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Noble and Ignoble Lies in the Era of Post-Truth

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On January 20, 2017, with the inauguration of Donald Trump as 45th President of the US, the era of fact-free information (or misinformation, or fake news, as the case may be), the era of the tweet as policy determinant, the era of Post-Truth will have officially been inaugurated.

For quite a while now, there is around journalistic and even scholarly circles an ominous tendency to ignore facts (empirically, or rationally and logically arrived at) and simply manufacture and propagate outright lies with little if any challenge by the media.

After all, if we are to construe lying in a subjectivistic Machiavellian mode, truth telling and lying is ultimately in the eye of the beholder and the intentions of the liar. The rationalization seems to be this: if the ends are noble and worthy, then a lie said for that end and specifically for the love of one’s country is amply justified. In more modern terms such an ethical approach toward lying for political reasons can also be construed as utilitarian, that is to say, the results are what count, never mind moral codes, the Kantian categorical imperative, intentions and means.

In fact, such an approaches would be rejected as specious by deontological ethics. Kant insisted that categorical imperatives, such as that of never to lie under any circumstances, are universal and are one’s duty to be considered such at all times. But even within that universalistic approach there are disagreements. Some neo-Kantian philosophers distinguish between prima faciae duties in conflict with each other and suggest that we need to establish and observe priorities when such is the case. They point out that the guidance of ethics is needed exactly when duties and values are in conflict. For example, if one is hiding a Jewish family in one’s attic and the Gestapo knocks at the door to inquire, one may weight the value of duty toward life in general against the value of being truthful at all times and favor the former over the latter. The Gestapo has no right to invade one’s privacy and ask questions to begin with. So even as a deontologist one has a loophole available when it comes to lying. Kant would of course counter that to begin down the slippery slope of lying, even that of telling white lies to avoid inconveniences to oneself, something most people engage in, is to contribute to the undermining of the general trust and the very foundations of a civilization or a community.

Be that as it may, to come down to the current concrete examples of American politics, I suppose the crux of the problem lies in the now accepted political demonizing of one’s adversary introduced by the Tea Party and its final product, Donald Trump, some two years ago to be soon inaugurated as official policy. In other words, when the lie is told by oneself or one’s party, it is a noble lie, when it is told by one’s opponent then it is slander or pernicious propaganda. If I go around slandering the legitimacy of a sitting president for a whole five years (the so called birther movement), that’s ok; but it is not ok when representative questions the legitimacy of the same propagandist, now president, due to reprehensible Russian interference. What is good for the goose is not good for the gander.

Hence the past sad spectacle of congressman Wilson from South Carolina yelling “you lie” to President Obama as he delivered a state of the union speech before Congress. It would never have occurred to him to do like-wise to a Republican president; in his mind, a Republican president would ipso facto be a real bona fide patriotic American and he would only be capable of noble lies concocted via tweet for the common good. One may now begin to wonder what ever happened to the old myth about George Washington, that he never told a lie. But wait a minute, isn’t that myth too a falsehood or a lie? It appears that we have a real conundrum on our hands, which, if truth be told, goes back to Plato’s Republic, the first philosophical tract to talk about noble lies.

In fact, in The Republic 414 b-415 d, Plato talks about the noble lie, a phony reality given to the people for their own good. Some have interpreted this function as the very role of Socrates, to corrupt the youth of Athens with a noble lie, thus explaining why he was put to death. So, lo and behold, we find out that Plato precedes Machiavelli in dealing with this conundrum by some 2000 years and a case can be made that Machiavelli is closer to Kant when he unmasks the myth of the noble lie and ideals on paper which are then disregarded in practice, and proceeds to tell things political exoterically and realistically, just as they are, as they have always been; that is to say, from time immemorial might is right and the end justifies the means.

Many have in fact criticized the dissemination of information from ruling body to constituency as mere propaganda, assertions aimed at convincing the target audience of a specific agenda. The prevailing logic seems to be this: governments should keep their citizens ignorant of sensitive data that could potentially distract them from what is paramount: promoting the stability of the state. Only those in the know, deserve to know; hence classified information. The public, primarily concerned with following its immediate interests, is ill equipped to dictate the fate of a nation; that is reserved to philosopher kings. Of course the emperor may be going around naked but the public has to admire his sartorial splendor. A representative such as John Lewis who calls him “illegitimate” imitating the boy who has the courage to say that he goes around naked, is branded as a racist unpatriotic American, that is to say somebody subverting the theory of White Supremacy.

Curiously enough, Platonic thought follows this line of elitist argumentation, claiming common laborers and ordinary people do not possess the training, nor the constitution required to properly rule, nor would they ever. Administering the government is simply not within their nature. What sort of individual would then be qualified to fulfill the role of legislator? Plato is not comfortable to leave such a decision up to chance or even up to a democratic selection; rulers are not found, they are cultivated. Dividing the population into three distinct groups: producers, auxiliaries, and guardian-rulers, Plato outlines the steps necessary to establish the best city imaginable. Most importantly, the founders of this perfect city must convince the inhabitants that they should not strive for more than they are capable, a daunting task given the covetous envious nature of humanity.

How could such a Herculean feat be accomplished? Plato believed his doctrine of the Noble Lie held the answer, persuading the people of a falsehood, so that a greater good than satisfying their immediate desires could be met. To contemporary society, which espouses the belief that all things are possible for the individual willing to apply themselves, the notion of sanctioning a rigid caste system seems counter-intuitive. They prefer Machiavelli’s transparency. For Plato, on the other hand, for the sake of the common good, individual freedoms must submit to the will of the community. That of course goes against the grain of rugged individualism and self-reliance buttressed by the guns one owns with which to “stand one’s ground” even against what one perceives as a tyrannical state. Enter the Tea Party and its hero Trump, and the rest is history. Vico would describe such a situation as one of decadence, what he dubbed “the barbarism of the intellect.”

There are in Plato identifiable traditional myths, such as the story of Gyges (Republic 359d–360b), the myth of Phaethon (Timaeus 22c7) or that of the Amazons (Laws 804e4). Sometimes he modifies them, to a greater or lesser extent, while other times he combines them. There are also in Plato myths that are his own, such as the myth of Er (Republic 621b8) or the myth of Atlantis (Timaeus 26e4). Many of the myths Plato invented feature characters and motifs taken from traditional mythology The majority of the myths he invents preface or follow a philosophical argument: the Gorgias myth (523a–527a), the myth of the androgyne (Symposium 189d–193d), the Phaedo myth (107c–115a), the myth of Er (Republic 614a–621d), the myth of the winged soul (Phaedrus 246a–249d), the myth of Theuth (Phaedrus 274c–275e), the cosmological myth of the Statesman (268–274e), the Atlantis myth (Timaeus 21e–26d, Critias), the Laws myth (903b–905b).

The question arises in all its urgency: why did Plato who in many instances in his dialogues expressed the desire to replace Homer and his poetry with rational philosophy, as the teacher of Hellas, then resorts to myths or noble lies? The answer seems to be that as a philosopher he did not believe that philosophy should be an esoteric discipline for the few and the chosen, but that he should share his philosophy with others. But since others may sometimes not follow his arguments, Plato is ready and willing to provide whatever it takes—an image, a simile, or a myth—that will help them grasp what the argument failed to tell them. In some way, he becomes a competitor with Homer whom he recognizes as a poet and a teacher. The myth or an image, or analogy becomes a good teaching tool, just as it was for Homer. Myth can indeed embody in its narrative an abstract philosophical doctrine as Vico, the one who truly understood the true nature of the myth, has well taught us in his Scienza Nuova. A whole book in that work is dedicated to Homer and poetic thinking.

In the Phaedo, Plato develops the so-called theory of recollection (72e–78b). The theory is there expounded in rather abstract terms. The eschatological myth of the Phaedo depicts the fate of souls in the other world, but it does not “dramatize” the theory of recollection. The Phaedrus myth of the winged soul, however, does. In it we are told how the soul travels in the heavens before reincarnation, attempts to gaze on true reality, forgets what it saw in the heavens once reincarnated, and then recalls the eternal forms it saw in the heavens when looking at their perceptible embodiments. Among other things, the fantastical narrative of the myth helps the less philosophically inclined grasp the main point of Plato’s theory of recollection, namely that “knowledge is recollection”.

In conclusion to this cursory examination of the Noble Lie it can perhaps be stated that it will yield various truths concerning American politics. Amongst them, how seemingly “noble falsehoods” are used as a means of meeting dubious ends. It also has implications on how one conceives philosophy, as an esoteric or as an exoteric discipline. The choice one makes in that regard will in turn lead to different implications concerning the future of American and, more generally, Western politics; for indeed both the US and the EU, for better or for worse, are in the same boat called Western Civilization. When truth is prostituted, so is civilization. As per Vico, so is the return to barbarism.

N.B. This article, in a slightly modified form, appeared in Ovi magazine on April 23, 2012. It was relevant four years ago, it is even more relevant today.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

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The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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