Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Sceptics, Immigration and the rural conservation of ideas

Now, there is small society in the US called the Sceptics Society (, led by Michael Shermer, who organise events, talks, debunk pseudo-science and publish a quarterly newsletter about, in general, weird things people believe. Unwilling and unable as I am to subscribe to the newsletter, I take advantage of a free weekly newsletter, usually a truncated article, or ‘letter’, from an issue of the mailed newsletter which deals with either the general wisdom of maintaining a healthy scepticism or debunking a piece of myth or pseudo-science which whiles away a casual half hour on a Wednesday morning.

Schooled as I am in two and a half centuries of ‘enlightened’ thinking, not too much of it is particularly interesting because it is all so ‘stating the obvious’ to any vaguely educated individual; it is the ‘bread and butter’ of a normal European education. Descartes, Kant, Hobbes, Locke, Darwin, Russell, Popper et al; at a pinch I might even include Karl Marx in that list. As far as I am aware, no such particular sceptical movement exists in Europe and would, presumably not be tolerated in strict Islamic cultures, who seem to have lost that brand of scepticism and enquiry that formed the 12th and 13th centuries’ foundation for the flowering of the scientific revolution which came about in Europe as soon as they could find someone who could translate the original Arabic texts into Latin.

Why should the most technologically advanced society on the planet need a Society to promote scepticism and the scientific method? It is not as if the writers of the Constitution were a bunch of politically naive, scientifically illiterate individuals still living in the ‘Dark Ages’, which incidentally were not so dark, merely a little dim. There can be little doubt that Franklin’s time as Ambassador to France caused him to become immersed, and subsequently to embrace and to communicate to his colleagues, the scientific and empirical rationalism that made up the bulk of the prevailing thought in Europe at the time.

Not that I am suggesting that the thinkers of the Enlightenment were not necessarily ‘God-fearing’ men, and women; merely that a belief in God did not by necessity preclude a sceptical approach to the world. As the sceptical and scientific pathways opened up, it seems logical and inevitable that the power of the church would wane, both Protestant and Counter-Reformation Catholicism, and belief in God would, by natural erosion, become less and less essential to the educated European. One would have thought that the same thing would have happened in the US, wouldn’t you? And yet it, by and large, hasn’t happened. There are still more brands of Christianity in the US than I have eaten fishes; the Republican Right still appears to be dominated by the neo-conservative Bible-bashers; American society still appears to locked into a battle of wills with that other fundamentalist society; the Islamic one.

I wonder why this might be so? Not because it is an amusing intellectual exercise but because the US is still the most powerful nation in the world even if it is not for much longer and because, with an impending US election, can the US, and the World, afford another political disaster in the guise of a Bush-clone. Whatever the Americans may think about their own economic status and how the Republicans MIGHT be better economically for the US, they are surely not better for the rest of us; whoever they may. Traditionally, Republican administrations and their legacy tend to increase political tensions around the globe; can we afford it at this time?

So I have come up with a theory; Americans are just way too fat! Just kidding! The first wave of immigration was largely confined to the North East. Starting with the Louisiana Purchase from the French in 1803 and the subsequent expansion into Native American territory during the subsequent century, America was flooded by waves of immigration from rural areas of Europe, both north and south; these would have been, in the most part, made up of poorly educated peasant farmers or at best poorly educated industrial workers seeking to escape the living nightmare that was industrialised Europe in the nineteenth century. The southern and mid-Western states were largely agricultural and, I believe though I am happy to be corrected, the industrialised areas of the country were largely confined to the north. With the secession from the Union and the foundation of the Confederacy*, there was a long-term fractioning of the country.

There is, I believe, a far greater tendency in rural areas to be conservative in all manner of ways; you preserve the methods of your fathers because they work and were seen to work; agricultural life tends to be subject to the vagaries of nature and you have little control; your livelihood, and that of your family, are no longer solely dependent of the amount of labour you expend. This ‘fact’ is as apparent in Europe as it is in the US except for one fact; agriculture does not dominate entire ‘states’ as it does in the US.

As in all immigrant communities, like tends to settle with like; the large Asian population in Bradford, England; the large Turkish community around Frankfurt; Germany; the large Algerian population around Paris, France. And just as national communities tend to settle in the same areas, so it is with religious communities. Is it any wonder that those religious communities, and most people in the 19th century WERE religious, often with their own particular ‘brand’ of religion, should choose to settle in the same areas; combine that with the natural conservatism of a rural population and you have a very good reason for the incessant pendulum of American political and economic policy; to the detriment of everybody (and every penguin).

Can I ask one question? What would be the bars to someone being nominated for the Presidency? A covert white supremacist; a woman; a black man (we already know the answer to that one); an ethnic Chinese/American; a Native American? I doubt it, if the policies were to the electorate’s liking. An avowed atheist? No chance! About the only person who would stand less chance would be a known practicing homosexual! There surely has to be something wrong here somewhere.

*In case the Texans have decided to rewrite the history books again (viz. Atlantic Triangular Trade), the Civil War WAS caused by the issue of slavery; Lincoln had no problem with States determining their own policy in this regard. However, the prospect of all the slaves heading north to a ‘free’ State did not endear itself to southern slaveholders; the underground railway was well established. The risk of capture could scarcely be any worse than slavery to the slaves.