I had a great, hour-long conversation with host Joan Esposito on WCPT-AM Chicago on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. Here’s an excerpt, about the gap we left for con artists like Trump to fill (transcript below). You can listen to the full interview on Soundcloud.
[00:00:00] Spencer Critchley: We, I would say, as Enlightenment rationalists, which includes most liberals but also moderate conservatives — basically anybody who believes in rationality — have left an opening for unprincipled people like Alex Jones or like President Trump to exploit. The great German sociologist Max Weber — I mentioned him a couple of times in the book as well — referred to the “disenchantment” of the world in a lecture called “Science as a Vocation,” that he gave in 1917.
And what he meant by that was that the Enlightenment had taken away a lot of the enchantment and mystery and depth and meaning from the world and left us with logic and facts. And that’s part of this problem, that because liberals are descended from the Enlightenment and believe in science and rationality, those are obviously strengths, but it can also come across as spiritually and aesthetically empty. And that leaves this gap, this hunger, that I think — basically, we all have to find a deeper meaning in life than just the numbers, just the data, right, which, as I said earlier, is why we listen to music, and [we] like art and poetry, or are attracted to cultures that seem to still maintain some kind of connection to nature and tradition.
And the trouble is by not filling that need, by being overly rational, we’ve left it open for exploitation by demagogues like Trump or by dishonest media outlets. And those media outlets have been greatly enabled by the rise of technology because it used to be, there were only a few major television networks and print publications, and now we have hundreds and hundreds of TV channels and an infinite number, in effect, of Internet channels, which has enabled any dishonest or insane person to spread whatever fantasies or lies they care to. But part of the responsibility for that, I would say, is that by becoming too much stuck in our heads, we’ve left a gap there that’s going to be filled by somebody, and sometimes it’s filled by poets and artists, or genuinely well meaning spiritual leaders. But sometimes it’s filled by con artists and that’s part of what we’re seeing now.
[00:02:23] Joan Esposito: Is part of what you’re talking about — I remember when I was a little girl and I was raised Catholic, and there was a time when the masses were said in Latin, And then there was a change and the mass was going to be said in English. And I can remember people being upset by that because they said that when they understood the words, somehow some of the magic of the mass had gone away for them. And I always found that incredibly puzzling — so when it was Latin, sort of mumbo jumbo, there was a higher spiritual feeling that they got. And when they knew what the words actually meant and what was actually being said — it sounds a little bit like that. Like what you’re talking about.
[00:03:13] Spencer Critchley: Yeah. I mean, if you think about the King James Bible, for example, versus the modern, idiomatic translations of the Bible, which are written in modern American English, some of them, I actually prefer the King James version of the Bible because I feel that the rhythm of the poetry just works much better. It just works better as poetry. It doesn’t make any sense, but poetry doesn’t make much sense, and this gets to how language is used.
Language can be used to make logical propositions, and we can analyze whether the premises are factual and then we can analyze whether the logic is sound. But language is also used to write poetry or songs or liturgies in the various world religions. And one way of picturing the divide I’m talking about is, imagine walking into a Catholic church service or a mosque or Jewish temple or any religious service and yelling out, “There is no scientific evidence that any of this stuff is true!” I think it’s pretty easy to see that that’s certainly defensible from a scientific point of view. But it would be a very inappropriate use of language, and you’d kind of be missing the point because those folks, they’re not in there talking science. They’re pursuing some higher form of truth.
Now, your caller would probably argue, well, there is no higher form of truth; they’re fooling themselves. But they don’t believe that, and they feel that they’re experiencing this higher form of truth by gathering together and by repeating these words and listening to this music in a way that is non-rational. And you know most of them, I think, or at least many of them, are very much aware it’s not rational, but in the same way we’re all aware that if we’re reading the poetry of William Blake, for example, we don’t expect it to be rational.
And in fact, you know, William Blake was a Counter-Enlightenment figure, very aggressively Counter-Enlightenment. He hated the Enlightenment. He thought it was the death of the soul, like most of the other romantic poets. So there is something there that I think we need to recognize. It doesn’t mean we need to agree with people we’re arguing with, but we need to understand how they could be seeing the world so differently and how even language could be used differently.
So coming at somebody with facts and logic, this kind of explains that crazy-making experience when we say, “Look at the number of times President Trump has demonstrably lied,” for example, “and here’s the proof!” And it doesn’t seem to make any difference. Well, there are other uses of language, and his followers would probably argue that facts and logic are a pretty small form of truth compared to the higher truths that they’re pursuing.
[00:05:52] Joan Esposito: We have so many people who want to join our conversation. The phone lines have lit up. So, Spencer, please, please, hang on. Please stay with us. Wonderful. We have a lot to talk about. I’m talking with Spencer Critchley. The book is called Patriots of two Nations, about the divide that has existed as long as we have been a country. We will continue this discussion right after this.