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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2006

Shaky Logic Undermines Critique

By Richard Maundrell

A Nation Gone Blind: America in an Age of Simplification and Deceit

Eric Larsen. Emeryville, California: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006; 291 pp; ISBN: 1-59376-098-1, paper $16 us.
Finding oneself appalled by the moral and intellectual squalor of the younger generation is usually a pretty reliable indication that one has grown old. Professors of humanities, who often tend to fancy themselves as keepers of the light in a darkening world, are particularly vulnerable to this state of mind, and occasionally one will write a book accusing the younger generation of having dropped the lamp. Such complaints are always worth considering, however, for it is always possible that, this time, the geezers have got it right. Sometimes the world really does change for the worse and slowly enough that we may have failed to notice.
There is no question that Eric Larsen is an angry man. In A Nation Gone Blind he draws on his long career teaching college English in making the case that education in the humanities has been in decline for decades. He argues it all started to go wrong in the postwar years with the advent of television. As Americans became increasingly reliant on television for their information, feeling replaced thinking, image replaced argument, desire replaced reason and, ultimately, the consumer replaced the citizen. It was a development that higher education in the humanities not only failed to resist, but to which it unwittingly made a substantial contribution.
By the 1960s, reports that Johnnie couldn’t read had become a matter of widespread concern, and it was suspected that part of the problem was that Johnnie had spent too much time watching television. By the end of the century, the decline had become manifest at all levels of American life. Larsen devotes some attention in Nation to the state of American literature since the Second World War, but he focuses primarily on the political consequences of the decline of “literary thought.” America currently has a president who is arguably the least articulate, least well read and least curious in its history.
The poverty of American political discourse was particularly evident in the days and weeks following 9/11 when the best politicians could do in their utterances to a shaken nation was to echo phrases from Winston Churchill’s speeches of 1940. The eloquence and subtlety that had characterized Churchill’s oratory were no longer to be found in Washington or London. For Larsen, the coarsening and simplifying of American political discourse have been much more than a matter of style. What should really concern us, he suggests, is that the manner by which the administrationof George W. Bush and its corporate sponsors took power amounted to a junta, but the electorate had lost the capacity to understand it as such.
Larsen claims the humanities have contributed to the effective “diseducation” of America since 1947 primarily by abandoning and denigrating the principal tools of rational thought, logic and empiricism.
One might suspect he has the postmodernists in mind in making this accusation, but, for Larsen, the irrationalism and relativism characteristic of postmodern thought — and the eagerness with which it was embraced in disciplines such as literary studies — are symptoms rather than causes. Postmodernism was merely one strand of a much wider mid-century revolt against positivism. Postmodern theory simply took the suspicions concerning knowledge claims based on the appeal to brute facts, which had emerged in the work of people like Ludwig Wittgenstein and W.O. Quine, to their ultimate. If the refusal of facts did not always square with common sense, then so much the worse for common sense — and so much the worse for any science which had failed to acknowledge its dogmatic underpinnings.
The rebellion against the constraints of empirical reason was viewed as liberating in some quarters as it allowed that the world could be understood in different ways, none privileged by appeal to a special relationship with objective reality. It provided a way of challenging theories and social practices that was based on specious appeals to the “natural.” But it also encouraged a certain hostility toward the guiding principle of Enlightenment rationality: that the strength with which one adheres to a conviction should be proportionate to the evidence one can adduce in support of it.
The current resurgence in popularity among the educated elite of various folk remedies masquerading as “alternative medicine” is surely a case in point. However, swallowing non-evidence-based medicine is one thing, swallowing the lies spouted by a thieving government is another. Larsen invites us to wonder whether we have created a generation which is not only poorly equipped to distinguish truth from lies, but, worse, a generation that has become indifferent to the truth.
Ask a representative group of upper-year humanities majors these days whether they accept that a simple factual statement such as “I have exactly thirty-five cents in my pocket” must be true or false and there is a good chance that they will argue the contrary. Some will inevitably put forward some version of the argument that facts are linguistic entities and a word like “money” is a social construct that has no meaning beyond its complex and changing social context. In other words, the simplest appeal to “fact” quickly sinks in a morass of elaborate theoretical objections.
But as Larsen points out, change the subject to values, and a curious thing happens. Suddenly certain carefully selected claims such as “self-expression is good” or “hegemony is bad” tend to be accepted without question. In an intellectual culture which abhors absolutes, and where meaning is taken to be entirely a matter of “negotiation,” certain ethical claims acquire a kind of diplomatic immunity. If this is so because every “right-thinking” person is supposed to find them intuitively compelling, then what can this mean other than that they are “felt” to be true. If so, Larsen is correct in suggesting that in some areas of humanities education feeling has been allowed to supplant thinking. It also means he may be justified in complaining that, in some areas, college instruction has become an exercise in indoctrination.
What Larsen does not acknowledge, however, is that, despite the vast literature which has been devoted to the subject over the latter half of the 20th century, no one has been able to find the theoretical Archimedean fixed point — brute fact or otherwise — upon which knowledge might be restored to a positive footing. Larsen’s work is a polemic rather than a dissertation on epistemology and the philosophy of science, but like it or not, the challenges to positivism have had an honorable theoretical provenance. Behind all the hyperbole and the ridiculous jargon in which the issues have been expressed lie real epistemological problems that remain unresolved.
Further, for someone who laments the decline of logic in the academy, his own brief discussion of the subject in Nation is disappointing. For example, he explains that: “for a syllogism to be valid ... its first and second premises must themselves be true, and must, further, be in a valid and logical relationship with one another. When all of that is true, the deductive conclusion ... will also be valid, true, and inevitable.” (p. 191)
Evidently Larsen thinks that “validity” means the same thing as “truth.” However, in formal logic, a valid argument is defined as one in which, if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true as well. Thus a premise can never be “valid,” though it must be true or false, and a deductive argument can be valid even though it contains false premises. As someone who graduated from college in 1963, which he claims to be the “last good year” before the Great Stupefaction overtook the classrooms of the nation’s colleges, one would expect him to have known better.
Larsen is at his best when he focuses on general issues of theory and pedagogy. However, problems arise with his own use of empirical reasoning.
One of the most alarming claims he makes in the book occurs in the context of a reference to media coverage of the events of 9/11. It is mentioned in passing, but it is very telling coming from someone who claims to take empiricism seriously: “... the absence of wing holes in the side of the Pentagon that’s said to have been hit by an airliner on 9/11, along with the absence of aircraft parts or wreckage at the crash site, is a thing passed off as the hallucinatory raving of a few ‘conspiracy theorists’ and kept out of the news, in effect denying people the right to read — or to think, or to know — about it.” (p. 179)

Wing holes? Larsen, it seems, is prepared to take seriously the theory, widely circulated on the Internet while ignored by mainstream media, that the events of 9/11 were actually orchestrated by members of the Bush administration as a pretext for launching a war of conquest in the Middle East. Of course, as with any such conspiracy theory, one would have no reason to take it seriously as long as a simpler explanation is available which fits the facts. Those who think critically and rationally will appeal to Occam’s razor in such cases. For the rest, the lunatic fringes of the Internet blogosphere beckon. Unless Larsen is to be counted among the ranks of Holocaust deniers and UFO abduction theorists, those missing wing holes are going to have to carry a lot of evidentiary weight.
I was so intrigued by the suggestion that clear evidence of a vast conspiracy and cover-up had been missed or suppressed by the mainstream media that I decided to conduct a little research of my own. I typed “Pentagon 9/11” into my Internet search engine and quickly found sites posting photos of smoking wreckage at the Pentagon. I am not certain which Larsen had been looking at, but many of them clearly depicted large, clearly recognizable chunks of aircraft including jet engines, landing gear and pieces of fuselage.
One might think this kind of photographic evidence would have effectively laid to rest any question about what struck the Pentagon that day, but that would be to underestimate the ingenuity of conspiracy theorists who now argue that, while the Pentagon was indeed hit by an aircraft on 9/11, it was not hit by a Boeing 757 — and that would mean, of course, that the Pentagon could not have been struck by American Airlines Flight 77. So, the unofficial version of events would now have to go something like this: On the morning of 9/11, for reasons unknown, the conspirators (whoever they were) somehow spirited away American Airlines Flight 77, permanently silencing its passengers and crew (unless, of course, they too were part of the conspiracy) and disposing of the aircraft in ways that can only be imagined, while attacking the Pentagon with another, as yet unidentified, aircraft.
That’s the thing about conspiracy theories, you can make them as complex and implausible as you like in order to get the conclusion that fits your political predilections. The case against the official version of events now rests almost entirely on the shape and size of the hole punched in the wall of the Pentagon on 9/11. Of course, a lot depends on what you are expecting to see and interesting questions do arise from an engineering standpoint, but no one really knows what kind of hole a 757 should have made. There are simply too many physical variables involved to predict with any certainty and too little opportunity for observation.

What we can safely conclude is that our failure to draw an inference to government conspiracy and cover-up is not necessarily a sign of intellectual impairment.
Nietzsche once said, speaking of priests, that it would be easier to believe in the possibility of redemption if they looked more redeemed. The corollary of the view that everything has changed for the worse is the belief in an Age of Giants. Both are permanent temptations of the human imagination. I would like to believe that Larsen’s is a voice from an Age of Giants, the time before it all started going wrong, but to be convinced of that I would need him to have provided a better display of critical thinking than he as given us in Nation.

Richard Maundrell is a faculty member in the philosophy department at Lakehead University.