The illusion that fooled many saved none.
The Devil is at the door of democracy . . . and many in the United States welcome his entry.
Today the American experiment is poised on a precipice. Government is in chaotic flux. Uncertainty is widespread. Strife is pervasive. Demagoguery is unbridled. Hyperbolicity is ubiquitous, and objectivity is impossible. Willful ignorance is normal. And snap-judgments are preferred. The common good is under relentless attack. Gridlock in lawmaking is often the rule. Scapegoating of the worst kind is the Faustian pact offered up to cure unfounded fears. Many deny responsibility, deceive themselves, and take refuge in a collective lie in order to defend the indefensible.
Is there no end to it? – to truth dying daily on the altar of politics, to facts being dismissed regularly on cable television, to science being treated as no more than a scare tactic designed to deny people of their “freedom.” Catchphrases are bandied about so as to intoxicate the mind and bring out the worst in people, this as the mantra “make America Great Again” (MAGA) continues to threaten any real and worthy claim to greatness. Criminal attacks on the Capitol are either ignored or downplayed by one of the two main political parties. Gun-wielding vigilantes are hailed as heroes. Meanwhile, the process of democratic elections is subverted both by reckless propaganda and dangerous state-sanctioned measures enacted to disenfranchise people of color. Not even the judiciary – that custodian of reasoned reflection – is immune from this despotic disease – merely witness the Supreme Court’s recent preference of vigilante justice over constitutional government.
When justice flees the scene, when truth takes flight, when fact is equated with belief, when lawlessness claims legitimacy, when the machinery of government malfunctions, when informed policies succumb to ill-informed practices, when morality is discarded, and when all of this occurs with deference from lawmakers and citizens alike, then does despotism reveal itself and demand its treacherous due. The consequences of such a state of affairs can be ominous. And yet, that is where the United States is today anchored.
“The lie is so big that it reorders the world. And so part of telling the big lie is that you immediately say it’s the other side that tells the big lie. Sadly, but it’s just a matter of record, all of that is in Mein Kampf.”Timothy Snyder (12-23-21)
Facts are false! Truth is opinion! Emotion is reality! Here again, this strikes us as absurd, as unduly provocative. What is absurd and madly provocative, however, are the counterfeit forms of communication that dominate our politics and seize the minds of our citizenry. The idea of communication linked to no-truth, post-truth, or personal truth represents the delegitimization of reason of every kind – from politics to science and beyond. Political falsehood is a collective malady. But unlike other disorders, it requires a bizarre willingness to live the life of a lie; it demands a certain indifference to claims made well beyond the boundaries of reason and truth; and it feeds off a certain toleration for falsehoods masquerading as facts.
Many are unable, or unwilling, to clarify thought. Many are reluctant to discredit meaningless words. Similarly, many shun the task of bringing truth to the table by precise analysis. And why? The answer is that such efforts are contrary to the collective mentality, a knee-jerk fidelity to a carnival barker who, since at least 2016, has been frightfully successful in making falsity believable. Shockingly, many people of purported faith believe in and support his wars against deliberative democracy.
“Even though we cannot answer Pontius Pilate’s question, ‘What is truth?,’ we have to be absolutely certain that we prefer truth to falsity, whatever each may be.”Simone Weil, “The Legitimacy of the Provisional Government” (1943)
A lie, as St. Augustine of Hippo wrote in the fifth century, can take on many dizzying forms (he identified eight such types). In modernity, the taxonomy is ever more complex as the messages we convey move from misrepresentations to falsehoods, from bluffing to deception, from half-truths to careless mistakes, from fraud to fabrication, from commercial deception to political propaganda, from guesses to beliefs, and from rumors to fabrications. Deception, after all, needs a climate in which to pollute the cultural and political environment. All of which is conveyed with perilous regularity on cable stations and social media.
The problem – the loss of value, the lack of any moral code, the demise of objectivity, and the abandonment of reason in the name of preferred “truths,” which are unyieldingly faithful to someone’s side in the ideological wars of the moment. In brief, and as astutely noted by Michiko Kakutani in The Death of Truth:
“For decades now, objectivity – or even the idea that people can aspire toward ascertaining the best available truth – has been falling out of favor.”
In matters of domestic policy, foreign policy, public health policy, economic policy, military policy, and environmental policy, to list but a few areas, the relativism of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiology and the deconstructive moves of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida feed the irrational beast of authoritarian rule. Of course, they are not the cause of society’s fall from reason, but they help give false legitimacy to that descent. They give it staying power.
We live in a time when relativism has embraced narcissism. This maddening mix – something out of the petrifying pages of a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy – wars first with reason and then with everything else in its path, be it the rule of law, the laws of science, or the basic tenets of workable legislative policies. It does so by dismissing reason and devaluing justice while championing the worst kinds of relativism free of even rudimentary notions of pragmatic norms. Along the way, loyalty to the leader (no matter how deranged) is demanded as if there could be some method in such madness. The purpose: “to normalize the abnormal,” as Kakutani casts it.
Though high-sounding values are sometimes invoked, too often they are mouthed in Orwellian Newspeak, in ways that mock their invocation. Such is the soil in which the seeds of totalitarian propaganda take root. They are words devoid of meaning though not consequences. They reveal the gravity of evil that occurs when words are untethered to reality, when truth is relative, when facts are ignored, when conscience is forsaken, and when the resulting house of mirrors appears normal.
“We are in a period of transition, but a transition towards what? No one has the slightest idea.”
Thus wrote Simone Weil in August of 1933.
Our nation is, once again, at a crisis point — maybe even headed to another civil war but of a more modern kind. We have arrived at a point at which attentive people need to pause and assess where we are and where we are heading.
Every nation must check its excesses, combat its injustices, and recommit itself to those values without which it cannot lay any claim to being just. How the present evolves into the future depends, in some real measure, on how we all act at those pinpoints in time that determine destiny. Remember Weil’s words. Bear them in mind as you witness the realities of our unreal times. Ponder what they portend, and then ask yourself: Can we survive the malaise we have created? Can we?1 Recommendation