In 1966 or 1967, Ed Erwin and Sidney Gendin met in the corrosive environs of a college on Long Island that does not deserve mentioning, not even to damn it. They became very close friends and remain such to this day although after a few years Erwin escaped to the southlands and Gendin scooted westward. In matters of philosophy and politics they were very simpatico. Both believed, what seemed a novel position at the time, that when two persons disputed, neither one had the onus of proof. Each side was simply to present the best arguments in favor of its position that it could, and the jury of world opinion could decide the matter. That still seems right, at least so far as philosophy is concerned but not necessarily so far as politics is concerned.
Erwin drifted off to Democratic Liberalism and became deeply troubled by what he perceived to be dishonesty on the part of radical right wing Republicans. They always seemed to be leveling charges that they could not back up with arguments or evidence. Erwin began to ask with more and more frequency, “What is the evidence for that accusation?” Unsurprisingly, there never was any.
From the perspective of Gendin, this was not quite the right question. It is all a matter, I suppose of foundations. In other words, what is the rock solid starting point of your politics? As years went by, Gendin became ever more deeply convinced that corruption was even-steven on all sides of the political spectrum and was converted to Dogmatic Revolutionary Socialism. He came to the conclusion that no Republican could trot off with the prize for Worst Human Being Imaginable. That honor could not be conceded to him by thoroughly indecent Democrats who also laid claim to it. For Gendin, the overarching political question became (and remains), “What is the evidence that the accusation is NOT true?” It hardly matters how dastardly the accusation is once you acknowledge the view that each side is hopelessly corrupt. Say that some Republican claims that Obama regularly forces his children to have oral sex with him and, upon that ostensibly outlandish claim, calls for Obama’s impeachment.
Well, the operable word above is “ostensibly,” for, from the gendinian perspective, no accusation is too outlandish to rule out of court ab initio and ab absurdo. Nothing prevents Gendin from having inclinations, and with respect to this seemingly mad accusation, he will surely think it is false but he will not accept the position that the onus of proof lies upon the Republican. He will not be able to see why, if the claim is obviously false, it should not be defeated in the Court of Rationality.
One might say that, by this token, any charge has to be taken seriously and the world would get bogged down in refutations and counter-refutations. I hope not, and like to think madness can be defeated quickly without our having prejudices against it. Of course, the fact that people continue to debate the existence of God although the idea of his existence seems at least as unlikely as the idea that Obama regularly enjoys oral sex favors from his children counts somewhat against my hope but is not decisive for a number of reasons I won’t explore or even enumerate.
In time, the Erwin/Gendin dispute may become a philosophic classic, and won’t that be nice.