In a remarkable op ed piece heading into the 4th of July weekend, at a time when Americans can’t agree on factual matters as whether the 2020 election was fraudulent (spoiler alert: it wasn’t) or scientific matters like whether vaccination can wind down the Covid-19 epidemic (it can), David Brooks of the New York Times suggests we face an “epistemic crisis,” in other words a fundamental crisis in our cognitive ability to know things, to process knowledge and understand it.
Simply put, Brooks says we can’t agree on the facts and we can’t even agree on what a fact is.
It’s not so much so much a matter of critical thinking skills, as Brooks sees it, as a failure to appreciate our “shared stories” as Americans. I don’t buy everything he says (FWIW), but I think he’s absolutely right on the shared stories, and I think the problem relates to the fracturing of what others have termed our “civil religion” or sense of who our better angels might be.
Also this: Brooks’ column has a direct bearing on the story I’m researching of how Swedish immigrants adjusted to an increasingly fractious American culture in the run-up to the Civil War. I presented what they did — i.e. set up a Lutheran church synod that preserved Swedish cutural values — in my paper on “Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden.” And now I’m looking into what it means, i.e. trying to clarify the conceptual framework. Which means some of Brooks’ observations help clarify mine.
Brooks, as he is wont to do, assigns blame to actors across the political spectrum — from the former president of the United States whipping up grievances, on the one hand, to self-styled progressives who “cancel” their professors, or guest speakers on campus, when they don’t deem them to be progressive enough. He frames the problem like this:
Today many of us feel that America is suffering an epistemic [cognitive] crisis. We don’t see the same reality. People say that they often assume the problem is intellectual. Our system of producing propositional knowledge is breaking down. Why can’t those people fact-check themselves?
But Donald Trump doesn’t get away with lies because his followers flunked Epistemology 101. He gets away with his lies because he tells stories of dispossession that feel true to many of them. Some students at elite schools aren’t censorious and intolerant because they lack analytic skills. They feel entrapped by a moral order that feels unsafe and unjust.
The collapse of trust, the rise of animosity — these are emotional, not intellectual problems. The real problem is in our system of producing shared stories. If a country can’t tell narratives in which everybody finds an honorable place, then righteous rage will drive people toward tribal narratives that tear it apart.
Epistemology is defined as “the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.” Trump and the grad students, according to Brooks, don’t even try. In other words, as someone in President Clinton’s campaign war room might have said if he were running in 2021, It’s the stories, stupid.”
Brooks says the stories we tell are one of two pillars of our national self-concept, what I would call our civil religion — our symbols and values as a nation. The term originates with sociologist Robert Bellah, and it’s notoriously hard to pin down. But I like the way Philip Gorski of Yale put it in a Faculty Viewpoints interview:
The American civil religion is a way of thinking about the American project and what its highest ideals are. I think about it as an evolving tradition that goes back to the foundings, to the founding of Puritan New England and to the American Revolution, also to the re-founding of the American republic following the Civil War. I think its four core values are freedom, equality, solidarity, and inclusion.
Or, to quote a boy in a Washington-area Scout troop’s merit badge class observed by Tom Gjelten of NPR, “I would say that the thing that really holds America together, it’s our values. Kinda like freedom and, like, respect to everybody.”
So that’s my definition of civil religion, and I’m sticking to it.
Brooks says the other pillar is propositional knowledge, “the kind of knowledge we acquire through reason, logical proof and tight analysis.” The facts of history, in other words. Empirical knowledge. The realization that no, the fact is the 2020 election came off without a hitch in difficult circumstances. Or yes, if you get the shot you’ll be immune to the bug. Brooks, by the way, has one of the better riffs on the empirical method I’ve seen lately. Citing Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution, he says:
An individual may be dumb, Rauch notes, but the whole network is brilliant, so long as everybody in it adheres to certain rules: No one gets the final say (every proposition might be wrong). No claim to personal authority (who you are doesn’t determine the truth of what you say, the evidence does). No retreat to safety (you can’t ban an idea just because it makes you feel unsafe).
Bur Brooks is mostly concerned with the stories. With the history, I’d add again.
Brooks says we’ve cut funding for teaching the humanities over the years. And as an old humanities prof at a liberal arts college that went out of business, I’ve noticed that, too. He goes on to say our “ability to tell complex stories about ourselves has atrophied.” Well, maybe, maybe not. I think my English, cultural studies and journalism students at SCI-Benedictine knew what to do with a complex story (when they weren’t daydreaming or text-messaging friends in the computer lab). But he’s surely right about the trend in higher ed, and we’re going to suffer for it.
Again, I may not agree with all of Brooks’ points, but I like the way he frames them. He defines the “ability to tell complex stories about ourselves” like this, and it’s one of the better summations I’ve seen lately of what I tried to teach in my English, journalism and cultural studies classes:
This is the ability to tell stories in which opposing characters can each possess pieces of the truth, stories in which all characters are embedded in time, at one point in their process of growth, stories rooted in the complexity of real life and not the dogma of ideological abstraction.
I’ve taught history, too, as a teaching assistant at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, and I wanted to shout “Amen! Preach, brother!” as I read what Brooks had to say about the Republican uproar over “critical race theory” and other white nationalist dog whistles that threaten to politicize the teaching of history and turn it into something else:
Now as we watch state legislatures try to enforce what history gets taught and not taught, as we watch partisans introduce ideological curriculums, we see how debauched and brutalized our historical storytelling skills have become.
Again, I don’t buy everything Brooks says because I’d like to think people are still quietly doing history (at least when the politicians aren’t watching). Even the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill finally approved tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones after a nationwide uproar when it came out that a white donor objected to her work on the 1619 Project.
But what stands out for me in Brooks’ op ed piece is his discussion of shared stories, of our sense of civic religion. Of what we’ve lost in the Trump years. His lede describes the ideal he aspires to in considerable detail:
Great nations thrive by constantly refreshing two great reservoirs of knowledge. The first contains the knowledge from the stories we tell about ourselves.
This is the knowledge of who we are as a people, how we got here, what long conflicts bind us together, what we find admirable and dishonorable, what kind of world we hope to build together.
This kind of knowledge isn’t merely factual knowledge. It is a moral framework from which to see the world. Homer taught the ancient Greeks how to perceive their reality. Exodus teaches the Jews how to interpret their struggles and their journey.
For America, the dominant story has been filled with resonant characters — Irving Berlin and Woody Guthrie, Aaron Burr and Cesar Chavez, Sojourner Truth and Robert Gould Shaw.
This national experience invited Americans to share Walt Whitman’s passion to contain the whole vast carnival of stories, to see themselves in its themes and to feel themselves within this story.
This emotional and moral knowledge should give us a sense of identity, a sense of ideals to live up to and an appreciation of the values that matter most to us — equality or prosperity or freedom. Finally, these are shared stories; this shared knowledge should help us discover a shared destiny and our shared affection for one another.
I like that (although I’d add Roger Williams). If Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Aaron Burr and Lincoln are part of our dominant story, so are Irving Berlin and Cassar Chavez. And I’d throw in Bob Marley and Arturo Toscanini for good measure.
The list goes on. Einstein and the theologian Paul Tillich came to America as refugees. From my own research, I’d add Lars Paul Esbjörn, who founded the Swedish Lutheran Church in Andover, Illinois; Thomas Harkey, the ____th-generation German who tried, and failed, to mediate between Swedes and acculturated German-American theology professors in a little Lutheran seminary in Springfield just before the Civil War; and Eric Norelius, who once chased a chicken away from the communion elements and later became the president and first historian of a Swedish-American synod in America.
None of these characters were always successful, nor were Aaron Burr or any number of squabbling 19th-century theologians always admirable. That’s life. And that’s what we get when our stories, to quote David Brooks again, are “rooted in the complexity of real life and not the dogma of ideological abstraction.” But the stories help tell us who we are as a people, and how we got here. They also tell us, sadly, of our long conflict over immigration — between exclusion and a pluralistic society — dating at least as far back as Benjamin Franklin’s complaint about “swarthy” German immigrants who weren’t assimilating into the Anglo culture of colonial Pennyslvania.
Cite. David Brooks, “How to Destroy Truth,” New York Times, July 1, 2021 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/01/opinion/patriotism-misinformation.html.
By serendipity I came across some thoughts by Martin Marty, emeritus professor of church history at the University of Chicago, that I think fit this context perfectly. The came in his foreword to a a book by Stephen P. Bouman, outreach director and former bishop of ELCA’s Metropolitan New York Synod, and Ralston Deffenbaugh, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee service. Says Marty:
Authors Bouman and Deffenbaugh are addressing a problem and asking a question posed by philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre: “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'” Readers are all urged to see themselves as part of the story of immigration, particularly in the United States. Some may join the millions in America for whom any talk about immigrants is about others, aliens, strangers. We on the other hand are part of a story of homogeneous long-timers in America. It is our place for our story, and immigrants don’t belong.
And this, a page later:
So politics enters the scene, as the nation at its best struggles for the most just and fair and humane addresses to immigration issues and sets up welfare polcies to help new immigrants find teir way into the exchanges of life enjoyed by thos who were immigrants some years before, or whose grandparents were — newcomers who have to establish themselves with help from others.
Citation. Stephen P. Bouman and Ralston Deffenbaugh, They Are Us: Lutherans and Immigration (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), xi-xii, xiv.
[Published Sunday, July 4]