If the truth is obvious, why don't we agree?


Minds Wide Shut, the collaborative effort of Gary Saul Morson, a scholar of Russian literature and thought, and Morton Schapiro, the president of Northwestern University and an economics professor, is an embarrassing book. Whether or not the authors realize it, this is probably the best that it can hope to be. Published to little fanfare by a university press, it will be sought out by the reader who already recognizes the sanctity of the free exchange of ideas. It stands little chance of reaching those fundamentalists who need its message. They won’t hear about it, let alone read it, and were it to encroach upon their self-satisfaction, they would dismiss it as the puling entreaties of two “centrist” cowards. If they didn’t, after all, they wouldn’t be fundamentalists.

Fundamentalists are inoculated against embarrassment. Whom, then, will this wise, witty, enriching book embarrass? It is a rebuke not only to the fundamentalist but also to his or her enabler, the anti-anti-fundamentalist, who is sometimes more pernicious because he seems more reasonable.

Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us, by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro. Princeton University Press, 336 pp., $29.95.

The latter is a familiar figure today. He’s ready with the protection-racket warning, “Words have consequences.” He’s always the first to remind us that private companies may censor, even as private companies control every communication channel except carrier pigeons and bathroom walls, and is untroubled by whether they should censor. He laughs at “cancel culture” on the grounds that if a tendency may be exaggerated, it may also be ignored, never mind that a tendency may be exaggerated right up until the moment it’s too ubiquitous to reverse. In the context of free expression, the anti-anti-fundamentalist is vigilant, but only against vigilance. The prospect of looking hysterical or stupid or wrong in front of his or her peers frightens him more than anything.

What it is that this figure has deputized himself to defend, and what to attack, is the subject of Minds Wide Shut. It describes four types of fundamentalism and offers alternatives to them. Most of us are intimately acquainted with the first three types: political extremism, religious fanaticism, and inflexible adherence to the economic doctrines of both the Left and the Right. The fourth, on which Morson, in particular, is qualified to speak, is the welcome surprise that makes this book: literary fundamentalism, a “missionary nihilism” that denies not only the objective value of great books but also that “the determinate meaning of a text is to be found either in its author’s intention or in the text itself.” This “negative fundamentalism” is, Morson and Schapiro argue, undermining the humanities, one of the most important bastions of independent thought.

“We often flatter ourselves,” Morson and Schapiro begin, “that, when ideas or policies lead to terrible consequences, people eventually admit their error and change course. But, in matters touching our very sense of self, or a movement’s very reason for being … disconfirmation turns into confirmation.” When a millenarian cult predicts the end of the world and it fails to occur, the cultists don’t conclude that their theory was wrong, only that their calculations and parameters must be revised. The same is true of the fundamentalist operating within an ostensibly sophisticated intellectual framework, because his or her identity, and sense of self, is inextricably bound up in the belief that his or her ideas are unassailable.

As Morson and Schapiro put it: “If the truth is so obvious, why does everyone not agree?” The question sounds just this side of disingenuous, but it’s worth asking. On the biggest issues — how a government should behave, whether a religion’s truth claims are valuable or even defensible, what system of economic organization best serves a nation — opinion is divided not only into mainstream versus fringe but also mainstream versus mainstream. In many matters, opinion is split along lines not of intellectual rigor (there are very smart and very dumb people on both sides) but of temperament and priorities.

Fundamentalism is what happens when a set of attitudes becomes a reflex, a creed, unshakably sure that it is on the “right side of history.” By way of a definition, Morson and Schapiro provide several criteria. Fundamentalism is characterized by certainty. It believes in the perspicuity of truth — that the truth about what to do, believe, or value can be known objectively and applied universally. And all forms of fundamentalism appeal to the absolute authority of a foundational, revelatory text: the Bible, the Quran, the writings of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Friedrich Engels. The most dogmatic wings of progressive activist culture treat their required reading lists (“it’s not my job to educate you, now buy all my friends’ books”) as holy writ as well.

For an alternative, Morson and Schapiro reach far into the past, contrasting the fanatical certainty of Martin Luther with the inquiring skepticism of Erasmus. Luther believed that Scripture is inerrant and intelligible. Erasmus, who embodies anti-fundamentalist thinking, was “deeply skeptical of the powers of the human mind to discern truth, and … keenly aware of the tendency of people to leap to conclusions, rule out discrepant evidence, and seek only what confirms prior beliefs.” Human beings, like the truth, are far too complicated to be so readily understood. When we reject mere assertion in favor of dialogue, we embark on a perpetual project of collaborative interpretation.

By appealing to some titanic figures of literature and thought — Montaigne, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, George Eliot, and Jane Austen — Morson and Schapiro overwhelm the fundamentalist with evidence that his or her works and reputation are rarely the ones that endure. The fundamentalist’s attempt to codify human behavior, to render people legible and predictable, is inevitably less satisfying than seeing human beings as an unruly mess of competing priorities, impulses, and emotions. Fundamentalism makes for disastrous policy and for didactic, forgettable art — for propaganda, really.

Hence, Morson and Schapiro note with evident pleasure that “the only nineteenth-century work to have foreseen what we have come to call ‘totalitarianism’ was not a political disquisition or a philosophical treatise, but a realist novel about revolutionaries: Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed.” They recall Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky’s “promise of a universal ‘system of spying’ to enforce ‘equality’: ‘Cicero will have his tongue cut out, Copernicus will have his eyes put out, Shakespeare will be stoned! … We’ll reduce all to a common denominator!’”

The anti-anti-fundamentalist sees no problem with such a system of spying, so long as it is freely adopted and “punches down.” Since it doesn’t involve state repression or grisly sectarian violence, our culture’s deeply punitive, rule-bound approach to discourse can be excused as “enforcing cultural norms” or celebrated as “fighting misinformation.” The less generous people are with others’ ideas — and others’ errors, too — the more social trust crumbles. Independent thinkers retreat to great books, which never tattle or subtweet or bully or, most importantly, bore you to death.

Morson and Schapiro are at their best, and most reassuring, when discussing literature: “Classic literature conveys, as nothing else can, how people unlike ourselves have seen the world. … Philosophers and theologians can urge us to acquire the skills empathy requires, but they do not, like novels, offer actual practice in doing so.” Great literature knows us better than we know ourselves, and like history, it knows where we’re going as well as where we’ve been. The “new” ideas that fundamentalism holds to be self-evident are thin gruel compared to an encounter with the Bhagavad-Gita or The Secret Agent or Middlemarch, and anti-anti-fundamentalists often seem uneasily to suspect this. How can one know whom to ridicule or what to omit from a news story or how to distort a quotation without predicting how the unadulterated truth would be read by an honest person?

What guides the fundamentalist and his or her enablers is fear, not stupidity or ignorance — fear that something might be left to chance. But discourse thrives in the arena, and it is happiest when there’s no end in sight. A wise person can learn from an idiot as well as from a sage and at his or her best is blithely unthreatened by either. The point isn’t to be right or to win. It’s to keep the conversation going.

Stefan Beck is a writer living in Hudson, New York.

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