Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 7)

March 28, 2020

In addition to the past and the present, the attempt to remove a sitting political office holder may be motivated by the future—that is, by anticipation of what he or she will do. This may seem unjust; and were impeachment a legal proceeding it would be, since we would be punishing someone for something he or she has not in fact done. But removing a leader is not a legal act, but rather a political one. That is not to say justice and morality are irrelevant, but only to say they are different.

From the time he was elected, before he had taken office, Obama faced calls for his removal based on acts he was expected to take. He would impose Sharia law. He would confiscate all firearms, in violation of the Second Amendment. He would arrest all observant Christians. He would imprison his political enemies. He would abolish capitalism and impose a communist system. He would impose black supremacy and strip white people of their rights as citizens. He would throw open the borders and allow immigrants from Mexico and other southern countries to pour in unimpeded and uncounted, to collect Social Security and to vote in our elections. And in fact, these fears motivated some people to extreme actions. A white woman carved a B into her own face, claiming to police that she’d been attacked by black men saying that now Barack was president and they could do whatever they wanted; she was caught because she’d used a mirror and therefore carved the B in her face backwards.[1] The Republican governor of Texas called for the Texas State Guard to watch the U.S. Army’s “Jade Helm 15” exercises because of widespread fears that Obama was going to declare martial law and imprison his enemies in abandoned Walmarts.[2] These fears about Obama’s plans, and the rhetoric and action they provoked, led liberals to give the whole phenomenon its own name: Obama Derangement Syndrome.[3] The thinking here was that large numbers of otherwise sane and well-informed people (as well as many who weren’t) were particularly prone to believe conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama, and sometimes even to act on those fears.[4] Conservative politicians sometimes encouraged these beliefs, by saying that they “understood” these concerns, or by threatening armed resistance against the U.S. government if it carried out its alleged intentions; other conservative politicians denounced these beliefs and conspiracy theories.

Donald Trump, also, faced calls for his impeachment “from Day One” and beyond, at times based on things that he would do. It was alleged that he would use his office to enrich himself, that he would appoint corrupt and/or biased officials to important posts, that policy would be dictated by political agendas and flattery of the President rather than by science or competence, that hate crimes would rise, that the U.S.A. would become an international laughingstock, that Russia and other foreign powers would use money and favors to promote policies that weakened the United States, that religious groups other than Evangelical Christians would be discriminated against, that the environment would be degraded, that taxes on the rich would be slashed and then, citing budget shortfalls, programs such as Social Security would be gutted, that national immigration policies would be dictated by racism rather than morality or facts, and so on. Mr. Trump’s defenders in turn began to denounce “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”

We could even say that this sort of prognostication has made it into the official record of the United States Senate. Adam Schiff, arguing for Donald Trump’s removal from office, did not appeal only to his past and present actions, but also to his future acts if he continued to hold the reins of power. He said:

 

 

 

“We must say enough — enough! He has betrayed our national security, and he will do so again,” Schiff, D-Calif., told the Senate. “He has compromised our elections, and he will do so again. You will not change him. You cannot constrain him. He is who he is. Truth matters little to him. What’s right matters even less, and decency matters not at all.”[5]

 

 

 

Rep. Schiff was arguing, essentially, that based on his past behavior and expressed intentions, Donald Trump will commit acts that break the law, violate the Constitution and endanger the nation. Therefore, he should be stripped of political power not only because he has abused his office, but even more because of what he will do in the future.

The future, by definition, has not and does not exist; it is only possibility. Therefore, any action undertaken based on future events is problematic. But as Locke points out, sometimes it is necessary. To tell people they can only resist tyranny when the tyrant has seized power and clapped them in irons is at best pointless, if not sheer mockery. It would be like telling passengers who find that the ship they are on is taking them to the slave market in Algiers that they can do nothing because, after all, the captain is the captain, you must trust his judgment and authority, and that if you believe he is abusing his power then you can exit the ship just as soon as it reaches its destination and choose a ship with a new captain. At the same time, to mutiny three days out of dock, just because the ship was heading south and the captain has dark skin like an Algerian slaver, would also be insane. Locke, true to his empiricist philosophy, says we should base our judgment on observation and induction. If the captain repeatedly aims towards Algiers, despite repeated obstacles and repeated assurances that he’d never do such a thing, then it is reasonable to draw conclusions regarding his true intentions and to act on those conclusions. And if a politician with executive power should repeatedly act against the laws of the nation, against the expressed wishes of the people, putting his or her personal interests ahead of the general welfare, deceiving and suppressing liberty, it is reasonable to assume that he or she is actively seeking tyrannical power over the nation, and to act to stop this.

The reasons why conservatives were so convinced that Obama had tyrannical intentions were always a mystery to those of us who don’t watch Alex Jones or listen to Rush Limbaugh. Many of the anti-Obama (and later, anti-Clinton) charges seem insane, such as Pizzagate and the claims about NASA pedophile camps on Mars. The actual record of Obama, the actual evidence of his intentions, came largely from his bibliography and his having attended a UCC church led by the Afrocentric theologian Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The publicly available facts were that Barack Obama’s father was African, Muslim and anti-colonial; however, he had relatively little to do with raising Barack, who was instead brought up by his mother after his father left them. She was white, and while she was progressive for her time she had worked more intensely to insure her son was raised with so-called “middle class” values like education, hard work and caring for his fellow Americans than many conservative parents can boast. Aside from his skin, name and having spent part of his childhood in foreign countries, he had a childhood that many conservative politicians would have envied. He was attacked for having been a community activist, which conservative pundits claimed showed he was a radical revolutionary; but George H. W. Bush famously praised individual activism as “a thousand points of light” shining the way for the nation. And while Rev. Wright’s rhetoric can be fiery, as a freshman senator Obama’s behavior was not particularly shocking. Returning to Locke’s analogy, it was as if the new captain had said, “I’ve heard the climate in Algiers is nice this time of year, and they have some beautiful buildings,” but then had sailed a normal course. Maybe you’d want to watch him, but there’d be too little real evidence to make a reasonable claim that he was sailing to Algiers. And as President, the evidence was even more mixed: while there were certainly policy disputes and power struggles with the Congress whose leadership had declared that its top priority was to make him a one-term president, he never attempted to impose Sharia, confiscate all guns, or carry out any of the dire predictions made of him. He complied with court rulings regarding Congressional subpoenas, made his Secretary of State and other officials available for multiple public and private hearings, and generally behaved as we had always expect a president to behave. He never declared opposition to the Constitution, which he had taught and studied before becoming president; and his actions were mostly consistent with his words.

Donald Trump had a much longer public record, being both much older and much more famous before his election. He had said that he was genetically superior to most Americans, who lack his intelligence and industriousness and therefore allow themselves to be led by the superior men like himself.[6]   He attributes his success, and the failures of people like coal miners, to his own natural superiority and their inferiority.[7] To many, this sounds far more ominous than Obama having said he liked Rev. Wright and then hearing that Wright had said God should “damn America” for the sins of racism and the slave trade. After all, Obama didn’t explicitly endorse this claim by Wright; but Trump does endorse eugenics, which disturbs some people.[8] Claims by his ex-wife that he owns and reads a collection of Hitler’s speeches also raises concerns.[9] Add to that his divorces and bankruptcies, which together imply a lack of commitment to his promises, his legal history including lawsuits by employees and business partners he’s refused to pay, fines for racial discrimination at his properties, multiple acts of sexual assault, accusations of fraud at Trump University and other cases, most of which he settled rather than take to trial, and many people had serious doubts about his character. The Mueller Report and impeachment hearings revealed a pattern, witnessed and sworn to by many people, of obstruction of investigations which were lawful but he deemed “unfair,” as well as calling for investigations of people he disliked without any legal grounds, all to help his career. Furthermore, millions of dollars of taxpayer money have been spent at his properties, suggesting ongoing corruption; and his repeated claims that he deserves a third term and his complaints that various aspects of the Constitution are bothersome strongly suggest that he is not particularly devoted to the Constitutional limits on his power. These are some of the points of evidence that lead Congressman Schiff, and millions of others, to fear that Donald Trump is at best a compulsive, serial crook with unwitting or unreflective tyrannical tendencies, and at worst a full-blown authoritarian seeking to undermine our democratic institutions so he can add the United States of America to his business empire as one more hostile takeover.

By Locke’s standards, then, there was little ground to remove President Obama, and it is not surprising that he was not impeached and that he won reelection. The claims that he was an usurper, or that he had otherwise committed crimes that were disqualifying, were proven untrue by the standards we generally use to prove any historical fact. In other words, if we don’t know Obama was born in Hawaii, we really can’t say we know anything that happened which we did not actually see. Historical documents, eyewitnesses, and the coherence of evidence all testify that the Holocaust was a terrible crime, that the American Revolution led to the United States of America being formed from the thirteen British colonies, and that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii and thus legally fit to hold office as President of the United States. Continued denial of these or any other facts backed by evidence of like quality is akin to psychosis.

Acts done during his presidency were occasionally challenged and denounced, but none were shown to warrant impeachment. His use of executive orders and his power struggles with the Congress headed by an opposing party were consistent with what we have seen in the past, and less extreme than what we witnessed during the Reagan administration and some other recent presidencies.

As to removal due to his future acts, these proved to be the most baseless. He never claimed any intention to do much of what conservative politicians and right-wing media said he was certainly planning to do, and in fact he never did. He never grabbed our guns, imposed Sharia, shuttered Christian churches, ceased deporting illegal immigrants, never arrested political opponents, never declared martial law, never sought to ban private health care or “socialize medicine,” nothing. While it is easy to see why many might have been alarmed at the rhetoric of Rev. Wright, the fact is that the American people did not elect President Jeremiah Wright; they elected President Barack Obama, who proved to be a steady, calm, clear communicator willing to talk to and listen to all sorts of people. And if there was any thought that he would betray the U.S. to the terrorists or wasn’t committed to fighting terrorism because he wouldn’t use the words “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” those fears were largely dispelled when he ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden.

By contrast, many (not all) of the concerns about Donald Trump have turned out to be well-founded.   He was fined for racist discrimination in his rental properties and admitted racist statements towards employees.[10] He bragged about committing sexual assault, then denied it, then threatened to sue the dozens of women who accused him of rape, groping, barging in on them while they were changing at the beauty pageant he owned, in short accused him of the very behavior he had boasted, but he never sued at all or testified under oath about their claims. He paid fines relating to various charges of fraud, including Trump University, a breaking scandal during the election for which, as soon as the election was over, he agreed to pay fines and damages. His campaign was accused of having improper connections to Russia and other foreign governments; since the election multiple campaign leaders and close Trump advisors have pleaded guilty or have been convicted of these charges. The Mueller report concluded that while there was no actual “conspiracy,” that was largely because the Trump campaign was too inept and too rent by personal rivalries among his staff to effectively conspire, and his administration was too weak to deliver on promises made to Russia because they feared looking like they were beholden to Putin—which, apparently, they were. Mueller also described ten separate instances of obstruction of justice carried out by Mr. Trump, intended to block investigation of Russian assistance to his campaign. Thus there were instances in the past that suggest that he was morally and psychologically flawed, and unlikely to be a good president. There is even some evidence that his campaign might have been illegal. In the end, though, there is nothing in the Constitution that says a lying, neurotic criminal can’t run for President. Even one with business ties to hostile foreign dictators can run, though he is supposed to be forbidden from actually holding presidential power while receiving income from foreign investments (U.S. Constitution Article 1, sect. 9, clause 8). So in that sense, the charges against Donald Trump were never as disqualifying as those against Obama; if the charges against Obama had a shred of truth in them, they could have barred him from even running for office. The charges against Trump were therefore less serious, in that sense; they were more serious in that they were put forward by people who meant them seriously—that is, who actually believed them and had evidence and reasons for those beliefs, rather than simply making baseless accusations to try to score political points by playing to paranoid delusions.

The evidence that Donald Trump is an usurper is weak; there has been no solid evidence that any votes were changed to get him elected, and even if his campaign did conspire with foreign governments the prescribed penalty would be a fine, not removal from office. The evidence that he is now a full-blown tyrant is also weak, being largely a matter of interpretation; he may be a corrupt authoritarian who is openly trying to rig his reelection and abusing his power in the process, but his abuses do not strike most people as directly barring them from what they want to do. But the evidence that he wants to exercise tyrannical power, wants to subvert representative democracy and undermine the other branches of government, is abundant and glaring. His words, his actions, the testimony of his confidants and aides all point towards this, just as if the captain should persistently steer towards Algiers. Even though, when circumstances or protests dissuade him, he might temporarily set another course, he always returns towards his original destination. It is therefore permissible, and I would say it is morally necessary to oppose him, before he can deliver the entire “ship of state” to the port of bondage. The only real question is what sort of resistance is required or allowed.

[1] “Cops: McCain Worker Made Up Attack Story;” CBS News October 24, 2008 (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cops-mccain-worker-made-up-attack-story/)

[2] Jonathan Tilove, “Abbot Directs State Guard to Monitor Operation Jade Helm 15 in Texas;” Statesman September 25, 2018 (https://www.statesman.com/NEWS/20160923/Abbott-directs-State-Guard-to-monitor-Operation-Jade-Helm-15-in-Texas) also Matthew Yglesias, “The Amazing Jade Helm Conspiracy Theory, Explained;” Vox May 6, 2015 (https://www.vox.com/2015/5/6/8559577/jade-helm-conspiracy)

[3] Ezra Klien, “Obama Derangement Syndrome;” Vox February 23, 2015 (https://www.vox.com/2015/2/23/8089639/obama-derangement-syndrome)

[4] Algernon Austin, “How Being an Obama Hater Warps Your Mind;” HuffPost October 21, 2015 (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/how-being-an-obama-hater_b_8347142)

[5] Dareh Gregorian, “Schiff’s Powerful Closing Speech: ‘Is There One of You Who Will Say, Enough!’?” NBC News February 5, 2020 (https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/trump-impeachment-inquiry/closing-argument-democrats-say-not-removing-trump-would-render-him-n1128766)

[6] Caroline Mortimer, “Donald Trump Believes He Has Superior Genes, Biographer Claims;” Independent September 30, 2016 (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-president-superior-genes-pbs-documentary-eugenics-a7338821.html)

[7] Nate Hopper, “Donald Trump Once Worried About Coal Miners Getting ‘Black-Lung Disease’ from ‘Damn Mines’;” TIME June 1, 2017 (https://news.yahoo.com/donald-trump-once-worried-coal-215437514.html)

[8] Marina Fang & JM Rieger, “This May Be the Most Horrible Thing that Donald Trump Believes;” Huffington Post September 28, 2016 (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/donald-trump-eugenics_n_57ec4cc2e4b024a52d2cc7f9)

[9] Marie Brenner, “After the Gold Rush;” Vanity Fair September 1, 1990 (https://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/2015/07/donald-ivana-trump-divorce-prenup-marie-brenner)

[10] Michael D’Antonio, “Is Donald Trump Racist? Here’s What the Record Shows;” Fortune June 7m 2016 (https://fortune.com/2016/06/07/donald-trump-racism-quotes/)

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 6)

March 21, 2020

I wrote this before the COVID-19 outbreak, and therefore it does not address this rapidly-changing situation.  It may seem like a lifetime ago that we were discussing impeachment and abuses of power.  However, these are still important questions; besides, I hate loose ends and I have time on my hands, so I want to go ahead and finish.

A president (or other executive) might also be removed based on the present facts; not that he or she is an usurper, but rather that he or she is acting as a tyrant. Obama faced repeated calls for his impeachment, not only by FOX News and other conservative opinion makers but also by Republican lawmakers such as Darrell Issa and Tim Scott. The more substantive arguments alleged abuse of power, in that Obama’s executive orders were said to either go beyond Congressional authorization or to refuse to enforce Congressionally-passed laws. However, none of these claims ever really went anywhere, and it is debatable whether even the people making these charges really believed them; there was a general pattern of calling for Obama’s impeachment during the election season, and dropping the topic once the election was over.

Donald Trump likewise faced calls for his impeachment based on abuse of power; or in Locke’s terms, that he was exercising power which neither he nor anyone had a right to, and thus was acting as a tyrant. A partial list of these reasons include:

  1. Violations of the Constitution’s “Emoluments Clause,” which states that a President may not receive income from foreign persons, powers or properties while in office. Unlike past presidents, Trump has held onto his extensive business empire including business dealings with Russia (which he sought to hide, according to the Mueller Report), investments in Turkey (which even he admits cause “a little conflict of interest”[1]), Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and many other countries, as well as domestic properties that receive much of their income from foreign nationals and governments.
  2. Ten acts of obstruction of justice, as this is defined in law, and as documented in part II of the Mueller Report.
  3. Obstruction of Congress and solicitation of foreign interference in our nation’s elections, violating election law and soliciting a bribe. These last two actually resulted in articles of impeachment being passed by the House of Representatives.

So whereas Obama faced continuous calls for impeachment which never materialized, Trump was in fact impeached based not on past disqualifications but on his present actions. What was the difference?

Locke points towards an answer with his chapter “Of Prerogative.”[2] Locke accepts that no legal system could possibly predict all contingencies, and therefore assumes that a civil government will allow its magistrates to exercise their power at their own discretion. He even accepts that a judge, sheriff, or even a king (or president or other chief executive) might violate the letter of the law. What matters to Locke is the motivation behind this act. Locke distinguishes between proper perogative and abuse of this power by citing the welfare of the people, writing:

 

 

 

But since a rational creature cannot be supposed, when free, to put himself into subjection to another, for his own harm; (though, where he finds a good and wise ruler, he may not perhaps think it either necessary or useful to set precise bounds to his power in all things) prerogative can be nothing but the people’s permitting their rulers to do several things, of their own free choice, where the law was silent, and sometimes too against the direct letter of the law, for the public good; and their acquiescing in it when so done: for as a good prince, who is mindful of the trust put into his hands, and careful of the good of his people, cannot have too much prerogative, that is, power to do good; so a weak and ill prince, who would claim that power which his predecessors exercised without the direction of the law, as a prerogative belonging to him by right of his office, which he may exercise at his pleasure, to make or promote an interest distinct from that of the public, gives the people an occasion to claim their right, and limit that power, which, whilst it was exercised for their good, they were content should be tacitly allowed.[3]

 

 

 

Since the legislature cannot predict every contingency, some leeway must be granted to the executive. The local or national government may act without direct mandate from the law or even seemingly against it. For example, Locke says that if tearing down the house of an innocent man is the only way to stop a fire from spreading and destroying the city, the executive authority on the scene may do so. This is because the people form and assent to government for their own good, and particularly for the preservation of the lives of every one of them. If strict adherence to the law, or inaction until the legislature can convene and issue a relevant law is to lead to the death or suffering of people, then the executive branch of the government must act immediately. Likewise, Locke argues, there may be a person who is technically guilty of breaking the law, but has acted for the good of all and in fact deserves reward and honor rather than punishment; in this case, Locke says, the executive is empowered to pardon this person.[4] Always, the test is whether the act of prerogative is performed as a service to the people and for the good of the community as a whole, or as a right of the executive to act according to his or her own welfare and desires.

Obama faced repeated calls for his impeachment based on his actions at the time, which we call “executive orders” and Locke would define as “prerogative.” Often these calls came from extremist websites and pundits such as InfoWars, but at times the threats came from elected officials or former officials within the Republican party. One particular flash point was immigration.[5]   During the Obama administration there was a rise in border crossings, including both asylum seeking and attempts to sneak across the border undetected. Obama raised the ire of many liberals by deporting large numbers of undocumented and would-be immigrants, even being called “Deporter-in-Chief” by some. However, he issued one of his most controversial executive orders when he announced that the so-called “Dreamers,” children of undocumented immigrant parents who had perhaps lived in this country since infancy, would not be deported. Essentially, the Obama administration announced that it would prioritize deportations, seeking to remove criminals first, and deporting last (if at all) people who had lived in this country for years or decades and who had no part in choosing to immigrate since they were children at the time. This was claimed to be a failure to enforce the laws of the nation, and thus a violation of the Presidential oath of office; it was also alleged that this was done for partisan reasons since the immigrants would presumably vote Democrat. It was even alleged, without any proof and even against all evidence, that large numbers of undocumented immigrants would or had voted Democrat. However, these calls for impeachment may have been mere rhetoric, and in any case they failed to stir any serious impeachment attempt. Obama was able to argue, in courts and to the public, that it was a necessary part of his office to enforce the laws as he thought best for the American people, and that included prioritizing deportations of dangerous undocumented immigrants first, then the unproductive, rather than targeting those who were contributing to the welfare and economy of the nation and hadn’t even chosen to break immigration law in the first place. In Locke’s terms, this seems to be a legitimate exercise of prerogative; and the argument for this was reinforced by the fact that Obama was in fact vigorously enforcing immigration law overall. So long as he was seen as going after what would later be called “bad hombres” few people really cared if he ignored or protected “Dreamers.”

Donald Trump likewise faced calls for impeachment for some of his acts of prerogative. He has publicly suggested pardons for people under investigation for crimes allegedly committed on his behalf, such as Michael Cohen, so long as Cohen refused to cooperate with prosecutors. This is mentioned as one of the possible acts of obstruction of justice found by the Mueller investigation. As Locke says, a legitimate act of prerogative would be to pardon someone who acted against the law, but for the good of the nation; but in this case a pardon was offered for someone whose actions had no benefit for anyone but the president.[6] But while such actions as these were potentially impeachable, Trump faced actual impeachment and trial for his acts of prerogative in attempting to pressure Ukraine, an ally under attack by its stronger neighbor Russia, into doing political favors for him. He used the power of his office to delay promised aid and to withhold a public meeting that would signal U.S. support of Ukraine. Trump then attempted to hide what he was doing from Congress and the people. When the story finally came out, he defended himself by pointing out that Obama had also delayed aid to an ally, Egypt, so it was his right as President to do so. However, Obama had delayed aid because there had been a coup in Egypt; in other instances, there were concerns over corruption in the recipient country. In this case, all relevant agencies had determined that Ukraine needed the military aid promised by Congress, that it was meeting its obligations to fight corruption so the money would be properly spent, and that the aid was urgently needed. The only reason to delay the aid, it seems, was to pressure Ukraine to announce an investigation of one of Trump’s political rivals in an attempt to help Trump’s reelection campaign.

The defense against this claim of abuse of power obliterates the distinction Locke drew between proper prerogative and acts of tyranny.[7] Trump lawyer Alan Dershowitz argued that anything a president does for the good of the nation cannot be considered an abuse of power. Since every politician thinks his or her own reelection is for the good of the nation, anything a sitting public official does to aid his or her own reelection is thus for the good of the people, and a legitimate act of prerogative. While Mr. Dershowitz concedes that a President demanding a contribution to his personal bank account might be impeachable, his efforts to cover up or impede an investigation into this crime would not be; and in any case, demanding some other payoff such as a political favor would not be. While Locke, and our Founding Fathers guided by Locke’s philosophy sought to distinguish between prerogative done for the good of the people and abuses of power done for the benefit of a corrupt politician, the Trump Party has said there is no difference since whatever is done to benefit the political office holder is by definition “for the good of the nation.” Or, as an earlier politician put it, “L’état, c’est moi.”

[1] Russ Choma, “Reminder: Trump Has a Massive Conflict of Interest in Turkey;” Mother Jones Oct. 7, 2019 (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2019/10/reminder-trump-has-a-massive-conflict-of-interest-in-turkey/)

[2] Locke, Chapter XIV

[3] Locke, sect. 164

[4] Locke, sect. 159-61

[5] Erika Echelburger, “These 7 Conservatives Would Impeach Obama Over Immigration;” Mother Jones November 14, 2014 (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/11/obama-executive-order-immigration-republican-impeachment/)

[6] Bart Jansen, “Trump Repeatedly Tried to Impede the Russia Probe, Mueller Report Says. Was it Obstruction?” USA Today, July 23, 2019 (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/04/18/mueller-report-evidence-for-and-against-obstruction-president-trump/3405039002/)

[7] Charlie Savage, “Trump Lawyer’s Impeachment Argument Stokes Fears of Unfettered Power;” The New York Times January 20, 2020 (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/30/us/politics/dershowitz-trump-impeachment.html)

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 5)

March 11, 2020

Application: Human action may be motivated by the past, the present or the future.

Actions are motivated by the past when we act because of something that has happened, or failed to happen in the past. For example, a society may punish a lawbreaker because that person did something terrible and society (or a judiciary acting in its behalf) has decided that this criminal “deserves” to be punished. Or, you may give someone $20 because in the past you agreed to pay him to cut your lawn, and he did in fact cut your lawn.

Actions are motivated by the present when they are reactions to something occurring now. If the police see a crime in progress and arrest the perpetrator, that action was motivated by the present. If you cry or laugh at a movie, it is because you feel emotions prompted by what is occurring in the present.

Actions motivated by the future are a bit more complex, because the future was not and is not, but might be. It is possibility. The agent is thus taking a particular actual action in anticipation of what the future might be. It could be argued that this is really a species of present motivation, because the immediate motivator is one’s present fear, desire or anticipation, and that subjective motivating feeling is actual in the present. But it is still useful to draw a distinction between actions motivated by present actualities versus actions motivated by anticipations of the future. For one thing, the latter are much more fraught. One may anticipate future rain and end up lugging an umbrella around on a dry day. One may marry because one believes the beloved will be a good life-partner, only to find that one or both of you is not up to a lifetime bond. The Precogs may name the wrong future criminal. It is thus a useful act of humility to remember that while one is immediately responding to one’s current fears or hopes, the future circumstances one is anticipating may be totally wrong. However, humans are creatures that plan. We live towards the future, which we anticipate as best we are able.

Why might one resort to force, or other methods of resistance, to try to remove a governmental leader such as a constitutional monarch in Locke’s day, or a president in ours? One might do it because the person holding the office did not deserve it or was not qualified due to some past circumstance. One could claim that the current office-holder was in fact an usurper, who did not come to the office legitimately and thus did not deserve to hold it now. Barack Obama faced calls for his impeachment from the moment he took office, and in some cases even before.[1] During and after the 2008 election for President of the United States of America, Obama was alleged to be, in essence, an usurper, not qualified to hold the office of President because he was not born a citizen. Since this claim allegedly rested on past circumstances, it was addressed most directly by simply producing evidence from the time to show the claim was false; this was done when documentary and journalistic evidence was produced of equivalent quality to that considered adequate to prove any other historical event. Legal documents, contemporary news announcements and eyewitness testimony was offered to show that Barack Obama was in fact born in Hawaii, and that his mother was a U.S. citizen. Despite this evidence, calls for his removal based on the “birther” conspiracy theory continued for years, most notably from Mr. Donald Trump.

Donald Trump has said that he faced calls for his removal “from Day One,” and that is true. Even before he took office, there were many who said he had committed crimes during his campaign that should have been disqualifying. Others said that he had lost the popular vote and thus did not have a mandate from the people. However, the alleged crimes were at that time unproven, and winning the majority of the popular vote is not in fact required under our Constitution. More serious were the charges that the vote had been manipulated and hacked, and that were it counted accurately he would have lost even the Electoral College vote.[2] If there had been a serious investigation, it might have shown that Donald Trump is in fact an usurper, and should be removed from office immediately. Of course, it might also have simply verified the official results. It might even have shown nothing, since many of the districts where Trump did best were districts that had easily-hacked voting machines with no paper record of the votes cast. In any case, no such serious attempt to verify the election was made, as Ms. Clinton chose to accept defeat rather than contest the election.

To be continued…

[1] Shane Croucher, “Donald Trump Claims Republicans ‘Never Even Thought of Impeaching’ Barack Obama. History Tells a Different Story;” Newsweek 10/22/2019 (https://www.newsweek.com/trump-obama-impeachment-republicans-democrats-1466865)

[2] Dan Merica, “Computer Scientists Urge Clinton Campaign to Challenge Election Results;” CNN, November 23, 2016 (https://www.cnn.com/2016/11/22/politics/hillary-clinton-challenge-results/index.html)

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 4)

March 6, 2020

Now let’s take it one step further. The fundamental defining characteristic of a citizen is to play a part in making the laws that govern the society. This is recognized at least as far back as Aristotle, and it is a foundation of Locke’s understanding of the social contract. Suppose the usurper decides to use the powers of the office to pervert the next election, in order to hold onto power. In fact, let’s not even ask whether the office-holder is a usurper; that is irrelevant. Anyone who attempts to prevent a person from voting is robbing that person of the fundamental right of a citizen, and the fundamental right of a human being. Individual freedom is the fundamental inalienable right. I may freely delegate someone to represent me in the assembly or congress or parliament, to act on my behalf and with the other delegates to make laws in my best interests; Locke says that that is not surrendering my freedom but rather giving it expression in the society. On the other hand, even if I have other freedoms, without the right to participate in the making of the laws under which I live, I am not a citizen at all, but at best living in a state of nature, with no essential relationship to this government, free to disobey or oppose it as I see fit.

What makes the apparently non-violent and inconspicuous crime of vote-tampering so serious, more serious perhaps than graft or DUI manslaughter (to name two crimes by famous politicians)? To understand, we must return to Locke’s understanding of the origins and nature of government.[1] In a state of anarchy, people would live as their natural affections drew them and their reason guided them. Thus, we could have a society without a government, existing and interacting as individual and small family groups. But to have any relationship broader than that, we must agree to live together under shared laws and leadership, which (if it is to be legitimate) must be formed by the people and serve to express their collective will. Naturally, if the society that is the foundation of the government and for which it exists is itself destroyed, the government is dissolved. For example, if an invader uproots the community and destroys all the institutions binding people together, destroys homes and separates families, and leaves only scattered individuals, there is no government left and everyone is left back in the state of nature to try to rebuild a new society. Locke says little about this, saying history shows us enough examples that he need not belabor the point; also, it really isn’t his main interest. Locke is concerned with how the government itself might delegitimize itself, overturn itself, and become the enemy of the people and society it was supposed to protect. As we have seen, not every usurper is a destroyer of government. In fact, not every tyrant is a complete destroyer of government. A king or magistrate who abuses his or her power, but not to the point of utterly destroying the institutions of government themselves, may not destroy the government. This seems to be why Locke’s description of tyranny includes some limits on the right of forceful resistance: enough to resist the act of tyranny, but not more.

Some actions by a government, however, would so totally overturn the basis of civil government as to constitute war against the people themselves, effectively putting them back into a state of nature wherein they are entitled to create a new commonwealth on their own and to defend it against their former government as any citizen would against a foreign invader. The first of such actions is “when the legislative is altered.”[2] Locke “imagines” a government with three branches: a judicial, a federal and a legislative. The judicial consists of magistrates and judges and courts for interpreting and applying the law. The federal is the overall unifying head, which Locke suggests could be a king ruling for life but whose powers are limited by laws and traditions so that he is as much subject as master of the other two branches. The legislative is the branch which most directly expresses the will of the people. This is the body that is made up by representatives of the people, chosen by them and from among them, who gather together to consider the needs of the society and to create laws which all will live by. It is this legislative power that is the expression of the free will of each individual drawn together into one collective will, the will of the majority. When the legislative is altered, either by replacing the elected legislators with others chosen not by the people but by some other power (likely the king), or when laws are made without the consent of the legislature or those laws that are made are not enforced, then the will of the people is thwarted, the power they created to bind them into one commonwealth is broken, and they are in fact returned to their state of nature. At that point they cease to be citizens at all, but are merely bound servants to their overlords. In addition to such circumstances as a tyrant simply replacing the laws with his or her own will, replacing the legislators with the tyrant’s own stooges or simply leaving the legislature be but depriving it of the ability to act, the government effectively dissolves when it contrives to hand the nation over to the sovereignty of a foreign power (for example, the perception that Mary Tudor sought to hand the country over to Spain).[3]

Locke lumps all these possible corruptions together as “changing the legislative,” because they represent some sort of nullification of the people’s right to choose their lawmakers and/or the laws they live under. In addition, Locke discusses the possibility that the legislature itself could turn tyrant. Since the people form a government to protect their lives, their liberty and their property, a government that arbitrarily deprives them of these has failed to fulfill the purpose for which it was founded in the first place. This is so whether the legislature corrupted itself through greed or ambition, or was corrupted by the executive either by force, threat, bribery or some other means. If the government itself should not only fail to fulfill its duties to the citizens but even act against the very duties with which it was entrusted, Locke says, the people are free from all responsibility to that government and may establish whatever new government they believe will serve them better.[4] In such a case, they are not “rebels” against their government; Locke argues that it is the government which has declared war on the people and is in rebellion against their authority.[5]

So Locke recognizes a range of ways in which representative democracy can break down, and gradations of appropriate response when it does. In a usurpation, the people might not respond at all; they could choose to accept the usurper and in doing so provide his or her office with the legitimacy it requires: a mandate from the majority. Likewise, in cases of petty abuses (such as spending part of the office supplies budget on the premium coffee the mayor prefers rather than the generic freeze-dried which the city council approved) people might look the other way, or impose some sort of discipline, but no one could reasonably think violence or even arrest was justified. In such cases neither the continuation of the commonwealth nor the inalienable rights of the citizens are at stake. When the abuse of prerogative matures into tyranny, people may resist. If the police lack a proper warrant to enter your home, Locke says, you can resist their attempts to do so as you would any robber. Even in such cases, Locke requires a calibrated response; just as you can’t shoot a neighbor who’s holding your property if you can reasonably expect to regain it by legal means, so too you cannot use force if you have legal recourse against governmental abuse or overreach. So long as the courts are functioning, and the threatened injury not irreversible, the commonwealth is still more or less functional and problems may be resolved more reasonably. “Reason” is a key concept for Locke. He is rather optimistic about the abilities of common sense; he knows people are motivated by passions and desires, but he also believes they can obtain the knowledge and exercise the self-restraint they need to make reasonable choices, usually. And where the law of Reason has not been totally overthrown, that should be our first resort.

Even in cases of real tyranny, Locke says, people will not immediately rush for their flintlocks and bayonets. Locke knows that what he is writing has radical implications. His father served in the Parliamentarian army during the English Civil War, which led to the beheading of King Charles I and six years of Puritan dictatorship, eventually settling down to a constitutional monarchy with strict limits on royal power. He was well aware of the earlier arguments of Thomas Hobbes and the current views of many conservative critics, that anything less than absolute monarchy would degenerate into civil war and anarchy. But Locke, with his faith in common sense, argued that people are in fact unlikely to resort to violence over every little injustice.[6]  People are naturally inclined to seek peace for themselves, and to put up with a lot if they’re used to it or they fear radical resistance could make it worse. They are unlikely to react much if the injustice doesn’t threaten them, but concerns only one or a small number of people. But, if there is a pattern of injustices, and people see that their rights and liberties, the fruits of their labors and even their lives are endangered, and that things seem likely to only get worse over time, then they most likely will rise up against their oppressors. The only difference is that Locke believes they would be justified, since the true purpose of government is the welfare of the people and its legitimacy comes from their mandate alone; an absolute monarchy would condemn the people as rebels and sinners, but still be just as likely to face forceful and even violent resistance after prolonged and habitual misrule.

[1] Locke, chapter XIX, sect. 211

[2] Locke, sect. 212

[3] Locke, sect. 213-18

[4] Locke, sect. 220

[5] Locke, sect. 227

[6] Locke, sect. 224-230

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 3)

February 26, 2020

What happens, however, if the representational government and the electoral system that insures it breaks down? And how might it do so? One possibility is someone could grab the reins of power who had no right to it, most likely by fraud. That would be a usurpation.[1] A usurper is one who seizes the office and power to which another is entitled. For example, in the Kennedy vs. Nixon election it was widely believed that Nixon had won, if not for the many fraudulent votes cast in Chicago on behalf of dead Democratic voters. The Democratic political machine run by Mayor Daly was very strong and could generally deliver Chicago’s votes (and with them Illinois itself) to whomever he chose. Nixon was urged to challenge the election but chose not to, allegedly saying such a challenge would be too divisive to the nation. I tend to believe this account, so let’s accept it for the illustration’s sake if nothing else. In such a case as this, JFK could rightly be called an usurper. He wrongly took the office that another person should have had but which was stolen by fraud. However, he was not a tyrant. He may have taken power belonging to another, but he faithfully executed the office of the presidency. He did what was Constitutionally required, not going beyond it in any meaningful way and not abusing or oppressing the citizens of states that voted against him. There were arguably some abuses of power under his administration, but none that raised much ire in his lifetime. Many considered him, then and now, to be a good president, even if his initial victory was questionable. Locke would say that an usurper may rightfully be opposed, but the opposition should be done legally and politically. If the majority of the people accept the usurper, then they essentially ratify the usurpation. This could be said to have happened in JFK’s election, or perhaps in Fatah’s takeover of the West Bank after Hamas won the election for leadership of the Palestinian National Authority 2007-2008 (I am not sufficiently versed in Palestinian politics to say for certain, but that is how it was depicted in the American press).

An usurper need not be a tyrant, nor a tyrant a usurper. As Locke describes it:

 

 

As usurpation is the exercise of power, which another hath a right to; so tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which no body can have a right to. And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage. When the governor, however intitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.[2]

 

 

 

A leader or magistrate may gain office illegitimately, but fulfill the functions of a proper office-holder. The people might even choose to accept that person as legitimate. Tyranny is more serious than usurpation. A tyrant might come into the office legitimately; a king might be born to it, a president or chancellor might be elected, and so on. What matters is what the person does with the office and its power. If the governor (in the broad sense of one who has governing power) uses that power for the good of the people and according to the will of the majority as expressed in the laws which their legislature, acting as their agents, has created, then he (or she) is a proper governor. If the governor uses the powers of the office for their own personal advantage rather than seeing first to the good of the people and to their instructions, then that person is a tyrant regardless of whether he or she was duly elected. Legitimacy, in Locke’s view, ultimately derives from the will of the ruled, not merely or mainly from the propriety of the succession.

This has practical and dangerous consequences. A tyrant may be opposed by force, according to Locke. An usurper, who is not otherwise tyrannical, may not be. Suppose, just as a thought experiment with clearly no relationship to reality because it’s completely impossible, the president of the United States (a country largely founded on Locke’s philosophical theories) were elected illegitimately. This could be said to happen whenever the minority of the votes determines the presidency due to a quirk in the Electoral College, as happened with each of the last two Republican presidents; but then again, all citizens have agreed to abide by the rules laid down in the Constitution so we could say that even in this case it was no usurpation. But suppose some votes were flipped in the election by a hostile foreign power with some sort of personal relationship to one of the candidates, say one with extensive business investments in that hostile country and thus vulnerable to influence by any government threatening those investments. Suppose further that the only “investigation” of such illegality was to be carried out by the alleged usurper himself, and officials he appointed, and that the body charged with removing an unqualified president was part of the president’s faction and refused to act. However, suppose the usurper proved to be competent and restrained, and did not threaten the rights of any citizen (except for the actual winner of the election, of course, whose right to fulfill the office was denied). In that case, it arguably could be immoral to use force against the usurper. First, Locke sees force as a last resort; if there are still viable legal means, they must be pursued. Second, if the government is in fact still carrying out the laws established by the legislature which in turn was elected by the will of the majority, and is protecting the rights and property of the people, there is no need for force. Third, as Locke points out, there are great practical challenges to force. Most people, he says, are willing to put up with a lot rather than attempt radical or violent change. Even if their government is not all it should be, if it’s functioning well enough and justly enough they’ll likely tolerate it. In that case, the lone “freedom fighter,” and not the usurper, who will be seen as the dangerous rebel or lunatic. It is only if the government is truly tyrannical and is seen as such by a large group of people that widespread use of force is reasonable.[3] In this hypothetical case, the usurper is not unjustly using force against any citizen, so no one has a right to use force against him; and if anyone did, that person would be the one seen as disturbing the peace and threatening the society. On the other hand, if one’s individual rights were infringed by force, Locke says, one would have the right to forceful self-defense. For example, if police try to invade one’s home without a proper warrant empowering them to do so, one has the right to shoot them. The determining factor is whether the wrong one might suffer is urgent. If it is possible to right the wrong peacefully and legally later, then one may not use force to oppose it; but if one is threatened in a way that no later redress could correct, then one may defend oneself by whatever means are necessary and available.

[1] Locke, chapter XVII

[2] Locke, chapter XVIII, sect. 199

[3] Locke, sect. 203-09

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 2)

February 18, 2020

 

At this crucial point Locke and Rand differ, and from this division a vast gulf opens between Locke’s vision for “civil government” which was absolutely crucial for our Founding Fathers and the so-called “conservatism” dominant in American politics today. On the origin and nature of civil society, John Locke writes:

 

 

For when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community, they have thereby made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority: for that which acts any community, being only the consent of the individuals of it, and it being necessary to that which is one body to move one way; it is necessary the body should move that way whither the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority: or else it is impossible it should act or continue one body, one community, which the consent of every individual that united into it, agreed that it should; and so every one is bound by that consent to be concluded by the majority.[1]

 

 

 

Locke’s view is a classic presentation of “social contract theory.” He asks us to imagine a group of individuals living in a “state of nature;” that is, without any politics or government. Locke believes that even without government, we would still be bound by “the laws of Reason,” which he treats as synonymous with “Nature” and “God” since God created Nature and it is human nature to be rational. Thus, unlike Thomas Hobbes, who supposed the natural inclination of humans was towards endless violence, Locke asserts that even in the hypothetical “state of nature” people would live guided by basic principles of reason and justice. Even so, without anyone to mediate between neighbors there would be disputes which would likely devolve into violence. Thus, in order to live together in larger groups in an orderly and peaceful fashion, humans create governments which in turn create laws to define acceptable behavior, magistrates to arbitrate between citizens, and to regulate the use of force if necessary to preserve justice and social order while avoiding the excesses likely with private vengeance. Essentially, each individual gives up some of that complete freedom he or she would have had to regulate their own private affairs and define relations to others, agreeing to live under the governance of a society ruled by the will of the majority. The core of this new society is the legislative body, which represents the collective will of the people. Locke believes this body should be chosen by and from among the people themselves, and that its members act as delegates to represent the wills of those who elected them. The laws made by this body would thus be the expression of the will of the people themselves. Hobbes in his Leviathan had pictured the State as an “artificial person” made up of the collection of all its members, ruled by the absolute will of its government; Locke retains something of this treatment of the commonwealth as a single being created by its members, but sees it as animated not by the will of one totalitarian king but rather by the collective will of the people themselves. Since this body is the expression of the people, and of each individual member, it has limits which Hobbes would not recognize, but also rightful powers which Rand (and other current conservative thinkers such as Robert Nozick) would reject. On the one hand, even in this democratic body animated by the will of the majority, the government must respect the essential value of each individual.[2] This puts limits on the possible “tyranny of the majority;” since in the state of nature one person would not have absolutely power over a neighbor, neither can the commonwealth claim absolute power over the lives and properties of citizens even if acting in the name of the majority. On the other hand, it can impose taxes to pay for such joint projects as the legislature has deemed necessary for the welfare of the people. Locke writes:

 

 

It is true, governments cannot be supported without great charge, and it is fit every one who enjoys his share of the protection, should pay out of his estate his proportion for the maintenance of it. But still it must be with his own consent, i.e. the consent of the majority, giving it either by themselves, or their representatives chosen by them: for if any one shall claim a power to lay and levy taxes on the people, by his own authority, and without such consent of the people, he thereby invades the fundamental law of property, and subverts the end of government: for what property have I in that, which another may by right take, when he pleases, to himself?[3]

 

 

 

Thomas Hobbes assumed that all humans were irrational, greedy, violent and fearful, and could live together peacefully only if beaten into submission; therefore he imagined a “social contract” whereby a group of people, rejecting the “war of each against all” of anarchy, chose to select one individual despot or a small group to bludgeon everyone else. Locke has a much more optimistic view of human nature, seeing it as ruled not only by emotions, but by feelings guided by reason; so the commonwealth he envisions neither needs to be so brutal nor should it be. But he is not so giddy with the power of Reason as Rand is; Locke knows that people are often ruled by their passions and desires, and that the “rational” interests of the individual citizens often do clash, so that in the end we need a mechanism to determine the will of the majority while we all agree to accept and live by the majority’s choice.

[1] John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690) chapter VIII, sect. 96

[2] Locke, chapter XI, sect. 135

[3] Locke, sect. 140

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 1)

February 17, 2020

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get?

 

 

….how can a man any more hinder himself from being persuaded in his own mind, which way things are going; or from casting about how to save himself, than he could from believing the captain of the ship he was in, was carrying him, and the rest of the company, to Algiers, when he found him always steering that course, though cross winds, leaks in his ship, and want of men and provisions did often force him to turn his course another way for some time, which he steadily returned to again, as soon as the wind, weather, and other circumstances would let him?

 

——-John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, sect 210

 

 

What’s so bad about Algiers? Warm climate, lovely beaches, so what’s not to love? From the 1500s into the 1700s, Europeans were captured and enslaved in Africa, from as far north as Iceland and more often from Britain south along the Atlantic coast and throughout the Mediterranean. At a time when Europe was backwards and underpopulated compared to the Islamic world, hundreds of thousands of Europeans were captured and enslaved by pirates, by raiders, and by kidnappers, and sold in the slave markets of Algiers and other North African ports. Men were usually sent to be worked to death in the salt mines; women were more likely to become domestic servants and/or concubines. Some estimates put the total number of enslaved Europeans at a million or more. True, this is paltry compared to the numbers of Africans enslaved by Europeans, but the size and population of Africa greatly dwarfed Renaissance Europe as well. The demographic impact was locally significant, and the psychological impact far greater. At the time Locke wrote his groundbreaking work on representative democracy, the Second Treatise of Civil Government, Algiers was a destination of horror. A captain who consistently steered towards Algiers was one who endeavored to sell his passengers and maybe crew into slavery. And in such a case, says Locke, the passengers would have every right to join together to overthrow that captain and steer for a safer harbor, rather than meekly wait until they arrived at the shores of slavery to act.

Locke used this image to describe the relations between free citizens and their leaders. Citizens, he argues, do not have to wait until their government has robbed them of their freedom and livelihoods before resisting oppression. If they see that creeping despotism is threatening to reduce them to bondage, they can act to prevent it. But at what point? What is the progression of authoritarianism whereby a representative civil government morphs into something working not for the good of the people, but only for the ruled? When does the government become the enemy?

Today’s “conservatives” write and speak as if government is always the enemy, perhaps the only enemy of the people. John Locke would agree with Ayn Rand’s repeated assertion that “No human rights can exist without property rights.” And he might approve her claim that “the rational interests of men do not clash,” if that is interpreted to mean that all people live naturally under the law of Reason.[1] But he would disagree with her equation of government and criminality. For example, Rand equates Medicare with armed robbery and murder, saying the only difference is the number of victims and beneficiaries.[2] More generally, Rand argues:

 

 

Criminals are a small minority in any age or country. And the harm they have done to mankind is infinitesimal when compared to the horrors—-the bloodshed, the wars, the persecutions, the confiscations, the famines, the enslavements, the wholesale destructions—-perpetuated by mankind’s governments. Potentially, a government is the most dangerous threat to man’s rights; it holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force against legally disarmed victims. When unlimited and unrestricted by individual rights, a government is men’s deadliest enemy.[3]

 

 

 

To Rand, the vast majority of governments are nothing more than gangs of robbers, to which anarchy would be preferable. The only exception she sees is pre-New Deal United States, where, she claims, individual property rights were respected and government existed only to protect those rights. Leaving aside the historical simplification (such as the omission of slavery), we can see her vision of the “moral” state: an absolute minimalist government, run on fees for services instead of taxation by force, solely existing to provide a marketplace for individuals to trade goods and services with one another without interference from criminals or invaders. There is no such thing as “the public” or “public interest;” there are only individuals.[4]

[1] Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Penguin Group USA, 1964) p.34

[2] Rand, pp. 95-96

[3] Rand, p. 115

[4] Rand, p. 103

Things the Right Gets Wrong, pt. 1: Immigration

January 20, 2020

Things the Right Gets Wrong, pt. 1: Immigration: two wrongs don’t make a right, but they do sometimes make a right-winger

 

We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.

—-Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa

 

 

Six people have been arrested so far in connection with terrorist threats and plots in Richmond, VA this week.[1]   Right-wing pundits have renewed threats of “civil war” if the elected governments attempt to implement laws that they, private citizens with no legal education and speaking only for a minority of Americans, declare “unconstitutional.”[2] President Trump has openly sided with the violent extremists, echoing their paranoid fears without a whisper discouraging their violent intentions.[3] This is occurring at the eve of Trump’s impeachment trial, one that many GOP senators have promised will be short, look at no evidence, and completely exonerate him. As much as I would like to just stick to philosophy, I am reminded of Plato’s warning that the price of ignoring politics is to be ruled by evil men.

At the center of all of this talk of civil war and this eagerness to ignore crass and rampant corruption, we find this repeated conservative horror that American civilization is on the verge of collapse and that nothing short of armed force or at least the credible threat of violence can save it from the will of the foolish majority. Chants such as “Blood and Soil and “You Will Not Replace Us” reflect their real or affected fear of a “white genocide” where darker-skinned people from countries outside of Northern Europe either slaughter “real Americans” or settle for merely destroying our culture.[4] It is in this context that words such as King’s, coming from Republican elected officials for years, are so chilling. They are nothing less than a call to violence. They are also wrong.

If I have to argue with someone that racism is immoral, I’m doomed to waste the precious time I have on Earth to serve God and enjoy God’s good world. What I choose to do here and now is to say that their plan leads only to national suicide. Japan before the arrival of Perry, China before the Opium Wars, Russia under the Tsars, Spain under the Inquisition, or North Korea today: all followed or follow variations of Rep. Steve King’s mantra. Countries that wall themselves off from the world, convinced of their own superiority or obsessed with their own stability, wind up declining. Even Sparta stagnated and fell, an impoverished husk of a nation despite its powerful army. And Japan today, despite being an open and reasonably progressive democracy, is literally dying of old age.[5] I think to of the Mongol Empire. Mongolia was the largest land empire ever, stretching from the North Pacific to the Middle East, encompassing what we now call China, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, North India, South Russia and more; and it all virtually vanished. Sure, you can find genetic evidence of Mongolian occupation, and plenty of ruins of cities they burned; but despite laws the Khan attempted to enforce to keep his people separate from the conquered foes, within a generation they were culturally absorbed. In China they became Chinese, in Islamic lands they became Muslim and so on.

By contrast, look at the Roman Empire. It initially expanded through extremely brutal military campaigns. However, it offered a truly vibrant culture, giving aqueducts, roads, Roman civil law, concrete, and more (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7tvauOJMHo).   It didn’t do most of this out of any sense of benevolence, but it did have a lot to offer. People wanted to become Roman citizens, and Rome was happy to oblige by making citizenship available even to those born and raised in other cultures. And Roman culture took as freely as it gave, welcoming all sorts of other religions (so long as they themselves also included a little Emperor worship, which got the Christians in trouble), foreign philosophies, foreign gods, foreign science and literature, new foods, new art and more. The testimony to the power of Roman culture is that when Rome fell, generations spent all their efforts trying to become the new Romans. Not only was Europe nominally under the Holy Roman Empire, but Roman laws, Roman architecture, Roman engineering, and even the Roman language for many centuries were the standards all later European cultures sought to imitate. The German “Kaiser” and Russian “Tsar” were their languages’ “Caesar;” even peoples who had never been part of the Roman Empire or whose ancestors fought it vigorously and successfully later sought to claim the Roman heritage. Much the same occurred in Islamic lands as the initial Arab conquests led to absorption of much of the culture of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine culture.

In 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, I saw a televised interview with a young British Muslim guy ranting about how evil the USA was and how great al Qaeda was for standing up for Islamic culture. He was wearing a NY Yankees baseball cap, without any apparent sense of irony. America may have become a mighty nation by conquering Mexican territory and successful involvement in two world wars; but it became a great nation because of its culture. People around the world want to watch our television and movies; they want our hamburgers and our Levis; they want our free markets, representative democracy, rights for women, free speech and so on. We are not great because we are paler than others; we are great because of baseball, rock and roll, and T-shirts. People want to be us; even our enemies don’t want so much to destroy us than to replace us, while taking over for themselves who we are.

Nations that strive for low immigration, conservative and unchanging cultures, and racial purity either die, or end up like North Korea, impoverished and backwards lands surviving only because most of the population is unable to leave. That is the end of the road which the white nationalist follows. Steve King may claim that he isn’t racist, that he “only” wants to keep out immigrants who aren’t “good Americans,” but this is foolish if not dishonest. He echoes the rhetoric of white nationalists while claiming to not understand what it really means. I say this instead:

 

“We can ONLY restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

 

What do I mean by that? The United States is better at turning immigrants into citizens than any other nation is or has been. We’ve been doing it for our entire history, and we know how to make it work. We’ve been most prosperous when we sought to welcome immigrants, and our economy has always suffered when we tried to shut out foreign goods and foreign peoples. That doesn’t mean “open borders;” that’s the Straw Man argument of the fearful and the racist. But we’ve been able to take in people from the Russian Jewish shtetls to the Bosnian villages and mosques to the Chinese cities and farms and a hundred other cultures, and within a generation they’re as American—or more!—-than the “patriots” who marched in Charlottesville with their torches and their red hats and their threats of civil war. “The hands that built this country we’re always trying to keep down.”[6]

Cultures, like individuals, change as long as they live. “Whatever is not busy being born is busy dying.” Anyone who wants to “restore” a civilization seeks to practice the mortician’s art, when what is needed is a midwife. Sure, you can embalm a culture so that, like a corpse, it looks as good as it once did; but first it has to be dead. A great civilization is one that grows, that produces science and art and prosperity, that attracts immigrants and imitators, that learns from other cultures and takes the best to use for itself. It is like the scribe whom Jesus describes, who has learned and preserved the traditions of the past while also embracing new insights and values, “like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”[7]

Civilizations can die from too much change too fast. Conservatives instinctively understand the values of boundaries and definitions, which liberals can overlook. Reform Judaism began as a modern revival or resuscitation movement, to help the spiritual heritage of the past live in the modern world. But a century later, it seemed ready to dissolve, as young Reform Jews became secular, or Buddhist, or some other faith. Reform has begun emphasizing Hebrew in worship and other conservative traits, to restore a sense of what it is to be Jewish, to be Reform Judaism. I don’t want to say that conservatives are always wrong, or that we should ever totally silence them. But right now our country is swinging more towards the example of the Amish or the Wahhabi, where all change is seen as evil until it is virtually forced. White nationalists refer to Donald Trump as “Glorious Leader;” North Koreans refer to Kim Jong-il as “Dear Leader.” Is that the sort of “patriotism” we need? No! That will not “make America great,” any more than cultural and racial homogeneity, militarism and cultural petrifaction has made North Korea “great.” The ideology of Rep. Steve King, Donald Trump and others of their ilk will kill America, merely to satisfy the xenophobic and those who, like so many despots, are willing to foster paranoia and resentment, knowing it leads to national poverty and decline, simply to satisfy their own ambitions.

[1] Ryan W. Miller, “Three More Suspected Neo-Nazis Arrested before Virginia Gun-Rights Rally, Authorities Say;” USA Today 1/17/2020 (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/01/17/virginia-gun-rally-3-more-suspected-neo-nazis-base-arrested/4499733002/)

[2] Cydney Hargis, “Fox Nation’s Tomi Lahren on proposed Virginia gun safety laws: “Stop coming for the Second Amendment” or there will be a civil war in the U.S.” Media Matters 1/17/2020 (www.mediamatters.org)

 

[3] WJHL, “President Trump: Second Amendment is Under ‘Very Serious Attack’ in Virginia;” ABC 8 News (https://www.wric.com/news/politics/capitol-connection/president-trump-second-amendment-is-under-very-serious-attack-in-virginia/)

[4] David Neiwert, “When White Nationalists Chant Their Weird Slogans, What Do They Mean?” SPLC: Southern Poverty Law Center 10/10/2017 (https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2017/10/10/when-white-nationalists-chant-their-weird-slogans-what-do-they-mean)

[5] Francisco Toro, “Japan is a Trumpian Paradise of Low Immigration Rates. It’s also a Dying Country;” The Washington Post Agust 29, 2019 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/08/29/japan-is-trumpian-paradise-low-immigration-rates-its-also-dying-country/)

 

[6] Bruce Springsteen, “American Land,” Wrecking Ball 2012 (Sony Legacy) Here’s a pretty good version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02mZTyTbdTI

[7] Matthew 13:52

Comedy as the Anti-Bullshit

January 2, 2020

Comedy as the Anti-Bullshit

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.

——-H. Frankfurt

Aside from Bergson’s essay, there has been relatively little philosophical discussion of comedy or the comic. There has been even less serious discussion of bullshit; in fact, there has been only one book on the subject, which itself was based on an essay by the same author. What is “bullshit,” and why should we care? Our initial thought is that we should not; one calls something “bullshit” to say it does not deserve our attention. Harry Frankfurt’s argument is that it is valuable to consider the concept of “bullshit” even if bullshit itself is not worth considering. ( Harry G. Franfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005)) My humble opinion is that the concepts of bullshit and the comic have several connections, and understanding these helps clarify the meaning and significance of both.

Bullshit is not lying, though it is related and they can be confused. Sometimes we say, “That’s bull!” when what we mean is, “You’re lying!” But as Dr. Frankfurt points out, the two seem to be something different. The liar is deceptive about the facts. The liar wants you to believe something about the world is one way when in fact it is another. The liar knows what reality is; as they say, it isn’t a lie if you actually believe it (or more accurately, you’re not a liar if you believe it). The bullshitter is aiming at something else. The bullshitter wants to deceive about his or her self, motives and character. Let me suggest a relatively uncontroversial example. Suppose you heard your father loudly proclaim how wonderful your mother is, how smart, how funny, how she did a wonderful job raising you, how lovely she is and so on. And (for the sake of argument at least) suppose you agreed with everything he said. You wouldn’t say “It’s al lies;” it’s true. But suppose you know that she cries herself to sleep because of his numerous affairs, how he stays with her because the property is in her name, and how he privately shows little appreciation for her at all. Then you may say “It’s all bullshit!”——not that what he said was false, but that he was false in saying it, as if he cared. It’s not that he wants to deceive anyone about what his wife is like; he only cares that he deceive them about what he is like, so that they believe he’s a good, loving, loyal, appreciative husband.
The liar cares about the truth. The liar knows what the truth is and is engaged with it, specifically to avoid it. The concept of “lie” depends upon the concept of “truth;” you cannot have have a lie without there being a truth, and the lie can’t exist unless it is mistaken for a truth. The bullshitter, on the other hand, doesn’t care about the truth at all. (Bullshit, pp. 33-34) The bullshitter just wants to project an image, and says whatever suits that purpose. The actual content is irrelevant; the bullshitter need not even know what the truth is. If the lie is deliberate miscommunication or false communication, then bullshit isn’t communication at all. ( pp. 42-43) It is “false communication” in a second sense: not the communication of counterfeit truth, but a counterfeit of communication itself. (pp. 54-55) It suits the bullshitter just fine if we all give up on the idea of distinguishing between truth and falsehood completely; the bullshitter simply says whatever is useful to serve the purpose of the moment. Bullshit attacks the very existence of truth itself, and the relevance of truth to discussion. In this regard, Frankfurt says, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than is lying.  ( pp. 60-61)

Comedy has elements in common with both lying and bullshit. One thing on which the philosophers and psychologists seem to agree is that comedy is based on contradiction. Something happens which is surprising and false, but in a way that gives pleasure. Roman occupiers executing a hundred people at a time is horrible. Those hundred people singing  “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” is hilarious.  The contradiction between the painful situation, the total painlessness of the people, the cheerfulness of the song, and the nihilistic lyrics presents something that has truth in it (“life is quite absurd, and death’s the final word”) in a way that takes the pain away. This bouncy tune, those words, and that situation just don’t go together. Kierkegaard might have said they mutually annihilate each other, as the different elements of irony do ( Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony: with continual reference to Socrates; edited ad translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989] p. 248). Much comedy comes from pain, presented in a way that renders it painless by rendering it absurd, thus meaningless and insignificant, unworthy of consideration. So lying, bullshit and comedy all rely on contradiction: lying on the contradiction between truth and what is claimed, bullshit on the contradiction between the real and purported attitude of the bullshitter to what is said, and comedy between what is said and how it is said.

     The liar and the comedian both rely on the truth. The liar wishes to avoid the truth, and produces a falsity which can be presented as truth. The comedian wishes, in many cases, to present truth but in a way that is not entirely true. The comedian may produce something outrageous in a way that evokes laughter rather than outrage; but still, as John Oliver said, “Any joke is worthless if it’s built upon a lie.” (David Folkenflik, “John Oliver on Facts, Donald Trump and The Supreme Court for Dogs;” Morning Edition (NPR, February 10, 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/02/10/514152562/john-oliver-on-facts-donald-trump-and-the-supreme-court-for-dogs) ) Even in cases where the comedian is telling a story, what makes it funny is if it is relatable, that is, true to the human experience of the audience. And in the case of political humor in particular, that also means it needs to be factually true. A Hegelian might suggest that both lies and comedy are antitheses of some truth, and thus presentations (perhaps mirror images) of the truth. The difference is that the comedian intends to present the truth, though perhaps in a false way; the liar intends to hide the truth. But both differ from the bullshitter in that bullshit does not intend either to reveal or avoid the truth at all.

     Comedy also has elements in common with bullshit, so much that sometimes the two are confused as here. In both cases the performer is more concerned with the reaction of the audience than with the truth of the statement. There is a contradiction between what the performer says (or writes) versus the actual intentions. If you believe Huckleberry Finn or Blazing Saddles seriously mean the racist statements they contain, you find them horrifying (or, if you’re racist, perhaps not) but if you understand the joke and see the disconnection between the comedian’s words versus intentions, you see them as a satire on the racism of the characters and find it funny—-though, as they say, “funny because it’s true” as a true(ish) presentation of racists. The difference is that the bullshitter wants to be perceived as serious, while the comedian wants to be perceived as “just joking” even when he or she may in fact care a great deal about the message hidden in the joke.
Comedy can often “call out” real evils or real problems when a straightforward denunciation might be mistaken for bullshit. The bullshitter, after all, wants to be taken seriously even when he or she is in fact not serious; the comedian says, “Don’t take me seriously” even when saying very serious things. The parallels with Socrates are obvious even without the character of Comicus. Charlie Chaplain’s work is particularly striking in this regard; even without the spoken word, films such as Modern Times pointed out the dehumanizing aspects of early 20th century capitalism, while The Great Dictator called out Fascism at a time when many of America’s political and cultural leaders were praising Hitler.

     This is the real difference between comedy versus bullshit, and the real power of comedy. Bullshit relies on the covert contradiction. It appears to be communication, but it is not; it is just “hot air,” empty exhalation. The bullshitter wants to be taken as sincere, as caring about the words he or she is expressing. If it is seen to be what it is, it loses its power. Comedy, by contrast, relies on the explicit contradiction. This is true even of physical comedy, which appears for a moment to be painful or fatal but then is revealed to be harmless. Verbal comedy in its most frivolous forms (such as puns) depends on the hearer hearing one thing and then realizing that what was actually said and meant was something else. The pleasure comes from the realization of the contradiction. If the contradiction isn’t recognized by the audience, they are said to “miss the joke.”

     The lie gets its power from the concealed contradiction, in presenting a false claim as true. Bullshit gets its power from the concealed contradiction that the bullshitter doesn’t care and may not even know what the truth is, but wishes to seem sincere. Comedy gets its power from the revealed contradiction. This is why it is inherently comic to expose bullshit. When, in the classic fairy tale, the Emperor is tricked into walking down the street naked, what is hilarious is not the nudity. If it had been an act of religious humility, his society would have honored it; if he’d barely escaped from a fire, it might have been embarrassing but also fortunate. What makes it funny is that he was conned by a liar who saw he was vacuous, pretentious, or in short, bullshitting the people. The “tailor” was a straight-up liar, spinning not cloth but only tales of magical clothes that cannot be seen by fools. The Emperor, being a bullshitter, wanted to be seen as wise and was thus too ashamed to admit he could not see the clothes. The courtiers too were not trying to deceive the Emperor about the clothes; unlike the “tailor,” they believed the magical clothes existed, though they could not see them. They only wished to deceive others about what they themselves actually knew. When an ignorant, unpretentious child came along, and blurted out what everyone knew but was afraid to admit, the Emperor was exposed in more ways than one. It is the shame of being shown to have been a fool pretending to be so superior that he could see this magical suit, when actually there was nothing to see, that made the situation so hilarious.  Likewise, there’s nothing terribly funny about the Bible’s anti-gay statements, about a cleric denouncing homosexuality, or about a person living in the closet for fear of being rejected by family and friends, and possibly fired or otherwise harmed if his or her homosexuality became public knowledge. But when a stridently anti-gay preacher is outed by being caught up in a police raid on gay sex in a public bathroom, it becomes the fodder for countless jokes. What makes it funny is the revelation, showing that all that preaching and fulminating was nothing but bullshit.

     Bullshit is an essential tool of dictators and would-be dictators of all stripes. Whether their policies are in fact wise or stupid, they depend primarily on the people believing that the Dear Leader actually gives a damn about anyone else, or about the nation as a whole. That is why authoritarians hate real comedy; the bullshitter is a joke waiting to be made, and knows it, and thus fears being laughed at more than anything else.  Maybe that is part of why we seem to judge comedians more harshly than we judge our so-called “role models” and “pillars of society.” Today even the most conservative, subservient, obedient and reverent citizen these days has decided that the legal, political and religious leaders of society are just bullshit artists, and that even if the policies they advocate and carry out are good, they themselves are phonies. But the comedian is the one who is supposed to expose the frauds; to find out that the comedian is possibly also bullshitting is just too much. If that is the reason, then the real question should not be why we judge comedians so strictly, but why we don’t judge the others at all.

 

Star Trek and Impeachment:  how long should the impeachment trial last?  As long as Capt. Picard says it should.

December 26, 2019

Star Trek and Impeachment:  how long should the impeachment trial last?  As long as Capt. Picard says it should.

Counselor Deanna Troi: [explaining] While they’re learning how to communicate with Riva, they’ll be learning how to communicate with each other.
Lt. Commander Data: [interpreting] And that is the first and most important aspect of any relationship.

—–from Star Trek, The Next Generation, season 2, episode 5, “Loud as a Whisper” (1989, Paramount Studios)

     The fundamental divide within our nation is not religious, political or even moral; it is epistemological. We do not see the same reality, so how could we hope to agree on solutions? Some even claim there is no “reality,” just a war of wills between those with “facts” and those with “alternative facts.” Did Donald Trump commit crimes worthy of impeachment? How can we agree, when we don’t even agree with what a “crime” is, what words like “I’d like you to do us a favor though” mean, what “interference” in an election means, or any other independent reality?
If Donald Trump is removed from office, that will not heal the divide in our nation. If Donald Trump is quickly acquitted, that will not heal the divide in our nation. While polls suggest that most people agree that he did things that are immoral and unfit for our nation’s leader, there is debate even there about whether the crimes were “high” enough to justify impeachment. And some people, looking at the same evidence, claim there is no crime at all, not even a questionable act.
Every major intelligence agency of our nation agrees that Russia, and Russia alone, illegally interfered in the 2016 elections. Even the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, run by Republicans, agrees that this is true. Yet Republican senators, who supposedly listened to those reports and who voted to accept those reports into the Congressional record as facts, publicly deny them. Often they simply refuse to even look at such evidence at all, preferring the news feed from RT over any direct briefing from the CIA.
This is not political partisanship. This is epistemological apartheid: two populations side-by-side, with no language in common, no shared reality, virtually forbidden to communicate with one another. Is there an escape from this trap?
If anyone knew (or will know, it gets confusing) political impasses, it was (will be?) Capt. Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise. Thousands of inhabited planets, each with radically different cultures, languages, histories and values, each with competing interests, and one diplomatic misstep could lead to war that could possibly extinguish any or all of these and kill billions of sentient beings. While he had an arsenal of weapons at his command, often the problems were those that could not be solved by a war of wills or weapons. Often the task was to end a war, or stop one before it started. In such situations, what was needed was communication: and before that, the foundation of communication, a shared reality.
Two examples come to mind. The first is from Star Trek, TNG’s second season, the episode “Loud as a Whisper.” The story revolves around a planet which has virtually destroyed its civilization through warfare, and now has finally decided to seek peace between the two enemy factions. They have requested a famous diplomat from another planet, someone with no ties to either side, to mediate between them. The diplomat is actually mute; he has an extrasensory bond with three interpreters, who express his thoughts and emotions. However, at the first peace meeting, one of the two negotiating parties attempts to kill the mediator rather than give up the war that has defined his life. The assassination attempt fails because everyone else realizes that endless war is pointless; the assassin is tackled and his shot goes wild, missing the diplomat but raking his interpreters with deadly fire. Suddenly, this great negotiator is not only deprived of his greatest tool—-his “chorus” of interpreters who provided him not only a voice but also different perspectives——but he is now unable to communicate. He uses a sign language that no one on the ship understands. He is isolated, and the two sides have no mediator.
This seemingly insurmountable problem becomes an asset. Both delegations still want peace and want the mediator to resume his work. He cannot do this without a way to communicate. He resolves therefore to teach them his sign language. By learning to speak to him, they’ll be learning to speak to each other, something they have not done for more than a generation of constant warfare. It may take many months before any but the most rudimentary communication between the mediator and the warring parties is possible, but the whole time they will be engaged in the joint project of learning this new skill, working together, and helping the diplomat help them. The fact that it will take months or maybe years is an asset; they’ve been killing each other for years, and the war was never going to end in a day. This first, drawn-out project will be the start of their reconciliation.
The second episode I thought of was “Darmok.” In this case, an alien culture is seeking to negotiate directly with the Federation and with Capt. Picard. While they have technology that allows them to understand the words each is saying, the cultures are so different that they cannot understand what the other means by those words. The humans use words like you do; the other race, the Tamarians, communicate through metaphor. This is such an important part of their culture that they cannot even think in any other way; but without knowing the story to which their words refer, no one else can know what those words mean. It’s as if I said, “Archie Bunker” in response to something you said. If you knew that Archie Bunker was a bigoted character in the 1960s sitcom “All in the Family,” you’d know I was calling you a bigot. But if you didn’t know the story, you’d have no idea what I meant even if the words were comprehensible. So the aliens have a problem; they want to establish communication, but even though they understand the words the other side is using, neither understands the other’s meaning.
The solution, again, is a joint project. The Tamarian captain traps himself and Capt. Picard on a planet with a dangerous beast, which they can defeat only by cooperating. As a culture that communicates entirely through stories, they set up a situation where the two captains must work together, and the story of this cooperation becomes the context of future communication. It will clearly not be a fast or easy process, but a rushed process would not solve the underlying problem: a lack of shared context.
The current political situation in the United States has been called “a civil cold war.” I was a child in the 1960s and vividly remember television references to “the generation gap” even if I was too young to be part of that conflict. In addition to the clash between the military-aged and their elders who started the war and sent them to fight, there was the ongoing struggle of non-whites and of women to be treated as equal human beings. But I don’t have the impression that the divisions between the two sides were ever as stark as they are now: more violent, but not more decisive. For the most part, people got their news from the same sources. They knew what the issues were and what words meant. Some may have thought Martin Luther King Jr. was a dangerous Communist agitator while others saw him as a Christian peacefully crusading for justice, but at least both sides understood what “Communist” and “justice” meant; the gulf between them was largely about facts and values. Today people who fight to protect children throw thousands in cages, sometimes to die alone or to simply disappear by the hundreds if not thousands, because the “children” they care about are unborn; those already born are on their own. Others say that an “unborn child” is like an “unbuilt car:” not a thing at all but only the potential for one. If we can’t even agree what a person is, how can we decide whether something is an unjust crime against people? How can we decide whether a leader’s excesses are the necessary price we pay to protect hundreds of thousands of “tiny unborn persons” or simply crimes with no excuse except the grievance and will-to-power of his supporters?
Some of this confusion is genuine; groups with different views and values, different metaphysical assumptions and so on deriving different ethical injunctions. Some of this confusion is intentionally created. Russian political scientists have openly discussed their theory of “managed democracy” where the government attempts to create a “post-truth” society as a means to keep the people disorganized, divided and therefore more easily controlled. Whether the divide is natural or manufactured, the result is the same: a society divided not only by competing economic theories or moral philosophies, but even by different epistemic worlds. We don’t agree what truth is, how to find it or even whether it exists. In this situation, I think the great negotiator Riva from “Loud as a Whisper” would agree that what we need is to take the time to recreate a shared reality, a shared frame of reference. The impeachment of Donald Trump is one opportunity to begin this process. A thorough investigation, a lengthy and careful trial, would not only discover the events that actually occurred, but would also establish the meaning of those events. And what is at least as important, even though it would be an adversarial situation (prosecution and defense) it would also be a joint project. A well-played sporting event is a joy to its viewers, no matter who wins, so long as both sides agree in the end that the result was fair. Those who can’t agree are known to be “bad sports.” The fact is that just as you can’t have a football game without two teams, you can’t have a trial without two sides; the adversaries need each other.
What is more fundamental, and most important at this time, is that a real trial would have to be one that accepts the principle that truth matters. Did the President of the United States violate the law, violate his oath of office, and use taxpayer money to secure personal advantages for himself at the expense of national security? That is a factual question; it is either true or false. Did Putin’s government actively and covertly attempt to undermine our free elections, and is he working to do this again, as the Senate Intelligence Committee and 17 U.S. intelligence agencies say? Or is the real “interference” the fact that some Ukrainian official wrote an op-ed article, openly using his own name, expressing his opinion that Donald Trump should not give vast swaths of Ukrainian territory to Putin? Does the factual reality, the truth, matter, or is the only thing that matters whether some claim suits the agenda of some politician?
What this nation needs, more than anything, is a return to a belief in objective reality. When I was a kid, we had race riots, anti-war riots, corruption, the Kent State Massacre, the Weathermen, and more. We had real troubles. But we didn’t have a major political party and millions of people denying objective reality, rejecting science as some sort of conspiracy, rejecting medicine, and even arguing that education was bad because people who know stuff tend to disagree with the party. We had plenty of paranoia, and sometimes it turned out the paranoids were right; but we didn’t have people actually in the government denying everything they heard from over a dozen of our own intelligence agencies. In that sort of situation, we need some long-term work to re-establish a shared frame of reference. A serious investigation of Mr. Trump’s guilt would do that. It would presumably allow witnesses on both sides: the side that says Trump was pressuring Ukraine to cook up evidence to smear a political rival, and the side that says that there was something terribly wrong in Ukraine that Mr. Trump was legitimately investigating. This would in turn raise the question of where each side was getting its information and how it was validating its claims, which would raise the more fundamental question of how we can establish “truth” in any functional sense so that communication is possible. By contrast, having a one-week “trial” in the Senate would allow no time for serious debate about how either side decides whether to believe any particular claim, and would reduce everything to a mere power-play that solves nothing.
Maybe there is no “objective truth” that is free from personal interpretation or projection. Even if you say this, you must also agree that there are degrees of distortion. People of differing cultures and values can work together to solve problems. We may disagree about many things, but we can generally distinguish between those with whom we disagree versus those who are seriously crazy. If we’re trying to avoid drowning in a flood, say, and five people are filling sandbags to reinforce the levy while one is killing cats because cats are agents of Satan, we don’t just say, “Well, he’s got alternative facts.” We don’t just say, “Five of us think sandbags are the way to go, so we decide what’s true.” We look at whether killing cats has ever solved any problem, such as the Plague in Medieval Europe, and we find it hasn’t. We look for some rational reason to believe killing cats might help the situation, and can see no causal connection such as we usually see in other areas of life. On the other hand, we do find instances where sandbags have helped, and our past experience suggests that it is the sort of thing that would be useful. We might also consider the dangers of adopting a sandbag strategy versus the dangers of ignoring the levies and just hunting cats. We would decide that the stakes are too high to do nothing, that the course of action most likely to help was to fill sandbags, and would decide that the person who refused and instead ran around killing cats was (at best) a useless loony. The need to work together, coupled with the urgency of the situation, would force us to make judgments about shared reality and how we can judge truth. In calmer times, we might have just left the cat-hater to his superstition; but when the flood waters are rising, the “he’s entitled to his own opinion” that suggests epistemological relativism becomes “we don’t have time for your nonsense anymore.” The past successes of filling sandbags during floods, versus the failure of felinicide, would give us a practical, pragmatic way to sift likely truth from probable falsehood. If our species could never apprehend the world with any accuracy, we’d have died out a long time ago; so we are capable of some truth, and should try to find it.
The first step towards making the divides in our society manageable and possibly even productive is to decide to seek to treat reality first as a matter for investigation rather than power struggles. No doubt struggles will continue even after all the facts are established as well as they can be, and that is fine. But unless we can at least agree what it is we disagree about, there can be nothing but fighting without end. Democracy is, in the end, a way to have internal struggles without destroying our society, by agreeing to shared rules of engagement and conflict resolution. The only alternative is violence.