The Collapse Of Reality

John Adams was the second President of the United States and also a fine lawyer. And the most famous case of his legal career was his defense of British soldiers charged with murder in the incident which we now call the Boston Massacre in 1770.

It was ironic for a figure who would go on to be so central in guiding the course of the revolution to take on such an unpopular cause as defending the soldiers of the hated British who had fired on unarmed colonists. And of course it was a white-on-black homicide, for the first colonist to fall was Crispus Attucks, a free black citizen of Boston.

Adams gave an impassioned defense of his clients and the jury acquitted them all. One sentence of his closing argument stays with me: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

We call the Eighteenth Century the Enlightenment because it was an age which seemed to shake free of some of the shackles of the past. Life and thought in Europe had been dominated by the Christian church, but when that split in two, centuries of warfare followed. Then Galileo had made close observations and concluded that the sun did not revolve around the earth but rather the other way around. The Christian church didn’t like that. Newton, through careful observation, had come up with mathematical formulas to describe how gravity works. Locke theorized about how a state could be formed from the consent of its members, rather than imposed by divine right. The use of reason was extolled in all matters of practical importance, and nothing was to be accepted on authority, but only on proof: an attitude of skepticism prevailed. If God was to continue on the throne, he would have to be a constitutional monarch, not an absolute one.

While the Founding Fathers of our republic had many flaws, they did have the wisdom to see that democracy can suffer from too much concentration of power just as monarchy can. So they built in to the Constitution a series of checks and balances.

Gradually the discipline which had been called natural philosophy evolved into what we today call science. It was based on a rigorous empiricism. Empirical knowledge is what we get from our five senses. In eighteenth century philosophy, there was a lively debate between the empiricists, who held that all we can know is what our senses perceived, and the rationalists, who felt that much of what we know is innate, we’re born with it. We’ll get back to that later.

As I will talk about more in my introduction to UU class this afternoon, Unitarianism in continental Europe started at the time of the Protestant Reformation, but in England and America, Unitarianism started in the Enlightenment and grew with it.

Joseph Priestley is a good example. A British clergyman, theologian and scientist of the late eighteenth century, he authored dozens of books and is credited with the discovery of oxygen. But a mob of neighbors who objected to his theology destroyed his lab and he emigrated to Pennsylvania.

Many of Priestley’s books were collected and read by John Adams, who was our first Unitarian president. Facts mattered to Priestley and facts mattered to Adams. Facts are the building block of the Enlightenment, and all of the scientific progress of the last three centuries would not have been possible if facts didn’t matter.

In 1787, John Adams wrote a treatise on the new Constitution and in his introduction he took pains to emphasize that this scheme of government did not descend from heaven but was the product of human reason:

“It was the general opinion of ancient nations, that the divinity alone was adequate to the important office of giving laws to men. ... The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature: and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an æra in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had any interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the inspiration of heaven, any more than those at work upon ships or houses, or labouring in merchandize or agriculture: it will for ever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.”

Facts matter. That seems so obvious, why do I even need to take such pains to say it? Because it has become apparent that there is a concerted effort on the international level not only to act as if facts don’t matter but to question whether there is any such thing as fact or truth.

As New York Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg summarized it in her column I just read, Russian politics in the twenty-first century has been characterized by a “giddy, hysterical flight from enlightenment empiricism.” That’s not her description, that’s the description of a person who worked in Russian television during those years, Peter Pomerantsev. Pomerantsev, whose parents were dissidents in the Soviet era, was born in Ukraine but left with his parents at an early age for the safety of the West, where his father had a career in broadcasting with the BBC and Radio Free Europe. Pomerantsev went back to Russia in the age of Putin and his first book was called “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible.” In that book, as Goldberg says, he wrote “of how state-controlled Russian broadcasting ‘became ever more twisted, the need to incite panic and fear ever more urgent; rationality was tuned out, and Kremlin-friendly cults and hatemongers were put on prime time.’”

This first book of Pomerantsev is attracting attention because of what has since come to pass. Rather than bringing its delusions in line with reality, Russia seems intent on exporting its delusional states; Goldberg goes on:

“Since 2016, the book has enjoyed a new life among people struggling to make sense of the dual shocks of Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory. Both catastrophes demonstrated the triumph of xenophobic post-truth politics, and both were assisted by Russian information warfare. Pomerantsev’s book about Russia suddenly seemed prophetic about the rest of the world.”

So I ordered his new book, “This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality.” And I want to talk about it here.

This may offend some. As I see my job here, it is to try to understand the values of our religion. I try to avoid partisan politics not because I’m afraid of losing our non-profit status but because I think you can get partisan diatribes anywhere and if we base our values on love the way we ought, we need to look beyond partisan labels.

Unitarianism and Universalism are kind of unique in that they both arose in the Enlightenment and they both assert Enlightenment values. If, as Mr Pomerantsev and Ms. Goldberg assert, we are in the midst of a world-wide international covert assault on enlightenment empiricism, it is supremely the job of a Unitarian Universalist minister to defend those traditions. Not to call for everyone to become a UU, but to call for a return to the habits of mind and the disciplines that have made some of the best aspects of our modern world.

Let’s get to Peter Pomerantsev’s unique perspective on what’s going on in this latest book. The Soviet state against which his parents struggled insisted that Communism was the end of history and history would prove it was the superior system. Communism grew out of Enlightenment values: the greatest good for the greatest number, from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs. The problem was that it wasn’t working and the attempts to make it work killed millions of people. The totalitarian state churned out propaganda to paint a false picture of the success of Communism, and dissidents like Peter Pomerantsev’s parents made it their business to try to find the truth and get it circulated, often risking lives and careers to do so.

In the middle 1980s, under Michael Gorbachev, there was an easing of this censorship and a freeing of speech, called Glasnost. Contrasting that era to this, Pomerantsev says,

“During glasnost, it seemed that the truth would set everybody free. Facts seemed possessed of power, dictators seemed so afraid of facts that they suppressed them. But something has gone drastically wrong: we have access to more information and evidence than ever, but facts seem to have lost their power. There is nothing new about politicians lying, but what seems novel is their acting as if they don’t care whether what they say is true or false.”

Under the totalitarian Soviet system, the state had a virtual monopoly on publishing and broadcasting. If you had told Pomerantsev’s parents in the 1980s that there would come a time when everyone would in effect be a publisher and could post whatever they wanted, that would seem like paradise.

Our ideas of free speech, like other human rights, stem from the Enlightenment. Before the rise fo totalitarian states, the Church had assumed a monopoly on truth, and had enforced that monopoly by burning heretics and the books written by them. The ideal of free speech, like the ideal of a liberal arts education, posits that truth comes from a clash of ideas, and is best nurtured by letting people speak and publish, not by suppression. As we used to say in the ACLU, the remedy for bad speech is not suppression or punishment of the speaker. The remedy for bad speech is more speech.

That comforting idea is called into question with the rise of the internet and particularly social media. Trying to get information from a social media feed is like trying to get a sip of water from a fire hose. And if there are trolls in the environment who are knowingly concocting false stories it is even harder to ascertain which end is up.

Pomerantsev argues that we have reached a point where the people with their hands on the levers of power act as if facts don’t matter. Here’s his description of Putin:

“When Vladimir Putin went on international television during his army’s annexation of Crimea, and asserted, with a smirk, that there are no Russian soldiers in Crimea when everyone knew there were, and then just as casually later admitted that they had been there, and even publicly awarded medals to the soldiers whom he had earlier said hadn’t been there, he wasn’t so much lying in the sense of trying to replace one reality with another as saying that facts don’t matter.”

The same could be said about President Trump. Mainstream news media have gotten very good at fact-checking his assertions, and by the time a film clip plays on the evening news, it is often followed by a breakdown of the number of lies that were told. The fact that he continues to do this sends a message that to this man facts don’t matter.

There is a kind of liberation here, which Peter Pomerantsev describes well:

“So, the politician who makes a big show of rejecting facts, who validates the pleasure of spouting nonsense, who indulges in a full, anarchic liberation from coherence, from glum reality, becomes attractive. That enough Americans could elect someone like Donald Trump with so little regard for making sense, whose many contradictory messages never add up to any stable meaning, was partly possible because enough voters felt they weren’t invested in any larger evidence-based future. Indeed, in his very incoherence lies the pleasure. All the madness you feel, you can now let it out and it’s okay. The joy of Trump is to validate the pleasure of spouting [stuff], the joy of pure emotion, often anger, without any sense. And it’s no coincidence that so many of the current rulers are also nostalgists. Putin’s internet troll armies sell dreams of a restored Russian Empire and Soviet Union; Trump tweets to “Make America Great Again”; Polish and Hungarian media lament lost nationhood.”

I called this sermon “The Collapse of Reality” because that’s what Peter Pomerantsev calls his thesis; I would put it this way in my own words: The fall of Communism held such promises for the former Soviet Republics, but Russia in particular has seen the rise, not of a constitutional democracy but of corrupt oligarchy and plutocracy. To grandstand for the nationalists, Putin annexed Crimea, and the West responded with tight sanctions against Putin and his cronies. As long as the West presents a unified front against Russian violations of human rights and expansionism, Putin is boxed in. So he sets out to sow dissension among the nations of the West, and he is succeeding to a surprising degree. To the extent that Putin creates cracks among the NATO countries, he gives himself freer rein to oppress his own people and to threaten those of other nations.

I called this sermon Collapse of Reality, but that is not quite what’s happening. Reality itself is not collapsing, but the common consensus about reality is being systematically eroded.

Go back to an Enlightenment figure, Immanuel Kant. As I said, there were two schools of philosophy in those days, the empiricists, who believed all we know we get through our five senses, and the rationalists, who believed that much of our knowledge is innate. Kant synthesized these two schools by saying each was partly right.

The mind has categories which seem to be inherent in it, like time, space and causation. We can perceive lots of things through our senses, but we can only know them, sort of, when we filter what comes in through our senses through the categories of our understanding. Even then, we can never know the thing outside us as it is in itself, which is called the noumenon. We can only know it as it appears to us, the phenomenon.

When we say that the Russian government is in flight from reality, we’re not talking about things out there, things as they are in themselves or what Kant would call noumena. We’re talking about the social construction of reality, how we make meaning out of what our senses are telling us. How we connect dots. And if there’s one thing this age of social media have shown, it’s that different people draw opposite conclusions from the same set of facts.

Facts are stubborn things, said John Adams. And facts do create limits to how much anyone can ignore or twist the noumenal reality to suit our own interests.

As Pomerantsev says:

“[T]hough facts can be unpleasant, they are useful. You need them, especially, if you are constructing something in the real world. There are no post-truth moments if you are building a bridge, for example. Facts are necessary to show what you are building, how it will work, why it won’t collapse. In politics, facts are necessary to show you are pursuing some rational idea of progress: here are our aims, here is how we prove we are achieving them, this is how they improve your lives. The need for facts is predicated on the notion of an evidence-based future.”

An evidence-based future. Far better to aim for that than to heed siren calls about a return to a past greatness which wasn’t so great for large swaths of people.

Nostalgia has great emotional appeal, but let us have nostalgia for the best of our traditions: the notion that we are all created equal, that we are given freedom to use responsibly, that no person is above the law but each person is entitled to the equal protection of the laws, that the highest ethical rule is to treat others as you would want to be treated, and that we are put here to live lives of purpose, compassion and joy.


Reading: Toxic Nostalgia Breeds Derangement

A writer who charted the collapse of reality in Russia now sees it worldwide.

Michelle Goldberg

New York Times August 19, 2019

In 2014, Peter Pomerantsev, a British journalist born in the Soviet Union, published “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,” which drew on his years working in Russian television to describe a society in giddy, hysterical flight from enlightenment empiricism. He wrote of how state-controlled Russian broadcasting “became ever more twisted, the need to incite panic and fear ever more urgent; rationality was tuned out, and Kremlin-friendly cults and hatemongers were put on prime time.”

Since 2016, the book has enjoyed a new life among people struggling to make sense of the dual shocks of Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory. Both catastrophes demonstrated the triumph of xenophobic post-truth politics, and both were assisted by Russian information warfare. Pomerantsev’s book about Russia suddenly seemed prophetic about the rest of the world.

Now, he’s written a penetrating follow-up, “This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality,” that is partly an effort to make sense of how the disorienting phenomena he observed in Russia went global. The child of exiled Soviet dissidents, Pomerantsev juxtaposes his family’s story — unfolding at a time when ideas, art and information seemed to challenge tyranny — with a present in which truth scarcely appears to matter.

“During glasnost, it seemed that the truth would set everybody free,” he writes. “Facts seemed possessed of power; dictators seemed so afraid of facts that they suppressed them. But something has gone drastically wrong: We have access to more information and evidence than ever, but facts seem to have lost their power.”

Why? Social media, which enables the rapid spread of misinformation, is clearly one reason. But Pomerantsev’s most intriguing insight is about how a post-fact society emerges from despair and cynicism about the future.

Throughout the Cold War, he writes, “both sides were engaged in what had begun as a debate about which system — democratic capitalism or communism — would deliver a rosier future for all mankind. The only way to prove you were achieving this future was to provide evidence.” Obviously, this didn’t mean regimes told the truth, only that they were invested in being seen as truthful. That’s why facts that revealed their deceptions could endanger them.

But today, few leaders claim to have an ideological map to a better world. The march of history has been replaced by the will to power. Pomerantsev contrasts Soviet propaganda, which tried, however crudely, to be convincing to outsiders, with modern Russia disinformation, which just aims to confuse. You could make a similar comparison between Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric and Trump’s. One way of communicating points forward, the other, back. Pomerantsev quotes the Russian-American Harvard professor Svetlana Boym, who wrote, “The 20th century began with Utopia and ended with nostalgia.”

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