Friday, February 06, 2009

Skepticism gives way to passive acceptance


Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate and third-party presidential candidate, recalls that his father always asked his children, “In school today, did you learn to believe or to think?” He hoped that his children were learning to actively question and think, not passively accept the supposed truths. He wanted them to be reasonably skeptical, not blindly trained to accept authority. He knew that to think is to bring up troubling questions, which aren’t easy to raise in the face of the conformity that too often prevails even in schools. The “right answer” in politics, religion or finance is liable to be just the established dogma. Aren’t students supposed to believe that their country is benevolently guided by personable leaders who can be counted on to rule in the public’s interest? The almost universal belief in the need to invade Iraq or that the economy was reliably rosy should suggest why skepticism is a desirable trait. As one of our poets sarcastically cautioned, “If anything had been wrong, we should certainly have heard!” Obviously not. So, Iraq, a weak Third World country 7,000 miles away, severely racked by the Gulf war and 12 years of sanctions, was supposed to be a threat to the United States. We were supposed to accept, without evidence, that it had major weapons, or that if it did have them, that gave us the moral right to invade; that its leader was as bad as Hitler; and that it was involved in the 9/11 attacks. The result is that 1 million people have been killed, including about 5,000 Americans. An additional 31,000 have been wounded. The optimistic projections on the economy and the failure of business and the government to do anything to ensure it are now too obviously a case in point. The $700 billion we have since given to the major banks, which have partly caused our financial failure, to do with what they choose, is another case in point. “All governments are run by liars. They are not to be believed,” asserted American journalist I.F. Stone, in opposition to reporters’ usual trust in the government line. Leaders in countries that allow great inequality – and ours currently does – have interests that are in conflict with most of the ruled. They rule for the wealthy and powerful while stripping down to their shirtsleeves to assure us they are just like us. Don’t we know that corporations, the real power economically and politically in America, produce safe products only in so far as the public forces this? Drug companies pull their unsafe offerings off the market only when they are forced to; tobacco companies would never have conceded how dangerous their products are (and still don’t completely); GM went after Nader for showing how unsafe Corvairs were; and we know we can’t rely on what corporate ads tell us about their products. And who can thoughtfully believe that corporations would pay us anymore than they are forced to, out of the kindness of their heartless centers? Yet corporate propaganda has us not only wearing their names and logos on our clothes and other paraphernalia, but paying extra to do so. We are supposed to believe that someone in authority is genuinely looking out for us, or at least perhaps a higher power is. Many tie the leadership of their country to that of an almighty and benevolent overseer who always saves the chosen people “one nation under God.” But this seems just a type of idolatry, an excuse to relieve democratic citizens of their responsibilities to speak out and pressure the powerful. Power conditions slavish beliefs, and power without skeptical overview corrupts. Thoughtful skepticism is the protection of an enlightened people, as many of America’s founders knew. Unfortunately, it can be hazarded that most Americans would never dare entertain an idea that the authorities characterize as heretical, un-American, anti-war or socialist much less express such an idea. In a technically free society, most quickly see the peril of independent thought and free expression, except in the abstract, where it can be extravagantly praised. Jim Scofield of Richland Township is a professor emeritus of English at Pitt-Johnstown.

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