Saturday, February 04, 2017

Objectivity and Possibility

Earlier this week, I exclaimed to my class my thanks for the thousands of people who made my teaching possible that day, through their sense of objectivity and their ability to cooperate. Without those people, no one would have built my car, I would not have survived the drive into school, and we would not have wiring to light our lights and fire my computer. Thank you, world, for in general agreeing on reality and working together to make it easier to stay alive than it was, say, even a hundred years ago.  

Scarily, the White House is currently calling into question the very things that get me to work each day. And it’s being done on purpose. The Steve Bannons of this world understand reality and the need for cooperation just well enough to destroy both for a quorum—just enough people to bring the pressure of the United States government into a series of power struggles based on a denial of that reality and a need for cooperation. 

Ironically, Bannon only gained power because he understands both concepts better than whatever ideological resistance has been positioned to stop him. The Left (in the main Liberalism in America) has been vulnerable precisely because the Right focuses on material conditions. In the 1970s, when Right Wing think tanks thunked up Reaganism to preserve capitalism despite a declining future for industrial production, it was because they were strategically thinking about long term strategies and end games. Liberals tend to take a values-based approach to such ideas—we should all want the world to be a healthy green planet—while ignoring the reasons such ideals demand a revolution in the way we produce and distribute goods. I know that really hit home for me when I was reading a letter by Karl Marx in which he—somewhat viciously—scolded someone for being so na├»ve as to think that mechanization was going to create better jobs for those thrown out of work. His sentiment was, to paraphrase, the economy has never worked that way—when the ruling class finds ways to cut the cost of production, no new value (being a concept based in the amount of labor expended) has ever been created. We are right to think automation makes our lives easier; we are foolish to think that has no cost in a capitalist (i.e. late agrarian to industrialist) economy.

There’s tons of truth to the old axiom, “The best defense is a good offense,” so it should be no surprise that post-industrialist capitalists like Bannon are attacking the philosophical outlet that gives them an advantage. It’s called pulling the ladder up behind you. If you determine that this is a last stand for an “America First” strategy, it is essential that you erase the intensive study of material conditions and social behavior that has led you to the conclusion that this would work. You want an advantage in the objective motion toward globalization? Convince your people that globalism is an evil ideology. American capitalists are thrilled to be offered a way to profit from such nationalism--it will give them a global propagandistic advantage.

This is why I joined the Institute for the Study of the Science of Society over a decade back. We were (and are) a bunch of cultural workers and activists who agree that the only way we win the fight for a humane future is to build upon and maintain an objective (and scientific) approach to the politics of the heart. I think the thing that most haunts me of the many great things Howard Zinn wrote is in his now (inexplicably) out of print, Declarations of Independence, in his essay on objectivity and education. He argued that it was an unreasonable expectation that journalists and teachers be objective, but that doesn’t mean it's not possible to have opinions and still be fair to those who disagree with you. (I immediately think of how many reactionary students have intellectually kicked my progressive students' butts and how their grades have reflected it. Our faith needs to lie in conscientiousness despite our bias.) Zinn argued that history is never objective, written by the victors as it tends to be, but he did think an objective perspective (i.e. a realistic perspective) could be gained by reading as many different perspectives as possible of any historical event and even by favoring minority perspectives because they were far less likely to be expressed. A plurality of subjectivities, Zinn wrote, is the best we can hope for when it comes to a scientific understanding of the world around us.

So I’ve been a teacher of writing and a freelance journalist for a long time, and after reading about countless false headlines in the past few weeks, I feel compelled to bear witness to my experience. The author of a story rarely writes the headlines. And in this world of clickbait hysteria, it seems pretty obvious, the people who write the headlines often don't understand the story or, even more likely, they do not care deeply about the truth. In a world where we can't tell Reality TV from any of the rest of it, where we have an expanding market for deliberate "fake news" and "alternative facts," it seems more important than ever that we find ways to strive for something that approaches objective truth. The appearance of truth, after all, is being used against us. Everyone in power is pandering to their audience one way or another, but the truth is out there. It’s up to us to be the scientists to save our future.

So, I end where I began. The only way I can do the work I do is because of a certain degree of collectivity and objectivity. When those concepts are under attack, it’s more important than ever that we find ways to collectivize around our study of the news and our determination of reality. It is not being handed to us as it is, but, as every fiction writer since Edgar Allan Poe has been able to prove, we are smart enough to analyze subjectively recorded information and determine context and truth for ourselves, if we work together.

I hear the American scientific community plans to march on Washington this Earth Day. I will be there with them, one way or another. I think the most subjective rewards—the love and beauty and excitement that keep us going—depend on a grasp of reality more than ever before in our history. May we all rise together and transform this world into the beautiful possibilities the human mind has shown us, time and time again.