I teach beginners’ philosophy at Barry University in Miami. I usually start my courses examining the trial of Socrates as narrated in Plato’s Apology. We discuss the Socratic method and what exactly did Socrates mean by his famous slogan “the unexamined life is not worth living.” We reflect on the concept of Sophistry distinguishing it from philosophy proper. I stress that we have to distinguish sophistry from philosophy.
The former is interested in winning arguments and persuasion; the latter is interested in searching for and finding the truth, even when inconvenient. It’s what distinguishes a Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, from a Protagoras, the father of rhetorical sophistical argumentation. I then ask this question: without a belief in truth is philosophy possible?
Most students will answer correctly. It would be impossible and I, teaching the subject, would be either a fraud (as some sophists were even in ancient times) or an hypocrite. Then I ask another question: does the media believe in truth nowadays? Here again most students answer correctly and point out that the media are interested mostly in polls and ratings, in the balancing of opinions, in utilitarian social goals and purposes, and most of them neglect the truth. I then point out that in effect they have arrived at the modern definition of sophistry. We of course do not call these people sophists nowadays; we call them politicians. Their enablers, we will argue further down, are the modern journalists.
Enter Donald Trump dwelling in the cave of delusions and ignorance. He’s the latest in a long line of American demagogues but he is the one who has come closest to the White House. He may actually become our next president, to the detriment of the nation and democracy. That makes him the most dangerous of them all. There is indeed in American history a long list of demagogues, unscrupulous political opportunists and bigots who feed on fear; it’s like a recurring virus which lies dormant for a while but then it resurges at opportune times and spread very rapidly like a wild firestorm sucking the oxygen out of democracy. Indeed, sophistry is still with us, twenty five centuries after the trial of Socrates.
Those types tend to be swaggering bullies, narcissistic self-promoters full of innuendos, false promises and hatred of others, especially the others with a different race, faith, gender or ethnic background. Today the banner is carried by Donald Trump, but other ignoramuses and charlatans have came before him. One thinks of “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, the South Carolina governor and senator who led vigilante terror attacks with a gang called the Red Shirts and praised the efficiency of lynch mobs. Also radio’s charismatic Father Charles Coughlin, the anti-Semitic, pro-Fascist Catholic priest who reached an audience of up to 30 million with his attacks on Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Also the New Deal; Mississippi’s Theodore Bilbo, a member of the Ku Klux Klan who vilified ethnic minorities and deplored the “mongrelization” of the white race. One also thinks of Louisiana’s corrupt and dictatorial Huey Long, who promised to make “Every Man a King.” And of course, George Wallace, the governor of Alabama and four-time presidential candidate who vowed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Lastly, there is McCarthy: an ego-swollen provocateur of the first order. Like Trump he would say that “I have here in hand a list” never showing the list but then later falsely accusing those whom he considered subversives and destroying many lives and careers.
They were all leading under the banner of populism: promising the people what they had been deprived of by the establishment and the rich and powerful and a fairer redistribution of wealth. Funny thing is that Trump belongs to the class of rich people and in fact got rich by exploiting the working class and often leaving them holding the bag via bankruptcy laws favorable to the rich. Superficially this may seem fair, but it came at a price. The price was nativism advocating the building of walls and keeping immigrants out. The xenophobia extends not only to people but to ideas that are deemed dangerous.
In the end, McCarthy was brought down. A brave journalist called him out on the same television airwaves that helped the senator become a powerful, national sensation. It was Edward R. Murrow, and at the end of an episode exposing McCarthy on his CBS series See It Now, Murrow said: “It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one, and the junior senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.”
There also was the brave and moral lawyer Joseph Welch, acting as chief counsel to the US Army after it was targeted for one of McCarthy’s inquisitions. When McCarthy smeared one of his young associates, Welch responded in full view of the TV and newsreel cameras during hearings in the Senate. “You’ve done enough,” Welch said. “Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?… If there is a God in heaven, it will do neither you nor your cause any good. I will not discuss it further.” That was way back in 1954.
And those are just a few examples. To the contrary what prevails nowadays is the indifference of the so called “guardians of the truth,” namely the media. Since the birther movement of three years or so ago, out to discredit the legitimacy of a sitting president, the media has not challenged the nefarious, redolent of racism, false premises of Donald Trump; they have in fact allowed the Frankenstein monster to grow and flourish. The monster now threatens the very existence of the party of Lincoln which is also responsible for the monster. They are now applying a double standard. Rather than use a common standard for all candidates, they are grading Trump on a curve as if he were a dumb third grader, unable to carry on a rational argument. Nevertheless, we are expected to trust him with his finger of the nuclear button.
Where are the profiles in courage of today? Nowhere to be seen. Most of the Republican Party has acquiesced in the nomination of a bigot as its final choice. Should we be surprised? Not really, considering that their years of kowtowing to extremism in the appeasement of their base, have allowed Trump and his nightmarish sideshow to steal into the tent and take over the circus. Once again, the virus has spread through the body politic contaminating all. What is desperately needed is the sunlight out of the cave of ignorance, the clearing torch of truth. But are today’s journalists capable of such a feat? One wonders.
To my knowledge, no journalist has mustered enough courage and integrity to ask Trump outright “Have you no decency, sir?” None has dare to call him what he is to his face: an chronic liar; one that uses lying as a an amoral strategic tool to crush his opponents. None has reprimanded him publicly and to his face for his ignorance, and most disturbing, for glorying in his ignorance.
Lately Trump has taken to praising Putin on Russian TV. And journalists simply acquiesce. We will soon have political debates wherein garbage will be thrown on the wall hoping that it sticks with the moderators doing no fact checking and determine if what was proffered has any connection to reality. Perhaps they’ll assign a Pinocchio nose the next day and Trump will use that to double down on what he said the night before.
The question arises: why do we continue to see these sad scenarios. Well, as a philosophy professor I’d have to say that presently the media seems incapable of rendering objective judgments based on the truth of the facts. Somehow, that is seen as “taking sides” and “being partial,” or not being “fair and balanced.” It all revolves about balance parading as fairness. In reality what we have is an incredible skepticism about truth; a skepticism about the possibility of arriving at truth, a truth which by an and large has become relativistic. Truth is relative to one’s convenience or one’s utility, or one’s “progress” understood materially and instrumentally. This is what every philosophy teacher who believes that philosophy is the search for the truth, has to contend with nowadays. He/she has to contend with the affirmation that reality is biased against one’s opinion, and that opinion is more important than the truth. We are of course all entitled to our opinion but the distinction of opinions based on facts and knowledge and opinions based on ignorance is somehow overlooked. In other words we don’t believe in truth any longer. Like Pilate we ask the question: what is truth? What we expect is a Machiavellian answer based on geo-political relative considerations and therefore relative itself.
In conclusion, the media has to decide if they wish to be in the truth business or in the business of reality shows, polls, ratings, false equivalences to keep everybody happy and consuming their product. If they decide not to decide, that in itself will be a decision. When democracy is finally lost, we will then realize that the issue cannot be avoided: either the truth makes one’s free, or the denial of the truth will makes us slaves while parading our love of country and freedom. Time is running out.
In Praise of the Lioness of Law: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her Jurisprudence
The death of the US Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg has created an abyss in the court for the liberal voice where justice Ginsburg was seen as the linchpin of the liberal block of the Supreme Court at a time when that block was shrinking. Especially late judge had vociferously advocated for women ‘rights, environmental issues and often came up with unique dissents in delivering her judgements which were propelled by her jurisprudence which embodied the solemn ideal in American legal system “Equal Protection under the Law “. She was on a quest to defend the delicate balance between honoring the timelessness of American Constitution and recognizing the depth of its enduring principles in new centuries and under new circumstances.
She grew up in an era where men held the helm in every aspect of social life and especially the legal profession was utterly dominated by men. Recalling her legal studies at Harvard law school in the 50’s judge Ginsburg had stated later how she was once asked by the Dean of Harvard law school to justify her position as a law student that otherwise would have gone to a man. Yet she had the spunk to overcome all the obstacles stood on her way and excelled as a scholar becoming the first female member of the Harvard Law Review.
In tracing her legal career that it becomes a salient fact, Judge Ginsburg marked her name in American legal history even decades before she joined the bench. While at the American Civil Liberties Union in the early seventies she made an upheaval in American in legal system in famous Supreme Court Case Reed Vs Reed. In Reed Vs Reed the brief drafted by Ginsburg provided an astute analysis on the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, the Equal Protection Clause. Ginsburg’s brief changed the aged long practice existed in the State of Idaho on favoring men over women in estate battles by paving the path for a discourse on gender equality rights in the USA.
Judge Ginsburg’s appointment to the Supreme Court in 1994 during Clinton administration marked the dawn of new jurisprudential chapter in the US Supreme Court. Two terms later, in the United States v. Virginia (VMI), Justice Ginsburg applied her lucid perspective to a sharply disputed constitutional claim. The United States challenged Virginia’s practice of admitting only men to its prestigious military college, the Virginia Military Institute. Writing for six Justices, Ginsburg held this policy unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause. In reaching this result, Ginsburg adroitly cut away potentially confounding issues about women’s participation in the military or the advantages of single-sex education.
Her robust activism in securing gender equality often attracted the admirations of the feminist scholars and activists, but it should be noted that her contribution was not only confined to the protection of gender equality. She was a robust critique of racial dissemination which still pervades in American society and she frequently pointed out how racial discrimination has marred the constitutional protections guaranteed to every citizen. Especially in the case of Gratz Vs Bollitnger, she stressed on the commitment that the state ought to fulfil by eliminating the racial biases existing employment and education. Moreover, disabled citizens. In Olmstead v. Zimring, she held that “unjustified institutional isolation of persons with disabilities is a form of discrimination” violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.45 She elaborated a two-fold concept of discrimination, noting that unneeded institutionalization both “perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life”.
In remembering the mortal departure of this prudent judge that one cannot forget her keenness in incorporating international law into her judgements regardless of the disinclination shown by conservative judges like Antony Scalia. Going beyond the mere textualism approach to the law, Ginsburg’s jurisprudence was much more akin to using international law to make substantive decisions. For instance, in her concurring verdict in Grutter Vs Bollinger, Justice Ginsburg relied upon international human rights law, and in particular upon two United Nations conventions, to support her conclusions.
Indeed, the demise of Ruth Ginsburg is a major blow for the liberalists in the USA, especially in an era where liberalist values are at stake under the fervent rise of populist waves propounded by Donald Trump. Especially late judge had been one of the harsh critics of Trump even before ascendency to the Oval office. The void created by the demise of judge Ginsburg might change the role the US Supreme Court if the successor to her position would take a more conservative approach and it will fortify the conservative bloc in the US Supreme Court. Trump has already placed Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh and the third pick would more deeply entrench the conservative views in the US Supreme Court, which would inevitably undermine the progressive policies taken during Obama’s administration towards issues such as the environment. The political storm appeared after the death of the late judge has already created a tense situation in US politics as president Trump is determined to appoint a judge to fill before the presidential election in November.
The Politics of (In)security in Mexico: Between Narcissism and Political Failure
Security cannot be that easily separated from the political realm. The need for security is the prime reason why people come together to collectively form a state. Providing security is, therefore, one of the most basic functions of the state as a political and collective entity.
Last Friday, the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) laughed during his daily morning press briefings over a national newspaper headline about 45 massacres during his presidency. This attitude summarises in a macabre way his approach to insecurity: it is not his top priority. This is not the first time that AMLO has showed some serious and deeply disturbing lack of empathy for victims of crimes. Before taking office, he knew that insecurity was one of Mexico’s biggest challenges, and he has come to realise that curbing it down will not be as simple as he predicted during his presidential campaign.
Since the start of the War on Drugs in 2006, Mexico has sunk into a deep and ever-growing spiral of violence and vigilantism as a result of the erosion of the capacity of the state to provide safety to citizens. Vigilantism is when citizens decide to take the law into their own hands in order to fill the vacuum left by the state, or to pursue their own very particular interests. Guerrero, Michoacán, Morelos, Tabasco, Tamaulipas and Veracruz have over 50 vigilante organisations that pose substantial danger to the power of the state.
Vigilantism is not the only factor exacerbating the security crisis in Mexico: since 2006, young people have also started to join drug cartels and other criminal organisations. There are important sectors of the population who feel that the state has failed to represent them. They also feel betrayed because the state has not been able to provide them with the necessary means to better themselves. These frustrations make them vulnerable to the indoctrination of organised crime gangs who promise to give them some sort of ideological direction and solution to their problems.
As a result, it is not enough to carry out a kingpin arrest strategy and to preach on the moral duties we have as citizens as well as on human dignity. People need to be given enough means to find alternative livelihoods that are attractive enough to take them out of organised crime, Mexico can draw some important lessons from Sierra Leone who successfully demobilised and resettled ex-combatants after the armed conflict. Vigilantism, recruitment by organised crime, and insecurity have also flourished because of a lack of deterrence. The judicial system is weak and highly ineffective. A large proportion of the population does not trust the police, or the institutions in charge of the rule of law.
A long-term strategy requires linking security with politics. It needs to address not only the consequences but also the roots of unemployment and deep inequality. However, doing so requires decisive actions to root out widespread and vicious corruption. Corruption allows concentration of wealth and also prevents people from being held accountable. This perpetuates the circle of insecurity. Mexico has been slowly moving towards a borderline failed state. The current government is starting to lose legitimacy and the fragility of the state is further perpetuated by the undemocratic, and predatory governance of the current administration.
Creating a safer Mexico requires a strong, coherent, and stable leadership, AMLO’s administration is far from it. His popularity has consistently fallen as a result of his ineffective policies to tackle the pandemic, worsening insecurity, and the economic crisis. Mexico has reached over 72,000 Covid-19 deaths; during his initial 20 months as incumbent president, there has been 53,628 murders, among them 1800 children or teenagers, and 5888 women (11 women killed per day) This criminality rate is double than what it was during the same period in the presidency of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012); and 55% higher than with the last president, Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018). Mexico is also experiencing its worst economic recession in 90 years.
Insecurity remains as the issue of most concern among Mexicans, seeing the president laughing about it, can only fill citizens with yet more despair and lack of trusts in the government and its institutions. AMLO’s catastrophic performance is not surprising, though. Much of his failures and shortcomings can be explained by both ideology and a narcissistic personality. Having someone with both of those traits ruling a country under normal, peaceful times is already dangerous enough, add an economic crisis and a pandemic to the mix and the result is utter chaos.
AMLO embodies the prototypical narcissist: he has a grandiose self-image; an inflated ego; a constant need for admiration; and intolerance to criticism. He, like many other narcissists, thinks about himself too much and too often, making him incapable of considering the wellbeing of other and unable to pursue the public interest. He has a scapegoat ready to blame for his failures and mistakes: previous administrations, conservatives, neoliberalism, academics, writers, intellectuals, reporters, scientists, you name it, the list is long and keeps getting longer.
AMLO keeps contradicting himself and he does not realise it. He has been claiming for months that the pandemic is under control: it is not. He declares Mexico is ready to face the pandemic and we have enough tests and medical equipment: we do not. He says Mexico is on its way to economic recovery: it is not. He states corruption is a thing of the past: it is not. He says Mexico is now safer than ever before: it is not. When told the opposite he shrugs criticism off and laughs, the behaviour of a typical narcissist.
AMLO, alike narcissists, due to his inability to face criticism, has never cared about surrounding himself by the best and brightest. He chose a bunch of flunkies as members of his cabinet who try to please and not humiliate their leader. A further trait of narcissistic personalities is that they love conflict and division as this keeps them under control. The more destabilisation and antagonism, the better. AMLO since the start of his presidency has been setting states against states for resources and for pandemic responses, instead of coordinating a national response. He is also vindictive: playing favourites with those governors who follow him and punishing those that oppose him.
Deep down, narcissistic leaders are weak. AMLO is genuinely afraid to lead. He simply cannot bring himself to make decisions that are solely his. This is why he has relied on public referendums and consultations to cancel projects or advance legislation. He will not take any responsibility if something goes wrong: It was not him who decided, it was the people, blame them. He inherited a broken system that cannot be fixed during his term, blame the previous administrations, not him.
AMLO is a prime example of a textbook narcissist, unfortunately he is not the only one: Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Recep Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte are only a few more examples of what seems to be a normalised behaviour in contemporary politics. Every aspect of AMLO’s and other leaders presidencies have been heavily marked by their psychopathology. Narcissism, however, does not allow proper and realistic self-assessment, self-criticism, and self-appreciation therefore such leaders will simply ignore the red flags in their administration and have no clue how despicably and disgracefully they will be remembered.
Minor Successes And The Coronavirus Disaster: Is Trump A Dead Duck?
That reminder from the Bible, ‘He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone’ may give us pause — but not journalists who by all appearances assume exemption. And the stones certainly bruise.
Evidence for the bruises lies in the latest poll numbers. Overall, Joe Biden leads Donald Trump 50 to 43 percent, a margin that has continued to increase since January. It is also considerably wider than the few points lead Hillary Clinton had over Trump four years ago. It gets worse for Trump.
In the industrial states of Michigan and Pennsylvania, which Trump in 2016 won by razor thin margins, he is losing by over 4 percent. Also key to his victory was Wisconsin where, despite his success in getting dairy products into Canada, he is behind by a substantial 7 percent. Key states Ohio and Florida are also going for the Democrats.
Trump was not doing so badly until the coronavirus struck and during the course of his news conferences he displayed an uncaring persona larded with incompetence. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the man he fired for correcting Trumpian exaggerations became a hero and Trump the bully.
If that bullying nature won him small rewards with allies, he hit an impasse with China and Iran … while bringing the two closer to each other. Then there is the border wall, a sore point for our southern neighbor Mexico. President Lopez Obrador made sure the subject never came up at the July meeting with Trump, Thus Mexico is not paying for it so far and will not be in the foreseeable future.
The United Arab Emirates, a conglomeration of what used to be the Trucial States under British hegemony. have agreed to formalize its already fairly close relations with Israel. In return, Israel has postponed plans to annex the West Bank. Whether or not it is in Israel’s long term interest to do so is a debatable question because it provides much more powerful ammunition to its critics who already accuse it of becoming an apartheid regime. However, it had become Prime Minister Netanyahu’s sop to the right wing who will have to wait. Of course, the reality is that Israel is already the de facto ruler.
If Mr. Trump was crowing about the agreement signed on September 15, although it is akin to someone signing an agreement with Puerto Rico while the United States remains aloof. As a postscript, the little island of Bahrain also signed a peace deal with Israel. Bahrain has had its own problems in that a Sunni sheikh rules a Shia populace. When the Shia had had enough, Saudi and UAE troops were used to end the rebellion. Bahrain is thus indebted to the UAE.
How many among voters will know the real value of these historic (according to Trump) deals particularly when he starts twittering his accomplishments as the election nears?
There things stand. As they say, there is nothing worse than peaking too early. Bettors are still favoring Trump with their money. The longer anyone has been in politics the more there is to mine, and for an opponent to use to his/her advantage. Time it seems is on Trump’s side.
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