Editor's Note: Objectivity meets obscurity


6.12.12 I’ve been on something of a John McPhee bender of late, unable to get enough of the acuity in his descriptions of people, issues, arguments. Like the air west of the 100th meridian, his writing furnishes light of unparalleled clarity. Encounters with the Archdruid, probably his most influential work, details three meetings between David Brower, a conservationist, and his enemies: a mining geologist, a real estate developer, and a dam builder. Published in 1971, the central conflict hasn’t changed with our global reality. The country’s forward progress is built on the exploitation of natural resources, while the soul of the nation is tied to its wilderness. Anyhow, Brower says something remarkable in a climactic passage of the book, as he confronts Floyd Dominy, the man behind Lake Powell: “Some of my colleagues make the error of trying to be reasonable, Floyd. Objectivity is the greatest threat to the United States today.”

UVA President Teresa Sullivan appears to have succumbed to a coup d’etat, according to reports from Richmond. Dan Addison/UVa Public Affairs.

That’s McPhee being objective. I wonder whether Brower was ever really right, but insofar as he was, he’s not anymore. Objectivity is not the greatest threat these days, because the failure of objectivity has replaced it. Call it obscurity. Brower thought environmentalists of his time were too busy quibbling about the science to stop what they knew was wrong. The next generation corrected that mistake. Anyone who went to college in the ’90s, as I did, can tell you that postmodern thought is a potentially poisonous antidote to the exploitation of power through the manipulation of reason. A hall of mirrors.

Why get so highfalutin? Because so many of our arguments, locally and nationally, are at stake. If you can’t come to agreement on the facts at play in the public discourse, then there’s no argument at all. Then the decisions get made in back rooms and the messages massaged into the appropriate shape for dissemination. Public institutions become opaque. Squeaky wheels get oiled. Decisions go under-explained. Truth fractures into true fragments. Factions prevail. Brower was on to something, though. Being correct in the moment has little bearing on being right over time.—Giles Morris