Monday, May 1, 2017

We can be a good, thoughtful, reflective society

A ship's crew which does not understand that the art of navigation demands knowledge of the stars will stigmatize a properly qualified pilot as a star-gazing idiot, and will prevent him from navigating. These words written circa 380 BC by Plato in The Republic are singularly relevant to our society today.

Plato’s words ring true because we now live in a society where critical, thoughtful intellectual engagement is frowned upon as distractive, idle theory. Public discourse and policy decisions and even action is often unbridled by sound knowledge or evidence.

Anti-reason stretches from the pubs to pop culture and to the pseudo intellectual universe of university lecture theatres. The dominant cultural momentum in our society is at odds with reason and evidence. Moreover, the bewildering materialist culture of a neo-liberal economy gone awry has made everything intangible and beautiful, such as knowledge and intellectualism, unworthy.  Just show me the money.

Contempt for thought evidence and reflection defines the ubiquitous lassitude buttressed by clumsy broadcast and print journalism, mediocre exam-centric public education, which has bred an inexhaustible reservoir of a slothful and ignorant public, and most of all, a dearth incisive of public intellectuals.

The dearth of public intellectuals is exemplified by fact that ours is a society where issues of great moment are framed and led by a bellicose political class. Our so-called intellectual class, the kind that inhabits digital and print media lives not by prodding but by pandering or placating political or ethnic interests.

In the words of Plato these mercenary intellectuals trick themselves out as philosophers. I use the word intellectual to mean someone who lives for ideas, which suggests that he or she is dedicated to the life of the mind. Few academics and almost no politician in our country today could qualify as intellectuals by this construction.

The surge of unreason is at odds not only with rationalism but also with what I think are the fundamental tenets of liberty. The flight from reason and fact-based action is capable of inflicting vastly greater damage to freedom and democracy, the essential foundations upon which to build equitable and sustainable economic growth.

The 2017 campaigns will most likely be dominated by tyranny of unreason, characterized by single-minded men and women of parochial persuasion, who peddle innuendo and prey on the ignorance of our fellow citizens. In a letter to Colonel Charles Yancey in January 1816, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “ If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and what will never be”.


There has never been a more critical moment for us to harness, in addition to other tools, our collective intellectual resources to confront the reality of our most urgent challenges, including deep and worsening ethnic division, a ponderous constitution, unbridled corruption and moral decadence, poverty and rising inequality, mediocre public education and deterioration of state capability. Disdain for reason and critical thought comes at a colossal cost.  And posterity will judge us harshly.

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