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Contempt for the empirical that can’t be readily jiggered or spun is evident at the top of the executive branch in Washington. The country is mired in a discourse that echoes the Scopes trial dramatized in “Inherit the Wind.” Mere rationality would mean lining up on the side of “science” against the modern yahoos and political panderers waving the flag of social conservatism. (At the same time that scientific Darwinism is under renewed assault, a de facto alliance between religious fundamentalists and profit-devout corporatists has moved the country further into social Darwinism that aims to disassemble the welfare state.) Entrenched opposition to stem-cell research is part of a grim pattern that includes complacency about severe pollution and global warming — disastrous trends already dragging one species after another to the brink of extinction and beyond.
Disdain for “science” is cause for political concern. Yet few Americans and no major political forces are “antiscience” across the board. The ongoing prerogative is to pick and choose. Those concerned about the ravages left by scientific civilization — the combustion engine, chemicals, fossil-fuel plants, and so much more — frequently look to science for evidence and solutions. Those least concerned about the Earth’s ecology are apt to be the greatest enthusiasts for science in the service of unfettered commerce or the Pentagon, which always seeks the most effectively “advanced” scientific know-how. Even the most avowedly faithful are not inclined to leave the implementation of His plan to unscientific chance. So, depending on the circumstances, right-wing fundamentalists could support the use of the latest science for top-of-the-line surveillance, for command and control, and for overall warfare — or could dismiss unwelcome scientific evidence of environmental harm as ideologically driven conclusions that should not be allowed to interfere with divinely inspired policies. Those kinds of maneuvers, George Orwell wrote in “1984,” help the believers “to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies.”
In the first years of the twenty-first century, the liberal script hailed science as an urgent antidote to Bush-like irrationality. That was logical. But it was also ironic and ultimately unpersuasive. Pure allegiance to science exists least of all in the political domain; scientific findings are usually filtered by power, self-interest, and ideology. For instance, the technical and ecological advantages of mass transit have long been clear; yet foremost engineering minds are deployed to the task of building better SUVs. And there has never been any question that nuclear weapons are bad for the Earth and the future of humanity, but no one ever condemns the continuing development of nuclear weapons as a bipartisan assault on science. On the contrary, the nonstop R & D efforts for thermonuclear weapons are all about science.
When scientists found rapid climate change to be both extremely ominous and attributable to the proliferation of certain technologies, the media and political power centers responded to the data by doing as they wished. The GOP’s assault on science was cause for huge alarm when applied to the matter of global warming, but the unchallenged across-the-aisle embrace of science in the weaponry field had never been benign. When it came to designing and manufacturing the latest doomsday devices, only the most rigorous scientists need apply. And no room would be left for “intelligent design” as per the will of God. The neutrality of science was self-evident and illusionary. Science was impartial because its discoveries were verifiable and accurate — but science was also, through funding and government direction, largely held captive. Its massively destructive capabilities were often seen as stupendous assets. In the case of ultramodern American armaments, the worse they got the better they got. Whatever could be said about “the market,” it was skewed by the buyers; the Pentagon’s routine spending made the nation’s budget for alternative fuels or eco-friendly technologies look like a pittance.
We’re social beings, as evolution seems to substantiate. Blessings and curses revolve largely around the loving and the warlike, the nurturing and the predatory. We’re self-protective for survival, yet we also have “conscience” — what Darwin described as the characteristic that most distinguishes human beings from other animals. Given the strength of our instincts for individual and small-group survival, we seem to be stingy with more far-reaching conscience.
Our capacities to take humane action are as distinctive of our species as conscience, and no more truly reliable. As people, we are consequences and we also cause them: by what we choose to do and not do. The beneficiaries of economic and military savagery are far from the combat zones. In annual reports, the Pentagon’s prime contractors give an overview of the vast financial rewards for shrewdly making a killing. To surrender the political battlefield to such forces is to self-marginalize and leave more space for those who thrive on plunder.
The inseparable bond of life and death should be healthy antipathy.
We’ve had no way of really knowing how near annihilation might be. But our lives have flashed with scarcely believable human-made lightning — the evidence of things truly obscene, of officialdom gone mad — photos and footage of mushroom clouds, and routinely set-aside descriptions starting with Hiroshima. Waiting on the nuclear thunder.
Five decades after Sputnik, such apocalyptic dangers are still present, but from Americans in my generation the most articulated fears have to do with running out of money before breath. The USA is certainly no place to be old, sick, and low on funds. Huge medical bills and hazards of second-class care loom ahead. For people whose childhoods fell between victory over Japan and evacuation from Saigon, the twenty-first century has brought the time-honored and perfectly understandable quest to avoid dying before necessary — and to avoid living final years or seeing loved ones living final years in misery. Under such circumstances, self obsession may seem unavoidable.
There must be better options. But they’re apt to be obscured, most of all, by our own over-scheduled passivity; by who we figure we are, who we’ve allowed ourselves to become. The very word “options” is likely to have a consumer ring to it (extras on a new car, clauses in a contract). We buy in and consume, mostly selecting from prefab choices — even though, looking back, the best of life’s changes have usually come from creating options instead of choosing from the ones in stock.
When, in 1969, biologist George Wald said that “we are under repeated pressure to accept things that are presented to us as settled — decisions that have been made,” the comment had everything to do with his observation that “our government has become preoccupied with death, with the business of killing and being killed.” The curtailing of our own sense of real options is a concentric process, encircling our personal lives and our sense of community, national purpose, and global possibilities; circumscribing the ways that we, and the world around us, might change. Four decades after Wald’s anguished speech “A Generation in Search of a Future,” many of the accepted “facts of life” are still “facts of death” — blotting out horizons, stunting imaginations, holding tongues, limiting capacities to nurture or defend life. We are still in search of a future.
And we’re brought up short by the precious presence and unspeakable absence of love. “All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie,” James Baldwin wrote, “that death by drowning is all that awaits one there. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” This love exists “not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
The freezing of love into small spaces, part of the numbing of America, proceeds in tandem with the warfare state. It’s easier to not feel others’ pain when we can’t feel too much ourselves.
If we want a future that sustains life, we’d better create it ourselves.
This column is excerpted from NORMAN SOLOMON’s new book Made Love, Got War.