There is a time-honored and destructive tradition in the U.S. of citizens approaching their political causes with blind faith.


I am seeing many fewer blue-and-yellow flags in evidence during wanderings in my corner of New England. Thank goodness that didn’t last long, I have to say. And those that remain are limp, faded by the summer sun and tattered at the edges by the wind. To my mind, this is the perfect look for banners flown in celebration of a regime that is a cynical simulacrum of everything our flag-wavers take it to stand for.

I have it from several intelligence officials — senior officials, of course, as all my sources are — that all the retired blue-and-yellow flags are to be stored in a large attic owned by the Smithsonian Institution. I cannot name these officials, naturally, “due to the sensitivity of the matter,” but you already understood that. If they are telling me things and I am telling you the things they are telling me, it is plain enough that you can believe what they are telling me and I am telling you.

These sources assure me, moreover, that the countless bales of discarded Ukrainian flags will take their place among all the “Black Lives Matter” plaques that once graced — is this my word? — America’s front lawns, and all the “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers justifying imperial wars with the yellow ribbons, and all those ridiculous pink caps worn a while back, with the ears of felines protruding from them.

It grows crowded, this attic, for there are many such items in it.

Why does it grow crowded? This is our question.

Almost Infinite Inventory of Causes

If you let your mind range back over American history, the citizens of our republic have gone through an almost infinite inventory of causes of one or another kind in which they fervently believe. Some are very worthy, of course, and I do not refer to those. Many others, the ones that captivate us and leave us passingly self-satisfied, are more in the way of frivolous feel-good exercises. In every case, no exceptions, the thought is that if the current cause prevails, America will have rid itself of a blemish and return to its natural state of perfection.

And if the cause turns out to be fraudulent, or a juvenile fantasy, or if it falls unaccomplished by the wayside, or if it takes too much work and commitment to get it done, or if people may actually have to make a sacrifice, the artifacts of this cause go to the Smithsonian’s attic and another cause will in due course appear.

Quest for the Presidency  installation 1968-1970. (National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Quest for the Presidency  installation 1968-1970. (National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

This thread in the American fabric, prominent as it is, merits our consideration. In all my years as a correspondent in the non–West, and when I am among English or French or Italian friends, I find no such collective compulsion to climb aboard faddish causes, usually to drop them when they require any kind of genuine exertion.

How come, this?

It is not merely an apparent strangeness in the American character. This prevalent tendency among us has its consequences, and none of these is good. For one thing, it comes not to matter whether factual evidence contradicts what people believe in, for people will continue to believe in it anyway.

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For another, a consciousness such as I describe is easily manipulated by those in the business of controlling what the public takes an interest in and, of course, distorting public opinion on any given question. In both of these respects, Ukraine is an excellent case in point.

I have long noted the distinction between thinking on the one hand, and feeling and believing on the other. When I am reading along in the newspapers, for instance, I often read that so-and-so does not think this or that: So-and-so feels this or that or believes this or that. The president feels that wage rates in America are too high. The president believes that Ukraine requires more weapons. I long ago gave up on the idea this was merely bad writing, or a mistaken locution. It reflects very accurately among us a preference for believing and feeling rather than thinking.

Mistrust of Thinking

No credit where none due: I am far from the first to wonder about the American predilection to believe or feel rather than think. Richard Hofstadter, the noted historian, is well known for his Anti–Intellectualism in American Life, his 1963 book in which he identified a prevalent mistrust of thinking among Americans deriving from the New England Protestant tradition, wherein belief counted far more than thought.

But let us go back further than the estimable Hofstadter. We discover interesting things about ourselves as we rummage through our past. We find there is a right and wrong to this question of believing as against thinking. There are consequences.

In 1877, a British mathematician named William Clifford published an essay called “The Ethics of Belief.” Clifford was into geometry and algebra and so was given to a stringent variety of rationality: If you can’t prove it don’t bother me, seems a not-too-simple summation of Clifford’s thought.

In his noted essay, published in a journal called Contemporary Review, Clifford postulated the case of a ship owner who sends to sea a passenger vessel despite his doubts as to its seaworthiness. “These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy,” Clifford wrote. But, having weighed the case carefully, “he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections.” When the ship went down with all its passengers, the owner collected his insurance and the world was never the wiser as to his doubts.

Clifford was vigorously condemnatory of the ship owner. “He had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him,” Clifford wrote. Even if the ship had made its destination, the decision to sail it was grossly immoral and the owner would have been no less guilty. Clifford’s conclusion: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

Using Clifford’s strident prose as a mirror, you have to figure that by the second half of the 19thcentury, with the age of science and materialism in full swing and nobody knowing what was next, blind faith was already a problem. Clifford’s argument, the take-home for us 145 years later, is that there is nothing benign or innocent or harmless about indulging in our givenness to believe things we would rather not think about. A grave responsibility attaches to this habit.

William Clifford died at 33, two years after he published “The Ethics of Belief,” apparently from overwork.

Seventeen years later, William James delivered a lecture called “The Will to Believe” to the Philosophic Clubs of Yale and Brown. It was published under that title in a journal called The New World in 1896. I have a lot of time for James, brother of Henry, psychologist turned philosopher, author of Varieties of Religious Experience, friend of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. But in this essay, he may as well have spoken from a 17th century pulpit wearing a Puritan minister’s black and white.

“I have brought with me tonight … an essay in justification of faith,” James began, “a defense of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellects may not have been coerced.”

‘Nation With Soul of a Church’

He was addressing “religious matters,” but the import of James’s remarks extends far beyond ecclesiastical questions. It wasn’t many years later when G.K. Chesterton famously described America as “a nation with the soul of a church.”

G. K. Chesterton at work, undated. (Wikimedia Commons)

G. K. Chesterton at work, undated. (Wikimedia Commons)

James was in part responding to Clifford as he defended believing in the absence of supporting evidence. Turning Clifford upside down, James asserted that prior belief is beneficial to the discovery of evidence. Belief gives us confidence. The scientist has to believe in his experiment to proceed with scientific inquiry successfully.

“When we look at certain facts, it seems as if our passional and volitional nature lay at the root of all our convictions,” James told his audience. “Does it not seem preposterous on the very face of it to talk of our opinions being modifiable at will?”


This question of belief does not seem to have faded since Clifford and James took it up. Bertrand Russell delivered “Free Thought and Official Propaganda” to a London audience in 1922. Twenty-five years later he published On the Value of Scepticism. The same year Max Horkheimer brought out The Eclipse of Reason, an unjustly neglected work.

And we are still not out of the woods. No, we are deeper than ever into them, in my view.

I consider the problem these writers raised especially acute in our time. America is a declining empire, haunted by the psychological blow sustained on Sept. 11, 2001. Those who purport to lead us act with increasing desperation to salvage the image of America the invincible, America the providentially blessed, American the always-right.

People are left desperate for something to believe in. And there is nothing left to sustain these fictions other than sheer belief in them.

This confers a special responsibility upon us — not to say Americans are short of things in need of doing. It is our responsibility to recognize how destructive the habit of blind believing has proven. It is our responsibility to stop believing, to begin using our “merely logical intellects” —what a phrase, that — to think through the republic’s long list of predicaments and dilemmas so that a way can be found out of the swamps into which feeling and believing have led us.

Where does the future of the troubled republic lie? Our hearts have a lot to do with it, but we had better begin to use our heads first. Then our hearts will follow.

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