Reflections of Truth and Truthfulness
When I told a friend what I intended to call this essay, he said, partly to provoke me, that we do not need essays on epistemology or conceptual analysis to understand Trump’s rise to power. We need to understand the powerful economic interests he served, he explained. To that I answer, yes and no. We do, of course, need to understand the economic and other social forces that have taken us to this extraordinary moment in the history of post-war democratic politics. We need also the insights of social theory, history, social psychology and clinical psychology. But in a time when it is commonplace to speak of post-truth, post-fact and post-reason, we need also to understand what concepts of reason and truth come to when they are applied in politics. We need to understand what kind of discourse nourishes democratic practice and what degrades it. To do that we must distinguish legitimate forms of persuasion from their many imposters.
Before Trump became the Republican nominee, Brexit forced many among the left-liberal intelligentsia to ask why they had not realised that resentment, anger and even hatred could go as deep as they did in parts of the electorate. They didn’t see Brexit coming and were unsettled by the suspicion that the reasons they didn’t see it coming played some part in why it did. They thought they were progressive guardians of the language of politics, ‘speaking truth to power’ because they knew the truths that needed to be spoken. In a fine essay in the New York Review of Books Zadie Smith wrote:
The night before I left for Northern Ireland, I had dinner with old friends, North London intellectuals, in fact exactly the kind of people the Labour MP Andy Burnham made symbolic reference to when he claimed that the Labour Party had lost ground to UKIP because it was ‘too much Hampstead and not enough Hull’, although of course, in reality, we were all long ago priced out of Hampstead by the bankers and the Russian oligarchs. We were considering Brexit. Probably every dinner table in North London was doing the same. But it turned out we couldn’t have been considering it very well because not one of us, not for a moment, believed it could possibly happen. It was so obviously wrong, and we were so obviously right—how could it?
After settling this question, we all moved on to bemoaning the strange tendency of the younger lefty generation to censor or silence speech or opinions they consider in some way wrong: no-platforming, safe spaces, and the rest of it. We were all right about that, too. But then, from the corner, on a sofa, the cleverest among us, who was at that moment feeding a new baby, waited till we’d all stopped bloviating and added: ‘Well, they got that habit from us. We always wanted to be seen to be right. To be on the right side of an issue. More so even than doing anything. Being right was always the most important thing.’
The focus of Smith’s criticism of herself and her friends is not only on the fact that they were mistaken when they smugly thought they were right—always right. More importantly, she laments that they did not try to see things as the Brexiteers did—again, not because that would have enabled them to predict how things would turn out, or because it might have made them argue differently than they did in favour of remaining in the European Union (EU). Her lament expresses the painful moral realisation that despite—or perhaps because of—their high-mindedness their condescension made them unjust. She is not sentimental about this. To the contrary. Later she says:
I do believe that, putting aside the true ideological believers on the right, and the high-minded leftists who object to the EU as a tool of global capitalism, the majority of those who voted Leave did so out of anger and hurt and disappointment, helped along by years of calculated political and press manipulation of certain low feelings and base instincts. As painful as it is to write it, when Google records large numbers of Britons Googling ‘What is the EU?’ in the hours after the vote, it becomes very difficult to deny that a significant proportion of our people were shamefully negligent in their democratic duty on June 23.
However people vote, we have to listen to them, but ignorance at the ballot box shouldn’t be celebrated or disingenuously defended. And beyond ignorance, it is simply wrong to take a serious action without seriously considering its consequences for others, in this case, for entire sovereign nations to the north and west of you, never mind the rest of Europe. But I don’t find the people who voted Leave to be in any way exceptional in having low motives.
By the time she had published her essay, Donald Trump had become a US presidential nominee. He had taken mendacity in most of its forms to a level that made the idea that truth matters to political discourse and therefore that the intelligentsia—on the right and the left—had a responsibility to speak ‘truth to power’ seem like a quixotic ideal.
Who belongs to the intelligentsia? For the purposes of this essay, it is people who are in different ways responsible for the integrity of political discourse—journalists, writers, academics, lawyers, school teachers and, of course, politicians. I have not included public intellectuals because I think there are no obligations intrinsic to the idea of an intellectual. The concept is irredeemably mediocre. Intellectuals are people who write and speak in the public domain about culture and politics and who have a particular interest in ideas. Many of them have served political causes, showing little independence of mind, either because they never had it or because they sacrificed it to the cause. Both types might have much to answer for, but reflection on the concept of an intellectual will not reveal what it is. ‘My God. You call yourself an intellectual!’ You would have to be tone deaf to say that to a brilliant but mendacious apologist for a murderous political cause, even if he were also a world-famous philosopher.
‘You call yourself a teacher’, however, can be a serious rebuke that invites the person against whom it is directed to reflect on what it means to teach. Ditto if you substitute doctor, lawyer, nurse and, yes, politician. Although the discussion of the responsibility of intellectuals has a long and respected history, it has mostly been sterile when it rested on the assumption that reflection on the concept of an intellectual can deliver important insights into our obligations to truth and truthfulness. When it wasn’t trivial, it was because that assumption had been discarded and truth became the central focus. Even in politics, truth is precious …because there too it is … a need of the soul, I shall argue. Primo Levi complained of how the fascists had polluted the political life of Italy with their lies. ‘Polluted’ is his word. Only something precious can be polluted.
I suspect something similar is true of writers, though that claim is, I know, more controversial. To someone who can’t string a good sentence together you might say, ‘You call yourself a writer!’ But if they refuse to engage in public controversy, even to defend other writers who are persecuted, the rebuke has as little substance as when it is made against people who are called (but who hardly ever call themselves) intellectuals. If someone accuses a writer of being shallow about virtually every ethical dimension of human life—I mean about every dimension that can raise the question, ‘How should one live?’—the writer should not reply that ethical judgements, especially moral ones, have no legitimate bearing on what he does. And if the person accusing him goes on to say that his work is morally disgusting to boot, whatever the writer says in his defence it should not be that only a philistine could say that kind of thing about a novel, poem or play. Still less should he say, in a tone that invites you to hear a capital ‘A’, that it is not a judgement one should make about art. A literary work is written either by someone who understands deeply the ethical dimensions of the human condition, or by someone who does not. Either way it cannot help but show. One cannot write about anything that matters in human life while avoiding its many ethical dimensions, but that does not mean that writers should write intending to say something about those ethical dimensions. When they do, they almost always become didactic, even moralistic.
It’s different for academics. I take them as an example because they belong to the ‘elites’ that many Trump supporters and Brexiteers disdain. They do not, merely by virtue of being academics, have a responsibility to enter public discussion even if they are political theorists, philosophers or lawyers. They may, to be sure, believe they have public, even political, responsibilities because the government pays their salaries or because they belong to an institution that encourages some of them to take on such responsibilities. Or they may believe they have such responsibilities by virtue of being a citizen. These may all be good reasons, but none of them arises from reflection of what it means to be an academic.
All academics, however, have a responsibility to protect the integrity of their disciplines and to ensure that the institutions—typically universities—that are home to those disciplines enable them to do it. In the practice of their disciplines they must reveal to their students why truth and truthfulness matter, and nourish the conditions under which they remain visible to them. When I say they must, I mean this is an ethical necessity intrinsic to an understanding of what it is to be a teacher. It applies as much to teachers in schools as it does to those in universities.
That means that they must educate their students in the virtues of character in whose absence nothing counts as a serious concern for truth; to the extent that such virtues can be taught. Lawyers—to turn now to an institution that even some of Trump’s supporters hoped would withstand his presidency—do not have a responsibility to be public intellectuals, but they have a responsibility to truth because it is essential to justice. Many people—many lawyers—appear to believe that only someone who is naive could think that the law has much to do with justice. I won’t comment on that taken as a description of much of legal practice, but taken as a point about the nature of law, it is false. People who want justice done in a court room are not naive about the nature of law, even when they are naive about what they are likely to get. In her essay ‘Human Personality’, Simone Weil writes:
Just as a vagrant accused of stealing carrots stands before a comfortably seated judge who keeps up an elegant flow of witticisms while the accused is unable to stammer a word, so truth stands before an intelligence which is concerned with the elegant manipulation of opinions.
That is a horrific example of what can happen in court because the humanity of the vagrant is barely visible to the judge’s moral faculties. Weil often quoted the words of a Spanish song, ‘if you want to become invisible, there is nothing easier. Just become poor.’ But we also find it horrific because it is a corruption of law, a corruption whose seriousness we could not describe without reference to justice and its need of truth. That is evident when the trial is by jury. Many have observed that ordinary men and women, some of them silly or even banal in the ordinary course of their lives, become sober and serious when they realise fully the moral responsibility they cannot escape as members of a jury. Helen Garner writes well about this. It matters supremely to jurors to know the truth of the allegations against the accused. Even in an adversarial system such as ours, they must trust that barristers respect their need for it, respect their need to come to truth in the right way rather than because they have been seduced by the eloquence of a brilliant and charismatic barrister, even if that barrister rightly believes that he is speaking the truth. Their need for truth is something precious. Its betrayal by a cynical barrister who knows that he can seduce them by manipulating their psychological and emotional vulnerabilities violates something precious.
People who are sceptical about the regard that lawyers have for truth are likely to be more so about politicians. They might believe that truth and politics can never get along. Many people seem to believe that because politicians have so comprehensively trashed any conception of the integrity or the dignity of politics, it is quixotic to add them to my list of those who are responsible for the integrity of public discourse. ‘Truth in politics’, ‘morality and politics’, ‘the dignity of politics’ sound to them like oxymorons. In much of what I have written and in a public lecture series I have curated for 17 years, I have attempted to identify the conceptual and ethical features of a conversational space in which it is possible to speak of the dignity of politics without that sounding like an oxymoron, which entailed retrieving from oxymoron status a conception of the serious place of moral considerations in politics, domestic and international.
True, when we suggest those expressions might be oxymorons we do it with a smile, but it is an awkward one, I think. We are not sure whether we believe that politics can have dignity, but it doesn’t now and won’t in the foreseeable future, or whether the very concept of dignity has, at best, only an attenuated application to politics. It is hard for us to speak seriously of politics as a vocation rather than as a profession or career; of political honour (when was the last time a politician resigned for the sake of honour rather than brazening things out?), or even of government rather than of running a country as though it were an enterprise. This part of our language doesn’t have much life in it. We seldom question why being successful in business should be thought to be a qualification for government, or even for the post of treasurer in a government. When ways of speaking begin to die, the realisation that it is happening usually sneaks up on us. By the time we notice it is often too late to do much about it. Think of how managerial newspeak colonised universities. If we can’t speak with authority and authenticity of the dignity of politics, then morality, often of a moralistic, high-minded kind, tends to usurp ethical concern, or we are tempted first to disillusionment and then to cynicism.
The phrase ‘the Age of Trump’ will strike some readers as mere hyperbole that, if taken seriously would undermine sober enquiry into the conditions of Trump’s rise to power. He did not come from nowhere, they will point out: Brexit, a general rise in right-wing populism, the Tea Party and the financial interests that back it and associated think tanks either preceded or were contemporaneous with his rise to power. They facilitated it and, in the case of some business interests, may even have engineered it. Other people, while fully acknowledging this, believe that he took the degradation of political conduct and discourse to a new level. Even now, more than two years since he announced he would run for president and nine months since he was elected, many people rub their eyes in disbelief when they see him on television or read his tweets.
Never in my lifetime—I’m 71—has a candidate for the highest political office in a Western democracy shown such contempt for the conventions upon which democratic accountability depends. Never has a politician seeking office insulted and threatened so many of his fellow citizens. Trump is praised for giving voice to the justifiable anger of a ‘forgotten’ white working class. The degree to which he did so has been exaggerated, but insofar as he did, he also encouraged in them contempt—even hatred, often racist hatred—for many of their fellow citizens and foreigners, and reckless inattention to the kind of man he is and what he promised he would do.
In a tone of knowing worldliness, of common sense and political realism, some commentators now describe him as an uncon-ventional politician who ran an unconventional campaign. Is it merely unconventional to threaten to ban Muslim immigration? To lament the fact that you cannot any more just take hecklers at a rally aside and ‘beat the shit out of them’? To express pleasure at the prospect of torturing suspected terrorists in ways ‘far worse’ than waterboarding them? To lead crowds in the chant ‘lock her up’, when the person they are referring to is your opponent in the race for the presidency? To display such contempt for women that most prominent Republicans disowned him? That was during his campaign. At the time, a CNN reporter said that his opponents did not take him seriously but they did take him literally, whereas his supporters took him seriously but not literally. It was repeated many times to reassure even some of his supporters that he would be different in office because he would be reined in by the Republicans in the House and the Senate and by trusted institutions. He hasn’t changed in office.
To call Trump merely a radically unconventional politician is like calling the mafia unconventional debt collectors; it is to fail to understand how important are the conventions, often unspoken, that enable decency in politics. Trump has poured a can of excrement over those conventions.
That would be enough to justify the incredulity I described earlier, which in turn justifies speaking of politics before and after Trump, or politics in the Age of Trump. But there is more. It’s worse and of a different kind. Trump lied so often, so fast and so shamelessly that fact checkers were unable to keep up with him. When they did, he said they were pedalling fake news. Against clearly established facts—independent video of crowds at his inauguration ceremony, for example—he, his accomplices and minders asserted ‘alternative facts’. We should not think of this as merely an extreme version of the mendacity to which we have become accustomed in politics, whether it takes the form of lies or of spin. That kind of mendacity is usually in the service of private or party interests. It has not been an intentional and venomous assault on part of the electorate with a view to undermining the conditions that make possible a shared political space constituted by a common understanding of what is credible and, as importantly, of what makes it credible. In linking reiterated accusations of fake news to elites, Trump and his accomplices intended to undermine the conceptual and epistemic space that makes conversations between citizens possible. Katharine Murphy puts it well in an essay in Meanjin:
Practising journalism in a post-fact environment is, in a way, more of an existential threat for journalism than technological change. Our whole function in a democracy does rest on an assumption that facts have broad-based currency, that there are shared principles around which societies can coalesce and public interest can be served. To discover that the power of agreed facts is on the wane is, professionally, like losing your moorings. Intuiting the seeming inevitability of the post-fact, post-truth world is a bit like enduring a head-on collision with the certainty of your own redundancy: what if, structurally, societally, journalism can no longer speak truth to power because no-one cares?
If you deride the serious press as peddling fake news, if you deride expertise that proves what justifiably can count as knowledge, if you deride the kind of training that often makes for good journalists, that distinguishes them from hacks, if you undermine in journalists the willingness—or even the desire—to be answerable to correction, then you undermine the very concept of fact insofar as it is relevant to public political discourse. Facts are not physical objects lying on the ground waiting for interested people to pick them up. Nor are they metaphysical objects for the mind to collide with. In public and political discourse they are what we take to be have been established, based largely on our trust in the truthfulness and therefore the authority of experts.
It is hardly possible to exaggerate the seriousness of this. The most powerful democracy on earth, the nation that considers itself and is often considered by others to be the leader of ‘the free world’, has a president who attacks unrelentingly the conversational space that can exist only because it is based on a common understanding; the space in which citizens can confidently ask one another what facts support their opinions. If they can’t ask that of one another, if they can’t agree on when something counts as having been established as fact, then the value of democracy is diminished. The concept of democratic citizenship will be devoid of much of its substance because the idea of consenting to an electoral defeat will have lost ethical force. In his book Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance tells us that Trump’s core supporters believe, for example, that Obama is not an American, that he was ‘born in some far-flung corner of the world’, that he has ties to Islamic extremism, that Obamacare legislation requires microchip implantation in new healthcare patients, that Obama wanted to implement martial law in order to secure power for a third term, and even more crazy things. To believe such things is like believing that Elvis is alive and working for Trump.
People who believe things of that kind suffer from something far more serious than ignorance or an incapacity to reason because emotion has overtaken them. Knowledge and understanding—and therefore, all serious radical critique, be it from the left or the right—depend upon the exercise of sound judgement about what counts as evidence, about when authorities can be relied upon, when they are justifiably discredited, and so on. We call people in whom such a capacity is radically absent cranks. That’s not just a term of abuse. It marks a specific kind of cognitive failure, the kind captured in the revealing phrase ‘being out of touch with reality’. Lack of judgement of that kind makes those who are bereft of it vulnerable to gullibility, superstition and, perhaps, insanity. When it shows in expressions of doubt rather than assertions, we are often provided with that parody of open-mindedness that is the butt of the joke, ‘He had a mind so open that his brain fell through’. Climate change scepticism is like that. Often, such sceptics pride themselves on their common sense, but on the matters that betray them as cranks they stand apart, often conspiratorially, from the commonness that both conditions and expresses our sense of a common world.
Does Trump understand what he is doing? I would love to know the answer. Writing in the New Yorker, Zeynep Tufekci urges us to realise that ‘he is not a bumbling celebrity; he is a politician deeply in touch with his own, polarized base’. She is right, but that quite astonishing symbiosis—their psychological need of each other—is consistent with him, and they, being in cloud-cuckoo land. It does not show that Trump is a shrewd political operator, clear-headed about his ends and the means to realise them. Of course others such as his senior adviser Steve Bannon might be like that, not to mention other much more powerful forces keen to see that he secures what they want, even though they might be fearful of what they have unleashed in taking him to the White House. To understand what he is doing he would have to understand what it means to hold the office he does, but his behaviour shouts that he doesn’t. I find it distasteful that distinguished psychiatrists have publically offered diagnoses of what kind of mental illness he suffers, but there is no doubt that he is psychologically unstable.
Perhaps most revealing was his press conference with Angela Merkel. He sat bent over, the expression on his face part frown, part sulk and part invitation to his audience to share his evident dislike of her and of the need to go through with the press conference. His hands were between his legs, together at the wrist, opening and shutting. She sat, glum, but also with an expression of incredulity, as though she thought: Gott im Himmel. It’s true. This is what he really is like. Someone behind the camera asked whether they would shake hands. With an embarrassed smile Merkel turned to Trump and asked, ‘Mr President. Are we going to have a handshake?’ He said not a word, but his body language spoke his disdain loudly. Hearing it she sat back and turned her face away from him, her lips compressed in anger and humiliation.
And the Republican Party? Do its members, who have said little to criticise him and those who have defended him, know what they are doing? Or are they sleep walkers? I suspect it is more the latter than the former. America is a country that reveres patriotism, Republicans more stridently than others, though what we hear is usually jingoism, the counterfeit of patriotism. Even so and making full allowances for the power of self-deception, is it possible that they can seriously deny, in wakeful sobriety, the harm they have done to the civic democratic life of the republic? It’s hard to imagine greater treachery in peacetime to the nation they all profess to love. That’s why I find it hard to believe that they know what they are doing. I imagine their shock, their pained incredulity about what they had done if they were to wake up.
I think it was Michael Gove who first said that the British people had had enough of experts. I don’t remember if Trump used the word ‘expert’ in any of his speeches, but when he attacked elites, he had them in mind. It is an interesting, for some a delicious, irony that Brexit and Trump have shocked into sobriety, into defending facts and truth, a section of the intelligentsia that played a part over many years in under-mining robust conceptions of fact and truth. For years many writers and other intellectuals at writers festivals and festivals of ideas, and academics in some departments of the humanities, have repeated the truisms that facts are context dependent, that memory is sometimes fatally unreliable, that if you ask seven people their opinion of someone you are liable get seven different perspectives on that person. Thus they imply that facts could not establish the value of one narrative over another, that there is no point in asking whether a person who figures in a historical or biographical narrative really was as he or she is portrayed, because there is no such thing as who a person really is. Seldom did anyone say such things explicitly, but scepticism almost saturated their tone when they spoke of these matters.
The scepticism was never serious, just as moral scepticism is never serious—I mean scepticism of the kind that says nothing seriously answers to the idea that some things are morally terrible to do. Who can doubt that it matters that we have news media that we can trust to report facts? That does not mean they cannot stand for a political position. Guardian readers in England often read the Telegraph because they trusted its news reporting, sometimes more than the Guardian’s when it began to question the distinction between news reporting and the expression of opinion.
Who can doubt that in so many areas of life we strive, or should strive, to see things as they are rather than as they appear from possibly distorting perspectives? Or that when seven people disagree about what someone was like, their disagreement does not mean that it is naive to ask, ‘What was really he like?’ even if it is sometimes naive to think we will get an answer. If there is no sense to the question, was so and so really like that because there is no such thing as what someone is really like, we would stop reading history or biography. It is therefore a minor consolation that Trump, who completed the destruction of the conversational space in which all the citizens of America can discuss matters of fact, restored to the elites he despised an unequivocal belief in facts and in truth.
That may, however, have unintended consequences. There were good reasons why the often maligned departments of cultural studies in universities questioned certain paradigms of knowledge and truth, especially if they were pressed into serving scientistic conceptions of social and political enquiry, or of ethical reflection more generally. The desire to defend substantial conceptions of fact, truth and expertise should not relieve us of the need to think about the limits of their application. It is especially important to realise, or to remember that at a time when the humanities are languishing in most universities, partly because of justified respect for the achievements of science, enthusiasm for its practical benefits and because for years cultural warriors on the right have attacked humanities as breeding pools for ‘cultural relativists’, as though, like mosquitos, they spread diseases that sapped from people energy they needed to chuck their moral weight about. I’m sure they had little idea of what a coherent non-relativism about ethical matters would look like.
One must always, of course, attend to the facts, think carefully about what makes them relevant to a conclusion, think slowly and carefully to try to ensure that one thought follows logically from another. In any adequate education system this should begin at primary school and by the middle years of secondary schooling should be sufficient to prevent anyone from even suspecting that someone who is non-college educated should, prima facie, be a candidate for inclusion in ‘a basket of deplorables’ unfit to cast a competent vote. Which is not to say that ours is such a system. Here and in the United States schools have failed to teach the elementary aspects of good argument. When Hillary Clinton apologised for using the derogatory phrase I quoted, no-one believed she meant it. She regretted the possible political consequences and probably the embarrassment of that clanger, but those to whom she referred knew that she believed what she said and that was what mattered to them. Yes, many of them believed things that placed them in cloud cuckoo land. To be there, however, is seldom the consequence of bad schooling.
When Gove said the British public were sick of experts, he did it partly to try to discredit exposure of lies that Brexiteers had told about the benefits of leaving the EU. It soon became clear, however, that more than expertise was at issue. One such element was the distinction between expertise and wisdom as it applies in ethical matters. The highly educated might provide expertise on important matters, but they have no monopoly on wisdom. I’m sure many people who warmed to Gove’s attack on experts thought the contrary: that the educated elites exchanged wisdom and common sense for political correctness, yet had the effrontery to act as though the opinions of those who lacked a university education were not worth serious consideration. I believe they were right about the arrogance and right to believe that a university education does not bring wisdom or even sober political and ethical judgement. If I have understood her, that is implicit in Zadie Smith’s remarks that I quoted earlier.
The qualities of mind that I argue should be part of good primary and secondary schooling are fundamental to thinking well about human life but they are far from all that is needed. To think well we must also develop an ear for tone, for what rings false, for what is sentimental or has yielded to pathos and so on. The development of such a sensibility is not optional for anyone who hopes to think seriously about the human condition—about anything that really matters ethically—but it is not easily taught. That is a serious matter because without it we are easy prey for demagogues, especially in turbulent times such as we now live in. Most often it is not because emotion defeated reason that we affirm beliefs that we regret when we become morally clear-sighted. It is because we were bereft of a sensibility, educated and disciplined, that would have enabled us to detect the sometimes crude, sometimes sophisticated, sentimentality, pathos and so on in the propaganda that seduced us.
Who can claim with justified confidence in the clamour of great upheavals that they will retain an ear for what rings false? ‘Hold onto your reason,’ someone will say, and we must because, as everyone knows, emotion can cast it aside. We then ignore or deny facts and arguments that are emotionally committed. That is usually what people have in mind when they tell us to ‘stop being so emotional’. But there is a danger that threatens our capacity, indeed our desire, to see things as they are rather than as propaganda, for example, presents them to us, against which we seldom protect ourselves or even notice the need to do so. That is because we often oppose reason to emotion in a way that makes us insensible to, or uneducated in, a form of understanding in which thought and feeling and form and content are inseparable. It’s sometimes called an understanding of the heart.
Art and narrative, including narrative in history, are the forms that most often deliver it. Sentimentality, a disposition to pathos, a failure to register what rings true, a tin ear for irony—these undermine understanding more often and surely than when emotion usurps reason, if reason is conceived as separate from and unfriendly to emotion, fearful that it will be swept away by it. Earlier I listed writers among those responsible for the integrity of our political discourse. They discharge the most important of their responsibilities when they nourish in their readers a sensibility that enables them to think properly about the human condition because the cognitive capacities of heart and mind have rightly become inseparable.
Although racism was on the rise in populist movements in Europe well before Brexit and Trump’s run for the presidency, did anyone fully understand how deep the poisons of jingoism and racism had gone into parts of the British and American electorates until it showed in Brexit and in Trump’s campaign? Who anticipated that within days of the Brexit vote, British nationalists would assault blacks, Muslims and even foreigners from the European Union, sometimes people they had known for years, telling them openly and without shame to leave the country. The defeats of Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands were a relief, but the fear is that it will be temporary. Perhaps a lot will depend on Germany. To think that we should now, justifiably, place our hopes for a humane democracy there.
Racism is strong in many parts of the world. So too are other forces of dehumanisation—often what Ghassan Hage has called paranoid forms of nationalism—evident in responses to asylum seekers and immigrants desperately fleeing conditions of misery, fear and degradation. Many people appear now to fear that perhaps within ten years or so national and international politics will be dominated by crises that are caused and inflamed by the shameful gap between the rich and the poor nations, aggravated by the effects of climate change.
Deepening political instability in many regions of the world may cause even more people to be uprooted than were uprooted last century. Strong nations are likely to protect themselves in ways that become increasingly brutal, testing the relevance and the authority of the parts of international law that deal with war crimes and crimes against humanity, just when those crimes are likely to become more frequent and terrible. In the 1960s in Australia, the United States and Europe, we assumed that war was over for ‘us’ although it would continue for the peoples of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America. No-one can seriously believe that now.
We are therefore under an urgent imperative to think again and radically—in the sense of going to the roots—about how to respond morally, legally and politically to the fact that mere luck ensures that some people enjoy the fruits of the earth while others suffer the miseries of the damned. As, increasingly and perhaps brutally, Western nations are forced to acknowledge the extent to which their troubles are the result of their colonial injustices, that question will become unavoidable.
Nations will continue, justifiably, to control immigration and refugee intakes, but when that question is faced, we will no longer be able to speak in the tone that we now do about our ‘right to determine who comes here’ or about how people should live when they do come here. We will have to rethink what justifies a claim to such a right. Perhaps we will set talk of rights in the background, and speak instead of our obligations to need. Talk of rights is often too abstract. To protest that someone’s rights have been violated assumes a more concrete description of the wrong they have suffered. We now rely so much on an appeal to rights when we protest an injustice, that we stumble when we try to express more adequately the terribleness of the wrong that people suffer when their human rights are violated. Often it is better to speak instead of obligations we have to the needs of individuals, groups or sometimes entire peoples. The needs of refugees are obvious. Often so are the needs of immigrants who seek a life that respects the dignity of their humanity. To what needs can we appeal when we try to justify the conditions we impose on immigrants and refugees when we welcome them to live among us, welcome them into
In her book The Need for Roots, Simone Weil writes:
We owe a cornfield respect, not because of itself, but because it is food for human beings.
In the same way we owe respect to a collectivity—country, family or any other—not for itself but because it is food for a certain number of human souls.
One sack of corn can always be substituted by another sack of corn. The food that a collectivity supplies for the souls of those who form part of it has no equivalent in the entire universe.
It is characteristic of Weil that she could, in only a few words, capture what love of country can be, why it can justifiably be called love rather than only an attachment, which could be destructive or even morally terrible. We can be attached to something we hate and hate our attachment to it. Love, though, asks to celebrate the beloved and its existence in the world. It has many counterfeits—infatuation, neediness, narcissism and, in the case of country, jingoism. Indeed, the necessity to distinguish love from its counterfeits is an imperative intrinsic to love itself, just as the need to distinguish courage from recklessness, humility from servility, grief from maudlin self-indulgence are imperatives intrinsic to those ways of responding to the world. We seldom love truthfully and truly, but can we imagine someone who does not care whether they have mistaken infatuation for sexual love, neediness for love of children or jingoism for love of country. We all care, I am sure, but usually we assume that we love truly. No-one wants to live without love or without being able to love. Love’s counterfeits are not forms of love. That is one reason why truth is a need of the soul. Love needs truth to be love.
That, however, does not settle what attitude we should take to the ways people respond to their need to have roots. (Not all people have that need. Trees, George Steiner remarked, have roots, people have legs.) Confronted with aggressive nationalism, many people say they never again want to hear talk of love of country. Even if there can be such love uncorrupted by jingoism, they believe it to be so rare and its distortions so many that it should be discouraged. In so many places people are murdered in the name of nationhood. In so many places good people defend the indefensible because of their national or religious allegiances.
True to the same allegiances, others fall silent when they should protest. It is therefore understandable that people are sceptical of the prospects for, and moral worth of, the nation-state insofar as it expresses a dominant national identity. Far preferable and our best hope against the evils of nationalism, they believe, is a state of all its citizens, home to a plurality of cultures but whose identity no one of them forms.
It is easy to understand why people feel this way and almost irresistible to agree. Nonetheless, the need people have for roots will not disappear anytime soon, nor will allegiance to nation-states as the protectors of those roots. In modern times only the nation-state, commonly in alliance with other states, has the military power to secure such protection against foreign occupation that would deny a people the right to speak their language, to honour their national institutions, fully to remember their past and to pass on its treasure to future generations. Protection is sought not just for the institutions of citizenship—the rule of law, democracy and so on, as these might be relatively interchangeable between different countries—but for those institutions that are infused by the spirit of a particular people, by their history, their language, their art, their poetry, their song.
So, although I understand the fear that people express when they deny that there is a political value deeper than citizenship, I do not believe it is a reason to deny that there can be such a thing as love of country and that it can be lucid and fine. Citizenship governed by the rule of law is a great good, but it runs deeper when nourished by love of country. Love of country is different from the duties and rights that define citizenship and deeper than the gratitude and pride that citizenship can inspire—deeper because love is deeper than pride, and deeper too than gratitude when gratitude is not itself transformed by love. And love of country focuses on and is nourished by aspects of the country in which even the most dutiful citizens need have no interest—the countryside, the light, the literature and the song, for example.
It is, therefore, a mistake to disparage the very idea of love of country, as some who have been understandably shell-shocked by ugly consequences of belligerent nationalism do. They helped pave the way for the victories of the Brexiteers and Trump, who could not otherwise have exploited British and American jingoism as successfully as they did. Instead we should seek to find ways to block the many paths that love finds to jingoism and to open paths on which jingoism can find the path to love. Simone Weil pointed out in The Need for Roots that compassionate love of what is good and fragile rather than only grand, noble and heroic, and lucid humbled acknowledgement of the wrongs we have committed or become caught up in are prerequisites for both. Having rejected her earlier pacifism, she wrote in 1941 that when it is properly focused, such love of country can provide the energy needed for soldiers to fight as fiercely as German soldiers who were inspired by dreams of heroic grandeur that had been celebrated in European history since the time of the Roman Empire. The task she says is to turn away from the spirit of that celebration and to turn towards ways of thinking that would inspire soldiers to fight well and bravely while, at the same time, reducing the likelihood that if justice were done they would stand before an international criminal court, accused of war crimes or worse.
Among the many forms that jingoism can take, the most dangerous is confusion of love of country with unconditional loyalty to the state. Love of country will often require criticism of the state and sometimes active, even armed, resistance to it. Germans who fought against Nazi Germany are the clearest example of this. They rightly thought of themselves as fighting to restore what could be reclaimed as worthy of the truthful love of a decent person.
Jingoism is related to love of country as a counterfeit coin is to real money. No-one wants counterfeit money or counterfeit anything else. For jingoists to see themselves as I’ve been suggesting they are, requires a radical change—not incremental steps towards a different perspective, certainly not incremental steps in argument, but a gestalt switch. Pride rather than love is their dominate attitude towards country. Pride, but never shame. In part, they have been prevented, as I suggested earlier, from such a switch prevented from doing so, because of the cultural condescension of an intelligentsia that disdained all talk of love of country.
John Howard is an interesting example. He was a passionate cultural warrior. Quadrant, he said, was his favourite magazine. He spoke with admiration of its campaign against ‘black armband’ history and against what he took to be merely symbolic gestures towards reconciliation, gestures that expressed little more than ‘moral vanity’. He said that he could not apologise for past wrongs to Australia’s Aboriginal peoples because he was not party to those wrongs and because love of country prevented him from being ashamed of them. Only the toxic effects of the culture wars could have prevented an intelligent man from seeing that desire to love your country proudly but always to refuse to be ashamed of what it does or had done could only be jingoism.
Because it fastens onto something that is inevitably a mixture of good and evil, clear-sighted love of country is always a mixture of gratitude, pain, joy, sorrow, pride, shame and sometimes guilt. In the circumstances that make them appropriate, each can be a form of love of country, just as severe criticism of one’s country can be a form of loyalty to it and the desire to love without shame and without lies a form of concern for its welfare, a form of concern for the ‘national interest’ rather than a regrettable constraint on it. Howard appeared to believe that an assessment of the balance between the good and evil in a nation’s history should make one either proud or ashamed, as though one could not be both—as though the object of pride or shame was always the country, indivisibly, as it were. The country, indivisibly, is the object of love, but pride and shame are for this or that aspect of its history.
Trump’s presidency has coarsened politics in other countries. It showed in Teresa May’s tone in the British elections. Fortunately, it all but did her in. We have not yet been so lucky. In Australia, Peter Dutton has secured more power and has been emboldened to give greater expression to his thuggish disposition than he would otherwise have done. The coarsening shows in the tone in which Turnbull talks about citizenship and the need for tougher security measures against terrorist attacks. ‘We will do whatever it takes to save the lives of Australians,’ he said, echoing Teresa May, who said it while campaigning to be re-elected as prime minister of Britain. She said explicitly that she will jettison laws on human rights that get in her way. She has form on that.
Australian citizenship is one of the great political goods of this earth, despite the justifiable shame that many Australians feel about what successive governments have done or failed to do. But the tone in which it is now discussed degrades the values that define it, especially when terrorism is at issue. Every time there is a terrorist attack we say that we won’t change our values, and every time there is an attack we do, by eroding their expression in law and civil liberties. At first this looks strange, because everyone knows that the danger of being killed in a terrorist attack is vanishingly small—less than dying from a lighting strike or falling off a chair, it has been said. It might look, therefore, that we are cowards.
Ever since we first discussed whether we should torture suspected terrorists if we had good reason to believe that doing so would save many lives, I’ve argued that it looks that way. Terrorists threaten only our lives: It is we who threaten our values by the means we use to protect ourselves. I no longer think that we lack courage, individually or in communities, though members of ISIS believe that we do and despise us for it. Instead, we suffer from the radical attenuation of any serious concept of civic, as opposed to national or local communal, pride. That should come as no surprise. I remarked earlier on how readily we speak of running the country as though it were an enterprise. Politicians so often seem to imply that the most important political concept is that of a taxpayer rather than of citizen. For years they have encouraged illiteracy in the language of civic virtue.
Teresa May said that if you are a citizen of the world, then you are a citizen of nowhere. She was scorned for saying it, though taken literally what she said is plainly true. But she didn’t intend it only to be taken literally. She spoke it combatively against people she believed wished to be citizens of the world, or at least citizens of Europe because love of country was weak or entirely absent in them. Turnbull’s aggressive tone expressed a similar thought, I suspect, although I don’t know how much it was his rather than the thought of those on the right of his party to whom he panders.
It is a mistake, I have suggested, for those who loathe jingoism and fear its consequences for refugees and victims of military adventures to disparage love of country. It is also a mistake to believe that we cannot give the fullest political expression to the acknowledgement that all the people of the earth share a common humanity—with all the ethical resonances that ‘humanity’ carries in such an expression—unless we are citizens of the world.
There are paths more prosaic. In Crimes against Humanity Geoffrey Robertson wrote that last century saw the acceptance of the idea of international law and that this century would see its increased enforcement. The first part of that is true. It is now impossible for nations to profess that the pursuit of their national interests should be entirely unconstrained by international law. The task for the nations of the world is to ensure that the second part of Robertson’s statement becomes true. Love of country that is lucid acknowledges that other people love their countries and that the food for their souls that they find in their country, ‘has no equivalent in the entire universe’. It also acknowledges that the profession of common humanity will be empty, just as the idea of a community of nations will be empty, unless we respond to some of the wrongs suffered by peoples in other nations.
Admittedly, the sense in which such a community exists is still rather thin and so, therefore, is the sense in which derogation of some international obligations as defined in international law is an offence against human kind. It is not meaningless, however. The ethical core of the concept of crimes against humanity, I suggest, is that they are crimes against the political constituency of human-kind—crimes that must be the concern of all human beings in their capacity as political beings. For that reason, a sense of common humanity will never be fully realised unless all nations render themselves answerable to at least those institutions of international law that deal with genocide, crimes against humanity and the laws of war.
That would not constrain the right of states to pursue their national interests. Rather, it would express an ethically enlarged concept of the national interest to include the understanding that citizens who genuinely love their country want to do so truthfully and without the shame that would follow if it were to act in ways that would justly bring it before an international criminal court. That does not mean we should wish to become citizens of the world ruled by a world government. It is best that we remain citizens of particular nations that are part of a community of nations and who find in that community the political realisation that all the peoples of the earth share a common humanity. That is one of the ways that jingoism can find its way to love.
Like many people, I believe the concept of conversation is important to democratic politics, though unlike some who have elaborated on it (Richard Rorty, for example), I believe that truth and truthfulness are intrinsic to it. The conversations I am thinking of are not just about how to negotiate conflicting interests or to achieve mutually agreed ends. They are about what our ends should be, about the values that should enliven our shared political life. About such things there is little relevant expertise. Conversation about them is not in the realm of knowledge if one considers knowledge to be what goes into text books, encyclopaedias, and that sometimes earns Nobel prizes. Political conversation about the values by which we should live is in the realm of opinion, grounded by a reasonably educated understanding of what has been established as knowledge. In the realm of knowledge there are quiz kids and child prodigies, but there are no ethical whiz-kids for the same reason that there are no ethical experts.
That does not mean that anything goes in the realm of opinion. Earlier, I elaborated on the nature of the concepts that define the kind of sensibility that is necessary if we are to think well about ethical matters, broadly conceived as matters that compel us to ask how we should live. Our opinions are disciplined by the ways we are answerable to the application of such concepts, and their application—the conditions of them having application—depends, among other things, on what I have elsewhere dubbed ‘calls to seriousness’. Trump has destroyed the conversational space in which Americans can seriously disagree about their opinions and politics. The deepest reason why this is so, is not that he has divided them into camps fiercely opposed in their beliefs, though he has.
Nor is it because he has inflamed passion to throw reason into a ditch, though he has. It is because he has eroded the conditions under which people can call their fellow citizens to seriousness: Come now. How can you say that? Do you take me for a fool? Think! Why do you rush so quickly from one thought to another? Don’t you care about the facts? Why are you so complacent about your vulnerability to propaganda, to charismatic speakers, to sentimentality and pathos? Why are you so often tone deaf when so and so is speaking? Have you no ear for what rings false?
Calls to seriousness of that kind cannot be made in text messages or in tweets or on Facebook. When they become necessary, people say, ‘It’s time to talk’. They mean talk face to face. Of course, conversations are mostly not like that, but the possibility that they might become so is intrinsic to what makes them conversations in the loaded sense of that word, when people speak about ‘real’ conversation. To call someone to seriousness in a conversation is to call them to an individuating responsiveness to what they have made of themselves, to speak out of a life they have lived as their own and no-one else’s. After such a call, the participants in a conversation cannot know where it will take them.
That is partly why talk is what makes us human. People say language does that. It does, but the philosopher Rush Rhees was right to argue that language is essentially—or perhaps one should say archetypically—something spoken. Think how often we speak of someone having found, or needing to find, his or her voice. In her essay ‘On Humanity in Dark Times’, published in her book Men in Dark Times, Hannah Arendt writes:
[The] world is not humane just because it is made by human beings, and it does not become so just because the human voice sounds in it, but only when it has become the object of human discourse. However much we are affected by things of the world, however deeply they may stir and stimulate us, they become human for us only when we can discuss them with our fellows. Whatever cannot become the object of discourse—the truly sublime, the truly horrible or the uncanny—may find a human voice through which to sound into the world, but it is not exactly human. We humanise what is going on in the world in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.
Talk is also inseparable from our creatureliness. The eyes, Wittgenstein said, are the best picture of the soul. That’s why democratic politics expresses the idea that citizens could at least in principle call each other to seriousness about matters that are of grave concern to them, even if only in imagined conversations. Such imagined conversations are not real, partly because in them calls to seriousness can only be imagined. Even so, to imagine what one would ask a fellow citizen and what he or she would reply, helps one to resist the thoughtless—or well informed—attribution to one’s fellow citizens of what one believes they would think. It helps us to resist falling into the arrogance that Zadie Smith described. That is why television chat shows and talk-back radio are so popular.
When the prime minister addresses the nation on the television, he or she is intended to look as though they are talking to us face to face. It’s a look—I mean it’s the kind of look—that presupposes that one could ask, How can you say that? You who declared that it was time to bring intelligence back into politics. Do you take me for a fool? One can say those words, yet one can’t make them a call to seriousness. One may as well have sworn at the television, but that emphasises rather than undercuts the relations of conceptual dependence between serious conversation, the ever-present possibility of calls to seriousness and the need to be face to face when one makes them.
Some years ago I rented a cottage near a country town in order to finish a book. It was just before the election in which John Howard beat Kim Beazley, partly because he lied about the Tampa incident and partly because he appealed shamelessly to racism in the electorate. Often I had dinner in a pub in town where I discussed Howard’s asylum seeker policy with locals. At the time, children had been behind razor wire for five years. They had seen adults try to kill themselves or sew their lips together. I argued that the policy was unjust and cruel. But we need border protection. We need to stop queue jumpers. If we’re lenient in a handful of cases who knows where that will end. My arguments were as familiar to them as their counterarguments were to me. We were getting nowhere, so I tried something different. ‘I know’, I said, ‘that the issue is complex, that no-one can live where they please in the world. But do we need to be so cruel to children?’
‘But they are queue jumpers. We have to be tough,’ came the reply. ‘I know,’ I said. ‘But let’s focus on one thing only: do we need to be so cruel to children?’ The man I was talking to shifted from one foot to the other. He avoided my eyes. I repeated the question, in a tone that stopped him moving. He looked directly at me. ‘Do we need to be so cruel?’ I asked again. He stood still and kept looking at me, perhaps for more than 30 seconds. That may not sound a long time, but it feels that way when someone looks you directly in the eyes. He agreed, ‘We don’t have to be so cruel.’ ‘And in the case of the adults?’ I asked. ‘Do we need to be so cruel to them?’ Again, the same first-line responses. Again he shifted from one foot to another. Again he stood still, looked hard at me before he agreed, ‘We shouldn’t be so cruel’, not even to the adults. It happened a few times with other people at the pub and is an example of what I mean by a call to seriousness.
I emphasised the physical aspects of my conversation with the person in the country pub to illustrate how being embodied in the way we are is intrinsic to the encounter I described. Were it not so, there would be no such thing as a call to seriousness and, I believe, no such thing as we celebrate when we say, ‘At last. Someone really to talk to.’ How different our politics would be if more people who see the world from one political perspective could say that in conversation with others who see it from a very different, even morally alien, perspective. •
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