In April 2007 in Washington there was a joint meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society on the theme of “The Public Good: Knowledge as the Foundation for a Democratic Society.” E.L. Doctorow’s keynote address was titled “The White Whale.” –The Editors
What does it say about the United States today that this fellowship of the arts and sciences and philosophy is called to affirm knowledge as a public good? What have we come to when the self-evident has to be argued as if–500 years into the Enlightenment and 230-some years into the life of this Republic–it is a proposition still to be proven? How does it happen that the modernist project that has endowed mankind with the scientific method, the concept of objective evidence, the culture of factuality responsible for the good and extended life we enjoy in the high-tech world of our freedom, but more important for the history of our species, the means to whatever verified knowledge we have regarding the nature of life and the origins and laws of the universe…. How does it happen for reason to have been so deflected and empirical truth to have become so vulnerable to unreason?
For some time now we have been confronted by a religiously inspired criminal movement originated in the Middle East that advertises its values by suicidal bombings, civilian massacres and the execution of arbitrarily selected victims by the sawing off of their heads. However educated, well-to-do and politically motivated the leaders of this conspiracy may be, they have invoked an extreme fundamentalist reading of their sacred text to mentally transport their rank and file back into the darkness of tribal war and shrieking, life-contemptuous jihad.
So that history, as we look to that part of the world, seems to be running backward, as if civilization is in reverse, as if time is a loop.
And here? The scientists this evening may have to correct me as I invoke the term “quantum nonlocality.” As I understand the term and make metaphorical use of it, electrons shot from an atom will mirror one another no matter how far apart they are driven: a mile, ten miles, a hemisphere apart–you look at one and you have a reflection of the other, a kind of weird subatomic dance in celebration of the mimetic proclivities of everything in the universe, is quantum nonlocality.
This is not to suggest that our waterboarding and sensory-deprivation torture techniques, that Abu Ghraib and the incarceration in perpetuity without trial of terrorist suspects at Guantánamo, are the moral equivalent of 9/11. Only that a declared enemy with the mind-set of the Dark Ages throws his anachronistic shadow over us and awakens our dormant primeval instincts.
Apart from this uncanny synchronous spin, the domestic political fantasy life of these past seven years finds us in an unnerving time loop of our own making–in this country, quite on its own, history seems to be running in reverse and knowledge is not seen as a public good but as something suspect, dubious or even ungodly, as it was, for example, in Italy in 1633, when the church put Galileo on trial for his heretical view that the earth is in orbit around the sun.
I am not a scientist and don’t deal in formulas, but as a writer I would, in the words of Henry James, take to myself “the faintest hints of life” and convert “the very pulses of the air into revelations.” That surely provides me with a line to unreason. And so when I read that the President of Iran denies the historical truth of the Holocaust, and when I hear the President of the United States doubting the scientific truth of global warming, I recognize that no matter what the distance they would keep between them, and whatever their confrontational stance, they are fellow travelers in the netherworld.