A heated exchange between two Congressmen and a historian they didn't want to hear from shows what happens to democracy when knowledge is no longer the arbiter of what is true, but is simply another "way of knowing."
This shameful display happened when Republican Congressman Don Young from the state of Alaska shouted down a noted historian invited to testify before the House Natural Resources Committee Hearing: Arctic Refuge: Jobs, Energy and Deficit Reduction. The hearing was the Democratic response panel to a Republican effort to push drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a national park that belongs to the citizens, arguing that it would create jobs and reduce the deficit.
The historian shouted into silence was CBS News history commentator Douglas Brinkley from Rice University, and as a civic-minded citizen of America, he didn't take the abuse without responding.
Brinkley had just finished his prepared testimony, during which Young had left the room. By the time he finished, Young had returned, and when recognized by the chair, Rep. Doc Hastings, (R-WA), he began:
Young: "If you ever wanted to see an exercise in futility, it's this hearing."
Hastings grinned as if this remark was funny. Then things got ugly.
Young: "That side's already made up it's mind. This side's already made up its mind, and uh, I call it garbage, Dr. Rice, that comes from the mouth --"
Brinkley: "It's Dr. Brinkley. Rice is a university."
It's unusual for a witness to interrupt a congressman, but it is also unusual for a congressman to abuse his power, vested in him by the people, by calling the knowledge-based testimony of a citizen witness "garbage."
Brinkley: "I know you went to Yuba college, you didn't graduate - "
Young: "Well okay, I'll call you anything I want to call you when you sit in that chair."
Brinkley: "Pardon - "
Young: "You just be quiet!"
Young: " You be quiet!"
Brinkley: "You don't own me! I pay your salary... I work for the private sector, you work for the taxpayers."
Young: "I can tell you right now -"
A committee staffer sitting behind Young watched in astonishment. It was astonishing. Hastings gaveled the exchange into silence and then, stunningly, defended Young.
Hastings: "Mr Brinkley, you are invited here to testimony [sic] and we look forward to your testimony, and you got the time to at least say -"
Brinkley: "He called me Mr. Rice. I needed to correct the record."
Hastings: "We see a lot of people here and from time to time we make 'foo paws.' [sic] Nobody is perfect here. But to interrupt breaks the comity of what we're trying... We're going to have disagreements here, you've already seen that."
It is difficult to see how the comity had been broken by Brinkley, when it was Young that had declared the meeting an exercise in futility, didn't learn the witness's name, and then called his testimony garbage while practically spitting the word out in contempt.
This is a classic example of the sort of authoritarian, illogical, bullying behavior that is becoming increasingly common in Congress and in state and local legislatures since the 2010 elections. Witnesses and elected officials are being shouted down by Republicans who do not want to hear what they have to say and seem intent on pushing through their agendas despite evidence, decorum, precedent, rule of law, science, history and over the opposition. It is a remarkable departure from historical precedent.
This sort of authoritarian approach -- from Don Young to Scott Walker -- is what happens when knowledge -- the record of science, math and history -- no longer holds sway as the arbiter of truth that can be used to settle disputes between diverse interests, but has come to be regarded as simply another "way of knowing," on an equal footing with opinion. It is not. John Locke, whom many libertarians and tea partiers hold high, and whom Thomas Jefferson considered one of his trinity of "three greatest men," along with scientists Bacon and Newton, defined knowledge and how it is different from and superior to "but faith, or opinion, but not knowledge."
But when knowledge is gone, all that is left is the assertion of the mighty, and democracy begins to break down.
Brinkley: "He called me Mr. Rice, and garbage... You would do that if someone did that to your name."
Hastings: "Mr. Brinkley, I've been called a lot of things in my time."
Brinkley: "I wouldn't call you that. You're a good congressman."
Hastings: "Mr. Brinkley, do you want to continue sitting at this panel?
Hastings: "Then please follow the rules."
Young: "What I am suggesting, Mr. Brinkley... " And then described Brinkley as an ivory-tower elite who doesn't know Alaska, and described his district and ANWR as desolate, a "nothing" place that most Alaskans want to see drilled.
While Brinkley violated decorum, he was defending himself from a shameful and authoritarian abuse of power. Most Americans would likely have done the same thing. It's in our blood and our history, and Young's King George-like despotism is the sort of attitude Americans revolted against when we declared that "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." In fact, in writing those words, Jefferson was drawing on the thinking of Hume, Newton, Bacon, and Locke -- thinking about how we know things, how we measure them using science, and how the power that knowledge creates increases our freedom. Young was wrong to abuse Brinkley from the panel, and Hastings as chair was wrong not to also chastise his fellow member for soiling the trust vested in him by the American people.
Here's the video:
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