By Sam Ben-Meir
We are supposed to be living in a post-ideological era, where everyone one is a cynic, not so gullible as to believe in anything anymore, least of all in the quaint notion of objective truth. This rejection of truth as such is among the great disasters to have befallen our relations with each other and between nations. We appear to be beyond truth’s demise – we are now witnessing its unpleasant putrefaction and decay.
There is a notable passage in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where the narrator Marlowe refers to lies as something putrid, “like biting something rotten,” reminding one of death, with its “flavour of mortality.” This is how we have come to treat truth, with the repulsion once reserved for lies, as if we must remove the stench of it from our nostrils as quickly as possible. Just think of Trump’s ‘Big Lie’ – that the 2020 presidential election was rigged – to which tens of millions of Americans still adhere with cultish tenacity; treating even Republicans who refuse to go along (for example, Liz Cheney) as pariahs and traitors who must be excoriated and excommunicated from the Party.
The film Don’t Look Up (2021) makes just this point: The astronomers Randall Mindy (DiCaprio) and Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence) present to the president, the media, and the public, the truth: that a planet-killing comet is heading straight for Earth, that its impact is virtually a mathematical certainty. In Dr. Strangelove (the satirical predecessor to Don’t Look Up) it was the atomic bomb. Today it could just as easily be climate change – to which collectively we are responding with the same mixture of denial, inadequacy, political theater, and so on.
We have grown allergic to truth and have forgotten why we ever valued it at all. Sure, we may concede that it has some instrumental value; but if that is all, if it is only valuable as a means then there is no reason to hold truth as such in esteem; and nothing to recommend truth over lies if the latter better serves to realize our ends.
Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has analyzed with great brilliance and originality the phenomenon whereby we can cynically claim not to believe something and yet still act as though we believe. Don’t Look Up offers the opposite scenario as the emerging paradigm of ideology today, where we do actually believe – for example, we know the comet is coming, we know that the earth is warming, etc. – and yet we act like we don’t believe it, like in the end, somehow, we will be saved, or that the crisis will even turn out to our advantage. This last is just the kind of madness that is bitingly satirized by Dr. Strangelove himself (let us not forget the subtitle of the film, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb). In Don’t Look Up, it is embodied in the CEO of Bash, Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) who sees the approaching mountain from space as a chance to harvest much-needed, precious metals that make our cells phones and laptops possible.
There is a fundamental, and obvious reason for this kind of reaction – namely, that we are not hard-wired to think in terms of cataclysmic catastrophes; in some sense we cannot wrap our minds around the idea, even as we see it approaching with our own eyes. As Žižek recently observed: “We live in times when empty talk about a crisis acts like an excuse for not doing anything. We are like obsessive neurotics… who talk all the time just so that nothing really can change. Was not the recent climate meeting in Glasgow exactly like that? Great speech, yes, we must act, it is 5 minutes to twelve o’clock… then we go home with an easy conscience.”
If we want to grasp how ideology functions in America today, there is no better place to look than at the phenomenon of Trumpism. While he may be only a symptom, Trump himself is the quintessential embodiment of America’s moral and epistemic decline. The paradox is that ideology typically functions as the mechanism by which the psycho-social status quo reproduces itself – but ideology today does not function as it used to: it does not paint an idealized, rosy picture of the world or how it will be. The old ideology – liberal democracy – is slowly dying; and the new ideology of Trumpism (quasi-fascist right-wing populism) is all too ready to dig its grave. As the great French philosopher Alain Badiou has argued, the function of ideology today is essentially to kill hope, and convince you that the world is bad, but any changing it, any revolution from the Left, will only make it worse. In short, ideology is undergoing a shift – not towards emancipation and greater freedom but greater spiritual/mental bondage in the very name of freedom.
By its disavowal of truth and perpetuation of lies for the sake of self-aggrandizement, Trumpism represents an existential threat to this country and to the future of the Republic. It is a cancer that threatens whatever is good and decent in American life. Trumpism is the renunciation and mockery of epistemic values and norms – truth, justification, evidence, and warrant. We must be reminded of what the philosopher William Clifford famously argued; namely, that it is wrong – morally wrong – to believe anything anywhere, at any time, based on insufficient, or against all available evidence. Trumpism is the victory of demagoguery, and the cult of personality, over something so fundamental, necessary, and endangered as thinking.
Do we as a country remember what it means to be able to think, to draw on concepts rather than conspiracies, to use reflection rather than resentment as a way of guiding action, to doubt rather than double down? Ideology functions in an ingenious way – it pulls the wool over its own eyes precisely as it imagines that it is finally seeing through the socially engineered coordinates of reality. The new naïveté hides within the claim of being free of all naïveté – the most deluded are precisely those who claim to be in the know, to have the secret, the key to history, whatever.
We spare ourselves the task of being genuinely critical by parading and applauding ourselves for being cynical. They are in fact the biggest fools in our political landscape – the Marjorie Taylor Greenes, the Q-Anon quacks, the sycophants, and anti-intellectuals, the moral imbeciles and conspiracy-driven morons who still deny anthropogenic climate change, the fools who decry socialism as un-American but cannot enjoy universal healthcare, a meaningful job, a clean environment, and a genuinely liberal education. They claim to be the zealous guardians of freedom – which generally means gun rights and freedom from government interference – and relieve themselves of the responsibility of thinking about what freedom means. All they know is negative freedom – freedom from – but ignore the need for positive freedom, the freedom to… as in the freedom to flourish, to realize oneself in the world; to make and re-make oneself and the world through action.
The current system thrives on giving individuals the sense that they are free from the mental shackles of ideology, that they see lies for what they are, that they have identified the locus of corruption. The reason for this is because as long as we are hyper-fixated on corrupt groups that supposedly hold all the power, then we are not questioning the system itself, we are not asking ourselves which forms of social organization would better serve the people; we are not asking ourselves what can be done to avert an environmental catastrophe of unimaginable proportions, to make universal healthcare a reality, or make gun violence a thing of the past, to educate the disgruntled, dissatisfied, and resentful portion of the population that is poisoning our political discourse with white nationalism, antisemitism, anti-immigration and denunciations of anything that smacks of socialism.
It should come as no surprise that Vladimir Putin’s ultra-nationalist court-philosopher, Alexander Dugin, has argued that “The truth is a question of belief… Post-modernity shows that every so-called truth is a matter of believing. So we believe in what we do, we believe in what we say. And that is the only way to define the truth. So we have our special Russian truth that you need to accept.” And likewise, it is no wonder, in that case, that we find a whole right-wing group within the Republican Party, that welcomed Putin and his “special military operation” in Ukraine. Donald Trump was certainly not alone in his praise of the Russian autocrat.
On February 25, that day after Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the white nationalist American First Political Action Conference met in Orlando, Florida – attended by Republican lawmakers and officials, including Arizona State Senator Wendy Rogers, who announced that she fantasized about hanging her political opponents, to “make an example of these traitors.” Paul Gosar of Arizona and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, both GOP members of the US Congress, also attended and spoke at the event, as did Idaho Lieutenant Governor Janet McGeachin. AFPAC’s leader Nick Fuentes – known for his belief that America should be a “White Christian” nation, and his Holocaust denialism – got the crowd to chant “Putin! Putin!” and compared him favorably to one of his other idols, Adolf Hitler.
What we need most today is the resurrection of truth as something valuable in and of itself. Indeed, this intrinsic worth distinguishes truth from mere facts. Correct data may be of purely instrumental value – for it can be used to serve even a lie without being distorted. But truth can be recalcitrant, unamenable, indifferent to those ends which we would have it serve. And this is at least in part because truth is not merely or primarily the agreement between our idea of an object and the object itself – truth is first and foremost the agreement between the object itself and its own concept – as Hegel would put it, for example, when we speak of a ‘true friend.’ Truth cannot survive enslaved to our designs.
Sam Ben-Meir is a professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy College in New York City.