by Gene Callahan
The political theorist and philosopher Eric Voegelin, who was an attendee at the Mises Kreis in Vienna and a lifelong friend of Hayek and Schutz, coined (as far as I know) the term “opaque symbols.” What this means is that the symbol user’s connection to the experiential source of the opaque symbol is missing, so the symbol is no longer “seen through” to what it symbolizes, but instead has become a substitute for the experience itself.
Opaque symbols are a major component of ideological propaganda. For instance, “freedom” and “liberty” are now tossed around in American political discourse with little more meaning than “Good stuff you should like!” I saw another interesting example recently on TV.
Keith Olbermann, on his “Worst Person in the World” bit, first showed a clip of Arizona State Senator Silvia Allen, in a legislative session defending a local uranium mine, saying, “The Earth has been here 6,000 years, long before anyone had environmental laws, and somehow it hasn’t been done away with.”
For Rep. Allen, Genesis has become an opaque symbol: it no longer points to an experiential reality, but instead is a historian’s account of some long-ago events. As Voegelin writes, “[s]uch an account is not a body of propositions concerning events witnessed by a historian or, for that matter, by anybody. The stories of Creation, of Noah and the Flood, of the Tower of Babel, and so on, are myths; and their ‘subject matter’ is not the content of the stories but the experiences symbolized by means of the stories” (Order and History, Vol. I, p. 218).
So Olbermann has a case for mocking her. (Still, “worst person in the world”?!) But look at how Olbermann responds to her: “The way we can know the Earth is billions of years old is because of the decay of Olbermann uranium. Carbon dating!” (All said in a sneering tone, of course.)
Olbermann thinks that carbon dating involves uranium! Olbermann has no more idea of what the symbols he is invoking mean then Rep. Allen does.
This discussion is being held at the level of one opponent yelling “religious mumbo-jumbo!” while the other yells “Scientific mumbo-jumbo!” Ideology substituting for thought.