You’d think that reality was the most important concept in the universe. I mean, we’ve got nothing without reality and why wouldn’t you want to connect with it, connect with it often, and connect with it hard? I mean, why wouldn’t you want to grab onto that sucker with both arms and feet and never let go? We at least pay lip service as a culture to the idea of “the facts on the ground” thus recognizing that there are the facts on the one hand and spinning the facts on the other. We speak highly of people who have “both feet on the ground” (where else are they going to be, really?) because they know what’s what. Culturally, such realism is to be applauded.
But spin seems to be gaining traction. It’s becoming more important to be able to spin reality (and apparently get those feet up in the air and keep them there?) than to be grounded in it. Why is it important to insist reality is other than it is? Well, there are ideological and religious reasons. We’ve seen how desperate our own religious ideologues have become. You need only look at a collection of David Barton quotes to see all the evidence you need. Failing that, look at the transcripts of the Republican debates over the past months. You won’t find any connection with reality either way. Reality is passé to the conservative mind, which by definition closes itself off to new (liberal and progressive) concepts.
Look how hard the monarchies of the Old World fought against that new fangled liberal concept of democracy and individual human rights. If this was a conservative concept, conservatives, not liberals, would have thought of it. But they didn’t and we had some extremely bloody wars as a result. Great Britain even took the position that another country (France) had no right to choose its own government. The right of the ruling family (the Bourbons) took precedence over the rights of all the French people so long repressed by their aristocracy and king – and church. Edmund Burke, unsurprisingly a hero to the Republican Party, wrote about it. Thomas Paine, whom Republicans have also tried to co-opt despite being a radical liberal – wrote against Burke, talking of the “rights of man” (the very telling title of his book).
Right there you see some historical revisionism, some “spin” about history, making America’s history more amenable to conservatism because it’s very embarrassing to them that the American Revolution proceeded from liberal ideas. The solution is to re-purpose or re-frame the whole affair and make conservatives the revolutionaries. It’s a very unconvincing argument. By definition, conservatives can’t lead revolutions. They can lead counter-revolutions (and have) but that is always to restore things to the way they were, not to advance freedoms and liberties.
The church is guilty of this hidebound thinking as well, living in the past and insisting that the past remain in place of the present and especially the future. But reality doesn’t work that way. Things change. All through history we have seen a move toward the rights of the individual and ever more repressive measures taken to keep the rich and powerful in power. The church started to lose its grip about five hundred years ago and the process has continued since then. All the bloody religious wars they fought in the process sure didn’t help to convince people that the idea of state-sponsored religion was a good one. The secular European Enlightenment banished that sort of thinking to the Dark Ages and our Founding Fathers ran with it, giving us a very progressive and liberal Constitution.
These are the facts and there is a great deal of causation involved in the process. But conservatism has a problem with facts and wants to re-write all this history, claiming a “liberal” bias. But that is putting a spin on things. It isn’t that reality has a liberal bias; it’s that reality is not conducive to modern conservative dogma. In effect, what conservatives want to do is to replace facts with a false premise and proceed from there, which not only invalidates their arguments but is dangerous besides. Because what you don’t know (or what you pretend isn’t) can hurt you. Because facts are facts. You can warp your understanding of them and of reality, but you can’t warp reality itself. The Civil War was actually fought over slavery. This was a war that was foreseen by some of the Founding Fathers, who feared if they pushed the slavery issue they would see it in their own time. States Rights were only an issue because of the slavery issue.
Some southern states are uncomfortable with the whole slavery thing and them losing a war on account of it. So they like to push the whole “states rights” line even while that antebellum racism continues accompanied by Confederate flags. But deciding that you don’t like the color “yellow” so you are going to call it “green” doesn’t make yellow any less yellow. It seems appropriate to respond then with a Southern expression: That dog won’t hunt.
If life is to be at all meaningful, we need to reattach ourselves to the concept of reality and not only to the concept of it but the reality of it rather than the illusion. Republicans make the failed Communist assumption that there are different kinds of science but a quick lesson will show how dangerous this thinking is. Soviet scientist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko was director of the Soviet Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Genetics from 1940 to 1965. Competing with Western crop yields, Lysenko, rather than grounding himself on so-called contaminated “Western” science, espoused something called “socialist science” – a competition framed as being between Russian peasants and Western bourgeois scientists. The losers in all this were the Russian people, millions of whom starved to death because of Lysenko’s pursuit of a chimera, something that ideologically had to exist but on the basis of reality, could not. Soviet insistence of “the principle of the classness and partyness of science on the basis of Marxist-Leninist methodology” makes no more sense than the Republican insistence on the struggle between “sound science” and “junk science” – it really just the same argument, the same competition, reframed: ideological science is a contradiction in terms, just as is ideological history, where reference can also be made to Marxist attempts to reframe all history as class struggle.
Americans need to wake up and smell the coffee, which means, essentially, to pay attention to the facts on the ground. It’s an old and favorite expression and you’d think we’d be more about the reality behind these idioms than we are enraptured by their homeyness. And unless we want to “go back to the U.S.S.R., Americans had better wake up because Republicans are marching us down that same bottomless pit of thinking that belief can triumph over reality. It didn’t work for Lysenko; it didn’t work for Stalin or Hitler, and it won’t work for our current crop of Republican leaders and would-be leaders. Because whether or not they “believe in” Global Warming, it is real, the oceans are rising, winters becoming a thing of memory, and pretending what’s real is unreal because it’s ideological unacceptable isn’t going to result in happy endings.
And here a final lesson from history is appropriate: the fate of realists when confronted by fantasy enthusiasts once in positions of power. We have already seen how Republicans treat those who question them, even when the questions are about things those Republicans have said (this is also a refrain, significantly, of Rick Santorum); we have seen people stomped on, arrested, seen their cameras seized, etc. How far a step is it, do you think, to the fate of Soviet biologist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, who opposed Lysenko’s wishful thinking, insisted on Darwin’s evolutionary teaching over the idea of “Marxism as the only science” and was one day escorted from a Ukrainian field by four men in a black sedan? Vavilov was sentenced to death for sabotaging Soviet agriculture (you see where reality gets you). His sentence was commuted but ironically (given what he had tried to save the Soviet people from), he died of malnutrition in Saratov prison.
Speaking truth to power, as Sandra Fluke discovered, can be dangerous. How much more dangerous when that power already denies our right to ask questions or their need to answer them, and responds with disdain, and even worse, violence. If you want the Soviet experience, by all means, vote Republican. But if you want reality, and a fact-based understanding of the world, do everything you can to keep these ideologues out of power. They’ve revealed their hand and you’ll have no cause for complaint the day after election day if you sit on your hands between now and then.