish this blog with a few quotes of one of my heroes who clearly saw the need for truth and the consequences of losing access to it, Vaclav Havel. Havel led the Czechs out of darkness by forcing the truth of their world on them and by that process, empowering the powerless. Here are just a few of my favorites.

There can be no doubt that distrust of words is less harmful than unwarranted trust in them. When a truth is not given complete freedom, freedom is not complete.

A human action becomes genuinely important when it springs from the soil of a clearsighted awareness of the temporality and the ephemerality of everything human. It is only this awareness that can breathe any greatness into an action.

What is needed in politics is not the ability to lie but rather the sensibility to know when, where, how and to whom to say things.

Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not.

Man is not an omnipotent master of the universe, allowed to do with impunity whatever he thinks, or whatever suits him at the moment. The world we live in is made of an immensely complex and mysterious tissue about which we know very little and which we must treat with utmost humility.