If We Can’t Agree On Basis
Of Truth, Nation In Trouble
In any war, as the saying goes, truth is the first casualty. That’s become the case, unfortunately, in the war of the sexes as well. It’s turned into a war because the abiding injustice women have suffered from men
resists resolution through institutions mostly created and
sustained by men.
What counts as evidence, or sincerity, or credibility may have more to do than we’d like to admit with male rather than female dispositions.
Part of the problem is the hidden nature of sexual abuse. The evidence of such assault is intensely private and intimate, with objective evidence for or against allegations perhaps harder to find than in other areas.
Christine Blasey Ford and Brett
Kavanaugh, on the face of it, cannot both be telling the truth. She alleged he attacked her when they were teenagers, and he denied it. The U.S. Senate was faced with sorting this out, and the senators failed to do so.
The tragedy of the Kavanaugh-Ford controversy is the substitution by
our leaders (and by many of us) of subjective truth for objective truth,
of belief for fact.
Objective truth is factual experience that can be witnessed, recorded,
publicly acknowledged, and shared
by as many people as care to seek it out.
Subjective truth is a
personally held belief about something, a private opinion, conviction, or interpretation that can be asserted as if
it were true, but which
remains unproven, and is not necessarily true.
There are many reasons why anyone might believe one or the other of them, and many of us have little hesitation in taking sides. But, in the absence of confirming evidence about the alleged sexual assault, these
reasons are largely subjective.
They reflect beliefs people hold about what happened, or didn’t happen, not knowledge whether anything actually happened, or not.
That’s why an investigation into allegations against Brett Kavanaugh (as with anyone) was of the utmost importance. A factual determination, according to the rules of evidence, means establishing objective, publicly ascertainable facts about the event in question.
It also means that, in the interest of due process and the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” allegations must have reasonable plausibility to deserve investigation. It’s true that Senate confirmation hearings are not legal proceedings, but a factual basis for allegations remains essential.
The Republicans initially dismissed Ford’s allegation as implausible, and only reluctantly admitted her testimony under great pressure, and even more reluctantly agreed to a limited FBI investigation. They are paying a heavy price for their political and cultural blindness about gender
issues for dismissing what appeared to be a credible woman making plausible allegations.
The Democrats rightly insisted upon a factual investigation as the only way to settle the matter, initially gaining the upper hand in the debate.
But many Democrats have continued to insist that the word of an accuser is sufficient to disqualify people from office, or worse. That too is a dismissal of factual
evidence as a standard of truth.
Was the FBI investigation thorough? It’s doubtful that it was. Deborah Ramirez, another alleged victim, claims the FBI didn’t even follow through on witnesses she named for them.
Culturally, we are losing the ability to decide factual issues. I’m reminded of an exchange between a scientific geologist and a fundamentalist Christian reported in the early days of the evolution debate.
The scientist points to the ancient fossils he’s uncovered as proof that the earth could not have been created just a few thousand years ago by God. The fundamentalist replies that God created the fossils with the illusion of great age in order to test the faith of people like the scientist. That’s how belief can be used to trump fact.
This kind of impasse, sadly, is nothing new. But it’s getting worse. In an age of fake news, cultural relativism, media propaganda, and a flood of unsubstantiated opinion on the Internet, we have reached a point where the assertion of a belief is no longer confirmed or disconfirmed by an appeal to objective evidence.
Absent such a check, there is no mechanism to settle our differences, nothing to stop the escalation of conflict and violence.
Without the ability to test beliefs by facts, we have no common standard for deciding the issues which divide us. The abandonment of the standard of public evidence, imperfect as it has been, is more than shocking.
It puts into peril our political system, and indeed the very fabric of our society. Under these
circumstances, anything goes.
We are in trouble.
Adrian Kuzminski, author, retired Hartwick College philosophy professor, and Sustainable Otsego moderator, lives in Fly Creek.
Ever since the last presidential election the words “populist” and “populism” have been widely bandied about, mostly as pejorative terms.
A populist politician, we often hear, is a demagogue who wins votes by inflaming the resentments and emotions of ordinary people at the expense of rational thought. Those who fall prey to populism are no more to be trusted, critics suggest, than the politicians said to manipulate them.
It’s a curious feature of populism that it defies the normal left-right political spectrum. These days we have left-wing and right-wing populists.
In the last election, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were both called populists. And historically, we’ve had left-wing populists like
Huey Long, and right-wing populists like George Wallace.
It is the corrupt elites, populists argue, who are to blame for the insecurities and troubles of the middle-class. If you’ve lost your job, are over your head in debt, can’t pay your bills, don’t have adequate health care, lack a decent pension and feel that your values are being undermined, populists say, it’s because of them.
The elitist agenda, they say, is what drives inequality, including the outsourcing of jobs, corporate globalization, union-busting, deregulation and the machinations of the deep state. All this, in their view, represents the tyranny of the one percent, not the welfare of the 99 percent.
It doesn’t require a demagogue to convince people that these are real problems, not paranoid fears. The trouble with modern left- and right-wing demagogues is their unwillingness or inability to get at the root of the problems which they try to leverage for votes.
It’s telling that politicians accused of populism today don’t call themselves populists, as well they shouldn’t. They’re faux-populists who
stop short of challenging the status quo of continuing inequality.
Some history might be useful here. It’s largely forgotten that there was a vibrant populist movement in 19th century America. It was represented first by the Farmers Alliance after the Civil War, and then by the People’s party in the 1890s.
The People’s Party candidate for president in 1892, James B. Weaver, got over a million votes and carried four states. Over 40 populists were elected to Congress in the 1890s, including six United States senators, along with numerous governors and mayors.
Today such a populist wave would be totally shocking, which is a measure of how narrow our political options have become.
The classic 19th century American populists were the last serious political movement in this country to defy the duopoly of the two major parties and lock-step left-right thinking.
Their defeat in the 1890s by their better-funded and organized opponents ensured that the issues they tried to raise would henceforth be excluded from national political debate – as indeed they have been down to the present day.
What were those issues? Classic populists – unlike their modern faux-populist successors – rejected the two options that even then defined American political discourse: corporate capitalism and state socialism.
Corporate capitalism consolidates economic and political power into giant top-down structures controlled by a handful of rich investors and executives. State socialism consolidates economic and political power into giant top-down structures controlled by a handful of politicians and bureaucrats. You see the similarity.
Classic populists rejected both socialism and capitalism as tyrannical absolutist ideologies. Instead they tried to balance the need for collective action with individual freedom.
They sought to maximize equality by making sure that private property was widely distributed, and that concentrations of economic power were highly regulated, if not eliminated.
They were advocates of small, independent producers: farmers, artisans, fabricators and generally owners of moderate-scale, local, independent enterprises.
They aimed to relocalize democratic government in the decentralized Jeffersonian tradition of home rule. You can have genuine free markets and real democracy, they argued, only when citizens enjoy individual economic security as independent owners of productive property, and can practice meaningful local democracy.
Classical populists weren’t led by demagogues – who flourish in modern, impersonal, mass politics – but by a variety of grassroots activists (as we would say today) who focused on the issues then crucial to economic and political independence, especially the regulation and decentralization of corporate power (especially in government, finance, transportation, and communications).
They advocated public banking as a way of redistributing capital to individuals and small businesses by allowing easy public access to credit at low interest rates.
(More about populism can be found in my book, “Fixing the System: A History of Populism Ancient & Modern,”available at amazon.com.)
The politicians who try to exploit populist concerns today aren’t really populists. They’re usually left-wing state socialists (Bernie Sanders) or right-wing corporate capitalists (Donald Trump).
They advocate more big socialism or more big capitalism to solve our problems. But neither socialism nor capitalism is likely to produce the kind of individual economic and political freedom the original populists envisioned.
The problems they raised are with us more than ever. Maybe it’s time to take their solutions seriously.
Adrian Kuzminski, retired Hartwick College philosophy professor and Sustainable Otsego moderator, lives in Fly Creek.
The Wikipedia – it may be the closest thing we have to a common standard of what things mean in our culture – tells us that a demagogue is “a leader in a democracy who gains popularity by exploiting prejudice and ignorance among the common people, whipping up the passions of the crowd and shutting down reasoned deliberation. Demagogues overturn established customs of political conduct, or promise or threaten to do so.”
Notice that it’s “the common people” in this definition who are confused by prejudice and ignorance, and guided by the passions instead of “reasoned deliberation.” This reflects the classical ideal of ancient Greece and Rome – also held by most of the American Founding Fathers. The right kind of politician in this view is someone able to control his or her passions, as well as the passions of others, through the practical application of reason. The Stoics called this the cultivation of virtue, of self-control and clear headedness, of wisdom, and it lay at the heart of ancient politics.
But then, as now, not everyone was virtuous, or had the same idea of virtue. In ancient Athens and elsewhere demagogues (literally “popular leaders”) arose who appealed not to virtue but to prejudice and ignorance in order to rile up people’s passions, featuring fear-mongering, tribalism, and what we now call fake news. Demagogues are one of the hazards of democratic society.
A demagogue divides rather than unites us. This is done by taking the fluid and accidental differences among people and transforming them into fixed, absolute concepts, such as race and gender, rich and poor, smart and dumb.
To drive home the differences, the demagogue goes on the attack. He or she will mock and otherwise denigrate the enemies they’ve created, and invite others to join in what becomes a movement. Its victims find themselves insulted and redefined in hostile terms as political targets. The art of the demagogue is to inspire even more followers than enemies. It’s a vicious game.
This is suddenly an issue because we have, for the first time, a demagogue, Donald Trump, elected president of the United States.
There have been other American demagogues – Huey Long and Joe McCarthy come to mind – but never before one elected president. Before Trump’s appearance on the scene, a level of public decorum consistent with the politics of virtue was standard in this country, at least among mainstream politicians. It’s not that they didn’t lie to us (they did when they thought they had to), but in spite of that they maintained a level of public courtesy and mutual respect that sustained a sense of the American community. Truth and reason were respected, if not always followed.
Trump, by contrast, has openly disparaged truth and reason and focused on the personal humiliation of his opponents. He has made this tactic mainstream, particularly at his rallies during the campaign and since. He has made fun of a reporter’s physical disability, encouraged his supporters to beat up hecklers, disparaged the looks of male and female competitors, used ethnic slurs to denigrate his critics, and given a pass to racist demonstrators. It’s as if the locker-room talk of Tony Soprano and his henchmen at the Badda Bing migrated from HBO to the White House.
This is a sea-change in American politics. The politicians of virtue – establishment Democrats and Republicans – are freaked out by their defeat at the hands of a demagogue, as they should be. The polite discourse to which they at least gave lip service – the rhetoric of reason, science, progress, and mutual respect – now looks stilted and fake to more people. Tony Soprano’s in the White House and his uninhibited talk is releasing emotions and taboos once locked up by the limits of virtuous politics.
We’re at a dangerous moment. Civilization is based on restraint and mutual courtesy. However we choose to respond to any demagogue, if we lose our own virtue in the process by adopting his or her tactics, then he or she will have won.
Adrian Kuzminski, retired Hartwick College philosophy professor and moderator of Sustainable Otsego, resides in Fly Creek.
Are Today’s Disputations Only
Reformation Battles Revisited?
A recent op-ed in the New York Times by a University of Virginia professor, Gerard Alexander, was provocatively titled: “Liberals, You’re not as Smart as you Think.” It may have been a shocking idea for the Times, but it’s old news for anyone who’s been listening to Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or watching Fox News.
Hillary’s comment about the “deplorables” in the 2016 campaign was seized by conservatives as proof of liberal arrogance and snobbery. It helped lose her the election.
Conservatives feel that liberals have been in charge, and that it’s gone to their heads. Liberals won the culture wars – women’s rights, gay rights, multi-culturalism, globalization – and they often seem to have the background, education, and professional training needed to succeed economically in a changing world while others are struggling.
The conservative attempt to defend traditional values has largely been in resistance to disconcerting change. No wonder that many conservatives embraced Trump’s campaign rhetoric: America first, the Wall, anti-globalization, anti-elitism.
A little history might help explain how we got here. Martin Luther could be considered the first liberal. He insisted that individuals had the capacity to decide for themselves the truth of religion.
It turned out, however, that there seemed to be no way to prove that one person’s subjective belief is right, and someone else’s wrong. With no way to compromise over a common, public religion, the only option was to fight it out in a series of disastrous religious wars.
As a result, knowledge based on traditional faith was increasingly privatized, and modern Thinkers – European Enlightenment philosophers, the American Founding Fathers – began to look for alternatives to organize society.
They ended up abandoning religious faith as a social principle in favor of reason and science.
Secular ideas focused on Nature replaced religious ideas focused on God as guides to public life.
The biggest turning point was probably Darwin’s theory of evolution, which upset the Biblical account of creation. Another turning point, in the United States, was the separation of church and state. That allowed for freedom of conscience, but it also ensured that the growing public realm would remain secular.
Reason and science, however, didn’t necessarily make us better people; they haven’t solve our moral problems. Nor have they led to a more egalitarian society. Serious conflicts about values and what’s right and wrong continue.
Reason and science, and the technologies they spawn, seem stubbornly neutral, as easily adapted for good as for evil. The secular world did not, it turns out, provide a solution to the crisis of faith.
For many, the private beliefs of religion have continued to inform their values in a secular world.
But many others, abandoning religion, have been attracted by the rise of new secular faiths, or Ideologies – fascism, communism, nationalism, libertarianism, socialism, human rights, identity politics – all of which purport to tell us how to live.
These beliefs are secular insofar as they invoke Nature rather than God. They go beyond reason and science insofar as they appeal to arbitrary, non-evident absolutes like race, gender, the dictatorship of the proletariat, or the hidden hand of the marketplace.
Ideologies, like religious convictions, are matters of personal faith, not public knowledge.
Liberalism and conservatism today divide mainly over which secular faith to embrace, not which religion to adopt. Liberalism is historically identified with socialism, communism, and identity politics, while conservatism is historically identified with fascism, nationalism, and libertarianism.
Liberals tend to embrace change, and conservatives to resist it. That may be the main difference between them.
We seem to have come full circle. The new secular faiths are just as subjective as the old religious ones. They are no more evidence-based than were the old God-centered religions.
There remains, it seems, no objective way to decide that any faith – old or new, religious or secular – is right and its competitors wrong.
Just as Protestants and Catholics could not convince one another that their faith was the right one, so today’s liberals and conservatives cannot seem to convince one another that some secular values are right and others wrong. We remain divided.
It took a couple of centuries of futile warfare for the religious struggles in Europe to burn themselves out. Our divisions aren’t yet that profound, and let’s hope they never get that bad.
We are in conflict about our secular beliefs because they are matters of faith, not evidence. Perhaps taking them a little less dogmatically would be a step towards defusing conflicts over them.
Adrian Kuzminski, a retired Hartwick College philosophy professor, author and Sustainable Otsego moderator, lives in Fly Creek.
Most voters enroll in one or the other major party, though the number of non-party enrollees has grown in recent years. In our area, and nationally, it’s very roughly one third Democrat, one third Republican, and one third non-partisan, or independent (small “i”).
The two-party system goes back to the battles between Alexander
Hamilton’s Federalists and Thomas
Jefferson’s Republicans. The
Jeffersonian Republicans have since morphed into the Democrats,
and the Federalists into the
Unfortunately, these parties have become a big part of what’s wrong, rather than what’s right, with American politics.
The two political parties – they are not mentioned in the Constitution – have a strangle-hold on the electoral process. It’s difficult, though not impossible, to get on the ballot without the approval of one or the other party.
In the current race in the 19th CD, for instance, party enrollees need to collect only 1,250 signatures to get on the primary ballot. But if you run as an independent, you need 3,500 signatures.
Party candidates have other advantages. They can go to their county party committees to pitch for support and recruit volunteers to circulate their petitions. The parties are also a source of money for candidates.
Editor’s Note: Due to the large number of Letters to the Editor of Hometown Oneonta and The Freeman’s Journal, all that didn’t make it into this week’s print editions will be published on www.AllOTSEGO.com before Election Day, next Tuesday, Nov. 7. The polls will be open from 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Click here for sample ballots. This is the first round, with more to follow.
Sustainable Otsego has endorsed the following candidates for county board: Leslie Berliant, Nicole Dillingham, Gary Koutnik, Danny Lapin, Andrew Marietta, Adrienne Martini, Chad McEvoy, Cathy Nardi, Pat Ryan, Liz Shannon, Tom Spychalski, and Andrew Stammel.
They all support the principles of sustainable living, economic self-reliance and home rule. As we face the future, it’s clear that we can no longer rely, as we used to, on distant governments and corporations to provide for our social and economic security. Increasingly, we’re going to have to do it ourselves. Our communities and our resources are repeatedly challenged; social and economic security is harder to come by. Incomes are low, jobs are scarce, and young people migrate elsewhere. For far too long, majorities on the county board have failed to respond to these challenges.
We need new leadership in Otsego County, especially on the county Board of Representatives. We need people, like the candidates above, who are ready to aggressively defend the interests of our communities. Otsego County desperately needs a voice of its own – and these candidates are the ones who can give it that voice. If you are happy with the way things are, vote for their opponents. But if you think we need a change, here’s a chance to do something about it.
Populism, locally based, is the answer to a world governed by shortage and concentration of power, Adrian Kuzminski, Sustainable Otsego moderator, said today in an interview on WCNY’s Capitol Pressroom.
As an example, he discussed the locally based undertaking in Otsego County and elsewhere help stem the rush toward fracking in New York State, Kuzminski, Fly Creek, told host Susan Arbetter. NIMBY is good, he said.
“In the last generation or two, we have come to recognize on a global basis the limitation of resources,” said the philosopher and activist. This is evident in energy, farmland and fisheries, but it is also evident in his granddaughter’s realization of what college will cost her, he said.
Editor’s Note: Adrian Kuzminski, Sustainable Otsego moderator, distributed these observations on the President’s visit to Cooperstown through various listserves.
The most fascinating thing to me about Obama’s visit to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame was the wierd emptiness of it all, which I think says a lot about our current public political culture, or the lack thereof. The organizers of the anti-fracking rally I was part of anticipated (hoped for) large crowds, and worried in advance about off-street parking and other relevant contingencies.
If you picked up the special editions that day of the local papers celebrating Obama’s visit, and read them at face value, you would anticipate a festive, popular occasion, with lots of local pride on display, supported by the testimony of copious open letters and commentary welcoming the president, seasoned with respectful criticism regarding fracking and other national issues. We are all in this together with you, was the story line; we live in a common community, was the presumption.