LETTER NO. 1: ON DOUBT
by Chris R. Morgan
I have to say that at first I was not moved by this subject. I didn’t think that there was much insight left to wring out of it at this point. Though it takes seemingly forever to twist all the moisture out of a dishrag, I felt I was coming to it as it lay dried and crinkly at the bottom of the sink. But as I thought it over I found that the sink had been filled with water once more, and of a greasier, more putrid sort. It looks as if doubt is front and center as the most relevant topic of the present moment; at least after anxiety and rage take their breathers. We are in the midst of an age of “post-truth,” a rather scorched battleground wherein “fact-checkers” vanquish an untruth only to see another sprout up Hydra-like in its place. “What is truth?” seemed to be all Facebook could muster when it was first questioned about its habit for “fake news,” which is now an especially identifiable anti-genre rather than a basic pejorative term, like “think piece” or “clickbait.” The only certainly that is left is that everything is in doubt.
Then I started to doubt that.
To be sure I can see how this situation can be unsettling to some, though it took me some time to come to that. Mine is a view that is somewhat blinded by secularist shutter shades, through which I am unable to see things as certain other people may see them; such as how doubt might be seen by people of faith. I don’t see doubt as a source of suffering or as an affliction. I don’t see it as a regrettable phase or even as an interesting problem. I don’t find it as troubling for someone to be “wracked with doubt,” then again I only find it very troubling if someone is wracked with guilt. But maybe this is a grave insensitivity on my part. Perhaps there are nuances I am missing that someone of your background can illuminate. I would appreciate it. But that does not necessarily change how I see doubt generally. It is, overall to me, a sign of good health rather than being without shelter. And if this was natural to me in my upbringing it was calcified in my intellectual development, specifically my encounters with conservatism. Or conservatism of a kind, anyway.
I can’t actually remember how it came to me precisely. I want to say Andrew Sullivan but that doesn’t seem exactly true. The way he expressed his own view, his “conservatism of doubt,” seemed more like confirmation than revelation. Taking cues from Oakeshott and Strauss (and compounding upon what I learned previously from Reinhold Niebuhr), he summarized it as “an acceptance of the unknowability of ultimate truth, an acknowledgement of the distinction between what is true forever and what is true for the hear and now, and the embrace of the discrepancy between theoretical and practical knowledge.” As much as I’d rather not give more credit to Andrew Sullivan’s legacy than I think it deserves, here, for me anyway, it must be due.
I don’t know if that is exactly conservatism but it is virtuous and prudent. It enables those things I most cherish in humanity, which tend to have the novelty of an gift meant to soften the blow of bad news: caution, restraint, and humility. The doubter is less inclined to take leaps in the dark, as much for the sake of others as for his or her sake. Where some see a doubter as shirking off responsibility or fraught with indecision, I see it as sensible acquiescence to powerlessness, or to, I guess, imprecision for those skeptics with actual power. Here would probably be a great place to quote someone else, Hume I suppose, for a much more sophisticated touch, but that would be misguided. Of all my tenets, doubt is my most vulgar. And it is not the problem we face.
Doubt can have none, or at least not a lot, of the value I just gave it if it didn’t have an antagonist. Where doubt tends to assuage me certainty tends to agitate me. With generosity certainty can be seen as a marker of integrity and a championship of clarity, but those, in action, do not seem to be permanent states. It seems much more easily susceptible to arrogance, and if not ignorance then a kind of apathy for any of the vicissitudes of intellect. A differing of views to the certain person rings like bad or boring music to be muted than any kind of argument to work through.
This attitude was evident in the messaging and mindset of Hillary Clinton’s supporters, who found anything or anyone opposed to them as part of the same festering mass of incoherency and vileness. Their certainty came very close to topping the kind coming out of Claremont, or at least those followers of Harry Jaffa, who take America’s founding documents with the same authority as biblical writ and everyone else is a nihilistic saboteur. “It would certainly seem,” Jaffa wrote, “that the salvation of the West must come, if it is to come, from the United States. The salvation of the United States, if it is to come, must come from the Republican Party. And the salvation of the Republican Party, if it is to come, must come from the conservative movement within it.”
Though it seems beyond belief, our situation, as I see it, is a bit more exacerbated.
“Post-truthiness” was among the most popular concepts of 2016 alongside “alt-right,” but the term is inaccurate in assessing the problem. The better term to use is “hypercertainty,” a state in which viewpoints, whether respectable convictions or crippling biases, have gone from mere aloofness and rigidity into fortress mode. It’s a conduct that sees each type of true believer acting as if the world is theirs and treating the other as though they were infiltrating and seeking to subvert it. And each one carries explicit fantasies, if not precise plans, of suppression and expulsion of the other, though they seem momentarily satisfied with the fake news approach. It’s simple to create, and perhaps fun if you have the right mindset, that of a Swiftian Don Draper of sorts. With minimal effort it strikes at the reader’s senses handily, and with a little extra hustle it tricks more active news junkies long thought to be immune to propaganda. But at some point fake news will become just as potent and too easily consumable as any light beer. So where does it go from here? As it turns out, hypercertainty is a great source of uncertainty.
With the situation so assessed, doubt’s restful surface becomes rippled with vigilance. One in which doubt pursues certainty across the psychic countryside with a determination equal to that of Reverend Powell’s pursuit of John and Pearl in The Night of Hunter. This goes some way towards explaining the proliferation of “irony bros” and the “dirtbag left,” who are understandably divisive but whose presence also fills the gaping hole left by the mainstream liberal comedy guardians once they’d become sanctimonious. They play rough at best, unfair at worst, and have their own ingrown set of convictions, but they are still playful, and in keeping with the traditional boundaries of pamphleteer viciousness. I don’t actually know if they have followers beyond people who already agree with them, or if they will themselves become more hardened as times become more fraught, but the more liberal media consumers are beginning to take note of the sea change, if not accept how their errors helped bring it about.
Of course the fetishization of certainty only serves to highlight the vulnerability doubt has to the same fate. How does one deal with this? By not actually being so consumed with it. My restrained temperament, my cast of hesitation that turns my mind into a cursor deleting and retyping thoughts in real time, is something of a hindrance in the present state of discourse that rewards rapidity. I regret that to an extent. But at this point it seems wiser to refine it than to scrap it and pretend to be some other kind of thinker. I have certainties, many, in fact. I keep them to myself as one keeps bodies beneath the floorboards. Those certainties that end up conveyed in my actions and expressions are just their emanating stench. There’s nothing controversial about them, I think; one could probably guess some of them by what emanates in the preceding paragraphs, or in other letters. But my personal situation does not have the luxury of rigidity, so I hope that flexibility proves beneficial in the long term and that I might pick up what few partners in crime, so to speak, on the many freeways I travel.
This entry is part of the Christmas epistles series.