Friday, January 15, 2010

Critical Thinking In A Free Society

We were talking on break at the Monday drawing co-op. Somebody mentioned conspiracy theories, and that turned into people who make a cult out of the Book of Revelations, or the Mayan calendar. Somebody else said he thought that those movements happen because we’re all doing a kind of intuitive calculus that shows us at a great, and maybe catastrophic moment in human history. None of us has a vocabulary that can describe it perfectly, but the moment -- with its apparently paradoxical explanations -- staggers some, and the enormity of our situation seems to demand religious explanation.

Jesus must be about to return, or Mayans in flying saucers will arrive, two years hence, to save us from ourselves.

Think of the craziest notion you can, google it, and you’ll find somebody organizing to support it. The Copernican Universe as a Jewish plot? Got you covered.

(The theory anyway, not the universe itself.)

After the devastating Haitian earthquake, Pat Robertson used his television show, not to explain how deforestation and an already feeble infrastructure made the havoc worse, but to say that the Haitians had made a pact with the devil in 1804, to free themselves from slavery.

It isn’t just the religious right that’s to blame. There have been stories recently in The Nation (a very left-wing monthly) and the New York Times (the country’s “paper of record”) about wrongdoing on the part of U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials (secret and illegal detention centers, and abuse of prisoners, followed by cover-up). Democracy Now (left-wing radio show) followed up on these stories with interviews and discussions. It was apparent, without the disestablishmentarian spin, that the ICE officials might as well have been Nazis, but the presentation by the commentators was disingenuous, as well, papering over a government’s legitimate interest in regulating immigration.

You do get into some relativistic territory here. Bolivian President Evo Morales has said that you can’t impoverish Latin countries, and then punish those who come to your country seeking livelihoods. It’s almost enough to make you start looking for Space Mayans, but we can understand what’s going on, if we pay attention, and burn a few calories thinking.

I’d thought about situation ethics for a long time in terms of the Playboy Philosophy, and not much more. In other words, I thought that morality derived from conditions in the real world was basically libertarian. Don’t rob banks, but enrich yourself; no rape, but have a good time. In fact, the responsibility is greater, because the harm we do can happen in that vast but foreshortened territory beyond the horizon.

Here in the U. S., we have taken the notion that our charter documents give us the unalienable right to believe any tomfool notion we want. The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for the redress of grievances,” and there are people who go to church to sacrifice chickens or handle rattlesnakes, so I guess it’s true.

But it ain’t necessarily responsible. Staying informed and thinking critically about events is a responsibility of citizenship. You get to be wrong, but there’s no unalienable right to stay that way.

1 comment:

Von said...

You bet! I'm for the Mayans except for their blood sports.