Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Obama, Trump and Truthiness

Casey Williams is a graduate student in literature. He studies at Duke University and thus is conversant with all the most trendy and radical thinking in academia. We do not, in other words, have very high expectations about his ability to deal with ideas and theory. And we are not disappointed.

Yet, he makes a point that I have made on several occasions on this blog. It is grossly ironic to see the academic left rail against Donald Trump for not sticking close to the facts when the academic left does not believe in facts, does not deal in facts and has largely dismissed empirical truth. You heard it here first: An Orgy of Confirmation Bias and When Is a Fact Not a Fact?

As I mentioned in previous posts, the Obama administration was certainly not wedded to facts—remember Benghazi—but the left is all up in arms about Trump. On some occasions we all have reason to question the new administration’s ability to tell the truth. Today, for example, news reports suggest that the administration’s claim that it was sending an aircraft carrier battle group to the waters off North Korea twas not true. Factually speaking, it was a false statement.  Because the timing was off. The group was in maneuvers off the coast of Australia and is now heading toward North Korea.

For those who accept the existence of facts, the statement was false. From the perspective of critical theory there must have been a reason for it all. The administration must have been engaging in a scheme to accomplish wicked ends. Being adept at paranoid conspiracy theories—especially those that claim that the straight white male patriarchy is oppressing the rest of the world— critical theorists do not consider that sometimes people make mistakes. Sometimes they even make dumb mistakes. Sometimes they even double down on their mistakes. And sometimes armies put out misinformation, on purpose, to trick an enemy.

To read it all into a conspiracy narrative will get you points in academia. And it will get you into the mainstream media. You may not be able to do anything, but you can work to control people's minds.

And yet, if you want to discredit the administration for telling untruths, you need to believe in facts and you need to accept that reality might discredit or disprove your theories. Not just their theories...your theories too. Since the critical theorists do not believe in fact or in empirical truth, on what grounds can they criticize the Trump administration?

Williams is somewhat aware of the problem, but he still refers to empirical truths that demonstrate Trump’s lack of truthfulness. If your theory does not admit to the existence of truth, at least have the decency not to say that anyone has gotten the facts wrong.

Williams is especially torqued because he believes that he and his friends in the academy own or possess these theories. But, what allows him to claim ownership of ideas? You can become a practitioner of the art of the pogrom—aka deconstruction—but you do not own the idea or even the practice.

But, if you rid everyone's mind of fact and truth you are left with: propaganda. If there are no objective facts and no empirical truths they everything becomes propaganda. The only question is who is propagating the propaganda, and to what purpose. Obviously, these theories helped produce the great totalitarian dictatorships that faded away with the twentieth century.

One understands that everyone with a functioning mind and the least trace of pragmatic thinking knows that these dictatorships were an unmitigated catastrophe. Since the great minds of the Duke literature department have no real sense of reality or pragmatism, they have not yet gotten the message.

Critical theory blinds them to a reality that is staring them in the face. That's why they keep clinging to it.
To allow Williams a word:

The president dresses up useful lies as “alternative facts” and decries uncomfortable realities as “fake news.” Stoking conservative passion and liberal fury, Trump stirs up confusion about the veracity of settled knowledge and, through sheer assertion, elevates belief to the status of truth.

Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them.

Williams offers his own version of today’s critical theories:

For decades, critical social scientists and humanists have chipped away at the idea of truth. We’ve deconstructed facts, insisted that knowledge is situated and denied the existence of objectivity. The bedrock claim of critical philosophy, going back to Kant, is simple: We can never have certain knowledge about the world in its entirety. Claiming to know the truth is therefore a kind of assertion of power.

If everything is propaganda then we do not need to feel so bad about distorting facts to promote our ideological agenda.

Williams thinks that leftist extremists have derived insights. They have not. They have persuaded themselves to believe something that makes no sense. And woe be to you if you are the one who points out to them that the emperor had no clothes.

From these premises, philosophers and theorists have derived a number of related insights. One is that facts are socially constructed. People who produce facts — scientists, reporters, witnesses — do so from a particular social position (maybe they’re white, male and live in America) that influences how they perceive, interpret and judge the world. They rely on non-neutral methods (microscopes, cameras, eyeballs) and use non-neutral symbols (words, numbers, images) to communicate facts to people who receive, interpret and deploy them from their own social positions.

Of course, you cannot believe this critical theory and also accept science. You cannot even believe in settled science. If all truth is a means of exercising power, as Williams says, then there is no such thing as scientific truth:

Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power.

It sought to be obvious to anyone that this theory cannot easily cohabit with the notion that man-made climate change is an incontrovertible scientific fact, one that cannot be questioned or criticized or denied.

As with all of the statements that Williams offered, we can ask whether his statements themselves are true or false. But if they are merely a way for him and his deluded friends to exercise power by controlling the propaganda, then let’s not attack Trump for playing fast and loose with the truth.

Williams cannot believe what he believes and still attack Trump for promoting truths that are more about making people feel things than about rendering facts accurately. He does not notice or does not care to notice that Barack Obama constantly trafficked in falsehoods that were designed to make people feel good. 

Williams suggests that we cannot hold Trump accountable for his falsehoods—but isn’t that what he was doing when he and his friends denounced Trump for being untruthful—but that we should ask why he said what he said. That is, we must try to fold it all into a paranoid narrative—where what matters is your malevolent intention. Which is another way of saying that it’s all propaganda and that anyone who does not buy the prevailing party line needs therapy.

Williams then offers a good reason why we should think of abolishing a few Ph. D. programs. We already know that the graduates of these programs have next to no chance of ever getting academic jobs—beyond the adjunct level—so perhaps there is a rough justice in the fact that there is no real market for their skills—except perhaps in the propaganda ministry.

If we wanted to be slightly perverse, we could ask ourselves whether it is a fact that there are no objective facts. Or we could ask whether it is true that there is no truth? The reasoning behind this exercise is more than a little defective.

Anyway, Williams summarizes the reigning dogmas of the academy. For your edification:

Entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.

In fairness, this project dates to Plato and it characterizes the tradition of Western idealism. The alternative tradition, Western empirical thought dates from Aristotle and Aquinas. It flowered in Great Britain, especially through the work of Locke and Hume. For the record, it gave us parliamentary democracy, liberal democracy, the industrial revolution, the scientific revolution, the common law, the American republic among other things. And let’s not forget the armies of the empirically driven Anglosphere defeated Nazism and fascism and communism.

For that the practitioners of critical theory, the children of Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger, are not about to forgive us.


James said...

I once did a demolition job on the main street in front of our local university (which shall remain unnamed). During work I noticed through the front window a young man had set up an impromptu bookstore in front of the store on the sidewalk and was leaning against the store. Curious I went out and discovered it was a "anarchist bookstore" where upon I asked the young man if he knew the definition of "anarchy" he sneered said of course and recited something I'm sure he had learned in class. I laughed and said "no, this is what anarchy is: If you do not move I may or may not beat the hell out of you. If I do then the police may or may not come to arrest me or you and an ambulance may or nay not come to take you to medical services that may or may not be rendered. No one knows if all of this will happen or not. That is anarchy my friend and it is standing right in front of you."
Okay off the soap box.

Sam L. said...

Fine little lecture, James! What was his response?

James said...

After a brief period of examining the problem he chose certainty and left.

James said...

I don't know if Stuart has the band width or patience for this (Remove it
Stuart if you want to, it won't hurt my feelings), but this is how I feel about a lot of this:

Sam L. said...

Thang ya, thang ya verr much, James.

Ares Olympus said...

That's a lot of words needed to try to defend "truth" or "alternate truth".

Stuart: It sought to be obvious to anyone that this theory cannot easily cohabit with the notion that man-made climate change is an incontrovertible scientific fact, one that cannot be questioned or criticized or denied.

Details are always questionable, but that's not what deniers do. Deniers say "I don't want to think about this" and cherry pick information that says they don't have to worry.

"Man-made climate change" is an incontrovertible scientific fact. The debate has never been whether human activity changes the climate, but of degrees past, present and future. And the debate is also whether we can do anything about it, if we don't know how to live without burning more fossil fuels in the future to keep an ever expanding global population properly growing so we can keep increasing our collective debt and still retire in style someday. In short, it's complicated.

But if you're a global warming denier, you can use your "alternative facts" and say our "climate change" is improving the earth, and the warming is extending the growing season for agriculture, and allowing arctic oil exploration in the newly deiced arctic sea.

We might wonder whether "facts" or "alternative" facts are better or more representative of objective reality, and the way you face that uncertainty is recognize which "facts" reject we'd rather not hear. OTOH, they say we have a negativity bias, so maybe worry-warts should just shut up so the rest of us can party like its 1929, or 2007. At least some man-made disasters affect the rich more than the poor.

And whatever else is true, climate change moves literally at a glacial pace, so why not hope for the best? The future has no facts, so we shouldn't listen to scientists who say some things can be statistically proven.