The Gentleman and the Jester

James HamblinJames Hamblin of The Atlantic is one of my favorite columnists. He’s a 35-year-old medical doctor who looks like a teenager and has a wonderfully dry sense of humor. For example, he wrote a piece this summer called The Eclipse Conspiracy:

On August 21, the “moon” will pass between the Earth and the sun, obscuring the light of the latter. The government agency NASA says this will result in “one of nature’s most awe-inspiring sights.” The astronomers there claim to have calculated down to the minute exactly when and where this will happen, and for how long. They have reportedly known about this eclipse for years, just by virtue of some sort of complex math.

…Meanwhile the scientists tell us we can’t look at it without special glasses because “looking directly at the sun is unsafe.”

That is, of course, unless we wear glasses that are on a list issued by these very same scientists. Meanwhile, corporations like Amazon are profiting from the sale of these eclipse glasses. Is anyone asking how many of these astronomers also, conveniently, belong to Amazon Prime?

Let’s follow the money a little further. Hotels along the “path of totality” — a region drawn up by Obama-era NASA scientists — have been sold out for months. Some of those hotels are owned and operated by large multinational corporations. Where else do these hotels have locations? You guessed it: Washington, D.C.

He goes on like that for another page or so but you get the idea: Dr. Hamblin is poking fun at climate-change-deniers, evolution-deniers, and all other conspiracy-theorizing science-deniers.

Like Stephen Colbert’s character on The Colbert Report, Hamblin’s jest is presented in a disarming, self-deprecating way. He plays the fool in order to show us our foolishness.

This all came to mind because I read an interview with Dr. Hamblin this morning in which he said, with reference to The Eclipse Conspiracy,

There are different approaches to being an authoritative public voice. The gentleman and the jester are the two forms of ethical pedagogy…

What do you think? Are “gentleman” and “jester” the only two ways to ethically engage the public? That sentiment is certainly appealing to someone like me, who doesn’t enjoy being mad.

But then I recalled Frederick Douglass’s immortal and blistering Independence Day address of 1852. By far the best rendition of it I could find was the one delivered by Phil Darius Wallace. Take a listen (at time 15:30):

I’ve posted about it twice before and now it arises again. Regarding  whether to be a “gentleman” while advocating as an abolitionist, Douglass said,

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

He has a point, doesn’t he?

Perhaps the key difference between slavery and science-denial is that the former involves direct brutality on human beings and the latter does not. However, if we don’t change course regarding climate change, for example, millions will suffer the dire consequences. Is that of less concern because it’s some decades in the future? The science-denying parents who refuse to vaccinate their children may condemn their own flesh and blood to a lifetime of disability. Is that of less concern because parents have a “right” to do with their children as they please?

Scientists like Richard Dawkins are routinely criticized for being “strident” or even “militant.” If this is true (I actually find Dawkins to be unfailingly patient, but that’s another story), why should they not be?

When is the choice between gentleman and jester insufficient?

I don’t know. What are your thoughts?

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