I’ve been curiously observing the, well let’s call it “Revolt of the know-nothings” going on inside elite universities and beside topless coffee shops and wandering in tiny oddly dressed crowds through the downtowns of some big cities these days in the US. Not very numerous – and perhaps not sustained, although only time will tell. But certainly interesting enough to take note of. I suppose the revolt is in response to the “Rebellion of America”. That momentous occasion which started with the Tea Party and has continued, deepening and broadening across our noble old republic to become a part of our political fabric. It’s anti-elitist, sort of populist, perhaps not “conservative” in the Washington D.C. happy hour, Heritage Foundation cocktail kind of way but certainly culturally conservative – an appeal to the past, to the traditions and institutions that actually did “Make America Great” once before.
This new, or maybe renewed, conflict has epistemological ramifications for all of us – and these considerations are central to the “Rebellion of America” and the subsequent “Revolt of the know-nothings”. At its core the struggle is about different approaches to attaining knowledge and preserving well-being and determining morality. The “rebellion” believes truth “Comes from God not government” as Congressman Paul Ryan is prone to saying, if somewhat simplistically. What Thomas Jefferson referred to in the Declaration of Independence as “The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”; and that following these laws will lead us to “(…) secure the blessings of liberty” as Madison wrote in the constitution. Jefferson’s laws have philosophical fathers: John Locke, Edmund Burke, Thomas Aquinas. They go back in time to the book of Romans in the Bible, “God’s law is written in their hearts” and further back to Jeremiah, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts,” and even further back passing by the Ten Commandments in Exodus to the “laws of the universe” in Job – probably the oldest written story in history – until we arrive at humanity’s creation “in the image of God” in Genesis.
I apologize to those who are not religious – but this is in fact the starting point that the great philosophers of old used to determine the source of natural law; it’s where Aquinas and Locke and Jefferson got it from. In Islam the trends are found and preserved in the Mu’tazila. And it doesn’t require faith, reason will do. Aristotle. In the secular world are Ayn Rand and her Objectivists (although they would probably deny this since they find some sort of conflict between faith and rationalism, something that none of the ancients did). Natural law has been present in the United States as sort of a lydian stone against which we measure and evaluate laws, regulations and proposals.
Of course all this requires judgement, to arrive at a preference for what proposals and ideas will best “secure the blessings of liberty”.
Preference. The know-nothings believe that showing any sort of preference leads to prejudice which leads to bigotry and eventually discrimination – for them the cardinal sin. “To think anything is better than anything else is prejudice” the thought goes “and prejudice put into action is discrimination” – so by attacking all forms of judgement, of preference they feel they are eliminating the “root” of injustice and eventually inequality. That is the political project; as is eloquently explained by Prof. Patrick Deenan’s in his viral article “How a Generation Lost its Common Culture.”
“What our educational system aims to produce is cultural amnesia, a wholesale lack of curiosity, history-less free agents, and educational goals composed of content-free processes and unexamined buzz-words like ‘critical thinking,’ ‘diversity,’ ‘ways of knowing,’ ‘social justice,’ and ‘cultural competence’.”
Of course the know-nothings also have their own epistemology. They are positivists – that is to say up against natural law they believe in positive law, “which consists of the written rules and regulations enacted by government,” – although they probably could not tell you that, for it would require reading ‘dead white guys’ like Hobbes and Austin and back to Plato.
But these days the know-nothings are in trouble. They are bedeviled by the same thing that has bedeviled other positivists like Venezuela’s Bolivarians and the Soviet Union and back. As legal positivists they are forced to accept that truth is derived from law emanating from “the supreme power in the state” as Thomas Mackenzie has said. This was fine for the last eight years – when a “Positivist in Chief” and fellow social justice warrior was ‘the state’. But these days, when the state is controlled by folks who hold opinions that they consider “prejudicial”, they have nowhere to turn; and are quite understandably apoplectic.
It gets worse, because unlike the folks who led the “Rebellion of America”, who had their natural law to “cling” to – comforted by the fact that it dates back to the very beginning of time and has survived the rise and fall of so many states – the “revolters” have nowhere to turn. Except to dig in, throw epithets against their enemies to attempt to poison the well and hope that eventually they can re-seize the state and everything will make sense again.
Now, lest we get bogged down in ideology or philosophy as we digress, let’s remember that the point of government, as stated by the constitution which I think we can all agree on (or at least if you can’t, America isn’t the place for you), is to “form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” To have a “life more abundant” as the Bible says. Live better; full stop. Because we certainly don’t want to become Venezuela – Bernie Sanders’ proposal – just because the ideology fits and the politics makes us feel good about ourselves, right?
So where do we go from here? Heck if I know; which I suppose is the problem. The know-nothings will continue to use their dramatic monikers against the “rebels” – words like bigot and racist – so they don’t have to engage with ideas they consider “discriminatory”; all the while keeping up their desperate attempt to de-legitimize the White House – using the Russians or the FBI or the popular vote or whatever comes next to make their case that “the supreme power in the state” has in fact been usurped, until they can find a way to seize that power again. Meanwhile the “rebels”, as a “natural laws” crowd will keep trying to prune things back until the laws and decrees that govern the nation mould more closely to the “truths we hold self-evident”.
“And we are at an impasse” as the Dread Pirate Roberts (otherwise known as Wesley) told Vizzini. If you have any ideas, please speak up! We certainly need them, if we are to preserve the republic.