by Mark English
Late last year I wrote a piece about censorship and humor, alluding to the fact that in times of oppression and excessive censorship, humor tends to bubble up and create a space for the expression of dissenting thoughts and feelings. The self-expression involved here may be controlled and deliberate (as in sophisticated satire and black humor), or it may be reckless and anarchical (i.e. “laughing when one shouldn’t be laughing”).
But – as foreseen by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell – more sophisticated and all-encompassing forms of propaganda can change the situation in fundamental ways. When propaganda is truly effective, it may not be readily identifiable as such and so the scope for independent thinking and feeling – and, by extension, for satire, black humor and various forms of disobedience and dissent – narrows dramatically.
We are not (in Western countries, at least) seeing effective totalitarian control but we are seeing more effective forms of thought control being deployed than those which applied in previous times. Whether one is talking about the narratives disseminated by dissident or radical sources or those promoted by big tech and mainstream media, biases and preconceptions inevitably come into play. And artful communicators now have new means of gathering data and shaping their messages to flatter the vanity and play on the biases, fears and predilections of their target audiences.
One consequence of the cultural and technological changes we are seeing is that the line between political activism and research and knowledge sharing has been erased – at least in many areas. Journalistic and publishing standards have plummeted, obviously. But it is the failure of the universities and other institutions of science and scholarship which is particularly galling for me. The institutions which I most respected – and to which I devoted many years of professional life – are being compromised and debased. Whatever could be politicized has been politicized and in very boring and predictable ways. The trends have been obvious for decades, but I had no idea just how fragile the commitment to science, scholarship and truth-seeking was, both within academia and in the broader community.
At the heart of the problem, as I see it, are postmodern and pragmatic views on truth and history. For whatever reason or reasons, such views have been energetically promoted by academics and school teachers, and they now pervade the broader society, contributing to the failure of political discourse. Everything is being reduced to rhetoric and the here and now.
I am not saying that there are not serious flaws in traditional ways of seeing the world. There are. But, for me, it’s a baby and bathwater thing. If we abandon the path of consilience and convergence in the realm of knowledge, we are ultimately condemning ourselves to intellectual impotence and irrelevance.
This is just rhetoric, you may say, and so it may be. I have not proved anything here. But my claim is a substantive one. It is a claim about the past and a prediction concerning the fate of cultures which abandon traditional epistemic values. The basic idea or intuition behind it is that epistemic relativism facilitates ideological fantasies which in turn lead to a disconnect between cultural and economic realities.
With respect to our future, time will tell. The intellectual fashions of which I speak could conceivably pass as the generation that has promoted and popularized them slowly dies off. But the signs are not good. Great damage has been done.
Maybe these tendencies of thought (mutating now in grotesque and seemingly crazy ways) are best seen as epiphenomena driven by economic forces or by the physics of complex systems. Maybe it doesn’t even make sense to claim that certain ways of thinking caused or contributed to this or that. Nonetheless, we can always observe and describe. Clarity and perspicacity are possible even when we cannot see into the heart of things or identify the root causes of the changes which we observe.
We see, for example, domestic problems in many Western countries and a commensurate decline in power and influence. The prestige of Western civilization derived largely from scientific, technical and industrial achievements. Nobody was imitating us during the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance would not have happened without the scientific and technical innovations that so fascinated Leonardo da Vinci and which changed the face of art and architecture. Even the English Romantics defined themselves against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution. No Industrial Revolution, no Romantic reaction.
For centuries the West was envied and admired for its prosperity and cultural sophistication. It was also, of course, respected and feared for its military might. But this aura of power, status and invincibility is now gone. The United States, the last in a succession of Western imperial powers, is failing. Economically speaking, the U.S. has been living on borrowed time for decades. The national debt is skyrocketing and is now at unprecedented and unsustainable levels. This in itself is enough to undermine hope in the future. As the dollar devalues over time (as it must if defaults are to be avoided), the U.S. standard of living – once amongst the highest in the world – will decline inexorably.
Most of the thinkers I am interested in and know a bit about are out of fashion in Western academic circles. A number of them dealt with economic as well as political themes, but not in a Marxist or Keynesian way. I am encouraged, however, to see that the traditions of political and economic thought to which I am attuned still find expression in some quarters.
For some time I have been following the thoughts of Hong Kong-based Louis-Vincent Gave on geopolitics and investment. He is not an academic. But I was surprised and pleased to see him refer favorably in a recent interview to the French economist and political thinker Jacques Rueff who was, in the middle decades of the last century, a prominent and articulate opponent of Keynesian ideas.
Gave sees the world splitting into separate economic blocs. This process – putting security of supply above cost and efficiency – will reverse the deflationary tendencies of globalization and lead to inflation in most Western economies. The consequences for American power and influence – and for human welfare and well-being – will not be positive. He sees China coming out of this process stronger and the United States weaker.
I claimed that, in Western countries, the ill effects of digital technologies have been compounded by certain relativistic and ahistorical modes of thought. But these technologies pose similar problems everywhere. Traditional scholarship – in the East as in the West – was developed within the context of linguistically sophisticated cultures and centered around paper documents which persisted over time. A sense of history was built in. You held firm evidence of the past in your hand, and many of the most important and influential fields of scholarly research dealt with historical (and historico-linguistic) questions. Objective evidence was painstakingly marshalled and deployed. And, over all and over time, epistemic progress occurred. There was a convergence of views on central questions.
The savagery with which scholars were treated during Mao’s Cultural Revolution or by the Khmer Rouge can be seen in this context. It showed how seriously scholars were still taken in the Far East less than fifty years ago. They were perceived as a real threat to forcibly imposed radical ideas.
We are now in an utterly different world, of course. Today’s all-enveloping digital environment makes it relatively easy for history to be rewritten, for minds to be molded at will and at scale. What could be more insidious – and more destructive of individual autonomy – than opaque, monopolistic systems skewing searches for information in order to promote particular views and agendas, and using AI to monitor personal communications and manipulate what people will and won’t see on their screens?
I would like to resist, but don’t see how I could do so effectively. Institutions of learning have been hijacked by ideologues and self-serving bureaucrats. More generally, the common ground which makes effective discourse possible has all but disappeared.
What, then, can one do? Join a rhetorical battle which by its very nature will never result in a clear or decisive outcome? Or withdraw, watch and wait – while cultivating one’s garden?