Are there are certain thresholds necessary for the operation of democratic institutions? The founding fathers certainly thought so. Our participation in the electoral process, public debate, and other community action is predicated on being informed and educated to at least, say, a high school level. One acid test performed periodically is polling Americans to see how many believe that the sun revolves around the earth. The number changes a bit depending on how and when the question is asked, but the usual finding is that 1 in 5 believe that the sun revolves around us.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the scientific community muddies the waters by periodically redefinining planets and stars or introducing evidence that the earth has a second moon. But still, a fifth of Americans have a basic concept of our place in the universe discredited centuries ago by the Copernican Revolution?
One of my favorite authors, Morris Berman, has a new book called Dark Ages America. I’ve not yet read it, but the blurbs and reviews say that Berman paints a picture of America’s entry into a new dark age and its imminent collapse, at least in part because of its inability to maintain the very democratic institutions that brought it to prominence. It isn’t just the dominance of the Right Wing in politics or fundamentalism in culture, though; it’s that we’ve returned to a sort of shuttered mind characterized by magical thinking and outright denial of scientific knowledge.
There is good evidence that logic, reason, and other Enlightenment values may not be all they’re cracked up to be, that for all their utility they don’t provide substantive human meaning and lead only to a soulless, technocratic society. However, American-style democracy cannot survive without them. If there is a new paradigm forming around us — and many believe there is — it cannot plunge us into a mindset that foresakes what we have learned and achieved in the last 400 years. Rather, we need a synthesis that reincorporates human value, not one that irrationally places man again at the center of the universe.