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“We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident”

Photograph Source: Carnaval.com Studios – CC BY 2.0

What Donald Trump says matters because of the office he holds and because of the cult-like following he has. But absolutely none of it, zilch, is worth being taken seriously on the merits.

This is not to say that everything he says is false or that it is always more noxious than what the rival duopoly party’s leaders and the “moderates” who tow their line say. Quite to the contrary, in words, though not in deeds, Trump is less of a Cold War monger than they and their media flacks – especially with regard to Russia, China is another story — and that is all to his credit or would be if he acted accordingly, which he seldom does.

My point is just that what Trump says is no more worth taking seriously than the jibber jabber of a poorly socialized male adolescent acting out.

With apologies to our “founding fathers” (not a mother among them), I would say that I hold that truth to be self-evident.

Putting my point this way is, of course, a rhetorical flourish, but it is more than that too; not a whole lot more, however. The sense in which that truth is self-evident is a good deal less momentous than philosophers and others who take notions of self-evident truths seriously might suppose.

This being the case, and with a reckoning on Trump and Trumpism still some hundred days off, now is a good time to reflect on self-evident truths, and on what claims for self-evidence portend.

***

Our political scene would now be in a better place, and poised to move into a better place still, if, in addition to the sixty percent or so of Americans whose heads are more or less screwed on right, some substantial percentage of the others, the ones not totally bereft of the sense they were born with, would appreciate the self-evident nature of the worthlessness of everything Trump claims.

Then the number of likely Trump voters could reach some anxiety-proof level – say, around ten or fifteen percent. That would be about as good as his poll numbers can get, inasmuch as, like the poor, according to Jesus, the vile and the non-compos mentis will always be with us.

So far, neither Trump’s imbecility, nor his contributions to impending, irreversible ecological catastrophes, nor the countless ways he has undermined the rule of law and so much else that is still decent in American life – including longstanding constraints on the prevailing culture’s racism, nativism, misogyny, homophobia, and religious bigotry – have led the forty percent or so of Americans who continue to put their own and their families’ and their friends’ lives and well-being in jeopardy for that mountebank’s sake to defect from the vaunted “Trump base.”

Lately, however, as he heaps misery and death upon his marks, courting economic catastrophe in the process, desertions are finally beginning to accrue.

It is therefore not out of the question that, even within the bowels of the Trump demographic, the worthlessness of what Trump says will, at last, become widely acknowledged for the self-evident truth that it plainly is.

Of course, with opposition to Trump and the “ism” bearing his name led by Joe Biden, a centrist doofus, and with a still unreconstructed, Cold War mongering, Wall Street and military-industrial-national security state friendly Democratic Party calling the shots, one can never be entirely sure — but, at least for now, reasons to be hopeful outweigh reasons to despair.

It is therefore reasonable to hope that Trump will soon be toast, and that Trumpism will suffer a blow from which it will never recover.

Thanks mainly to the oodles of cash at their disposal, and the hard work of their media flacks, corporate Democrats continue to dominate the “resistance.” But they are on the losing side of a subdued but very real intraparty war of attrition, and although change is coming more slowly than one would hope, it is, despite all obstacles, evidently on the way.

We can therefore also hope for more than Trump’s and Trumpism’s demise. We can hope too that, at the national and also at state and local levels, that energized progressives, running as Democrats for want of a viable alternative, will be numerous and bold enough to transform the Democratic Party beyond recognition, turning it into something more than a lesser evil, good only for keeping Republicans at bay.

Seeing Trump as more than just wrong or wrong-headed but as a promoter of claims that, on their merits, are self-evidently not worth being taken seriously can help make that happen.

In this context, being self-evident and being glaringly obvious are more or less the same thing. But the term also has more recondite connotations that can matter – not directly, but ironically, in ways that merit consideration.

***

Thus, there is some good that can come from reflecting briefly on the Jeffersonian or civics lesson kind of self-evident truths, the kind that most naturally register in the consciousness of the American public, thanks to the fact that every pupil who has ever done hard time in any elementary or middle school in the United States knows (or has at least been told), that in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, the most sacred text in the American canon, Thomas Jefferson declared: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (sic) are created equal, that they are endowed, by their creator, with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Jefferson then went on to maintain, among other things, that legitimate governments are based on the consent of the governed, and that the proper role of government is and ought to be to secure individuals’ rights. He also maintained that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it.”

No doubt, he considered these “truths” self-evident too. There is no reason to think that any of the Declaration’s signatories disagreed.

Those contentions of his have become core tenets of the American “civil religion,” expressed in public symbols and ceremonies, and in places associated with “sacred” moments of American history.

The word “un-American” has been much used over the years — for rhetorical effect and to serve various, generally nefarious, political purposes. But insofar as those words actually mean something substantive, it would be that violations of the letter or the spirit of the claims Jefferson made in the Declaration’s Preamble violate what we would do well to think of as “the American creed.”

Leaving aside the kinds of questions that philosophers might raise about the merits of Jefferson’s self-evident truths, and about what, if anything, it means to call them “truths” at all, one can only marvel at his insistence on their “self-evident” nature.

After all, as Jefferson knew well, they have not been evident in any sense, much less self-evident, to nearly everyone everywhere from time immemorial. In 1776, his contentions would not even have been comprehensible to many of the people living close by the building we now call “Independence Hall,” or indeed to anyone not attuned to ideas current in tiny intellectual circles in Britain, Western Europe and the American colonies of the great European powers.

If Jefferson’s idea was at all like the idea that we need in our politics now – if he thought, in other words, that the claims he set down in the Preamble are so obvious that no reasonable person could possibly deny them — then either he was obviously (self-evidently?) wrong or else he thought that nearly everyone, everywhere, at all times, failed to meet a standard of reasonableness that he considered incontestable.

Could he and his co-thinkers have been that dismissive of everyone else? What about their vaunted optimism about human nature and the prospects for human perfectibility? Only a fool would put much stock in the promise of persons too benighted to acknowledge self-evident truths.

Perhaps Jefferson and the others, and Enlightened thinkers generally, were not nearly as sanguine about human nature as the standard narratives used to claim they were. In scholarly circles, that take on the Enlightenment has been in disrepute for quite a while. Perhaps the formerly standard view really was wrong-headed. But did Jefferson or others in his cohort know, as it were, how deep their pessimism ran? Not very likely.

To be sure, history is full of examples of ideas that are now considered obviously true being taken for obviously false, and vice versa. But not all mistakes are created equal; those that no reasonable person could possibly hold are in a category all by themselves.

Thus, it would be fair to say that when Jefferson called the positions he advanced “self-evident,” he was not describing how they are experienced psychologically, but how they ought to be regarded ideologically.

Why, then, would he use words that suggest a degree of certainty – indeed, of infallibility – that he and his co-thinkers would associate with the purported certainties of Cartesian metaphysics?

Perhaps he was being disingenuous. I don’t think so, however; not entirely. I don’t think he was trying to be ironic either, though that is what he ended up being.

René Descartes’ (1596-1650), the “founder” of modern Western philosophy according to standard accounts, set out to ground knowledge claims, arising out of the theology and physics of his time, on foundations that not even the most radical skeptics could reasonably deny.

Thus, he set out to defend the idea that God, a perfect being, exists; and that God guarantees the veracity of “clear and distinct ideas,” by which he meant ideas of the spatial properties that were, on his construal, the basis of the new (Galilean) science of nature. He thought that demonstrating this is tantamount to showing that the physics he wanted to defend rests on foundations that are immune from skeptical attack.

The argument he advanced rests on a truth that is as self-evident, according to the literal meaning of those words, as can be, an existence claim about which it is logically impossible to be wrong — that whenever “I think” (whenever, as Descartes would say, “je pense” or “cogito”), whenever “I” engage in any mental activity whatsoever (doubting included), then not even the most extreme skeptics, the most adamant doubter, not even an all-powerful demon hellbent on deceit, not even God Himself (that God is a “He” went without saying), could make it the case that the I’s thinking was not real, not anyway as long as logic applies; it is logically impossible to be wrong about that.

This is the point of Descartes’ cogito argument (cogito, ergo sum; je pense, donc je suis; I think, therefore I am), the argument that everybody who knows anything about Descartes has at least heard about.

It required rational intuition for him to get from “there is thinking” to the conclusion that he (the “I” of the argument) is “a thinking thing”; that this is what he –“I’ — essentially is. In Descartes’ view, these further steps are also undeniable – not because to deny them would be illogical, but because rational intuitions are self-confirming. In this sense, “I exist” (“je suis,” “sum”) is a self-evident truth.

It need hardly be said that Jefferson’s self-evident truths are not like that – except in one sense. They too are foundational. In their own ways, they each model themselves on Euclidian geometry – where axioms, assertions deemed in no need of further justification, are taken as given, as “self-evident,” and, in that role, function as bases from which further claims (“theorems”) can be derived.

For some twenty-five hundred years, those theorems, the system built upon Euclid’s axioms, seemed obviously true – and therefore, in that sense, self-evident – to everyone who paid them heed. It has been known, however, since the late nineteenth century that non-Euclidean geometries are conceivable. Thanks to Albert Einstein and others, we know too that while physical space is, so to speak, Euclidean enough for most purposes, it is ultimately not Euclidean at all.

Thus, even truths that are ostensibly self-evident – not in the Cartesian sense, according to which, as a matter of logic, they cannot be false, but in the sense of Euclidean geometry – are corrigible.

Corrigible, but nevertheless more indubitable than Jefferson’s or any other ideologically-driven “axiomatic” foundations for the credal bases of a civil religion or indeed of any account of ideal social and political institutional arrangements.

No matter how defensible they may be, the “truths” Jefferson deemed self-evident are more than just corrigible; they are eminently contestable. Indeed, in both theory and practice, they are contested all the time.

The sense in which it is self-evident that Trump’s views are without merit is more demanding than that. We could say that it falls somewhere in between Jefferson and Descartes.

It is logically possible to be wrong about the merits of Trump’s views; indeed, there are alarmingly many Americans who still manage to find merit in the Donald’s nonsense.

But his views are so glaringly and, in that sense, self-evidently without any merit whatsoever that the phenomenon is, if not of clinical interests only, then very nearly so.

***

Nevertheless, liberal corporate media don’t get it. It is as if they cannot keep themselves from treating Trump’s views with respect.

To be sure, MSNBC and CNN and NPR and the rest are second to none in disparaging Trump and all things Trumpian; in that, they are as gung ho as any news or opinion outlet to their left. But they nevertheless take Trump’s views seriously, not just in the ways that news organizations must, but as if what they say actually deserve more than sheer contempt.

Treating Trumpian nonsense with respect is inherent in their business model and in their notion of journalistic ethics. It was the same four years ago, when they opposed Trump – and favored Hillary Clinton — with all their heart, soul, and might but nevertheless gave him oodles of free publicity, causing his nonsense to take root within mainstream public discourse.

It may not be quite the case that any publicity is good publicity, even when its tenor is negative as can be, but that venerable adage did prove true in 2016. It could prove true again, even now, with Trump mentally decomposing in fully public view.

Unlike four years ago, it now requires a good deal more than just willful blindness not to see how glaringly unfit Trump is and always has been for the office he holds, and for nearly everything else, but until now this seems hardly to have mattered.

The fault lies not just with Fox News and other rightwing media. MSNBC, CNN, NPR and the other glories of the corporate media universe are culpable too, for treating Trump’s views as if they were worthy of rational consideration, when they self-evidently (obviously) are not.

By endorsing hissy fits over words hurtful to sensitive souls, they are culpable too for promoting an ill-informed, indeed infantile, worldview that unintentionally, but inexorably, reinforces Trump’s own efforts to use media to distract attention away from what people need to know and discuss.

Not long ago, children were taught that sticks and stones could break their bones, but that names could never hurt them. That was wise advice.

Now they are taught that words can hurt, as indeed they sometimes can, and therefore that it is as appropriate to police them as it is to police what people do with sticks and stones. This is not wise at all; it is silliness on stilts, made all the worse by the times we are in.

This silliness encourages the right to go after what they have taken to calling “political correctness,” a term that once had an intelligible, though not particularly commendable, meaning in Communist Party and other old left circles, but by which they mean something like goody-goody prissiness in the service of socially liberal “agendas.” This is bad enough.

The bigger problem, though, is, as already noted, that by focusing on words that can hurt only feelings, unlike the sticks and stones – and guns — of Trump-besotted hooligans, they are deflecting attention away from serious and pressing political problems. These would include: among others:

1) how to make sure that the coming election will be no less free and fair than normal, by thwarting Republican voter suppression efforts and machinations intended to delegitimate the outcome.

2) how to keep Biden from making some sort of deal with Trump that would effectively render him immune from being called to account for the countless actionable crimes he will have committed by the time his term expires.

Forgiving Bush-era war criminals for the sake of “moving forward” was, after all, the Original Sin of the Obama administration; and Biden was just as much a part of that crime against justice as Attorney General Eric Holder and Obama himself.

3) how to keep Trump and his minions from refusing to accept the election’s outcome, encouraging civil unrest instead, putting lives and property in jeopardy, even to the point of putting the republic’s very existence in jeopardy, just as it was more than a century and a half ago, during the Civil War.

For what it is worth, by talking up a storm about that prospect, Trump himself is doing more to preclude such an eventuality than all the Democrats and Democratic media in the world. As is his wont, Trump is being, despite himself, his own worst enemy.

4) how to prevent Trump from starting a war, much as Bill Clinton did when her felt politically imperiled, but this time at far greater risk – in large part because the most likely pretext now would come if Israel succeeds in provoking Iran into doing something, anything, that would drag the United States into an unwinnable and manifestly pointless war against that country.

The Israelis have been working hard at it, now that it has dawned on the felonious Bibster, Benjamin Netanyahu, that his man in DC, Jared, son of his old friend and fellow felon Charles Kushner, and son-in-law of the Donald himself, is about to become yesterday’s lunch.

The list goes on, but why bother with problems like these when there are ostensibly momentous infantile concerns at hand: for instance, whether for Trump, “jew” is or ever was a verb, like “gyp” still is even in “PC” circles; or whether Trump has ever used the “n-word,” a slur so horrifyingly ungodly that like the name of God (sorry, G-d) Himself in orthodox Jewish circles, it can only be referred to indirectly (as, in Hebrew, ha shem, the name), but never actually uttered, even in liturgical contexts, where another, more sacred but still indirect, reference (Adonai) is used.

That corporate media abide by these and so many other verbal prohibitions, without even a hint of irony, only shows how insecure and degraded the ambient political culture has become.

But then what would one expect from media in which for anyone not interested in seeing how long it takes Rachel Maddow to make some inane point with the persistence of a kindergarten teacher – for me, that got old years ago – or what Joy Reid’s latest hairdo will be, it changes daily, the most palatable MSNBC and CNN commenters and news presenters, with very few exceptions, are former Bush functionaries; and the most effective anti-Trump publicists are anti-Trump Republicans, like the ones in the Lincoln Project, who understand that the way to boost voter enthusiasm and therefore turnout is to proceed as if Biden and Pelosi and Schumer and the others don’t exist, by making it all about Trump.

Could anything, except perhaps the worthlessness of Trump’s words, be more (colloquially) self-evident than that?

 

 

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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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