“All truths – not only the various kinds of rational truth but also factual truth – are opposed to opinion in their mode of asserting validity. Truth carries within itself an element of coercion, and the frequently tyrannical truthtellers may be caused less by a failing of character than by the strain of habitually living under a kind of compulsion.” – Hannah Arendt (Between Past and Future. 1954, p. 243)
During the period immediately before someone leaves one city and moves to another, they seem to liberate themselves and experiment with abandon during that window of freedom, or fearfully adhere to the tired routines of a forgone order. Having witnessed the Eurocrisis unfold over the past two years from a window in Berlin, I recently thought I would have to move elsewhere due to conflict with the archaic hierarchy of a German university. I naturally rebelled and charged heedlessly into the freedom inherent in a contingent situation – refusing to comply with the hierarchy and arbitrary exercise of power so prevalent in the German university. With the comfortable order of my German life on the brink, I attempted to understand my position in German academia, as well as the European position under German hegemony. In so doing, I came to discover that the latter is not a debate between Keynesianism vs. neoliberal austerity, but a particularly virulent condition of wider academic and German culture: the need for truth.
If a traditional German university is a window into German culture as a whole, then the problem of truth becomes immediately apparent. Imagine riding horseback through the patchwork of political entities in medieval Germany, each with an independent lord holding absolute power over a small slice of territory, beholden only to the good grace of a distant and disinterested central authority. While riding through this landscape, the casual observer cannot help but notice that when moving from one lordship to another, the organization of labor and adherence to a unifying conception of community is entirely dictated by the lord. Some territories have jovial lords who interact with their subjects, interested . . .
Read more: The Truth in Germany – from University to Euro
In a recent post, Jeff frames the troubling inflexibility in contemporary American politics in terms of our fallibility as political actors, and the need to recognize it, concluding: “Compromise between two fallible competing opinions is a virtue. Compromise of a perceived truth is a vice.” This leads me back to the thought left open at the close of my last post. There, in the context of my skepticism about the deployment of the trope of “growing pains” in political affairs, I called into question the “epistemic certainty” that such a narrative entails. Fairly often, we hear that such certainty is impossible: this position can be called one form of “political fallibilism.” In this first sense, “political fallibilism” means something like the conscious cultivation of not being too certain about things political, about one’s views of what is, but also about what must be done. That is, one knows that no matter how right one is, one is at least a little bit wrong. And one knows that, however much one knows about what is happening, there is even more that one does not know, and probably still more that one doesn’t know what one does not know.
We can call this first form of political fallibilism, as our sitting President has, self-conscious humility. Jeff has highlighted what is good and worthy in this practice, especially when compared with strident ideological inflexibility. This argument has also been forcefully put forward in a long-standing controversy about the existence and nature of an “Obama Doctrine.” Some commentators approve of this policy, and others don’t; all agree that the Administration is trying, anyway, to strike a balance between “realism” and “idealism,” between Kissingerian realpolitik and George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda.” In other words, the Administration’s policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and more recently (and more tortuously) in Libya, is all about recognizing political fallibilism, even if not always put expressly in those terms. More recently, over the past weeks, with the circus over the debt ceiling . . .
Read more: Two Forms of (Political) Fallibilism
I am convinced that the mess in Washington, which may still lead to another world economic crisis, and the resolution of the latest conflict over the debt ceiling, which probably won’t have any positive impact on the American economy and could make matters worse, is primarily a matter of political culture, not economics. I think specifically that the relationship between truth and politics is the root of the problem. Truth is both necessary and fatal for politics. It must be handled with care and in proper balance, and we are becoming unbalanced, driving the present crisis.
Factual truth is the necessary grounds for a sound politics, and philosophical truth cannot substitute for political debate. Hannah Arendt investigated this in her elegant collection Between Past and Future. I have already reflected on these two sides of the problem in earlier posts. I showed how factual truth, as it provides the ground upon which a sound political life develops, is under attack in the age of environmental know-nothingism and birther controversies, a politics based on what we, at Deliberately Considered, have been calling fictoids. And I expressed deep concern about a new wave of political correctness about the way the magic of the market and highly idiosyncratic interpretations of the constitution have been dogmatically asserted as the (philosophic) truth of real Americanism.
The posts by Gary Alan Fine and Richard Alba confirm my concerns.
Fine is sympathetic to the Tea Party politicians, specifically the fresh crop of Republican representatives in the House, and he reminds us that they are smarter and more honestly motivated than many of their critics maintain. I tentatively accept this. As a group they have a clear point of view and know the world from their viewpoint. They are likely no dumber, or smarter, than our other public figures. But still I see a fundamental problem, which Fine perhaps inadvertently points out when . . .
Read more: Truth and Politics and The Crisis in Washington
When we substitute a philosophic truth for politics, as I observed in yesterday’s post on the new political correctness, both truth and politics are compromised, and in extreme form, totalitarian culture prevails. On the other hand, factual truth is the ground upon which a sound politics is based. As Hannah Arendt underscores, “the politically most relevant truths are factual.” That Trotsky could be air brushed out of the history of the Bolshevik revolution, contrary to the factual truth that he was a key figure, commander of the Red Army, second only to Lenin, is definitive of the totalitarian condition. I know we haven’t gotten to this point, but there are worrying tendencies.
Fact denial seems to be the order of the day, from fictoids of varying degrees of absurdity (Obama the Kenyan post-colonial philosopher and the like), to denial of scientific findings: including evolution, climate change and basic economics. (I can’t get over the fact that it seems to be official Republican Party policy that cutting taxes doesn’t increase deficits.)
The political consequences of denying the truth of facts are linked with the substitution of truth for politics. In order to make the contrast between the two different types of truth and their relationship with politics clear, Arendt reflects upon the beginning of WWI. The causes of the war are open to interpretation. The aggressive intentions of Axis or the Allies can be emphasized, as can the intentional or the unanticipated consequences of political alliances. The state of capitalism and imperialism in crisis may be understood as being central. Yet, when it comes to the border of Belgium, it is factually the case that Germany invaded Belgium and not the other way around. A free politics cannot be based on an imposed interpretation. There must be an openness to opposing views. But a free politics also cannot be based on a factual lie, such as the proposition that Belgium’s invasion of Germany opened WWI.
Arendt observes how Trotsky expressed his fealty to the truth of the Communist Party, in The Origins of . . .
Read more: Time to Face Facts
I think the relationship between truth and politics is one of the key challenges of our times. Get the relationship right and there is a reasonable chance that we will be able to address our problems successfully. Get it wrong and our chances are slim. There are many indications that we are getting it wrong, already observed in passing in DC, as we have discussed the problem of fictoids and as we have been noting the general development of the paranoid style of politics, and the threat of theocracy and ideological thinking. This week we will focus on this issue.
My guide in these matters is Hannah Arendt. She maintains, on the one hand, that there has to be a separation between the pursuit of truth and political power, but on the other hand, politics that are based on factual lies are deeply problematic.
Today’s post will be about the dangers of conflating an interpretive or ideological truth and politics, tomorrow’s post, about the need politics has for factual truth. We will then continue exploring this issue for the rest of the week.
The Conflation of Truth and Politics
Trotsky once declared, when he was still a loyal Bolshevik, Arendt observes in her magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “We can only be right with and by the Party, for history has provided no other way of being in the right.” The correct reading of Marxism, the official party theory, forms the policy; the policy enforced confirms the Party’s truth. Truth and politics are conflated and the result is that neither the independent value of truth nor the independent value of politics exists. This is the true meaning of political correctness.
In Soviet history, this resulted in immense tragedy and suffering. Thus the dynamic of totalitarian horrors when indeed for a broad population Trostky’s way of being right was the only way of being right. Atheism, collective farms, grand industrial steel works, and the like were mandated by the truth of Marxism, and the power of the Party confirmed truth. Because “religion is . . .
Read more: Politically Correct
Martin Plot is a former student, and good friend and colleague. I have learned a great deal from him about the relationship between aesthetics and politics, specifically concerning the temptations and dangers of kitsch. He joins DC with this post offering his critical view of the question of truth in American politics. -Jeff
Many commentators on the Democratic side (including Jeff) are mesmerized by the fact that most in the Tea Party movement, and the Republican Party at large, seem completely delusional, asserting facts that are not so and assuming ideological positions that distort reality almost as a matter of sport. The problem is not, however, one of simple dichotomies between reason and un-reason, and of truth and fiction, the problem resides in the dynamic that is slowly transforming our political regime.
French philosopher Merleau-Ponty explained this in the epilogue to his Adventures of the Dialectic. At two different moments in that text he uses two phrases in an almost indistinguishable way. At one point, he says, in condemning the Soviet dictatorship, that a different regime is needed, one that makes room for opposition and freedom. Later on, almost as if he were saying the same thing—and he was, in the context of his philosophy—he calls for a regime that welcomes opposition and truth. For Merleau-Ponty, truth is opening, or what he calls hyper-reflection and hyper-dialectics, which means opening to both other perspectives and the unfolding of time. Put straightforwardly: hyper-reflection means that even “reason”—or what he calls “the point of view of reflection”—needs to understand that it has its own blind spots. Therefore, it needs to be opened to contestation. Hyper-dialectics, on the other hand, means that whatever is the case today, may not be the case tomorrow. Therefore, present circumstances should never be expected to remain unchallenged.
In this context, the problem with Republican illusions, and lies that are mostly self-delusions, is not simply that they are wrong and untrue. The problem is that they find no opposition, that Democrats are afraid of confronting . . .
Read more: Opposition and Truth