One of the problems I see in so much of human activity is that we tend to conflate value with perfection. Too often, we think that ‘good’ means ‘flawless.’
I see this in medicine and biology, where some of my colleagues speak in hushed tones about the earlier scholars who generated fundamental ideas. It’s hero worship, an intellectual fundamentalism toward those who lived in some golden age, when people were smarter, wiser, and more virtuous, in ‘the good old days.’
It is hardly unusual. The Middle Ages were basically a millennium of European scholarship that did little beyond perpetuating the classics, i.e. the contributions of classical artists and thinkers from Greece and Rome, and from the Holy Land. The word ‘classical’ comes from the idea that the major people from that time were of the first class, implying a class above what we constitute today. Indeed, throughout the Medieval, the belief was that people should only study and imitate the ancients, because we could never do what they did, we could never be as good as they were.
So a functional definition of fundamentalism is that we defer to earlier opinions; we do not treat the earlier people who wrote fundamental ideas as our equals, as people who can be questioned and debated. Rather, we see them as demigods whose ideas are complete, perfect, and which anticipate everything we need to know today, and forever.
This approach is harmful, particularly in a democracy. We have much to learn from Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Washington. But they were hardly gods. They weren’t even close.
Look above at Horatio Grenough’s iconic – and I intentionally invoke the theological meaning of ‘icon’ here – sculpture of Washington. It is based on Roman tradition, including the tradition that Roman emperors became gods upon their deaths. Washington was very much human; just read any of his award-winning biographies.
The problem is that our people-worship becomes idea-worship. For instance, democracy was a great advance forward in governance and general human progress. But it is by no means perfect. The Founders certainly did not think so, and viewed democracy as ‘mobocracy.’ They created, not a democracy, but a republic which limited voting to white landed males, and further created the Senate (the members of which were originally appointed, not elected) and the Electoral College, in order to buffer democratic passions.
Beyond that, we can see examples all over the world where democracy just doesn’t work. Most people are unaware that Hitler was the freely elected Chancellor of Germany. And here in Louisiana, we have had more than one democratically elected governor who corrupted state government, and state revenues, to feed his own ambitions.
Likewise, some believe that the free market is perfect. The open-minded observer can find any number of examples of weaknesses in the free market. The Pure Food and Drug Act was critical to general health and safety from toxic consumables that escaped free market controls. The free market is also prey to monopolists and other shrewd despots, those the trust busters fought to neutralize. In recent years we watched a cartel of bankers create an economic pandemic, only to receive federal bailouts, escape prosecution, and even receive bonuses for their noxious management.
Finally, there is the trickiest one, and perhaps the most important of all, freedom of expression. We all agree that libel and slander must be excluded from that freedom. Beyond that, there are deep challenges. There are the problems with pornography and hate speech. Government has recently been struggling with how to respond to lying in political campaigns. I have been concerned here about anger mongering, and I certainly have no suggestions for legal responses to it. But anger-mongering is certainly a problem – as Hitler showed, it can become an international crisis – for which we still have no remedy.
All of these are examples of hammer thinking, and how we need to move away from simplistic ideas of right and wrong, toward more complicated concepts of appropriate and inappropriate, which change with the situation.
Democracy, free markets and freedom of expression are dynamos that moved this country forward, and are moving much of the rest of the world with us. But they are still imperfect, simply because there is no perfect approach.
There are no panaceas.
Horatio Grenough’s George Washington courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.