The generations that grew up during the Cold War were exposed to a body of literature about the dangers of totalitarianism. Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury, Anthony Burgess, and of course George Orwell, reminded the world of how easily freedom could be lost. Even less politically pronounced writers like thriller master Alistair MacLean brought their readers to the brutal frontline between liberty and tyranny.
Sadly, the farther away time takes us from the Cold War, the more we lose our vigilance. Our popular literary and cinematic offerings distance themselves from the realities of the fight between good and evil. Where Stanley Kubrick brilliantly adapted Burgess’s Clockwork Orange to a stark totalitarian memento, moviegoers in the 21st century are served abstract, post-modern iterations of Star Wars, and escapist Hunger Games fantasies. The dynamic between good and evil is shrouded in entertainment, to the point where there is no apparent connection to the real world.
Academia is another liberty watchtower that is being evacuated by its own standard bearers. Where we once found vanguards of civilization, we now see members of the academic community abandoning the vows of scholarship that once created their very line of work. Proliferating politicized punditry rots away at the very nuts and bolts of our academic institutions.
Examples are aplenty of how faculty members of prominent academic institutions proudly flaunt their ideological agendas. A poignant one is a ‘Truth, Trust, and Democracy’ conference that was held at the Institute for Philosophy, the University of London, in 2019. In a video introducing the conference, Michael Hannon, philosophy professor at the University of Nottingham, explains its purpose as bringing “together a bunch of scholars” to explore the problem of “fake news, alternative facts, post-truth.”
An assortment of participants explains their scholarly interest in the problems that Hannon defines. Åsa Wikforss, professor of theoretical philosophy at the University of Stockholm, talks about knowledge, its limitations, and how the “room for doubt can be exploited.”
A tweet from former president Donald Trump is displayed: “Global Warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!” It is followed by a quote from Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: “The thing that cured measles was nutrition and clean water, not the vaccine.”
The blatant political bias doesn’t even seem to register with whoever produced the video.
Michael Lynch, philosophy professor at the University of Connecticut, opines about “obvious falsehoods” in our political discourse, and firmly states that global warming is a fact. (Climategate, sire?) Lynch is followed by Sarah Churchwell, professor of American literature at the University of London, who praises the conference as a “constellation” of intellectual diversity.
Interspersed between two segments of her comments is a series of memes ridiculing Trump, captioned by philosophy professor Ophelia Deroy with the Ludwig Maximilian University. Deroy claims to be “looking at memes,” as if that, and their political bias, passes for scholarship.
The irony of the idea that the conference is a “constellation” of intellectual diversity, makes the video humorous. The entire event would be ripe for ridicule were it not for the fact that the participants are such exquisite examples of how academia in general, and the humanities in particular, are on a path to complete scholarly rigor mortis.
Academic malpractice is not new, but it is now at a level where it can irreparably damage the integrity of higher learning. To make matters worse, this intellectual rotting goes hand in hand with an increasingly disturbing political phenomenon: the subjugation of democracy.
As I explained in Part 1 of this article, leftist politicians in America, and the entire institution of the European Union, have embarked on a virtual crusade in the name of democracy. Their targets are conservatives like the Hungarian government, which is accused—without a shred of evidence—of being un-democratic.
A gubernatorial candidate in Arizona says that if her Republican opponent wins, democracy is in danger, while she herself is responsible for the integrity of her own election. The president of the United States says the same thing about the prospect of Republicans winning Congressional majorities.
The reason why both the political and the academic Left can use such stark language about democracy is not that they believe conservatism to be anti-democratic in the genuine sense of the term. The reason is much more sinister: they have redefined ‘democracy’ to where it is no longer a form of government, but their own socialist ideology.
Conservatism is the antithesis of socialism, hence it is branded as undemocratic.
This logical somersault would be absurd if the Left had not built a supposedly scholarly backup for it. We find it in the academic literature, thematically centered around a practice called ‘political epistemology.’
Thanks to the involvement of academic literature, the transformation of ‘democracy’ from a form of government to a new name for socialism looks complex and highly sophisticated. This is on purpose, of course: suddenly, their campaign against conservatives looks like an exercise in noble scholarship. By wrapping socialism in democratic coating, the academic Left can elevate ‘democracy’ to a status of indisputability on par with the laws of gravity.
From a practical political viewpoint, this transformation of the concept of ‘democracy’ means that citizens should be guided by “collective epistemic agents” to an ideological truth.
To pull this off, the Left has transplanted a traditional scientific method into politics. Where scientists use epistemological methods to find scientific facts, the academic Left uses the same method to find ideological truth.
As we will see, this is a dangerous endeavor. In his article “The Politics of Epistemology” (Ethics, October, 1989), renowned American philosopher Morton White warns against any attempts to use epistemology as a means to finding ideological truth. With reference to democracy—qua democracy, not the reinterpreted leftist version—he demonstrates how totalitarian ideas can sneak through the very epistemological fence that is supposed to defend democracy.
His words fell on the deaf ears of, among others, Alvin Goldman, another American philosopher. Goldman gives us a first glimpse of how the Left’s conceptual transformation works. Advocating epistemology as a social phenomenon (“Social Epistemology,” Critica, December 1999), he explains that truth exists independently of our pursuit of it:
Essential to this approach is the assumption that the truth-value of a proposition—its being true or false—is (normally) independent of whether it is believed.
Generally speaking, this is a correct observation: truth exists independently of our beliefs. Traditional academic practice (as opposed to academic malpractice) works to uncover truth based on principles like falsifiability, independent peer review, and an unwavering openness to challenges to established paradigms.
All of this works well in the natural sciences. None of it works well in politics. Yet the academic Left, and its political peers, believe differently.
To see in more detail why they are wrong, let us listen to Icelandic philosopher Arnór Hannibalsson. He gave a clear explanation of the social nature of epistemology in his “Epistemology and Practice” (Society and Economy in Central and Eastern Europe, No. 3, 1998). Knowledge, he explains,
emerges when phenomena are put into order by applying concepts to them. And these concepts are based on the a priori premises of logical thinking.
Hannibalsson refers to those premises as an “orderly system of concepts.” This system, in turn, is part of a ‘pyramid’ where concepts have different ranges; the concepts that are fundamental to our pursuit of knowledge have “a wide range and high level of abstraction.” In other words, they are general in nature.
These general concepts form theories, which are the product of a long series of contributions from producers of knowledge, i.e., scholars. The production process includes the vetting of hypotheses against evidence, peer review, and the reproducibility of established findings.
Thanks in no small part to this arduous process for the production of scientific knowledge, theory writ large, Hannibalsson explains, “resists attempts at changing it.”
As already noted, there lies a considerable danger in transplanting this largely Popperian epistemological method from science to politics. When this is done, the theories that Hannibalsson refers to are replaced with ideological doctrine.
In other words, the epistemological process toward political knowledge is no longer guided by traditional scientific methods, but by ideology. By consequence, the ontological goal is no longer to find out “what exists,” but to establish a certain ideology as scientific truth.
German philosopher Martin Ebeling offers a case in point. In “Epistemic Political Egalitarianism, Political Parties, and Conciliatory Democracy” (Political Theory, October, 2016), Ebeling explains that modern society is complex to the point where a certain level of political “expertise” is “necessary to cope with social complexity.” This expertise, in turn, must possess
knowledge across a broad range of domains and the ability to integrate this knowledge into a conception of a just society.
Note the use of the term ‘just.’ We will return to it in just a moment.
Individual citizens cannot possess sufficient knowledge to pursue political truths on their own. Ebeling does not explain why, but according to Hannibalsson’s conceptual pyramid, individual citizens do not grasp the full complexity and conceptual range of the pyramid’s theoretical base.
Translated into politics, this means that individual citizens cannot fully understand ideologies. They must be guided, Ebeling explains, by “collective epistemic agents.”
Again, so long as we are focused on the epistemological aspect of science, these “collective epistemic agents” are simply the institutions and practices that, for centuries, have evolved as vetting procedures and checkpoints for the production of scientific knowledge. The same is not the case for the collective epistemic agents in Ebeling’s political sphere. When the production of knowledge is concerned with politics, not science, these epistemic agents have their own agenda and their own biased interest in what truths citizens are guided to.
Ebeling recognizes this: he points to political parties as serving this epistemic function.
But what knowledge must the political parties impart to help citizens? Ebeling reveals his definition of democracy by explaining that the primary purpose of political parties educating citizens is not to convince them to vote in a certain way. No, the primary purpose is instead to
help citizens to cope with the multidimensional complexity of the task of advancing the justice of modern societies. They do so by reducing the complexity along the normative and the epistemic dimension.
Note how these collective epistemic agents are ideologically biased by their very nature. Therefore, so is the knowledge that they want to help people pursue.
Which brings us to the twice-mentioned term ‘justice.’ In a democratic system of government, i.e., where electing a government is a matter above all ideologies, all truths—in other words, all outcomes of the election—are equally respected by all participating parties. By contrast, when ‘democracy’ is elevated to a truth on its own, and when that truth is synonymous with socialism, the citizenry no longer have an active role to play in their own governance.
All they need to do, according to Ebeling and other proponents of “epistemic political egalitarianism,” is to listen to political parties for “collective moral deliberation” and the pursuit of “a sufficiently coherent conception of justice.” That justice is the truth that people should be guided into understanding.
The obvious question, of course, is what kind of justice Ebeling has in mind. He hints, not-so-subtly, that he is a Rawlsian, which means he favors economic redistribution.
Since economic redistribution is the lifeblood of socialism, we have now reached the end station of the academic Left’s subjugation of democracy. It is no longer a system of government. There is only one true value in politics, namely the socialist ideology wrapped in the now-hollow term ‘democracy.’
Alternative values, such as freedom, are deemed false and antithetical to ‘democracy.’
In short, the Left is pointing us in an ugly, totalitarian direction. They do so, believing that they are the bearers of virtue and scholarship.
Clothed like H. C. Andersen’s emperor, they continue to party like it’s 1984.