Category Archives: Culture & Civilization

We Were Warned

America’s Founders and Abraham Lincoln warned us of the danger of elevating a demagogue such as Donald Trump to the highest office in the land and the virulent nature of the “angry mob” of sycophants easily manipulated by such demagogues making up the political base of such right-wing populism as we are witnessing today at the heart of the GOP:

In an 1838 address to the members of the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln warned that since American democracy could never be overthrown by a foreign invader, the only enemy to be feared was one within: undisciplined passion. Pointing to several recent examples of frontier lynchings, Lincoln deplored “the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of the Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.” (….) Lincoln warned the young men of his home town that during the generations to come ambitious demagogues would seek to prey upon the passions of the people, unless these were kept under stern control. “Passion has helped us” in rallying the people to the cause of the Revolution, Lincoln acknowledged, “but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy.” He cautioned: “Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.” Only by the control of passion could American democracy keep from degenerating into anarchy or demagogy. When Lincoln declared that America would stand or fall by “the capability of a people to govern themselves,” he meant this in both a political and a psychological sense.

Howe, Daniel Walker. Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (pp. 142-143). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Hay were the authors of The Federalist Papers:

No document relating to the Constitution of the United States has received more attention than The Federalist Papers. The papers were written in 1787–88 for the purpose of persuading the people of the state of New York to elect a convention that would ratify the proposed Constitution of the United States…. The authors of The Federalist—Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay—were practical men, writing under intense pressures, with a strong sense of the campaign strategy they were pursuing. They submerged their individual differences in the collective persona of Publius, who for our purposes may be treated as a single author (Howe 2009, 78-79)…. What Publius fears is that “a torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose,” frustrating all attempts at rational discourse. He himself will engage in rational argument, without impugning the motives of individuals…. However he may feel provoked, Publius will take his stance with Prospero in The Tempest:

“Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part.” (Howe 2009, 85)

“In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason,” and the more numerous the assembly, “the greater is known to be the ascendancy of passion over reason.” Once dominated by passion, an assembly became a “mob.” (Howe 2009, 86) (….) Publius complained that the Anti-federalists’ rhetoric suggested “an intention to mislead the people by alarming their passions, rather than to convince them by arguments addressed to their understandings.” (….) Publius’s line of argument was not unprecedented: the seventeenth-century English classical republican theorist James Harrington had argued that government should be designed to maintain the supremacy of reason over passion, and had blamed passion for the degeneration of monarchy into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, or democracy into anarchy….. The Federalist quoted Jefferson with approval: “An elective despotism was not the government we fought for.” (….) The demagogue is a sinister figure in The Federalist. He lurks ready to exploit the passions and create a faction. He is the natural enemy of the statesman, who has virtue and the common interest at heart. The Constitution, Publius argues, will provide a context within which the statesman can defeat the demagogue. Fittingly, he both begins and ends his series of letters with warnings against demagogues.

Howe, Daniel Walker. Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (pp. 90-95). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

This very generation is witnessing with the rise of Trumpism an insidious form of right-wing populist extremism and “faction” that seeks to gratify “private passion by public means.” This is the exact kind of “faction” (i.e., the elevation of personal bias and opinion into absolutist totalitarian rhetoric) our Founders feared; the collective expression of “some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Factions stem from passions writ large inflamed by ambitious demagogues, as we witnessed during Trump’s many campaign rallies were he regularly incites violence, boasting he could murder someone in the street and the “angry mob” would still vote for him. Hamilton warned that in this form, passions become more dangerous than ever: “a spirit of faction” can lead men “into improprieties and excesses for which they blush in a private capacity.” (Howe 2009, 95)

Donald Trump’s demagoguery directed at his ignorant base is aimed at inciting their passions and is bent upon ripping apart the social fabric of our society and tearing down our democratic institutions. The GOP has mainstreamed extremism, and by so doing has signaled the death of any semblance of classical principled conservatism. In the words of the 18th Century Irish statesman Edmund Burke, “All drapery of life is to be rudely torn off… Their liberty is not liberal. Their [anti-science] is presumptuous ignorance. Their humanity is savage and brutal.” By elevating license over liberty, zealotry and extremism over moderation and reason, the GOP has set America on a course Lincoln warned us would happen when we lost our ability to reasonably govern our own passions and prejudices. Trumpism is an existential threat to the very existence of America’s Constitutional form of government and balanced separation of powers. Time is swiftly running out and if we don’t augment our political discourse with a heavy dose of wisdom we will plunge ourselves over the cliff into another “dark ages” of the interregnum of wisdom bearing witness to the inexorable consequences of confusing license for liberty.

On Letting it Slide

The paradox of believing your own bullshit parallels the paradox of self-deception.  If a deceiver by definition knows that the belief he induces is false, it’s hard to see how he can convince himself that the selfsame belief is true (Hardcastle et. al. 2006, 10) ….  In his book Self Deception Unmasked (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), Alfred Mele argues that self deception should not be understood on the model of interpersonal deception. In interpersonal deception, the deceiver does not believe the claim that he hopes his victim will accept as true. If self deception were to fit the interpersonal model, then the self-deceived person would have to play both roles, both affirming and denying the same belief. Mele takes this consequence to show that the interpersonal model fails. For self deception happens quite frequently, and belief in outright logical contradictions rarely seems involved. (Kimbrough, Scott. On Letting It Slide. In Bullshit and Philosophy (editors Hardcastle, Gary L. and Reisch, George A.). Chicago: Open Court; 2006; p. 10.)

Self deceived individuals “mask the evidence” and engage in a “motivated misinterpretation of evidence and selective evidence gathering.” For reasons of courtesy, strategy, and good evidence, we should criticize the product, which is visible, and not the process, which is not. (Frankfurt, p. 336) Warmed over bullshit is not merely a stale imitation of the original, but a fresh deposit that compounds the methodological faults of the original. (Ibid., p. 12-14.)

[B]ullshit results from the adoption of lame methods of justification, whether intentionally, blamelessly or as a result of self-deception. The function of the term is to emphatically express that a given claim lacks any serious justification, whether or not the speaker realizes it. By calling bullshit, we express our disdain for the speaker’s lack of justification, and indignation for any harm we suffer as a result. (Ibid., p. 16.)

[B]ullshit’s indifference to truth and falsity, its hidden interest in manipulating belief and behavior, and the way one senses, as Frankfurt put it in his book [On Bullshit], that the “bullshitter is trying to get away with something.” The audience had come to see Stewart and his writers skewer current political events, after all, so few would have missed the obvious referents—the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the admission that sources for these claims were, in retrospect, not credible—that made the book so apropos. (Ibid., pp. viii-ix)

I always love that kind of argument. The contrary of a thing isn’t the contrary; oh, dear me, no! It’s the thing itself, but as it truly is. Ask any die-hard what conservatism is; he’ll tell you that it’s true socialism. And the brewers’ trade papers: they’re full of articles about the beauty of true temperance. Ordinary temperance is just gross refusal to drink; but true temperance, true temperance is something much more refined. True temperance is a bottle of claret with each meal and three double whiskies after dinner.

Aldous Huxley, Eyeless in Gaza (London: Chatto and Windus, 1936) pp. 122–23.

Semantic Negligence

Bullshit is not the only sort of deceptive talk. Spurious definitions, such as those quoted above, are another important variety of bad reasoning. (Ibid., p. 151) …. Whereas the liar represents as true something he believes to be false, the bullshitter represents something as true when he neither knows nor cares whether it is true or false (On Bullshit, p. 55)…. [T]his indifference is much of what we find most objectionable about bullshit. The liar has a vested interest in the institution of truth-telling, albeit a parasitical one: he hopes that his falsehoods will be accepted as true. The bullshitter may also hope to be believed, but he himself is not much bothered whether what he says is true, hence his disregard for the truth is of a deeper and potentially more pernicious character. (Ibid., pp. 151-152)

Our outrage is conditioned on our being the objects of a deception. When we know what the bullshitter is up to we can be much more indulgent. As the comic novelist Terry Pratchett observes of two of his characters, “they believed in bullshit and were the type to admire it when it was delivered with panache. There’s a kind of big, outdoor sort of man who’s got no patience at all with prevaricators and fibbers, but will applaud any man who can tell an outrageous whopper with a gleam in his eye.” The gleam in the eye is essential here: it is this complicity between bullshitter and audience which constitutes the “bull session” (On Bullshit, p. 34). Only when it escapes from the bull session and masquerades as regular assertion is bullshit deceptive; however, the insidious nature of this deception degrades the commitment to truth upon which public discourse depends. (….) [The bullshitter’s] indifference as to the truth value of his statements, that is whether they are true or false, a meaning-related or semantic property, may thus be termed semantic negligence. (Ibid., p. 152)

American Demagogue

America has seen her share of demagogues before. But never before has an aspiring demagogue made it to the highest office in the land. The two-party system has effectively, up until now, refused to turn its future over to a demagogue. But with the GOP’s endorsement of Donald Trump this history of keeping dangerous demagogues out of the highest office in the land was overturned with the rise of Trump to the United States presidency. All demagogues share common characteristics. A demagogue eschews reason and facts, making appeals primarily to people’s irrational instincts, prejudices, and fears—frequently scapegoating religious and/or ethnic minorities as the cause of their follower’s economic and/or social problems. Demagogues promise all things to all people without hope or intent on making good on such pledges. Demagogues use “exhibitionism” and circus like “Barnumism” poisoned with violent rhetoric to whip up their followers into an “angry mob,” frequently inciting violent behavior.  Demagogues pose as a professional “man of the people,” and popularize and even encourage anti-intellectualism and distrust of educated men and women as citizens and public servants. Demagogues are the enemies of the free press and free educational systems. In the past demagogues have failed in America because they were unable to reach a level of national appeal that transcended isolated “localism,” but this has changed with the rise of Trump; none before approached nation-wide appeal and potentialities of a Mussolini, a Hitler, or a Stalin. But today America is witnessing the rise of a demagogue into the highest office in the land with a nation-wide appeal. Indeed, we may be witnessing today a proto-fascism that could well bring into a reality a culture of fascist intolerance that is anti-democratic and hostile to American ideals of democracy:

A Kulturkamp may well take place in which rival totalitarianisms clash, violently perhaps, to mobilize consent and enforce political order. Under less dire circumstances, after all, as it was predicted a decade ago, “Christian doctrine, made an adjunct to right-wing and capitalist policies, could provide the necessary self-imposed order that a fascist movement in America would require to maintain control over the country.” And more recently, “a state religion, compulsory in character, authoritarian in tone, ‘traditional’ in outlook,” has been seriously foreseen. “America would be ‘socialized’ not in the name of Marx but of Jesus, not in the name of communism but of Christian republicanism.”

None of these possibilities is inevitable, of course, or even likely. But one thing at any rate seems certain. Whatever shape the creationist cosmos may take at the hands of Protestant fundamentalists, it will break free from its flourishing subculture and hold sway over people and nations only when it is commended in its integrity: not as a mere science among sciences, but as the one religious answer, among uniquely religious answers, to the unfathomable mystery of existence.

Marty, Martin E. and Appleby R. Scott. et. al. Fundamentalisms and Society: Reclaiming the Sciences, the Family, and Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 1993; 2 pp. 62-64. The Fundamentalism Project.