Remember Jack Nicholson’s infamous dialogue from A Few Good Men? You know when Tom Cruise is grilling him on the witness stand and says, “I want the truth” and Nicholson’s reply is, “You can’t handle the truth!” That’s what pops to mind when reading this article titled The rise of the American conspiracy theory at The Week, expect instead of “You can’t handle the truth” it’s “You can’t find the truth.”
The article is basically about modern politics and how over the past generation there’s been a concerted effort by political conservatives to destroy the credibility of liberal institutions that were the gatekeepers of what we can call capital-t “Truth.” You know, institutions like the liberal media, the liberal government, the liberal faculty at fill-in-the-blank university, etc. Unfortunately instead of acting as a counterbalance to the liberal biases of those institutions – and yes they often were biased – or insisting on more objectivity, they simply cut them off at the knees. In essence they threw the objective baby out with the liberal bathwater. Let’s let the article’s author describe what’s resulted:
Now how about this: We know that greenhouse gases are producing destabilizing changes in the Earth’s climate. And that human beings evolved from other species over millions of years. And that Barack Obama is a Christian. And that Hillary Clinton had nothing to do with the death of Vince Foster.
Large numbers of Americans deny those and many other assertions. Why? Because the trustworthiness of the authorities that make the claims has been under direct and continuous attack for the past several decades — and because the internet has given a voice to every kook who makes a contrary assertion. What we’re left with is a chaos of competing claims, none of which has the authority to dispel the others as untrue.
That sounds like a recipe for relativism — and it is, but only (metaphorically speaking) for a moment, as a preparatory stage toward a new form of absolutism. Confronted by the destabilizing swirl of contradictory assertions, many people end up latching onto whichever source of information confirms the beliefs they held before opening their web browser. Instead of relativistic skepticism they’re left with some of the most impenetrable dogmas ever affirmed.
One of the reasons it’s been so troubling to see traditional media implode the way it has is that we’ve lost the whole concept of the Fourth Estate. Of course there was always bias in the media, but there was also a great deal of effort put into trying to be as objective as possible. There was pride taken in holding the powers-that-be accountable no matter which party they belonged to. Unfortunately in order for a media outlet to be successful these days it has to pick a side, to be affiliated with one of the teams, and thus lose any chance of being considered an objective source of information.
And that’s just the media. When all institutions are undermined, when facts are successfully slain by articles of faith, we lose a most critical element of a functioning society – the belief that our institutions, as flawed as they might be, are in place to promote the common good. That in general our institutions can be trusted to eventually do what is right and best for our society. Unfortunately our current political environment has killed that belief. As the author says:
This is what happens when the principle of democratic egalitarianism is applied to questions of knowledge and truth — when instead of working to reform institutions devoted to upholding norms of objectivity and verifiable evidence, critics turn them into a target for destruction altogether, transforming public life into an epistemological free-for-all in the process.
That things have degraded so badly is troubling. But it’s nowhere near as troubling as the realization that we haven’t got the foggiest clue how to reverse the damage.