13 June 2012
This was probably not the best time to be reading about Bryan Fischer, the American Family Association broadcaster who has forged opposition to same-sex rights into the sharpest brand in the evangelical attempt to institute an American theocracy. I’m feeling wobbly enough as it is, and panic attacks are not helpful. That’s my first reaction to people like Fischer: panic. Monsters of wrong-headed self-assurance, they seem designed to prove the ancients right about the impracticability of democracy. I can only echo Fischer’s charge about President Obama, “who, I believe, despises this nation.” I certainly despise this nation, insofar as it endows Fischer’s organization with tax-free status and allows him to argue, on the airwaves (which are allotted in public trust), that, for example, First Amendment rights are available only to Christians and that men are superior to women. His ideas are ridiculous or treasonous or both — so why am I reading about him in The New Yorker?
Having worked in radio myself, I am not surprised by the pile-up of talk celebrities with checkered pasts in other lines of work. Fischer, according to Jane Mayer’s profile, has consistently strained his relations with the organizations that employed him by insisting upon male supremacy. He simply refuses to subject himself to the authority of a woman. In this, he accords with most pious observers of the Abrahamic strictures. I panic because I grew up in a time when such piety was marginalized (as I believe it ought to be). This isn’t the place to consider how and why that changed, but of course it did change, and now there is only one reason for progressive optimism: opinion polls that align rigorous conservatism with age. Eventually, according to this prospect, the supporters of Bryan Fischer and others like him will die off. I should like to rest my hopes for the future on more positive developments than mass-mortality.
The nation seems divided between people who want to be left alone to do their thing, and who are willing to leave others alone to do theirs, on the one hand, and zealots who wish to impose Iron Age laws on everyone. The division is very far from equal, but the people who want to be left alone, are, ipso facto, unmotivated to take public action. Many of them are too busy following interesting HBO series to pay attention to the Fischers at work in the land. (Everyone who tells me how much “fun” Downton Abbey is seems bemused and wishful, as if things would be better if we could all live like that.) The hipsters who pipe up at The Millions and The Rumpus are preoccupied by job prospects, naturally, but I sense that, like sharp young people everywhere, they’re disinclined to engage with people who have invested in deeply uncool policies. Fischer’s evangelicals think there’s a war on, that the country is about to burn — and they’ll be happy to light the match. Who is going to stop them?
One thing that isn’t going to stop them is the passage of laws that they don’t like, laws permitting a fully equal distribution of civil rights among all citizens. That is only going to encourage them. Passing rightful laws is not enough. It is the beginning of the progressive project, not the climax. What follows the laws is the behavior that, over time, makes the laws unnecessary. But if no one is paying attention to good behavior, what then?
Happily, the antidote to my panic attack, the intellectual Xanax, as it were, lay close to hand: Stuard Firestein’s Ignorance: How It Drives Science. Science, as it has developed over the past four hundred years, begins with a proposition of general ignorance: nothing is known unless it has been tried. To put this even more sharply: nothing is really known until it has been disproven. We know that there is no such thing as phlogiston. What we know about oxygen is subject to further refinement. We may know all that we need to know about oxygen for the time being, but we don’t know everything about it, and we probably never will. Which is grand, because, as Firestein explains, scientists “don’t get bogged down in the factual swamp because they don’t care all that much for facts. It’s not that they discount or ignore them, but rather that they don’t see them as an end in themselves. They don’t stop at the facts; they begin there, right beyond the facts, where the facts run out.”
Bryan Fischer and people who regard him as an intelligent speaker clearly have an opposed view of knowledge. They believe that everything worth knowing was handed down to us long ago, in a book inspired by God. It’s a very attractive idea, and, because the Bible is actually a complilation of mutually inconsistent texts written over a long time and from changing points of view, its complications keep happily puzzled minds busy. It is no wonder that fundamentalist Christians try to discredit what I’ve just called Science, because Science insists on a complete disavowal of the Bible as a compendium of facts. There is, in fact, not one single fact in all of Scripture. That is the point, you might say; it is a work of faith. But the Bryan Fischers of this world want more than faith. They want knowledge. And they are right to discredit Science in this pursuit, for all that Science can give us, truly, is, as Stuart Firestein argues, Ignorance.
It’s because we don’t know right from wrong that we have worked out a number of conventions, most of them backed at one time or another by supernatural claims. In fact, it takes nothing but the modern imagination to understand that murder is wrong, and that no one occupies a position of inherent authority. It would be convenient if these conventions yielded compelling exceptions, but they don’t, ever. Murder is always and everywhere wrong. No one human being — and certainly no gang of human beings — has the right to take the life of another. (I believe that the complete denial of personal liberty known as modern incarceration is almost always wrong, too; prisons, I hope, will one day be seen as no less wicked than the machines of torture. But perhaps the world is not ready for that convention.) Most of our convetions are trivial, involving nothing more obscure nor less arbitrary than which side of the road to drive on. They change and improve along with our understanding. No divinity gave us a road map at the beginning of our journey, and nobody’s talk of one ought to impede our halting progress in reforming and recreating conventions that more closely answer our needs — one of which, certainly, is to live in a world without certainty. It’s precisely for that reason that the electric power must always spring on when summoned, and the water flow from the faucet. These sophisticated simplicities are the price of our everyday agnosticism, a negative capability, as Keats put it, to live with our very limited knowledge of the world. Those without the capability will have to find happiness in caves.