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A Yankee Notebook

June 25, 2012


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – Northern Ohio’s Ninth Congressional District has been represented since 1983 by Democratic Congresswoman Marcia Kaptur. Its recent redistricting (referred to by wags as “the mistake by the lake”) pitted Kaptur against Dennis Kucinich in a primary contest, which Kaptur won. Now she’s facing a fascinating Republican challenger: Samuel Wurzelbacher, who became briefly famous in 2008 as Joe the Plumber. I’ve watched some of his interviews and political ads, and don’t find him at all scary. What I do find scary is that some people in the Ninth District will actually vote for him.

Joe (on the advice of a friendly pastor) believes the Bible should be taught in public schools instead of science, because science is always changing, whereas the Bible isn’t. He points to a science text as evidence; it’s labeled “Revised.” Joe is half-right; I’ve discarded almost all my geology texts from sixty years ago, because they simply described phenomena, rather than, as now, theorizing their causes. He’s also half-wrong; according to scholars, there’ve been more alterations to the Bible’s original texts over time than there are words in the current finished product.

I have no way of knowing whether Joe believes what he says (he also claims the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the Nazi Holocaust were the result of gun control). But many thousands of people apparently do believe it. We seem to have entered an age of Looking-Glass Unreason, in which simplistic “revealed” beliefs trump often complicated facts.

Around 1025, King Cnut of Denmark and England, apparently to quell the flattery of his courtiers, who assured him he ruled the world, had his throne set beside the sea at low tide. He sat down, announced to the bay that he was lord of land and sea, and ordered it not to rise. He got quite wet before wading triumphantly ashore.

That was over 1000 years ago. We’ve made some progress since then. But the senate of North Carolina has just passed a measure making it illegal to take into account the melting ice caps in preparing forecasts of rising ocean levels. This would show an accelerating rate, and restrain investment and tourism on the coast. It ain’t gonna happen, the law states, because we say so.

It’s difficult for us to appreciate how little progress was made in the human condition for the roughly 1000 years from the fall of Rome to the end of the 14th century. Authority, truth, and literacy were the province of the powerful, both secular and religious, who ruled by divine right. Order existed within their spheres of influence; between lay highwaymen, cutthroats, and slavers.

As the 15th century approached, the notion of divine right, which led to corruption among rulers, began to come into question. Two major contributors to that change were the so-called Little Ice Age, which caused mass famine, and the pandemic of Black Death. As Thomas Cahill writes in How the Irish Saved Civilization, “Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings. Minds that opened to admit these questions could never again be shut.”

The upheavals that resulted from this questioning led in rapid succession to names and ideas still quite familiar to us: Columbus, Magellan, Copernicus, Gutenberg, Luther, Galileo, Bacon. The cover of Bacon’s Novum Organum Scientiarum, in which he describes a new way of thinking based on observation and data collection, depicts a ship sailing past Gibraltar into the western ocean, symbolizing freedom from Mediterranean traditions and old beliefs. We’re surrounded today by the results of that method – could hardly live without them, in fact.

Yet in recent years the United States’ popular culture, uniquely among nations, has seemed to be sliding into a state of devolution. Instead of looking to empirical data to plot solutions to problems and create opportunity, we batter each other with ideological truisms. John Atcheson, in a recent article for the progressive website Common Dreams, writes: “We are witnessing an epochal shift in our socio-political world. We are de-evolving, hurtling headlong into a past that was defined by serfs and lords; by necromancy and superstition; by politics based on fiat, not fact.”

An example: There is no evidence for either Creationism or Intelligent Design that would be admitted in any decent newspaper office, let alone a court of law, Yet many folks can’t get over the notion propagated by, among others, the Reverend C.I. Scofield, D.D. (I have Scofield’s Bible here, the “New and Improved Edition, 1909,” which might flummox Joe the Plumber.), that the earth was created on October 23, 4004 BC. Thus all sorts of invaluable discoveries and insights have become anathema to large portions of our fellow citizens and fodder for ridicule by talk-radio hosts. Higher education to many is liberal indoctrination, and an advanced degree “elitism.”

It’s pretty clear that in this wired age too many of us get too much information to process rationally, and fall back upon slogans and the ideas of others. There are few, if any, easy solutions to the problems we face. This doesn’t mean we should give up on empiricism and experience. The current attempts by retrograde evangelists to hijack our national consciousness should sound a tocsin about the possibilities inherent in even a slight shift toward the darkness of the Middle Ages.

Photo by Willem lange