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Trump’s War on Knowledge

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Donald Trump looking at the solar eclipse without protective glasses, with his wife Melania and son Barron at the White House, Washington, D.C., August 21, 2017

The date October 12  has been much on my mind this year. It was on this day in 1936 that the fascist forces of General Francisco Franco celebrated El Día de la Raza, the Hispanic world’s alternate version of Columbus Day. Some three months earlier, Franco had begun a right-wing insurrection against the elected government of the Republic. His Falangist army soon controlled a large part of the country, including Salamanca. It was in the central hall of that ancient city’s university, founded in 1218 and the most renowned institute of higher learning in the land, that the fascists commemorated their “Day of the Race.” In front of numerous dignitaries and emboldened by a mob of nationalist youth and legionnaires, Franco’s friend and mentor General José Millán Astray desecrated that temple of learning with six words: ¡Abajo la inteligencia! ¡Viva la muerte! (“Down with intelligence! Long live death!”)

That phrase—so paradoxical, so absurd, so idiotic—would have been laughable had it not occurred in a Europe where Nazis were burning libraries and, along with their Italian allies, pushing innumerable artists, scientists, and writers into exile. In Spain, those words resonated no less ominously. Only weeks earlier, Federico García Lorca, one of the greatest writers in the Spanish language, a poet and playwright who had deployed the many angels of intelligence, had been executed in Granada by a nationalist death squad. Many more intellectuals were assassinated in the years that followed, along with peasants, workers, and students who had learned under the Republic to think and speak for themselves.

When I was growing up in Chile in the Fifties and Sixties, I was convinced that such a cataclysm could not happen to us. I was sure that intelligence was obviously to be hailed and death just as obviously to be deplored. The 1973 coup against the democratic government of Salvador Allende changed all that. Books were turned to ashes, musicians were shot, scientists and educators were tortured. Meanwhile, the military, inspired by the same fundamentalism and loathing that had raged in Franco’s Spain, derided intelligence and reveled in death. The intelligentsia, they insisted, was to blame for Chile’s upheavals and supposed decline.

Today, Chile is democratic and monuments are lifted to those who were martyred by the dictatorship. The generals who ordered such horrors are reviled and some have even been jailed for their atrocities. If I now feel compelled to evoke the words Millán Astray used eighty-one years ago in Salamanca, it is because they have gained a bizarre relevance in today’s America. The resurgence of nationalism in our time has not yet reached the homicidal extremes it did when Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco misruled their lands, but the United States still faces an assault on rational discourse, scientific knowledge, and objective truth. And this war on intelligence, too, despite the edulcorated pieties that come from those who carry it out, will lead to many deaths.  

There has always been a disturbing strand of anti-intellectualism in American life—the very title of Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book—but never has an occupant of the White House exhibited such a toxic mix of ignorance and mendacity, such lack of intellectual curiosity and disregard for rigorous analysis (despite his untested boast that his IQ is “one of the highest,” certainly higher than Obama’s and a host of other worthies’).

“The experts are terrible,” Donald Trump said during his campaign. “Look at the mess we’re in with all these experts that we have.” It is hardly surprising, then, that his administration is over-stocked with know-nothing fundamentalists. Across the board, he has appointed amateurs who are hostile to science and sport obscurantism as a badge of honor. Accordingly, the policies they have adopted are as stultifying as they are noxious. The contempt for evidence-based research was immediately apparent in Trump’s original wish list of budget proposals, which would significantly defund the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, NASA, the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health, and even the Census Bureau. Government websites at the White House, the EPA, and the Departments of State, Agriculture, Interior, Labor, Education, and Energy have been scrubbed of previously posted scientific positions that would contradict the new policy program. Advisory councils have been eviscerated or abolished—the Justice Department’s National Commission on Forensic Science, no less!—and government scientists have been muzzled and forbidden from attending national forums or international conferences. The administration is obstructing the collection of data and the publication and discussion of research, as if in expectation that inconvenient truths will magically melt away.

True, antagonism toward the knowledge elite is not a monopoly of the hard right. Pol Pot’s hatred of bourgeois professionals led to the killing fields of Cambodia. Mao Zedong set the Red Guards on millions of members of the cultural elite, unleashing immeasurable suffering. It is also true enough that many authoritarian regimes in our time display contempt for reason, scientific knowledge, and intellectual expertise: witness the Turkish government’s decision to strike evolution from the school curriculum, or Hungarian President Viktor Orbán’s campaign to close the liberal Central European University. But none of these incursions against reason has such encompassing power and reach as that of the American government. Nor will their destructive effects likely be as vast and enduring as the Trump administration’s.

Trump’s war on settled science and truth will have lethal consequences. An estimated 2.3 million American construction workers, miners, and road-crew laborers face life-threatening injury and illness because the Occupational Health and Safety Administration has delayed the enforcement of rules protecting them from silica dust, which is incontrovertibly linked to increases in cancer and lung disease. Deaths will rise among those who toil in shipyards and on construction sites because a regulation created by the Obama administration to reduce exposure to the carcinogen beryllium has been reversed. Miners are at greater risk because inspections in coal mines to identify hazards have been curtailed, and families in Appalachia will be further endangered because the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have been ordered to stop studying how pollutants produced by mountaintop-removal mining may lead to increased rates of cancer, birth defects and respiratory disease.

The lives of millions will be shortened because more than thirty regulatory rules safeguarding Americans from pollution have been rolled back: they will slowly die from increased heavy metal effluents in waterways; they will die if emission standards for vehicles are relaxed; they will die because chemical spills will be more frequent and our water, air, and soil less clean. And more children will get ill and die if parents opt out of immunization programs encouraged by the president’s reckless promotion of the completely debunked “theory” about a link between vaccination and autism, a belief seconded by Tom Price, until recently the head of Health and Human Services, who once said that “vaccines are the equivalent of human experimentation.”

The effects of this war on knowledge extend beyond the borders of the United States. The policy to cut the admission of refugees contradicts “expert” studies demonstrating that these desperate asylum seekers are net contributors to the US economy and less of a crime risk than the general population. Even these harms pale in comparison to the havoc that America and the planet must expect from climate change. Trump not only abandoned the Paris Climate Agreement; he found in Scott Pruitt the perfect person, approved by the fossil-fuel industry, to enact his suicidal anti-environmental policies on the domestic level. The dark prince of the EPA, a department he seems to wish to dismantle, is perhaps the most dangerously ill-informed of Trump’s appointees. He has already insisted that carbon dioxide is not the “primary contributor to the global warming that we see,” withdrawn requests for oil and gas companies to report sources of methane emissions, and rejected a petition to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos. The administration has also gutted the climate science advisory council of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the body that studies rising sea levels and helps predict hurricanes.

¡Abajo la inteligencia! ¡Viva la muerte!

Still more urgently apocalyptic than these policies is the “oppressive ignorance”—to borrow Tom Nichols’s phrase from The Death of Expertise—President Trump has displayed when he threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea. Trump evidently neither knows nor cares that such an action would violate the Geneva Conventions, the conclusions of the Nuremberg Tribunal, and the UN Charter. It is frightening that this felonious stupidity has not aroused more revulsion among US citizens. Until recently, about eighty percent of Republicans who voted for Trump still supported him, and 55 percent of Americans believe he is “intelligent” (although that is the only favorable result for Trump in an otherwise dismal report card of negative views).

In our struggle against such benightedness, perhaps we can draw inspiration from the response of one of those present in Salamanca when Millán Astray launched his hymn to death, a response from the man who was, in fact, the intended target of the fascist general’s rage. Miguel de Unamuno, then Spain’s most eminent intellectual, answered his antagonist with the words: Venceréis, porque tenéis sobrada fuerza bruta, mas no convenceréis. (“You will beat us because you have more than enough brute force, but you will not persuade us.”) Even in those dire circumstances, Unamuno managed a play on words, opposing the verb vencer (to conquer) to the verb convencer (to convince). You will conquer but you will not convince.

Unamuno’s defiance was fearless: if he had not been escorted from the premises by General Franco’s wife, he faced a beating from fascist thugs. Today, without such immediate fear of violence, we can adapt Unamuno’s words. We must trust that the intelligence that has allowed humanity to stave off death, make medical and engineering breakthroughs, reach the stars, build wondrous temples, and write complex tales will save us again. We must nurse the conviction that we can use the gentle graces of science and reason to prove that the truth cannot be vanquished so easily. To those who would repudiate intelligence, we must say: you will not conquer and we will find a way to convince.