Our Dual Crises: Knowledge, Democracy, and the Way Ahead

Steven S. Volk

I am not the first, and certainly will not be the last, to observe that, as a country, we face a crisis of both democracy and epistemology. Unsurprisingly, the first crisis is strongly entwined with the second – the deep divide on determining how we know what we know. While this administration has failed to take seriously a rampaging virus which, as of this writing, is quickly approaching 400,000 deaths in the United States, Trump did lie so abundantly and so doggedly that he succeeded in undermining the ability of tens of millions to perceive reality itself. Politicians who take liberties with the truth are a dime a dozen. Con artists who find willing buyers for snake oil cures? In some circles that is called advertising. But a huckster who can lead you to deny what you actually observe with your own eyes – that’s a level beyond your garden variety charlatan.

Film Footage: The Heart (ca. 1950), from The Prelinger Archive; Photo: Fred Holland, 1913, from The Library of Congress

Trump’s creation of an alternative universe free from the gravitational pull of facts has always been about an assertion of power, as Masha Gessen pointed out at the inception of the Trump presidency. When Trump, she wrote presciently in 2016, “claims that he didn’t make statements that he is on record as making, or when he claims that millions of people voting illegally cost him the popular vote [in 2016, that is; he would, of course, claim the same thing in 2020], he is not making easily disprovable factual claims: he is claiming control over reality itself.”

It was this Trump-created reality – fed by the Republican Party, Fox News, and an appalling number of those who really should have known better – that convinced his ground troops to storm the Capitol on January 6, aiming to forcefully overturn a democratic election. In my area of specialization, Latin America, we would call that an attempted coup. Whether Trump’s persistent peddling of his “landslide” victory is a product of cynicism, authoritarian tendencies, or serious psychological problems, I’m not qualified to say. Certainly it’s not an either-or situation. There is no question that his revanchist bootlickers, the Ted Cruz’s, Josh Hawley’s, and Jim Jordan’s in Congress (the last, heaven have mercy, being my own congressional representative), are contemptible opportunists, looking to cash in on a political base which Trump will never actually bequeath to them. (“Sure, boys. I’m off to Mar-a-Lago, but you can have all that populist rage and anger that I built up to benefit myself and my family. Do with it as you like; I’ll be on the links if you need me.”)

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Crisis and Pedagogy

Steven Volk, April 18, 2016

ChurchTo be in London is, in many ways, to be in the world. It is to participate in a rich (in all senses of the word), cosmopolitan culture. You can delight in remarkable theater, gleefully observe David Cameron dance around hard questions in Parliament, soar to a different dimension at a St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Evensong service, or simply observe all that the British empire, willingly or not, has brought to England’s shores. And you’re not in Kansas – or Oberlin! – anymore.

OK, so the internet, Skype, and Whatsapp means that it takes a real effort of will to leave “home” behind, but at least the London visitor remains less shaped by its gravitational pull. So it is that when I read about the controversies and crises dividing colleagues (and students) on our campus, I am fully aware of being separated from events by the wide Atlantic, and then some. Prudence and experience would caution against addressing the debates so much on the minds of friends and colleagues. There’s much that I don’t know, haven’t heard, haven’t felt myself, en carne propia. Silence makes sense; but can distance lend perspective? Can one “bear witness” without, indeed, having borne witness? If “witnessing” is essential before an empathetic environment can be constructed, and if there are lessons to be learned that can be learned from a remove, than perhaps one should at least try. Continue reading