In this episode of The Vital Center, host Geoffrey Kabaservice and Jonathan Rauch discuss the “deliberate, sustained, sophisticated, and very effective attack on the system we rely on to make and obtain knowledge” in our democracy. Fighting back against disinformation involves more than throwing up our hands and wishing it never happened. We have to understand why the attacks on our institutions, our systems of knowing things, and our democratic way of life are working. “We have to understand this as an attack by identifiable people and organizations for power and for profit, and then we have to rally and push back really hard,” says Rauch. Today’s episode gets to the root of what’s causing these illiberal attacks on truth, facts, and knowledge, and what we can do to stop them.
Jonathan Rauch: We have to give up on the idea that, “Well, we’re just walking along and faith collapsed in our institutions and we can’t really tell why, or maybe we deserve it.” We have to understand this as an attack by identifiable people and organizations for power and for profit, and then we have to rally and push back really hard.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello. I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m thrilled to be joined today by Jonathan Rauch, a contributing writer for the Atlantic and National Journal, as well as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. But more relevantly to today’s discussion, he is the author of an enormously important new book, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. Welcome, Jonathan.
Jonathan Rauch: Good to be here.
Geoff Kabaservice: Jonathan, as many of you will know, is the author of many books and a slew of magazine articles, all of which are really distinguished by his luminous intelligence and scrupulous honesty and his capacity for offering original perspectives on issues about which seemingly all that could have been written already had been written a dozen times over. But Jonathan’s writing really has reoriented my thinking on politics and life in general more times than I can count. I’m really just delighted that you are able to spend some time with me talking about your book today, Jon.
Jonathan Rauch: Well, after that introduction, it’s bound to be hard to live up to. Maybe I should quit now while I’m ahead. But it’s such an honor to be here because your work has enlightened and informed me for years. You’ve been a principled voice, a marvelous historian, and a real source of context about what the Republicans are going through right now.
Geoff Kabaservice: Oh, thank you, Jon, that’s very kind. Your book is another mind-blower, and of course I do want to talk about it. But I actually want to take a minute to dwell on the last question you answered in an interview you did last week with your fellow Atlantic writer, Pete Wehner. Pete asked you about what your aspirations had been as a writer and public intellectual, and you answered by going back to an aphorism you wrote to yourself in your mid-twenties. You wrote, “I don’t want to be a big shot. I don’t want to be a hot shot. I want to be a deep shot.”
And you added that the people you admired most at that time in your life were those who had a quality you thought of as wisdom. I wonder if you can tell me more about who some of those people were, what their wisdom consisted of, and how your desire to be like them has guided your career?
Jonathan Rauch: Well, that’s a conversation. Wisdom is… I know this from my last book on happiness, in case you’re wondering, or in case people want to investigate and buy it. Wisdom is a real thing. It’s a concept with actual scientific validity. It is not the same as knowledge, experience, skill, or intelligence. It has to do with the ability to rise above your personal emotions and convictions, transcend that to some extent, and judge the complicated social situations you find yourself in, and try to figure out ways for yourself and others to maneuver them.
Wisdom is actually a social quality. And to me, what appeals so much about it is it’s constructive — in fact it’s contagious, because one wise person in a group can really help the whole group to thrive. I didn’t know all that wisdom science when I was 25 in 1985, because that science didn’t really exist. But I did understand that I wanted to be constructive, I wanted to be dispassionate, and that the people I admired the most were the ones who helped other people solve problems. So that’s why I wrote that aphorism when I realized that.
People I admired for this included some prominent people like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Bill Galston of Brookings (whom I’m proud to call a colleague as well as a mentor), and lots of others. But they also included people that were just in my life. One was the dispatcher when I was driving delivery as a teenager for a little company in Phoenix, Arizona. His name was Smokey. He was an Okie. I don’t think he had anything past a high school education, but he understood how to manage people and their complexities and their egos.
And for example, when one driver insisted on turning on the air conditioning, which would stall the car — this was in Phoenix in the summer, I can’t blame the guy — Smokey just went out to the parking lot one day and came back smiling gently. And I said, “What’s up?” And he said, “Oh, I just solved that problem.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I just disconnected the AC.” He said, “That’ll work better than confronting him about it for the nth time.” I remember that. I remember lots of things other people in my life have conveyed. And I thought, “That’s what I want to be.”
Geoff Kabaservice: I mean, that’s interesting to me because my first book, The Guardians, was really about the successor generation to the “Wise Men” who Evan Thomas and Walter Isaacson had written about. Although it was really just kind of a term used to apply to some of America’s elite civil servants, I thought there really was something to it: that wisdom actually is a quality that is found widely through society, but it’s particularly, I think, necessary to the functioning of a society that some of its leaders in fact be wise. I worry that some of what actually made America great in previous years is missing in today’s landscape.
Jonathan Rauch: We all worry about the political system — especially the primaries, I think, place wisdom pretty low on the list of what people are voting for. I’ve known wise politicians, people who were just good at figuring stuff out, solving problems. But they tended to be unflashy people, not ideologues. I think a big problem that we don’t really talk about is that the biggest compliment we pay someone these days is: “Geoff Kabaservice is a very smart guy.”
And smart is down there on the list. There are lots of people who are very intelligent who also happen to be antisocial, sociopathic, stupid in many ways. Wouldn’t it be better if the highest compliment we paid kids routinely — or really grown-ups — would be, “That Geoff Kabaservice seems like a wise fellow.” You never hear it. I don’t believe you’ve ever heard that, and not because it isn’t true.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s certainly something I aspire to. But you’re right, it tends not to be a way that we describe people.
Jonathan Rauch: Or a value that we laud.
Geoff Kabaservice: Since you mentioned Daniel Patrick Moynihan, he’s known for many quotes, but one of them is the famous one that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” But unfortunately, like a lot of venerable wisdom, that seems to have been overthrown in recent years. One of the worst aspects of the present moment is a growing illiberalism on both the right and the left. And your book does so much to point out how a lot of that illiberalism is amounting to an epistemic crisis.
Epistemology, if I have this right, is a philosophical term for the study of knowledge, which explores the question of how we know what we know. And that’s not abstruse, it’s horribly relevant at the present moment when growing numbers of Americans seem unable to tell…