History and Science as Candles in the Dark

Today, Saturday, November 7th, we watched Joe Biden become the 46th President of the United States of America through a legitimate electoral process whereby he reached past the electoral college threshold of 270 electoral votes with 279 votes. After Pennsylvania and Nevada finally counted their votes, it was clear Biden and Harris were the winners, and even though votes are still being officially counted in other states. The final vote tally is yet to be known. Regardless, it is also historic because Kamala Harris becomes the first woman Vice-President and the first African-American and Asian-American Vice-President. At least half the country, those who voted for Biden/Harris, breathed a sigh of relief, and knew at least for a while, “fake news”, “presidential lies”, “presidentially-driven conspiracies”, and efforts to delegitimize U.S. institutions would be forgotten, or in any case, not take center stage for some time. Maybe, just maybe, things would return to a kind of normalcy, not seen for four years.

Then again, on Fox News they are promoting President Trump’s lies about the election is “not” over?! Moreover, Trump is tweeting: “I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!” All in caps. It is at this point difficult to imagine how President Trump will gain the electoral votes he needs to win the presidential election. But millions of those who voted for Trump believe the election was somehow stolen and made illegitimate by the Democrats, a true political fantasy created by the president himself and perpetuated by his followers. As if the Democrat donkey symbol also grew a unicorn horn on the day of election and Biden and Harris became fantastical figures out of a Harry Potter novel and magically stole the election because of their secret magic powers and because of the magic cabal they are part of. Such are the conspiracy theories of Trump and his supporters.

For many, Biden/Harris may not have been their first choices, especially many on the liberal left. Of course, we must consider half the country who voted for Trump as well and we must somehow reconcile with these Americans too. More than 70 million Americans voted for Trump and because of this we must hope Biden/Harris bring the country together and bring the Trump voters into the fold of American democracy and treat them as our fellow Americans, which they are.

For these reasons, I wish those Republican-Americans who voted for Trump could read this article. I know most will not simply because they do not read the same media outlets or consider others’ political points of view.

As a people, we have to contemplate how much media is to blame for our current divisions in this country. This media manipulation goes well beyond the “manufacturing consent” promoted by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky (1988) because neither Herman, nor Chomsky anticipated Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, or Snapchat, or WhatsApp, or TikTok, and the overall influences of the Internet, and 24-hour cable news. One simply needs to watch the Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma” (2020) to realize how dangerous social media has become for the health of American politics and American democracy. Social media and 24-hour news media are completely toxic, regardless if you are comparing Fox News with MSNBC, or any other media outlet, or those media sources promoting conspiracy theories and alternate forms of realities. What we know scientifically is that people aggregate around similar ideas.

These social media manipulations are really hazardous and treacherous for many reasons. Many of us are not even cognizant how political and social manipulations affect us and affect us in very negative ways. It is important, therefore, to examine how our brains create enemies and foes without realizing neural chemistry is at play, nor how certain cerebral mechanisms are activated.

The title of this article is an intellectual nod to Carl Sagan and his perspicacious book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1997) because I believe we must not only look to our history for answers but to science as well. So, when we see political triggers, say, “Trump” flags, or MAGA hats, or to others, as Biden/Harris signs—our brains react to these signals because of our social predispositions and because symbols mean things to human primate-brains.

What part of the brain is tied to “fear and anxiety”, the amygdala, and what part of the brain is tied to “aggression”, again the amygdala. Is it any wonder when politicians promote fear mongering among the population, in turn, for some, fear turns toward aggression? What about the insular cortex activating when we are confronted with something we find morally disgusting, the same region of the brain responsible for processing gustatory disgust such as aversion to rotten meat. In Robert Sapolsky’s book, Behave: the Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017), he explains how cerebral regions and neural chemistry help to manipulate human behavior.

Now examine the hormone “oxytocin”, which enhances human social behavior. On the one hand, oxytocin may heighten feelings of compatibility, positivity, and trust, on the other hand, it may increase feelings of belligerence, hostility, and exaggerate unconscious biases. Some researchers, Merolla et. al. (2013) in their article, “Oxytocin and the Biological Basis for Interpersonal and Political Trust”, in fact proved that subjects intranasally stimulated with the peptide oxytocin were generally more trusting of the government. So, not only must we consider how media influences how we think but we also need to consider what effects it has on our brains. Thus, being cognizant of such effects may help us, if we are able, to limit how we are being controlled, directed, and swayed.

If we examine, not only why we are social beings because humans are essentially primates who thrive on social bonding, but how certain ideas, which make up our environment likewise contribute to our social networks. Therefore, such social networks cause us to be attracted to like-minded people with like-minded ideas. Notions of theorizing about social networks have been around for a while. Perhaps a better explanation is Charles Kadushin’s (2012) book, Understanding Social Networks: Theories, Concepts, and Findings. In other words, humans take socializing, just as everything else humans do, to completely new heightened levels which would baffle any non-human primate. Perhaps more accessible, are the social network theories explored in a PBS documentary, “Networld” (2020) and narrated by historian Niall Ferguson.

Fake news is nothing new either. For example, the idea of witch-hunting spread virally throughout Europe during the Counter-Reformation (1545-1648), a resurgence of Catholicism in response to the Protestant Reformation. In England between 1645 and 1647 many women were accused of witchcraft and publicly executed. The hysteria over so-called witches in England was exacerbated by the printing press which promoted falsehoods through books and pamphlets, especially across Cambridgeshire, a center for Puritanism. The historian Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper expertly explained the social madness in his book, The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and Other Essays (1956). As Trevor-Roper states: “The European witch-craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is a perplexing phenomenon: a standing warning to those who would simplify the stages of human progress. Ever since the eighteenth century we have tended to see European history, from the Renaissance onwards, as the history of progress, and that progress has seemed to be constant…But when we look deeper, how much more complex the pattern seems!” (p.90) “Some 40,000 people, mostly women, were put to death on bogus charges”. It would seem our current age is rife with irrationality as well with all the so-called fake news and conspiracy theories floating around digital social networks and other media sources.

In Carl Sagan’s book, The Demon-Haunted World, he writes: “Even a casual scrutiny of history reveals that we humans have a sad tendency to make the same mistakes again and again. We’re afraid of strangers or anybody who’s a little different from us. When we get scared, we start pushing people around…We can be manipulated into utter senselessness by clever politicians…The framers of the Constitution were students of history. In recognition of the human condition, they sought to invent a means that would keep us free in spite of ourselves.” (p. 397-398) In our world today, many Americans do not believe in anthropogenically driven climate change. Nor do many Americans believe in the science and epidemiology for controlling COVID-19.

Additionally, it is amazing to me how divided we are as a society today around the concepts of so-called “liberalism” and “conservatism” without understanding the real meanings of these ideas, or their history, or even how we use them as convenient political and social labels. The reality is far more complex.

During this election cycle when I saw trucks with monster tires roaring up the road with Trump flags, I wondered how many had wondered how these same trucks had replaced the confederate flag with the Trump flag. Also, any time I saw a red MAGA hat, “Make America Great Again”—I saw hate. I saw the letters transpose into “I Am A Racist”. I wondered how many others thought this too?

Moreover, we all know political parties just as any other aspect of society, transform. We know the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln is not the same as it is today, nor for that matter is the Democrat Party. In thinking about this, we need to somehow comprehend how the Republicans now because of President Donald Trump represent the working class, especially working-class white men. And for those of us who are educated and wish to support a more enlightened society, it is with these working-class Americans intellectuals need to dialogue and find ways out of the current impasse of mutual hate between the political parties. Otherwise, we are on the brink of civil war again. Perhaps, realizing how much media is to blame for our national polarization will help in addressing these conflicts prior to mutual self-destruction. Of course, this is ironic since Donald Trump is supposedly a billionaire and is more out for himself than the working blue-collar people he purportedly represents.

In returning to liberalism and conservativism, aside from thinking about politics along a linear continuum as left of center or right of center, we should well remember that our founding fathers for their age were radicals. They believed in liberal ideas which supported freedom and liberty and democratic values which were unpopular in Europe among the ruling classes. The Declaration of Independence was derived from the likes of English philosopher John Locke and his Two Treatises of Government (1689). Locke asserted when describing man in the state of nature, declared: “A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection…The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one; and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions…” And whereby Thomas Jefferson re-wrote these ideas into the Declaration as: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

So too, we need to have a better comprehension how a history of communist scares has led us in wrong directions in the United States. The supposed threats from the Russian Revolution of 1917 inspired the “Palmer Raids” between 1919 and 1920. At least 3,000 were arrested, especially targeting Italian-immigrants and Eastern European Jewish-immigrants. Furthermore, after World War II, U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin went on an anti-communist crusade, charging many Hollywood movie-stars and intellectuals as belonging to the communist party. There was no evidence for such accusations and McCarthy eventually was discredited. Many people had their reputations damaged and many lost their jobs from the baseless indictments. These so-called “communist scares” worry me because they may be repeated again.

Here in South Florida, for example, many in the Hispanic-American community were led to believe a possible Biden/Harris administration would convert the United States into a communist country. The word “Socialism” to many Hispanics here in South Florida, as elsewhere in Latin America, especially the exiled Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American communities, is a dirty word. It conjures up communist leaders like Cuban Fidel Castro and Venezuelan Hugo Chavez and communist regimes in South America.

Fox News commentator, Tucker Carlson, likewise spouts this nonsense by claiming the United States is becoming more like China from COVID-19 restrictions and millions of Americans believe him. What is more, Dr. Anthony Fauci has been vilified by the likes of Fox commentators such as Carlson because of advocating for epidemiological controls to stem the increase of the Coronavirus.

Yet, most Americans are apparently unaware of their own history it would seem in relation to socialism. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), our 32nd President, also known as FDR, saved capitalism through his socialist programs according to renowned historian H. W. Brands in his superb biography, Traitor to His Class: the Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt (2008). Roosevelt, the only U.S. president to have been elected four times led the nation through the “Great Depression” (1929-1939) and led the country through most of World War II (1939-1945). Roosevelt was a great American and to many considered one of our greatest presidents of all time. FDR realized more needed to be done than his predecessor, Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), in regard to the economy and as soon as FDR was sworn in as president, he acted toward saving the nations’ banks. Today, because of Roosevelt’s economic saving programs we have the Social Security Administration, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Because of all FDR did in his first one-hundred days in office, all modern presidential critics and supporters, likewise judge an administrations’ accomplishments in its first one-hundred days as well. Moreover, Franklin Roosevelt restored the confidence of the American public by having weekly fireside chats over the radio, explaining to the American people what he was doing and what his plans were. While it may be more accurate to state that the American economy improved dramatically because of the second World War, many believed, including many in his administration, that FDR had indeed saved capitalism. One may likewise state that FDR also saved democracy through his leadership as president during World War II.

While it is no small feat that President-Elect Joseph Biden has defeated incumbent President Donald J. Trump for a second term, disallowing presidents a second-term has happened several times in our past, beginning with our second President John Adams (1735-1826). Ten presidents in all have failed in trying to be re-elected for a second term and with Trump being the eleventh. Thomas Jefferson, by the way, ran a nasty campaign against Adams and Adams lost to Jefferson’s unfair propaganda and false claims disseminated in political pamphlets across the colonies. John Adams’ presidential son, President John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) also failed to gain a second term and so did “the Little Magician”, President Martin Van Buren (1782-1862); and while Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) failed to win a second-term his first try, he did earn another term after defeating Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901), the president who had defeated him for his second-term the first time. Thus, Harrison became another one-termer. President William Howard Taft (1857-1939), the hand-picked acolyte of Theodore Roosevelt, was also unsuccessful in achieving another term. Also, in part because Teddy Roosevelt ran against him as a third-party candidate with Teddy’s self-created “Bull Moose Party”. Then there was Herbert Hoover, the predecessor of FDR. In more recent years, President Gerald Ford was not re-elected, probably because Ford pardoned President Richard Nixon and neither was his successor President Jimmy Carter (1924-present) re-elected. Also, George H. W. Bush (1924-2008) did not manage a second-term and now twenty-eight years later, Trump has lost a second presidential tenure.

What is worrisome to many observers, including myself, is that President Donald J. Trump has tried to de-legitimize the U.S. presidential elections and as such undermine our democracy. More sadly, millions of Americans follow what Trump says, no matter how fabricated, ludicrous, wrongful, or deceitful. In fact, Trump has 88.8 million followers on Twitter. Therefore, it was so alarming when President Trump proclaimed on national television at the White House on November 5th, the following: “If you count the legal votes, I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us. If you count the votes that came in late, we’re looking at them very strongly but a lot of votes came in late. I’ve already decisively won many critical states, including massive victories in Florida, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, to name just a few. We won these and many other victories despite historic election interference from big media, big money, and big tech. As everybody saw, we won by historic numbers and the pollsters got it knowingly wrong. They got it knowingly wrong…”

Regardless, the Republicans, Trump himself, and Trump’s supporters have yet to provide concrete evidence of any fraudulence in the 2020 presidential election. Even Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s chief campaign strategist, remarked in The Guardian: “…Stealing hundreds of thousands of votes would require a conspiracy on the scale of a James Bond movie. That isn’t going to happen. Let’s repeat that: that isn’t going to happen.” While Republican governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan declared: “But to make accusations of the election being stolen and widespread fraud without providing any evidence, I thought was really bad for our democratic process and it was something I had never seen in my lifetime.”

In his acceptance speech, tonight on November 7th, President-Elect Joe Biden avowed: “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again. To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans. The Bible tells us that to everything there is a season—a time to build, a time to reap, a time to sow. And a time to heal. This is the time to heal in America. Now that the campaign is over—what is the people’s will? What is our mandate? I believe it is this: Americans have called on us to marshal the forces of decency and the forces of fairness. To marshal the forces of science and the forces of hope in the great battles of our time.”

Let us hope President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris can unite the United States and bring Americans together again. Let us all try to remember the lessons from history and science.

Similar to Biden’s acceptance speech, Carl Sagan asserted in his book, The Demon-Haunted World: “But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.” (p. 408)

Let history and science be candles in the dark.

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. His recent book, Epochal Reckonings (2020), is the 2019 Winner of the Proverse Prize. He has a PhD (D.Phil.) from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015) and, most recently, author of Politics and Racism Beyond Nations: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Crises (2022).