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The Fundamentalist

The Fundamentalist

In Minds Wide Shut, Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro dissect the strands of today’s doctrinaire thinking.

Thomas Koenig
Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us
by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro (Princeton University Press, 336 pp., $29.95)

When accused of flip-flopping on some question of economic policy, John Maynard Keynes once quipped, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” While the quote may be apocryphal, it is the mark of a refreshingly open, anti-fundamentalist frame of mind—a mind that is open to persuasion, that is not wholly enthralled to ideological commitments, that can be swayed by shifting empirical realities.

In their splendid book, Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us, Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro confront the mode of thinking most directly opposed to Keynes’ open-minded, flexible empiricism: fundamentalism. “Fundamentalism,” they note,

is not confined to politics; it can be positive, with an answer to all questions, or negative, denying the possibility of answers. Everywhere it springs up, it leads to radical simplification of complex questions and the inability to learn either from experience or from opposing views.

Morson, a literary critic and Northwestern University professor, and Schapiro, an economist and Northwestern’s president, adeptly demonstrate that the fundamentalist frame of mind is not just a creature of partisan politics: Increasingly, there are fundamentalist strains of thought in not only politics but economics, religion, and literary criticism. More, the authors argue that fundamentalism not only keeps these disciplines from effectively seeking the truth but also fosters division and contempt.

“Categorical thinking,” they note, “admits no compromise and allows no correction in light of results.” Such thinking is, in a word, irrational. Moreover, it lays the groundwork for our seeing those with whom we disagree as not only misguided but ill-intentioned or even evil. Since fundamentalists profess “complete certainty,” they cut themselves off from moral and epistemological humility—“the very opposite of fundamentalism”—which is, of course, a requirement for mutual understanding and sympathy. It is no surprise then that the fundamentalist mind often features “disdain for the unenlightened fools who have not yet come around.”

Morson and Schapiro note that the readiness among fundamentalists to attribute foolishness to those who have yet to see the light often stems from devotion to a particular foundational or revelatory text. The most obvious example is biblical religion; but the recent fundamentalist turn in our discourse about race in America is marked by the same type of willingness to find the capital-T Truth in the words of some prophet, whether it be Ibram X. Kendi or Robin DiAngelo, then to excoriate those who have yet to “do the work” of enlightening themselves.

John McWhorter’s writings on the religiosity of “third-wave anti-racism” often spring to mind when you read Minds Wide Shut. Readers may therefore be disappointed to find that Morson and Schapiro do not delve much into America’s racial discourse. More understandably, the book does not focus on the pandemic and its acceleration of extremist discourse. Meanwhile, though, Morson and Schapiro have plenty of ground to cover elsewhere.

When it comes to politics, Morson and Schapiro argue that fundamentalism is, at its root, opposed to democracy. James Madison famously put it this way in The Federalist No. 10: “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.” As a result, “one needs to compromise” in a democracy, given that it is premised on the exercise of individual voice and freedom rather than coercion. For fundamentalists, though, “one does not reason,” or compromise, “with the devil.” Conversely, fundamentalists frame the “other” as irredeemable; thus, they wall themselves off from the give-and-take that is the very lifeblood of democratic politics. Thus, the “fundamentalist mindset and democracy cannot coexist for long.”

In later chapters, Morson and Schapiro expand their analysis beyond politics. For example, they include a chapter on fundamentalism in economics. It focuses on the twin threats posed by positive fundamentalism, the “market fundamentalist” creed that markets are the solution to every social problem, and negative fundamentalism, the socialist belief that market mechanisms are the answer to, well, nothing. Market fundamentalists see every social and economic interaction in terms of self-interest. Their anti-market counterparts deny the power of incentives altogether; the examples from the former Soviet Union are chilling. The authors do not advocate simply splitting the baby. Instead, they call on us to consider the proper times and places for markets and for government-run resource distribution.

The tendency of fundamentalists to use a single mode of thinking where it is ill-suited applies in religion as well. Morson and Schapiro write,

It is as foolish to demand that science answer questions of meaning as it is to rely on the Bible for an understanding of geology. In fact, it is more foolish, because, while the Bible answers many scientific questions incorrectly, science cannot begin to address questions of meaning at all.

As they lay out fundamentalism’s growing influence across these distinct fields of thought, Morson and Schapiro continually look to great realist literature as an antidote to the fundamentalist cast of mind. Readers who are not well acquainted with the works of Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, or Fyodor Dostoevsky may find these references particularly enjoyable and illuminating thanks to the authors’ sharp and straightforward prose.

In the book’s final substantive chapter, Morson and Schapiro seek to explain why “the great realist novels … offer counterarguments to fundamentalism:” The reason is that these texts “exemplify a way of thinking contrary to fundamentalisms and offer an alternative to them.” In reading a great novel, we inhabit the hearts and minds of the protagonists and begin to acquire the “wisdom to appreciate actual people in all their complexity.” Great realist novels also help remind us “that other cultures and periods understood life differently” from our own. These characters, after all, were “just as certain as we are that their vision was the only correct one” and “measured others against it.” Novels expand our world and grant us a sense of perspective. With this perspective comes humility, and with such humility comes a most necessary shot of immunity against the certainty and hubris of the fundamentalist mindset.

Morson and Schapiro’s compelling case for the power of narrative to inculcate an appreciation for complexity and an aversion to simplistic, closed-minded thinking may leave readers wanting one more chapter: a discussion of the rise of fundamentalism in American historiography, both popular and scholarly. Writing sound history, particularly in a field as rich as American history, is a bracing exercise in confronting the contingency of human events and the complexity and depth of human nature. Yet many professional and amateur historians today seem intent, in the words of Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, on transforming history into a “simplistic battle between darkness and light.” Readers might close Minds Wide Shut, then, itching to hear Morson and Schapiro explain with their customary clarity how misguided the rise of black-and-white, no-gray-areas thinking in historiography truly is.

In fact, a second edition of Minds Wide Shut may be in order—not only to add a chapter or two on historiographic fundamentalism but also because the problem of fundamentalism and the divisions it sows seems destined to metastasize across disciplines in the coming years.

Yet Morson and Schapiro have already done a public service in counteracting the phenomenon as it now stands. As they note in the book’s closing lines, “Let’s not give up hope. The better we understand the fundamentalist mindset, the more likely it is that we can banish its practitioners to the ‘dustbin of history,’ where they belong.”

We, too, should stay on the sunny side as we do our part to ward off fundamentalist impulses within our own hearts and heads—by changing our minds when the facts change and remaining hopeful that our own intellectual openness, humility, and rationality can convert a fundamentalist or two in the process.

Thomas Koenig, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a student at Harvard Law School and author of “Tom’s Takes” newsletter. Twitter: @thomaskoenig98

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