Goya’s masterful etching, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” has haunted western culture since it first appeared as part of Los Caprichos in 1797. Goya brings to life the idea that reason can produce monsters with his usual light but precise touch that seems always able to depict both figures and their motives. At the time, the thought that reason can produce monsters was prevalent, especially among conservatives, as many saw the Napoleonic wars as the monster created by 18th century rationality. It’s an idea that has also occurred to many people when contemplating nuclear weaponry.
But all too often, it is unreason that produces the monsters, which has happened in Virginia’s middle peninsula region.
Organized residents there are shouting down planners, engineers and government officials at meetings of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission. Their angry-mob demagoguery is in opposition to preparations that the district wants to make to respond to an almost certain rise in the sea level over the next few decades. The rise in sea level will result from global warming and therein we find the principle objection raised by the opponents: They don’t believe that global warming is taking place, and therefore believe that the costly and inconvenient infrastructure modifications and other changes are a waste.
In other words, these true believers in anti-science intend to write their own obituaries or those of their children and grandchildren by ignoring what science is telling them they have to do to prevent massive flooding.
Here we see the gloomy, self-destructive end game of the campaign to discredit the facts of global warming, financed over the past few years by a handful of industrialists who would make less money if we imposed environmental regulations and pursued alternative energy with the zeal of China. That campaign has built on the anti-intellectual rhetoric that has dominated mass media for decades and the campaign against the theory of evolution that the religious right has waged with greater and lesser intensity for a century or more.
Every depiction of smart kids as nerds, every article glorifying the rare successful person who did not get his/her college degree, every off-hand remark that math is hard, every “Animal House” portrayal of higher education, every list of birthdays or deaths containing only celebrities, every questioning of scientific truth in the news media—this constant decades–long accumulation of ideologically tinged detail in our news and entertainment has built the base for the benighted citizens of middle peninsula Virginia to not just doubt the experts but get angry enough to coalesce into an unruly and uncivil bunch.
A reason always stands behind the unreason of these irrationalities: The funders of global warming deniers make and keep more money when we do nothing about this man-made problem. Religions lose power when people accept the truth of evolutionary science. People with money gain influence and status when the world respects money instead of knowledge.
I’m not saying that there is a decades old conspiracy. I do think however that there is a tendency for people with power and money to act as if they believe that the ideas that keep them in power are accurate, no matter how many times and in how many ways they have been disproved.
But this constant sowing of anti-intellectualism and anti-science is reaping an ignorant population. At a time in which all but the very wealthy are suffering economically and our elected officials prefer spewing out inaccuracies and inflammatory labels to governing, what has happened in Virginia is predictable. People are angry, but instead of lashing out at those who have created an unfair tax system that starves the public of the resources needed to confront global warming, the people believe the charlatans and lash out at those government officials who want to help them avoid the monstrous nightmare of losing their property and possessions to flooding.