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Lights out on Western Civilization?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2016-09-26 09:45:44
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Lights out on Western Civilization?
The Issue may not be Trump but the Media’s Skepticism about Truth


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 a 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 spreads very rapidly like a wild firestorm sucking the oxygen out of democracy and conviviality. Alas, sophistry is still with us, 25 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 preceded 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 without any proven evidence and in the process destroying many lives and careers.


They all showed the world the “ugly American” and led under the banner of populism, promising the people what they thought they had been deprived of by the establishment and the rich and powerful, and a fairer redistribution of wealth. Funny thing is that Trump himself belongs to the class of rich people and in fact got rich via a savage type of capitalism, exploiting the working class and often leaving them holding the bag via bankruptcy laws favorable to the rich. Those tactics have no resemblance to distributive justice and they come at a high price, the price of a pernicious nativism advocating the building of walls and the keeping out of immigrants and refugees. The xenophobia, by the way extends not only to people but to ideas that are deemed foreign and dangerously un-American.


In the end, McCarthy was brought down vindicating for a while the ideals of the nation’s founding fathers. A brave journalist called McCarthy 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.”


We can also mention here the morally courageous 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 testify about the above mentioned virus and its remedies. Unfortunately, what seems to prevail nowadays is the moral and social indifference on the part of many so called “guardians of the truth,” namely the media. Since the “birther movement” of three years or so ago and still ongoing, out to discredit the legitimacy of a sitting president, the media has not seen fit to challenge the unfair, bigoted 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 apply a double standard and grade Trump on a curve as if he were a dumb ass third grader bully unable to carry on even a simple rational argument. Nevertheless, we are expected to trust this man with his finger of the nuclear button. As Cicero exclaimed: “O tempora, o mores.”

Where are the profiles in courage of today? Most of the Republican Party has acquiesced in the nomination of a bigot as its final choice for presidential candidate. 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 whole circus. Once again, the virus has spread wildly 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 dared to call him what he is to his face: a chronic liar using the lie as an amoral strategic tool to crush his opponents. None has reprimanded him publicly for his ignorance. Most disturbingly, none seem to show revulsion for the glorification of his own ignorance. The mind set seems to be the same.


Preposterously, the latest is that Trump has taken to praising Putin on Russian TV. And journalists simply acquiesce. In fact, it was one of them, Larry King, who made it possible. We will soon have political debates wherein rhetorical garbage will be thrown on the wall hoping that it sticks while the moderators do no fact checking to determine if what was proffered has any connection to reality. Perhaps they’ll assign a Pinocchio nose the next day and Trump will promptly use it to double down on what he said the night before. As he once said: any sensationalism provides more exposure, good or bad.

The question arises: why do we continue to see these sad scenarios, redolent of a society ready to sacrifice its hard won democratic ideals? As a philosophy professor I’d have to sadly say that presently the media seems incapable of rendering fair objective judgments based on the truth of the facts. Somehow, that is seen nowadays as “taking sides” and “being partial,” i.e., not being “fair and balanced.” Indeed, it all revolves about balance parading as fairness. In reality what we have is an incredible skepticism about truth; a skepticism about the very possibility of arriving at truth. Truth has by an and large become relativistic; 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 can at times be biased against one’s opinion, and that individualistic private convenient opinion is more valuable than objective truth. In a Democracy we are of course all entitled to our opinions but one is left wondering why the crucial distinction between opinions based on facts and objective knowledge, and opinions based on ignorance and expediency is somehow overlooked by so many journalists. 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 relativistic Machiavellian answer based on geo-political considerations.


In conclusion, the media has to ultimately 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 will make us free, or the denial or prevarication of the truth will makes us slaves while we hypocritically parade our exceptional love of country and freedom. Time is running out.



Check Dr Emanuel Paparella's EBOOKS
Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers
& Europe Beyond the Euro
You can download them for FREE HERE!


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