Mises Wire

Totalitarian Ideals and Not Living by Lies

On we go, further and further into the era of post-journalism, where outlets survive not on the accuracy and honesty of their reporting but on the appeal of their narrative.

—Fred Skulthorp, The Critic

Nobody has missed that the West suffers from a credibility problem. Its institutions—by which we mean the media, government officials, academia, teachers’ unions and other joint societal “stuff” —hold less and less of our collective trust (business excepted, it seems). We don’t trust the media to convey or display the truth; we don’t trust our governments to tell the truth, to act honorably, or to steward the “commons” in good faith. Speaking of faith, the intellectual elites have broadly replaced God not with Mammon but with Gaia—many worship at the altar of St. Greta these days.

Live Not by Lies” goes one of Russian literary hero Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s prompts. Written in the Soviet Union’s latter days, it’s a text that earned him exile from his homeland. According to scholars Edward Ericson and Daniel Mahoney, the editors of the 2006 Solzhenitsyn Reader, “lies” means something like “ideology”—“the illusion that human nature and society can be reshaped to predetermined specifications.” What is is, and it’s futile and dangerous to contradict it.

Toying with truth is precisely what totalitarian regimes do, I observed last year in a review of psychologist Mattias Desmet’s The Psychology of Totalitarianism —a book that apparently just got banned for use by this esteemed professor’s own university: “The collective hums together and upholds the rules, no matter how insane or ineffective at achieving their supposed aim. Totalitarianism is the blurring of fact and fiction, yet with an aggressive intolerance for diverging opinions. One must toe the line.”

All this philosophical dread and high-flying quarries come to mind when reading astrophysicist and educator Neil deGrasse Tyson’s popular book Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization. In a partisan world that expects us to have politically slanted inputs on every darn topic under the congressional sun, writers and thinkers are forced to engage with topics that they know nothing about. As a public figure and educator at New York City’s Hayden Planetarium, deGrasse Tyson sees his own task to be abstaining from all that. Refreshingly, he says that he’s a scientist who only speaks on topics where he has some expertise.

However, what in Starry Messenger began with investigations into the nature of science gradually devolved into a woke manifesto. Objective truth is indeed the overarching theme of the first few chapters, where civilization, the cosmos, and the moon hold center stage. The author holds that “the most beautiful thing about the universe may be that it’s knowable at all. No message written on tablets in the sky pre-required this to be so. It just is.” He also writes that “objective truths of science are not founded in belief systems. They are not established by the authority of leaders or the power of persuasion . . . to deny objective truths is to be scientifically illiterate, not to be ideologically principled.”

So far, so stellar.

Imagine the reader’s shock, then, when the second half of the book strays way off orbit; denying objective reality becomes the guiding star for the diversity chapters.

In fact, deGrasse Tyson had to go straight to the culture war’s third rail by saying that biological sex is a fuzzy, old, and outdated concept. Because color exists on a wavelength spectrum, somehow deGrasse Tyson envisions that sex does as well—the most obviously discernible hardware issue turned into fuzzy software, to use British journalist Douglas Murray’s terminology. Neil deGrasse Tyson is not convincing anybody that “everything is a spectrum” by pointing to colors—which verifiably are—and hurricane categories, which were crafted with history in mind. A child is not an adult just because the exact boundary between the two is fuzzy.

In a memorable account, Tyson plays detective on the New York subway, trying to discern the sexes of fellow passengers while seeing through what he thinks are irrelevant and arbitrary “secondary and tertiary features—all societal constructs.” “Could I identify who presented as male and who presented as female just from their faces?” was the challenge he set for himself. Because everyone was sitting down and because it was winter so body shapes were conveniently covered by thick jackets, he somehow came up with no ability to separate men from women.

Every part of our bodies screams dimorphic sex differences—from our cells and faces to the shapes and sizes of our hands. However, the ruling classes and their ideas demand that sex becomes one big lump of gooey unclarity, so much so that the more erudite of our scientists can no longer define what a woman is. Therefore, deGrasse Tyson (or perhaps his editors) feels compelled to include a story that suggests all gender is fluid and sex irrelevant.

On page 193, we are delivered(!)—if you’ll excuse the pun—the phrase “pregnant people,” no doubt inserted by a semantically challenged publisher.

It was only an unfathomable seven years ago that Jordan Peterson blasted onto the culture war’s stage with his stoic opposition to precisely such compelled speech. Barbara Kay wrote for Reality’s Last Stand: “It is pretty clear by now that the insistence on the universal use of pronouns has nothing to do with kindness, and everything to do with compelled homage to—for many of us—a false and alienating belief system.”

The next frontier is “ableism,” where deGrasse Tyson says it “smacks of sensory and physiological chauvinism” to think of people who lack fingers, arms, legs, or one of their senses as disabled. Doubling down on this woke rallying cry, deGrasse Tyson proceeds to list examples of extraordinary humans who overcame unbelievable obstacles—from Ludwig van Beethoven, who composed while deaf, to Matt Stutzman, the archery champion who excels at shooting arrows with his feet. Are any of these people truly disabled?

Clearly not, argues deGrasse Tyson, because the word “disabled” is bad and because everyone is incredible in their own right, or something like that.

There doesn’t have to be a value judgment at the bottom of every adjective or every description of what the human median or mode is in whichever domain we consider—from height or number of arms to cognitive abilities. To be useful at all, textbooks in medicine and anatomy have to say something about our species; to be able to speak, words must mean something. Redefining everything and turning oneself into a linguistic pretzel before conveying a simple message seems less than useful and as far from scientific as one can get.

It’s almost insulting too. For every extraordinary Stephen Hawking, we have countless others suffering similar afflictions yet falling way short of the achievements of Mr. Hawking. Is it unscientific to say “hang on a minute” when our esteemed elites cherry-pick an extreme value in a distribution and, from there, conclude that there is no distribution, no median, and no mode?

Those statistically illiterate implications aside, what deGrasse Tyson is correct about is that “when you are not good at one thing, you typically try something else. In a free society, there’s lots of ‘something elses’ out there.” Yes, thank God for division of labor and an economic order where my best can supplement that which someone else can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t do— “ableist” controversies and word games be damned.

What’s clear is that bad things happen when others—whether governments or not—compel or bully you into saying things that aren’t true.

So, no, the esteemed Dr. deGrasse Tyson doesn’t quite falter in his commitment to speaking truth. Listening to him speak is much more liberating than judging his words filtered through the censorious woke-speak that is liberal ideology. If we merely chalk up the absurdities in Starry Messenger to the toll fees he must pay to not be canceled by publishers—the magic words he must speak to appease the intelligentsia—he has delivered a decent popular book on how to think about our world.

Even so, I just wished our esteemed scientist would refuse to live by lies.

Image Source: Adobe Stock
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
What is the Mises Institute?

The Mises Institute is a non-profit organization that exists to promote teaching and research in the Austrian School of economics, individual freedom, honest history, and international peace, in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard. 

Non-political, non-partisan, and non-PC, we advocate a radical shift in the intellectual climate, away from statism and toward a private property order. We believe that our foundational ideas are of permanent value, and oppose all efforts at compromise, sellout, and amalgamation of these ideas with fashionable political, cultural, and social doctrines inimical to their spirit.

Become a Member
Mises Institute