How Do You Know?

“To this aversion of the intellectual elite for official historiography, to its conviction that history, which was a forgery anyway, might as well be the playground of crackpots, must be added the terrible, demoralizing fascination in the possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestionable facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition.” – Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

The stream of lies from the president elect has been unprecedented in modern times, so much so that we are told now that we live in a post-fact world – that pronouncement comes, probably not coincidentally, from the “intellectual elite” (such as it is) of the president elect’s campaign staff. As an academic that makes me recoil in horror, and I can boldly say that I speak for my profession and the entire academy in general. The commitment of the academic, in fields from history to language, from literature to philosophy, from physics to Classics, from math to biology, is a search for truth. What makes up the atom? How do you conjugate a Latin verb? What brought about the catastrophic 30 Years War? Why does the bird sing?

These are not fungible. Argue against the facts of the atom and you will never explain molecules. Question the conjugation of a Latin verb and you can forget reading Vergil or Caesar. Knowledge relies on some absolute acceptance of facts and hard data. Take these away and the whole edifice collapses. And if you want hard proof of this there is no better place than the sciences, for if facts there did not work, then there would be no heart transplants, pharmaceuticals, or iphones, plain and simple. And for that matter no guns or diabetes meds for the president elect’s deplorables (yeah, I can say it, but a presidential candidate probably should not – even though truer words . . . )

The public has little idea, I suspect, of how much rigor goes into the creation of knowledge and its pursuit in the academy. First there is the hazing process of graduate school, in which (for my part) I had to go through a series of no less than five preliminary exams (excluding my exams for French, German, and Italian scholarly reading). Then there is the hazing process of actually getting a job, which can be about as easy in some fields as breaking into professional athletics. Then the big hurdle comes, publication and tenure. When you publish your work is usually rejected a number of times. That’s because it needs to be vetted by readers who are experts on what you have written and because, in addition, your work needs to go through an editor. It is honed and perfected in the process.

So forget punditry and news: the best sources of information remain, for the moment, our colleges and universities. That having been said, the collapse of public interest and trust in news sources is a disaster, and democracy cannot, and will not, thrive unless the media can again gain trust, but the ominous development of the atomization of media audiences and the constant dissemination of false news over social media may prove a cataclysm with which we are unable to come to terms.

For myself, I rarely watch television news, and have little respect for anyone on the major networks (in which I include ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, CNN, CNBC, PBS, and MSNBC). I gravitate towards scholars who maintain blogs and independent media that depends on donations and where I’ve done some research into their credibility and, above all, their ability to maintain high standards through self-criticism and admission of error when it is made through self-correction. How many times has FOX admitted to error over the years? Self-criticism is essential, but that will never come from party owned networks such as FOX, and certainly not from the raging narcissist about to take the highest office.

So how was I brought to the conclusion that the current president elect was a historically bad choice? No, it wasn’t the media or news. It was through years of reading: Tacitus, Thucydides, Livy, Plato, Plutarch, Sallust, and Cicero; De Tocqueville, the Bible, Carl Safina, Timothy Egan, Adam Smith, William Shirer, Hannah Arendt, Eli Wiesel, the writings of Abraham Lincoln. A lifetime of teaching in divers communities, of travel, of living in other cultures and countries, including some – horror of horrors – socialist ones. And above all, listening to and reading the words of the current president elect.

It took no news source to tell me that the creature that now holds the highest office of the land has the temperament of an authoritarian. That he despises the very mob who laid in his honor the foundations on which he erected his temple of hate. That he’s a liar. That, despite his supporters now dismissing some of his most egregious policies as showmanship, when an authoritarian personality such as his says he is going to start mass deportation, revocation of LGBT rights, registries for Muslims, you believe him. So go ahead and plant fake news and start your PR juggernaut all you want. I, for one, intend to keep a clear head, and not be gas-lighted by collaborators and fellow travelers such as the craven Thomas Friedman or the odious David Brooks.

And when I hear John Stewart talking in maudlin terms about respecting the views and perspectives of first responders who voted for the current president elect, I want to wretch, because Stewart demands that we respect their work and opinion (and it is worth noting that they have chosen that work and opinion). What about the work of academics – of those whose work has, over time, enabled the technology to construct their equipment and heal their wounds? How can we have mutual respect and dialogue when one party says your contribution and work are worthless? That historians, and economists, and Earth scientists, who have devoted their lives to understanding their fields and most of whom have a deep commitment to the common good, are full of bunkum? Stewart should know better, and he should be ashamed, too, as a Jew who is defending an anti-Semitic administration (and if you don’t believe me, just look at the biographies of some of his choices). No, I don’t need the news to tell me how dangerous this person is, because I have an historic memory, passed down by my family, of the Second World War, because I have learned to read authoritarian types, and because I remember his years of degenerate behavior heralded for all the citizenry to sniff out in the toxic vapors of the yellow press.

We knew this creature before he ever even came on the scene, for he has been with us always.






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