Sean Spicer & Epistemologies of Dunces
When I was a child, I passionately believed that hippies were the spawn of Satan. A recurring dream of a hippie commune chasing me down the road no doubt grew from the fact that in 1971 a group of Duke-hippie-undergrads lived in the duplex next door. When a long-haired hippie man asked if I wanted a chocolate one afternoon, I remember staring at him in horror, frozen on the sidewalk in my red patent leather shoes terrified he was going to poison me. I was only three or four, but that fear must have come from my siblings or my southern, very traditional mother who no doubt had a strong view of the lifestyle the neighbors lived. Nonetheless, the fear lasted until kindergarten when Russians replaced hippies as the source of my terror. Thanks Cold War.
Epistemology is the theory of knowledge that identifies what distinguishes justified belief (truth) from opinion. Philosopher Gottfried Liebniz believed every feeling was the perception of truth, and Frederic Nietzsche warned to criticize truth (remember God is dead?). Pulitzer prize winning writer Julia Peterkin, a white southerner who wrote in Gullah and a black voice, famously defended her right to do so by claiming, “when we fail to speak what we do believe is true…we lose whatever perception of truth we may have achieved.” How one knows what one knows is determined by multiple variables that intersect at once to produce a truth relative to one’s experience.
The danger is when epistemic privilege rears its ugly head and creates a hierarchy of truths that augment inequality. This is constant in American culture where new knowledge is born and redeployed daily, however distant from the truth it may be. This is clear in the recent recasting of historical events that decontextualized actions and neutralized the associated atrocities. The result: new ahistorical knowledge that morphs into fact (alternative facts?). Take for example the following:
Exhibit 1: Sean Spicer, the Holocaust Centers and Hitler. First, if Auschwitz or Birkenau was a Holocaust center, this is new knowledge- a death camp, concentration camp, work camp or maybe a final solution but never a Holocaust center. The word holocaust is ancient, but its use in relation to Nazi extermination did not emerge until the 1950s. So, Sean Spicer, poor word choice. Second, despite Spicer’s obstinacy, Hitler used chemical weapons, namely Zyklon B, on Germans and many other nationalities including Poles, Russians and Gypsies. Hitler remains, alongside Stalin, the great villain of man’s inhumanity to man in modern history. Third, Hitler is critical to understanding the impact of eugenics, social engineering and fascism in the twentieth-century. Even if Trump is the greatest evil of 2017 and his populist rise to fame has plenty of historic reference points, he is no Hitler. The Hitlerian references used to define Trump neutralize the actual horror that was Hitler. Visit the Shoah project or the Holocaust museum in DC to grasp the magnitude of his evil instead of redeploying flimsy analogies that lack context. Assad’s atrocity aside, leave Hitler out of it.
Exhibit 2: Fascism. At present, the term is loosely thrown around in the media and classrooms to draw parallels with the rise of Trump. The new context undermines the terror that accented the era between WWI and WWII when fascism emerged in multiple forms across Europe and later Asia. The extremism of fascist regimes echoed the times: depression, mass poverty, unemployment and general chaos. Hitler and Stalin rose to power in this moment and immediately purged opposition. Stalin went so far as to starve the Ukraine into submission, and Hitler bestowed on the children of opposition leaders entirely new identities that erased the legacy of the parent. Add to this Hitler’s state run breeding program, Lebensborn, where the SS bred with genetically desirable German and Norwegian women. Although started in 1935 to combat the high rates of abortion in the interwar period, approximately 20,000 children were born and raised by the state in the ten years of the program’s operation. And what of the casualties? Nazism killed approximately 20 million people, Stalinism 40 million and later Maoism, 60 million of which about 40 million starved to death in the 1960 famine caused by the state led program to kill the sparrows, a program that produced an ecological disaster just 57 years ago. And what of the arts? The literature of the era revealed that writers were acutely aware of the censorship and inhumanity of fascist regimes and in turn, produced macabre narratives. Think Lord of the Flies, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, It Can’t Happen Here, Homage to Catalonia, and Animal Farm. It is a tremendous historic injustice to neutralize the term fascism by redefining it in a modern context to mean something it does not- ie. the Trump ascendancy. Edgar Allan Poe said, “Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.” Fascism is one of those words.
Exhibit 3: Torture. Congress ratified the UN Convention against Torture in 1994 and codified the definition of torture as “an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering…upon another person within his custody or physical control.” What exactly constitutes torture is rooted in the cultural experience of those defining it. Unlike the rest of the world, America, with the exception of the Civil War, Pearl Harbor and 9/11, has enjoyed a relatively stable homefront. In turn, a culture of peace and life, rather than one framed by death and war, shapes a culturally myopic understanding of the globe. A great example is America’s perpetuation of the idea that we are citizens of the globe. In true political theory, citizenship is a component of republicanism and carries with it specific rights and responsibilities to the state. The globe is not a republic, so in a purist sense, this is an illogical concept. But, flawed as it inherently is, global citizen has taken root and can now be found as a guiding principle in educational institutions, non-profits, corporate charters and religious organizations. Moreover, if the globe has citizens, then what of terrorist groups? It is estimated that there are forty high profile terrorist groups in operation today, and Al Qaeda and its multiple geographic manifestations, ISIS, AL Shabaab, Boko Haram and smaller radicalized groups like Kataib Hezbollah engage in domestic and international attacks that result in atrocities. The kidnapping of three hundred schoolgirls by Boko Haram, the murder of Belgians and Americans in Brussels, the brutal killings in Paris by ISIS operatives and the murder of Coptic Christians by ISIS last Sunday reveal the primacy of ideology over humanity among these groups. Because these terrorist networks web across the world and manifest in their attacks a radicalized religious ideology, the war on terror is like no war in the history of the United States. Recently, POTUS Donald Trump criticized the position of the United States on torture arguing, “Did somebody tell ISIS, ‘Look, we’re going to treat your guys well. Will you please do us a favor and treat our guys well?’ They don’t do that…we are playing by rules, but they have no rules.” Citizens of the globe, terrorism, torture…how one knows what one knows about these concepts extends from one’s culture, and growing up in the Gaza Strip is very different than growing up in suburban Charlotte. It’s quite easy to be a citizen of the globe with free public education, public assistance in housing, food, after school, medical care and transport and charitable organizations willing to fill in the gaps. It is easy to have a perspective in a culture where there is help, and far easier to conceptualize the citizen of the globe idea from a standpoint of peace and prosperity on the homefront.
Preserving the integrity of historic events is critical to not repeating the mistakes of the past. New knowledge plus alternative facts plus epistemic privilege in an ahistoric context is a recipe for disaster. Take that Sean Spicer!