Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ferguson, Akin, and the End of the Enlightenment?

What does an effete, British, Harvard-university-professor of history have in common with a right-wing, divinity-degree-holding, Republican Congressman and engineer from the middle of America? Basically, timing and perspective. In the past two days, both Niall Ferguson and Todd Akin have revealed themselves to be men incapable of rational thought. Evidence contrary to their claims, whether scientific or historical, doesn't seem to phase them. In both cases, their own ideology guides them to the reality they wish to see or want to perceive to see.

Let's quickly address each case on its own. First, there is our good friend Professor Niall Ferguson. This week he wrote the cover story in Newsweek on why he believes Obama should not be re-elected. As a piece of intellectual insight or informed observation or even political pamphlet, it counts as pure dribble. The errors in his analysis of the ACA, employment performance under the Obama administration, deficits, debt and how it's measured, China, foreign policy, etc., are too numerous to list here. The best critiques come from Paul Krugman, James Fallows, and, most damaging and vitriolic, Brad De Long. More is to come from Andrew Sullivan. I strongly recommend going to the links, including a summary of the best reactions here.

What I find so depressing is not so much the quality of his writing, but how closed-minded he is to actual facts as well the lack of logic in his essay as he constructs his argument. A typical college student would get a D for this paper, except for maybe at Harvard (a gentleman's C there).

Why is Ferguson is permitted to write such a horrible piece of writing in a "major" American newsweekly? In a world governed by reason, we would have outside third parties existing to check truth claims, often the "fourth estate," if the author fails on his own. But the media, in this case, Newsweek, is just "monitoring" the "debate." Apparently Newsweek just "trusts" its cover story writers to check their own facts. If it sounds like the "truth" or has a degree of "truthiness," then it must be true. And, in their ironic post-modernity, conservatives and contemporary American media (at least the mass-produced form) think truth is in the perspective of the beholder. It just FEELS true. There are always "two sides" to people's claims about the world. Any independent arbiter of reality does not exist here, except for other bloggers. And, yet, Ferguson says his credibility is still intact, for some reason.

Then, there is our good friend Rep. Todd Akin, who apparently believes that the female body has special hormonal powers to prevent pregnancy from "legitimate rape." This comes from his pro-life ideology, misogyny and junk science. It's a worldview that he holds, despite evidence to the contrary, in spite of reality. Although the establishment-elements of the Republican Party are denouncing him, he's not alone. First, VP-candidate Ryan supported legislation that also limited abortion funding to "forcible" rape, as opposed to the other kind (it has to do with the battle over abortion and whether Planned Parenthood was seeking federal funding for pregnancies resulting from statutory rape). And one of our resident wackos in the House of Representative, Rep. Steve King, apparently doubts whether women can become pregnant from incest or statutory rape. So there's no one within this movement to check these folks and confront them with facts either.

This is sad. Very sad. It's sad when a major political party in the most powerful and influential country on Planet Earth is entirely captured by forces that are determined to deny the role of reason in governing. Reason and facts have no place in the public sphere. We can just throw away that nasty, and outdated movement, called the Enlightenment, they argue. Paul Ryan certainly thinks the Enlightenment was a quaint debate in the 18th Century, but governing by reason doesn't seem to relevant to him anymore. This is nothing new in America, of course. My chief complaint, and what Ferguson and Akin both show coincidentally these past two days, is that the conservative political movement's efforts to push out reality as a basis for discussion and continue to reject rationality as a basis and mode of argument and for thesis-generation has not just deepened, but widened. It now includes a Harvard professor, from one of the best universities in the world. It's sad to see how tow people with such different backgrounds can have so much in common. And they do make for strange bedfellows, but the fact that they're even in the same room together is even more sadder.

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