HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

August 18, 2008
From Liberty Street

Approaching Truth-tellers

John Turner


Watching Benjamin Wiker yesterday on Book TV discuss his recent publication, 10 Books That Screwed Up the World, I felt an impulse to compose an essay arguing that "right-wing intellectual" is an oxymoron. On reflection, however, I saw that wouldn't be defensible because it would imply that all genuine intellectuals are sensible people. That, I fear, is not the case.

Mr. Wiker is a senior fellow at the Center for Science and Culture, which is a part of the Discovery Institute, a conservative Christian think tank. The CSC is the hub of the intelligent design movement. I have to give Wiker credit for audacity. In selecting his ten bad books he didn't automatically go for pushovers. Although there are two, or possibly three, that aren't hard to discredit, at least half come from the canon of Western culture since the 17th century.

Since we need to keep in mind what we're discussing, here's the list.

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Communist Manifesto
Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf
Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa
Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male
Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique

On the intellectual issue, I guess we could say that anyone who knows anything at all about these books qualifies as an intellectual of sorts. But what sort? is the real question.

At a meeting of the Johnson Society last week, one of our members pointed out to us that propositions that would strike all of us as absurd are defended by knowledgeable, seemingly rational, people, and that we all know such persons. There's little doubt that he was right. What does his correctness tell us about prospects for discourse in modern America?

It's not an easy question for me to answer. I have pretty consistently believed that there ought to be room for disagreement in discussion, and that one shouldn't go around saying that another person is ignorant or stupid just because he expresses a difference of opinion with oneself. Gradually, however, I've come to see that such a stance, though generally agreeable, doesn't resolve the problems of discourse.

The reason it doesn't is that discourse is a twofold enterprise. It is either an attempt to find truth or it is an effort to promote a truth one thinks he already possesses. The two goals of discourse are, therefore, usually opposed to one another.

If you view discourse and investigation as the means of delivering the highest truth you can get, you're unlikely to reach agreement with someone who thinks he already owns the truth, and is living to promote it. Consequently, you ought to give up being frustrated when you don't move towards resolution. There's no reason to get angry at a person in captivity to truths, when he can't explain where they came from.  You can feel sorry for him or you can regard him as an object of fun, but it's not sensible to get mad at him. Your conversation with him is a form of amusement, a mental game, so to speak.

To return to Benjamin Wiker: I can well imagine his saying to me that in putting my trust in discourse and investigation I'm relying on puny human instruments, whereas he is relying on the word of God. He doesn't want to acknowledge that puny human instruments are all we've got, whether we're trying to pave a driveway or figure out the nature of God. It has got into his head that he knows the nature of God through some mysterious process he can't explain, but which he may think he's explaining simply by naming it, calling it faith, or belief, or some such thing.

Anger between people like Mr. Wiker and those who are curious about the truth is very common nowadays. I can't see that it's doing anybody any good. If we could learn to see where arguments are coming from, and, then, tailor our responses to them appropriately, the world would become, almost immediately, a more pleasant place.

I admit that watching an intellectual upstart like Wiker pretend to grasp the arguments of a serious thinker like Friedrich Nietzsche gives me an occasional twinge of irritation. But then, I simply imagine what would happen were Wiker and Nietzsche in a room together. The scene is so diverting, I almost begin to think of Wiker and his ilk as being created to entertain me. It's a kind of intelligent design with a reason behind it.

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