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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Deliberative Pedagogy: Practicing Democracy in the Classroom

Steve Volk, October 23, 2017

Michel-Vincent Brandoin, Le magasin pittoreseque, Vol. 5 (Paris, 1837).

You don’t need me to tell you that it feels like the wheels are coming off the bus. Not to mention the windows, doors, and crankshaft. White supremacist blowhards wrap themselves in First Amendment flannels while forcing universities to cough up serious cash in security costs to defend their rights (money that, you can be sure, could have gone to more beneficial ends). Leftists at the College of William and Mary disrupt an ACLU speaker for defending the First Amendment rights of obnoxious organizations, while,  at Reed, they berate a mixed-race lesbian lecturing on Sappho, branding her as a “race traitor” for participating in a Eurocentric introductory Humanities course. Pro-Trump students at Whittier College drowned out  California Attorney General Xavier Becerra with chants of “Lock him up!” and “Build the Wall!” Meanwhile, state legislators in Wisconsin, North Carolina and six other states pass legislation silencing student activists in the name of — what else? — free speech. Faculty are placed on leave to “protect” them after exercising free speech rights on social media. And all this is taking place during the watch of a “president” who uses his free speech rights to deliver falsehoods, fabrications, and fictions that would make Charles Ponzi gasp.

Sigh. One only wishes there were some space where these complex challenges, these “wicked problems,” could be discussed, if not dispassionately, than at least with evidence, insight, and the goal of reaching greater understandings as we move to address them. Wait! There is! It’s called “the college.” But if colleges and universities have become the grinding stone on which “speech” issues are milled, to what island do we retreat in order to hold these conversations? No retreat, and no island, I’d argue, but to the classroom itself, the space where democracy should be practiced and not just studied. Continue reading