by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro
Princeton University Press
336 pp., $29.95
Fundamentalism has long been considered a religious phenomenon, a narrowmindedness that only afflicts Bible-thumping extremists. Yet fundamentalist thinking is everywhere today, and leads naturally to the authoritarian mind and the one-party state.
Despite the use of fundamentalism as a derisive term, Morson and Schapiro avoid tearing into religious conservatives in their new book. The real danger, they think, resides elsewhere, particularly in left-wing political parties and movements that seek power through violence and intimidation. They describe a society wracked by polarization, unwilling to compromise over civil disagreement. Anyone who does not follow a party line is thought to be “willfully stupid or deliberately malicious.” If legitimate disagreement is not allowed and learning from each other is impermissible, “there is no reason not to have a one-party state.”
According to Morson and Schapiro, a fundamentalist believes in his infallibility. “Positive fundamentalism” purports to know all the answers, while “negative fundamentalism” confidently denies the possibility of answers. The latter dominates university English departments. The result is a “radical simplification of complex questions and the inability to learn … from experience.”
Where the fundamentalist mind takes hold, the authors write, there can be no principled middle ground. Undoubtedly fundamentalists accuse moderates of being lukewarm, yet there are times when moderation is not a suitable response to serious threats to vital institutions. While the authors rightly believe moral certainty can lead to crying injustice, it can also rally people of good will against injustice.
Minds Wide Shut issues a devastating indictment of the ideological extremism so characteristic of fundamentalism. Ideologues are not open to correction: “The more extreme the theory, the less is disconfirmation possible.” Extreme ideas cause extreme outcomes. Moreover, policy failures justify more of the same, for those who consider themselves infallible will never admit failure. They believe their ideology is scientific but, in truth, it is only one of many modern pseudosciences.
Religious fundamentalists thought their arguments against German higher criticism of the Bible were scientific when they were not. Marxists, Freudians, and social Darwinists also mistook ideology for science in the early part of the 20th century.
The authors understand pseudoscience as a God substitute. Essentially, the pseudoscience advances moral values under the guise of facts. It seeks to displace religion by doing what genuine science cannot: answer questions of meaning. The root fallacy, according to our authors, is imagining that one system answers all questions.
The moralizing of pseudoscientists was rejected by great 19th century realist novelists, who produced a treasure trove of genuine moral wisdom. This literary form adopted the humanist tradition of practical reasoning dating back to Aristotle. This type of ethical reasoning prioritizes “lived experience rather than theoretical axioms.” However, this ethical tradition applies moral principles to particular cases to determine the right moral choice. The proper moral decision will depend on specific circumstances so that a preexisting principle does not determine the right outcome in every case.
While Morson and Schapiro blame Cartesian rationalism for its demise, they also know that this type of reasoning, casuistry, became associated in the popular mind with moral laxity following the attacks on Jesuit moralists in the 17th century. The authors accept the fact that standards of judgment change over time, but insist these standards don’t have to be immutable to be taken seriously. They also insist that religious values may deserve our respect but are puzzled by the biblical objection to homosexuality.
Fundamentalism manifests itself today in cancel culture when ideological purists seek to destroy their political opponents. “Once politics is apocalyptic, and the world is divided into saints and sinners, anyone can find himself in the wrong category when approved opinion shifts,” Morson and Schapiro write.
This form of revolutionary extremism is not new. It led to the bludgeoning of Trotsky with an ice axe in Mexico in 1940 and the guillotining of Robespierre in Paris in 1794. The silencing of political opposition through censorship is merely a less severe expression of the same revolutionary impulse. “Negative” fundamentalists like the postmodern literary theorist Stanley Fish justify the suppression of speech for political purposes. Lenin, too, saw free speech as a weapon to be used and then abolished once power was achieved.
above: engraving of the execution of Maximilien Robespierre by guillotine on July 28, 1794 (public domain)
Yet while cancel culture is primarily a creation of the left, it is not unheard of for establishment “conservative” organizations to purge wrong-think from their ranks. This does not prove that intellectual conservatism is ideological, but it may show that the establishment right places respectability above truth when it throws conservatives overboard.
One theme of Minds Wide Shut is that we should be “wary of anyone who proposes solutions without enumerating the costs,” for there are tradeoffs with every proposal. Public officials who ignored this wise counsel when they imposed COVID lockdowns were, at the very least, criminally negligent. The authors illustrate this point with the British epidemiologist Neil Ferguson’s complete failure to produce accurate computer models for COVID mortality.
In this pandemic example and in several other places the authors exhibit a conservative sensibility. Yet their claim that fundamentalism exists on both sides of the political spectrum reflects their desire to be seen as evenhanded. Pride is a human vice that tempts everyone, but Morson and Schapiro are reluctant to admit that contemporary extremism comes largely from the political left. They do, however, oppose those on the postmodernist academic left who vilify the wisdom of the past contained in great literary works.
They also devote a chapter to “market fundamentalism”—a term coined, ironically, by that supremely corrupt left-wing plutocrat George Soros—citing the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union as a period when market fundamentalism reigned in Eastern Europe. This, however, was not a free market, but a period of lawless anarchy that allowed criminal syndicates to enrich themselves with confiscated former government-owned enterprises. The authors then assert that “economic fundamentalism is at least as powerful as ever,” which isn’t saying much since it has not been influential in the halls of power in the developed West for a very long time.
Although their critique of libertarian economic policy is for the most part reasonable, the authors acknowledge that laissez-faire economics is no longer a force in the United States. As evidence, they cite the bipartisan consensus in favor of massive deficit spending during the COVID pandemic, and the growing Republican recognition that unrestricted globalist trade policies undermine national security and devastate working class communities.
But while the authors decry censorship, they fail to call out censorious tech tyrants. Woke corporations have caused conservatives to abandon their previously reflexive free-market defense of corporate America. Although market fundamentalism may seem to resemble an ideology, the authors are compelled to admit that socialism is a far more dangerous one.
Mass movements that demand certainty lead to political extremism, the authors say, citing philosopher Eric Hoffer. Hoffer found that a precondition for these movements is the rejection of the culture and traditions that once gave people meaningful lives. While a conservative movement may seek to protect or restore traditional culture eroded by modernization or secularization, as the authors imply, the right typically does not demand “drastic change” through “united action and self-sacrifice” unless responding to a threat from the left. Conservative political movements are rare precisely because men of the right are reluctant to “trade their independent goals and capacity to judge” for collective action.
The authors sympathize with this predisposition toward individual rather than collective thought and action, but they also tell us that “far-right political fundamentalism” in Europe can produce “a new anti-Semitism.” Are opponents of the European Union’s open door policy toward Middle Eastern and North African refugees encouraging or preventing “a new anti-Semitism” from overwhelming Europe? These lines may be intended to placate liberal readers in an otherwise intelligent and timely defense of the Western humanist moral and intellectual tradition.
The authors limit their critique of academia to the postmodernist literary left even though the contemporary academy is the primary incubator of political extremism. Through censorship, indoctrination, propaganda, and character assassination, left-wing activists work diligently to undermine the foundations of Western civilization. The authors surely know that academia is a hotbed of intolerance. Perhaps this demonstrates that even the best of us can, at times, have our minds wide shut.