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Treason and the Culture of Deceit - February 2018

posted Feb 23, 2018, 6:29 PM by RSO The Fenwick Review
By Claude Hanley '18

We live in a culture of deceit. Two events this winter have proved that point abundantly. On January 5th, Michael Wolff published Fire and Fury, a gossipy account of the Trump White House. Taken to task for the fact that many of his sources (from a former British Prime Minister, to major Trump allies, to a slew of journalists at the New York Times) explicitly denied quotes attributed to them, Wolff found himself on the back foot. He wouldn’t produce the recordings of their conversations which he (allegedly) possessed. No, the public doesn’t need hard evidence to support contested claims. Instead, Wolff proposed a novel method to prove what was true and what wasn’t: “If it rings true, it is true.” What does that mean, in essence, except for “It’s true if you want it to be true?” Different things will sound true or false to different people. In that case, my biases distinguish what’s true from what isn’t. On a closer investigation, they do more than that; my biases come to constitute the truth.

On February 5th, President Trump spoke at a manufacturing plant in Ohio. Apparently prickled by insufficient applause at his State of the Union address, he said of the Democrats, “They were like death and un-American. Un-American. Somebody said, ‘Treasonous.’ I mean, yeah, I guess, why not. Can we call that treason? Why not?” Cue media firestorm number three hundred and seventy-nine, even though the President was probably joking. As with a lot of media meltdowns over things Trump says, there’s something here worth being upset about. Nationally elected figures shouldn’t call their political opponents traitors, even in jest. But, as a Holy Cross alumnus over at National Review has pointed out, the left lost the ability to complain about that a long time ago.

When? Oh, seven years ago, that time Joe Biden said Republicans in Congress and the House “have acted like terrorists” by playing debt-ceiling politics. Or six years ago, when Senate majority leader Harry Reid started speculating that Republicans were deliberately tanking the U.S. economy in order to score political points against Barack Obama. Or three years ago, when Hillary Clinton compared pro-life Republican politicians to “terrorist groups.” Or even three months ago, when Andrew Cuomo accused Republicans who voted for tax reform of violating their oath. “It’s treasonous,” he said. “It’s modern-day Benedict Arnold.”

All of this puts Trump in his context. For nearly a decade in mainstream politics, and substantially longer in media circles, we’ve been transforming our political opponents into terrorists, traitors, and totalitarian sympathizers. But does that have anything to do with Michael Wolff? Of course it does. Trump and Clinton, Joe Biden and Harry Reid are all enthralled to the Wolff standard for truth. It has nothing to do with whether the accusation can be proven, whether the facts can support it, or indeed whether a conversation actually happened. No, none of those things make a quotation or a story true or false. But they ring true, so Democrats are traitors and pro-lifers are terrorists and the Republicans want to destroy the United States of America.

But why does it matter? This isn’t a new phenomenon. We can find this sort of casual relativism at the headwaters of Western culture, critiqued in the plays of Sophocles and the dialogues of Plato. While that’s true, there’s an important difference now. We can see it in the standard that Michael Wolff proposed. He didn’t say “It’s true because I said it’s true,” or “It’s true because I can persuade you that it is.” He said, “It’s true because it rings true,” which is to say, “It’s true because you want to believe it.”

And sadly, whether it’s a treason accusation or an invented quote by Tony Blair, we all too often do believe it. The great and good turned out in hordes to cheer for Fire and Fury back in January. Hillary Clinton even stood on stage at the Golden Globes to read selections from it. Trump’s crowd cheered on those treason accusations with gusto, and we know the far-right wing agreed. A heap of students at this college would gladly lend their voices to the Clinton-Biden siren song of Republican traitors and pro-life terrorists. Our society makes biases primary, and tries to conform reality to it. Truth? What is Truth?

This rot runs from the roots of the tree to its crown: on campuses, in the news media, in Washington. It has real consequences. For obvious reasons, when truth doesn’t exist, nobody believes anything the other side says, so we make things up and decide they’re true instead. Conservatives will be content to believe that the Democrats want to recreate the Soviet Union, and liberals will think that Republicans have a hankering for Germany circa 1936. There results an alchemy of outrage which transposes minor policy disputes into raging culture wars. And, because we don’t believe the other side will tell the truth, compromise becomes impossible.

The issue of “fake news” reveals another facet of the problem. The term should diagnose a real problem—the kind of “journalism” produced by Infowars that intentionally misleads people to manipulate their voting preferences. But instead, it has become a synonym for “bad press,” or even just “honest reporting.” CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post are “fake news” in a lot of conservative circles. National Review and the Wall Street Journal earn the same title among my liberal friends. The assertion isn’t merely that they’re biased; it’s that any of those five news outlets will make up facts whole cloth in order to score political points. Of course, every media outlet has a slant. But if the NYT and WSJ are “fake news,” what are Breitbart and Buzzfeed?

Pontificating about how the West is facing a cultural crisis has become a cottage industry of considerable scale. I’m not going to toss my hat in that particular ring. You need perspective to do that, and the perpetual screaming match of a New England campus doesn’t offer it. This hill isn’t high enough to see that far. But the limited view from here shows us a particularly vicious kind of tribalism—fractious groups of like-minded people glommed together against their political opponents. Factions in the Church. Identity groups on the progressive left. The seven kinds of conservative. The unmoving progressive/traditionalist battle line. These reveal a bloodless form of blood feud, in which common good and common decency are trampled to win the ideological campaign. A truthless society makes for a culture at war, and culture wars are tribal wars.

A lecturer I heard back in September put it best. He argued that our public life has lost the images of the covenant. Although drawing on religious imagery, he was talking about the signal forms of social solidarity, like stable marriages, civil friendships, and personal loyalty. Is that our fundamental problem? I don’t know. But the religious imagery can tell us some -thing. “Covenant” is a biblical word, evoking God’s fidelity to his covenant with Israel. In Exodus, the Hebrew for covenant fidelity is emet. When ancient Jewish scholars translated the Bible into Greek, they rendered emet with a word that also stands for “truth.” Fabricated “truths” betray our social covenant. That’s the treason of the culture of deceit.