On Radical Skepticism, Friendship, and Truth

W.J. Astore

My dad was a skeptic. He taught me the saying, never believe anything you read, and only half of what you see. Sound advice in this heavily propagandized world of ours.

Despite my dad’s skepticism, I eventually earned a doctorate in history and wrote books in which I pretended to know what was going on in the past. Or, that’s the way my dad would have put it. To my claims he would sometimes say, “Were you there, Charlie?” In other words, if you weren’t a direct witness to the event in question, how can you say what really happened? In fact, even if you did witness it, are you sure of what you saw or heard or sensed? Our senses can be unreliable for all sorts of reasons, such as fatigue, bias, distractions, and so on.

How do we know what we know? Can we ascertain truth? “Truth — what is truth?” Pontius Pilate asked Christ. Small wonder that so many people seek truth through religion when there’s so little of it available in non-religious realms. (Of course, religion operates on faith, not on truth per se, though those who believe see faith as a way to truth, perhaps as a form of truth.)

I think the most “true” thing in my life, the thing I doubt least of all, is the love of my closest friends and family. Once again, my dad had something to say here. He believed that you’d be lucky to have a handful of friends in your life who truly cared about you, who’d be there for you no matter what, who’d take a bullet for you, as my dad put it. And, let’s face it: not many Facebook “friends” fit my dad’s definition here!

So, I suppose my dad taught me to question received “truths” and also to ponder what real friendship is all about. The latter shouldn’t be easy; it’s not a trivial matter of clicking “friend” on a social media site. Friends are there for you, my dad explained, they are sympathetic, they are sacrificial, because in some sense they love you.

Which leads me back to Christ, friend of humanity, who was sympathetic to our human plight in all its zaniness and sordidness and who nevertheless sacrificed himself for us. How many of us think of Christ as the Ultimate Friend? For that’s what he was and is, if you believe in him.

I was raised Catholic by my dad (my mom didn’t go to church, but that’s another story). My dad, the radical skeptic, had faith in the Church and in Christ. I have no faith in the Church, sadly, but I do have faith in Christ and his teachings, which to me show us a path toward the truth in the form of a better life, a more compassionate and generous one.

Today, we find ourselves immersed in a matrix of lies, or “alternative truths” if you prefer. My dad had, I think, the way out. He taught me not to believe too easily, not to be glib, even as he showed me through his own example what living a life of value was about.

Be radically skeptical, yes. But believe in what is right; seek truth and recognize its demands on you. (Truth is rarely easy, especially truth about oneself.) And then manifest it as best you can.

It’s a tall order, dad, and I still have a long way to go. We all do, for it’s really all about the quest, not the destination. Seek and ye shall find are words that comfort me. Surely I heard them first standing next to my dad in church, listening to the gospel, the good news, the teachings of Christ.

But no man, no church, no entity has a monopoly on truth. It can be found in other religions and outside of religion. It can be found within and without. All I know — or think I know — is that it won’t be easy. But what of value is?

My dad as a young man, looking, always looking

In Praise of Whistleblowers

Julian Assange. The “true” Afghan War was not for us to see, but the truth will out, at least in this case, as total defeat in war is hard to hide

W.J. Astore

Edward Snowden. Daniel Hale. Chelsea Manning. Julian Assange. And of course Daniel Ellsberg. These and other whistleblowers courageously spoke out to reveal the lies the government feeds us to keep us pacified and compliant.

What do whistleblowers do? Some might say they speak truth to power. But power already knows the truth, indeed the powerful manufacture the truth, and they like their near-monopoly on truth and its creation and distribution.

What whistleblowers really do is speak truth to the powerless. They speak truth to us, and their version of the truth is one that reveals the manipulation and mendacity of the powerful. It exposes power to the light, revealing the rot, the greed, the lies, and for this act of defiance and of patriotism, the whistleblower must be punished.

Snowden was forced into exile in Russia. Hale was recently imprisoned for up to four years. Manning spent years in prison under humiliating conditions that included solitary confinement. Assange is still in prison, and the U.S. government still seeks to extradite him and punish him under an espionage act that shouldn’t even apply to a citizen of another country (not to mention a journalist who should be protected in a democracy that allegedly reveres the freedom of the press).

It’s not that the American people can’t handle the truth, to cite the words of Colonel Jessup as played by Jack Nicholson. It’s that the American people can handle the truth, that the truth would empower us while weakening the powers-that-be and their various plots and privileges. That’s why the truth is such a scarce commodity in Washington, D.C. It must be guarded while being massaged and manipulated before its fed to the masses as formless, often truthless, pabulum.

America’s punishment of principled whistleblowers is yet another sign of the death of democracy in America. If President Biden wanted to do something important, something inspiring, something meaningful, he’d permit Snowden to return with no charges, he’d pardon Hale, and he’d stop pursuing the extradition of Assange. But Biden will do none of these. Whistleblowers must be persecuted, must be punished, not because they’ve done something wrong, but because they’ve done something right, something that embarrasses the powerful. And that simply cannot be tolerated.

After all, if Americans in positions to know start speaking the truth to their fellow Americans, where will that end? We might see a resurgence of accountability, of justice, even of democracy in America. And we can’t have that.

Addendum: For a terrific book on whistleblowing that will make you angry indeed, check out Tom Mueller’s “Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing In An Age of Fraud” (New York, Riverhead Books, 2019).

The Republican Party of the Perpetual Now

Not much need for History in Trump’s America

W.J. Astore

As a historian, I have an allegiance to the past, and to getting the facts right about that past. Because, if you can’t get the facts right, if you can’t do research with rigor and honesty, you can’t call yourself an historian.

So you won’t be surprised to learn that Trump’s version of the Republican Party is anathema to me. The party has no respect for the past. And getting facts right? What does that matter in a time of “alternative facts,” in an administration that lies routinely and about everything?

Trump’s version of the Republican Party is a party of the perpetual now, in which the meaning of “now” is remarkably labile and open to interpretation (and re-interpretation). In a strange way, Trump’s party is the party of post-modernism, where all facts are contingent, where everything is open to being constructed and deconstructed. Truth itself is a social construct in the Trumpian universe, determined by Trump himself and the various ass-kissers he’s assembled around him.

Not only is the Trumpian Party without a meaningful past: it’s also without a mediated future. According to the official platform of the Republican Party adopted last night, the party and its platform is what Trump says it is, world without end, Amen.

Here’s how it was put in a press release:

“RESOLVED, That the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda” and “The 2020 Republican National Convention will adjourn without adopting a new platform until the 2024 Republican National Convention.”

The platform is Trump and Trump is the platform. The future is whatever Trump wills it to be, in his usual egotistical and often nonsensical way.

Facts don’t matter. The (true) past doesn’t matter. America as will and idea, as defined by Trump’s mind and driven by Trump’s desires.

As many have said, this isn’t a party, it’s a cult. A cult of unreflective minds, a cult unconcerned with critical thinking about the past, a cult that believes the future is best defined by one man.

One thing is certain: You won’t need any historians in Trump’s world. Just a lot of stenographers and sycophants willing to accept reality as Trump presents it, a perpetual now that’s constantly constructed and deconstructed before your eyes, the only constant being the celebration of Trump.

Remember: you can’t believe your lying eyes, but you can believe in Trump. If that’s not the end of history, I don’t know what is.

Donald Trump and His Global War on Truth

Trump-Locker-Room-Cartoon-58b8fdb25f9b58af5cc8205d
Too many lies

W.J. Astore

Donald Trump is waging a global war on truth.  He is the anti-truth president.  From Trump steaks to his “university” to his support of the “birther” movement against Barack Obama, he’s perpetually selling lies.  Now he’s selling lies on a global stage.  By making everything potentially a lie, e.g. climate change as a “Chinese hoax,” Trump is doing his best to demolish facts, paving the way to do whatever he pleases.

Trump believes he can have his own facts and tweet them too.  We can blame Trump for being the vain, venal, and vile man that he is, but America elected him (yes, not all Americans, but enough to carry the Electoral College).  He’s a con man, a crafty one, and the media can’t look away, nor can the rest of us.

How did we end up with Trump and his assault on truth?  I’d like to focus on two reasons.  The first was noted by Bernie Sanders back in September of 1998.  Then a congressman, Sanders noted how the Democratic Party under the Clinton regime, with its corporate-friendly pursuit of “free” trade and feel-good globalization, was screwing the working classes.  Sanders then issued the following warning (in an editorial in The Nation entitled, “Globalization’s the Issue”):

Right-wing populists like Pat Buchanan are lining up to ride to power on public fear and anger about globalization.  If corporate globalism continues to result in deteriorating conditions of life for ordinary Americans, we’re likely to see a rise of scapegoating demagogy and virulent right-wing economic nationalism.

Scapegoating demagogy?  Trump and Mexicans, Trump and Muslims, Trump and immigrants in general.  Right-wing economic nationalism?  Trump and “making America great again” through massive military spending and weapons exports combined with tax cuts that are sold as helping the poor even as they reward the rich.

By betraying the working classes and becoming yet another business party, the Clinton Democrats helped pave the way for right-wing populists and unprincipled opportunists like Trump.  Indeed, by running the corporate-friendly Hillary Clinton against Trump in 2016, the Democratic Party turned its back on their own populist, Bernie Sanders, who genuinely was (and is) concerned with helping the working classes.

The second reason for Trump’s assault on truth has been all around us for decades, but it was exacerbated by the 9/11 attacks.  Think back to the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate.  If there’s one thing we learned from these debacles, it’s how much our government lies to us.  Now fast-forward to 9/11.  In the aftermath of those attacks, the Bush/Cheney administration did its level best to deflect all responsibility, and especially their responsibility, for the attack.  Al Qaeda inflicted a major defeat on the U.S., yet no one took the blame.  The buck stopped nowhere.  Instead, Bush/Cheney drove a climate of fear and revenge, attacking Afghanistan followed by a disastrous war in Iraq.

By turning so quickly to war on a massive scale, Bush/Cheney knew that most Americans would rally around the flag.  They further cynically used the moment to pass the PATRIOT Act to extend their power and that of the government.  Choosing not to rally Americans, they instead made them fearful, obedient, and passive (Go to Disney!  Go shopping!).

The leaders and the government that so badly let us down on 9/11 worked to convince us that only those same leaders and government could keep us safe after 9/11.  Bush/Cheney and Crew, in essence, told a Big Lie that led, I think directly, to a Big Liar being elected as president in 2016.  But I don’t just blame Bush/Cheney.  The Obama administration refused to call these men to account, e.g. no prosecution for torture and other war crimes.  Furthermore, Obama expanded the legacy of illegal surveillance, excessive secrecy, and incessant warfare that has characterized the manic opportunism of a government that refuses accountability, whether for the defeat of 9/11 or for the ongoing disasters of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, et al.

Long in the making, Trump’s victory march of 2016 quickened its pace in the aftermath of 9/11 and all the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-anything-I-don’t-like, hysteria stirred up by Bush/Cheney and Crew.  But its impetus goes back further: to the lies and deceptions revealed by the Pentagon Papers, to the sordid lies and cover-ups of Watergate, and to the abandonment of the working classes by Democrats, the latter of which provided fertile soil for right-wing populist demagogy to take root and grow.

Whether led by democrats or republicans, our government has been telling us so many lies for so long that it’s not surprising we now have a president whose chief skill is as a con man and a liar.  His global war on truth is the culmination of too much governmental lying and too little attention paid to the real needs of ordinary Americans.

Trump and the Rewriting of History

orwell-nineteen-eighty-four-large-cover

W.J. Astore

George Orwell’s 1984 is filled with wisdom.  Perhaps my favorite saying from that book is Orwell’s statement about history and its importance. He said, he who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.

If you have the power, in the present, to rewrite history, to redefine the past, enshrining your version of history as fact while consigning all the bits you don’t like to oblivion (“down the memory hole”), you can define people’s sense of reality as well as what they believe is possible. You can limit what they see, their horizons.  You can limit how and what they think.  You can, in a major way, control the future.  Add the control of language to the restriction and re-definition of history and you have a powerful means to dominate meaning, discourse, and politics in society.

Donald Trump and Company are brazen in their rewriting of history, notes Rebecca Gordon in her latest post at TomDispatch.com.  They make no apologies and take no prisoners.  They simply claim lies to be true, repeating them over and over until some people come to accept them as truth.  The examples she cites include the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd (“Bigly!”), the reality of global warming (“Chinese lie!”), and why Trump fired FBI Director James Comey (“He hurt Hillary!”).

Another example of the big lie is the whole concept of “Trumpcare,” the recent revision to Obamacare as passed by the House.  They sell this as a health care plan instead of what it really is: a health coverage denial plan and tax cut for the rich.

As the Congressional Budget Office reported:

The GOP health care bill would insure 23 million fewer people than current law after a decade, while potentially impacting many with pre-existing conditions, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

The bill would spend $1.1 trillion less on health care and use the savings primarily to finance large tax cuts for high-income earners and medical companies. Overall, it would reduce deficits by $119 billion over ten years.

I know one thing: that’s not a health care plan.

george-orwell
George Orwell

Returning to language, a big theme of Orwell’s 1984 is how language will be simplified, or dumbed down, stripping away meaning and subtlety and substituting unreflective obedience and coarseness in their place.  Think here about how Donald Trump speaks. Orwellian expressions like “doubleplusgood” are not foreign to a man who speaks in glittering generalities to sell his ideas and hyperbolic superlatives to extol his own virtues.

In his introduction today to Rebecca Gordon’s article, Tom Engelhardt quotes Trump’s recent graduation speech at the Coast Guard Academy, during which Trump did what he does best — sell himself with lies (“alternative facts!”):

I’ve accomplished a tremendous amount in a very short time as president. Jobs pouring back into our country… We’ve saved the Second Amendment, expanded service for our veterans… I’ve loosened up the strangling environmental chains wrapped around our country and our economy, chains so tight that you couldn’t do anything — that jobs were going down… We’ve begun plans and preparations for the border wall, which is going along very, very well. We’re working on major tax cuts for all… And we’re also getting closer and closer, day by day, to great healthcare for our citizens.

One thing Trump does know is how to manipulate language — in short, to lie — to his own benefit.

In this age of Trump, a sense of history has rarely been more important. We have to fight for the richness, the complexity, as well as the accuracy of our history and our language. The very existence of the American republic depends on it.

Democracy is Impossible in Post-Truth America

truthiness
Post-truth is Anti-democracy (Getty Images at The Week)

W.J. Astore

“Post-truth” was the big word for 2016, according to Oxford Dictionaries. And why not? Donald Trump won the presidency with lies and half-truths and spin, so the word does indeed resonate.

But America has been edging toward post-truth for a long time — even at its founding, skeptics might say.  The “City on a Hill,” forged on an image of Christian rectitude, witnessed the genocide of Native Americans (“savages”) and the embrace of slavery based on specious theories of racial inferiority, even as the Bible taught the love of neighbor and the equality of all before God.

More recently, America has witnessed the triumph of post-truth in the aftermath of 9/11. Recall how the attacks on 9/11 were falsely connected to Iraq, which was then connected to false claims of Iraq having active programs of WMD development, including “yellowcake” uranium as well as chemical and biological agents spread by aerial drones.  All proven false, but all used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Indeed, many Americans continue to believe that Saddam Hussein planned the 9/11 attacks (in league with Osama Bin Laden). Recall here the rare honesty of Britain’s Downing Street Memo of 2002, which asserted that the “facts” being offered by the Bush/Cheney administration were being manufactured (“fixed”) around a pre-determined policy of invasion.  The result?  Iraq was yet another un-democratic war, based in part on lies. Indeed, it’s no accident that Congress hasn’t issued a formal declaration of war since 1941.  (Another war based on lies: the Vietnam War, e.g. recall the false reports of attacks at Tonkin Gulf.)

Another example of post-truth was the Surge of 2007, advertised as a “win” for America even as General David Petraeus warned that progress in Iraq was both “fragile” and “reversible.”  So it has proved, for here we are, a decade later, trying to recapture territory (such as Mosul) that had allegedly been pacified under Petraeus.

America’s post-truth crew has now been captured by a shameless con man, the Tweeter-in-chief, Donald Trump.  Recall a saying often attributed to P.T. Barnum that “a sucker is born every minute.” Trump knows this — and will exploit it to the hilt, if the American people let him.

As January 20th approaches, Americans need to prepare themselves for a post-truth presidency.  As my dad used to say to me: “Don’t believe anything that you read and only half of what you see.”  Wise words for the days and years to come, but they come with a major problem.  Some sense of truth, of consensus based on acknowledged facts and a rigorous and fair-minded process of reasoning, is needed for a democracy to function.

Without integrity, which is based on facts and honesty and a willingness to reason together in good will and with honorable intentions, democracy simply cannot function. Put simply, a post-truth America is an anti-democratic America.  For without truth, without some consensus based on facts, all you have is lies, misinformation, and spin: a foundation of sand upon which nothing of worth can be built.

The USA No Longer Sees Freedom and Liberty as Core Strengths

liberty-tree1
Why are we so intent on chopping it down?

W.J. Astore

In the crusade against Communism, otherwise known as the Cold War, the U.S. saw “freedom” as its core strength.  Our liberties were contrasted with the repression of our chief rival, the USSR.  We drew strength from the idea that our system of government, which empowered people whose individualism was guided by ethics based on shared values, would ultimately prevail over godless centralism and state-enforced conformity.  An important sign of this was our belief in citizen-soldiers rather than warriors, and a military controlled by democratically-elected civilians rather than by dictators and strong men.

Of course, U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War could be amoral or immoral, and ethics were often shunted aside in the name of Realpolitik.  Even so, morality was nevertheless treated as important, and so too were ethics.  They weren’t dismissed out of hand.

Fast forward to today.  We no longer see “freedom” as a core U.S. strength.  Instead, too many of us see freedom as a weakness.  In the name of defeating radical Islamic terrorism, we’ve become more repressive, even within the USA itself.  Obedience and conformity are embraced instead of individualism and liberty.  In place of citizen-soldiers, professional warriors are now celebrated and the military is given the lion’s share of federal resources without debate.  Trump, a CEO rather than a statesman, exacerbates this trend as he surrounds himself with generals while promising to obliterate enemies and to revive torture.

In short, we’ve increasingly come to see a core national strength (liberty, individualism, openness to others) as a weakness.  Thus, America’s new crusades no longer have the ethical underpinnings (however fragile they often proved) of the Cold War.  Yes, the Cold War was often unethical, but as Tom Engelhardt notes at TomDispatch.com today, the dirty work was largely covert, i.e. we were in some sense embarrassed by it.  Contrast this to today, where the new ethos is that America needs to go hard, to embrace the dark side, to torture and kill, all done more or less openly and proudly.

Along with this open and proud embrace of the dark side, America has come increasingly to reject science.  During the Cold War, science and democracy advanced together.  Indeed, the superior record of American science vis-à-vis that of the Soviet Union was considered proof of the strength and value of democracy.  Today, that is no longer the case in America.  Science is increasingly questioned; evidence is dismissed as if it’s irrelevant.  “Inconvenient truths” are no longer recognized as inconvenient — they’re simply rejected as untrue.  Consider the astonishing fact that we have a president-elect who’s suggested climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China.

Yesterday, I saw the following comment online, a comment that summed up the new American ethos: “Evidence and facts are for losers.”  After all, President-elect Trump promised America we’d win again.  Let’s not let facts get in the way of “victory.”

That’s what a close-minded crusader says.  That the truth doesn’t matter.  All that matters is belief and faith.  Obey or suffer the consequences.

Where liberty is eroded and scientific evidence is denied, you don’t have democracy.  You have something meaner.  And dumber.  Something like autocracy, kleptocracy, idiocracy.  And tyranny.