Donald Trump is truly a path breaking leader, opening new horizons for the American Republic. This week, he introduced into the American public life the idea of military parade in Washington D.C. and “joked” that those who do not clap for the great leader commit treason. Both truly unprecedented “advances,” contributing to a reinvention to American political culture, reminding me that the arc of history is long, but that it bends not only towards justice, especially in the United States and in our times.
Clarity suggests itself. When I was trying to understand the distinctive quality of modern tyranny around the Soviet Bloc in the 1980s, in contrast to the more traditional tyranny in Latin America, Asia and Africa of those times, I proposed that the key distinction was that in modern tyranny (the term Hannah Arendt uses as a synonym for totalitarianism) power and truth are conflated. There is an official truth to which, at least theoretically, all thoughts and actions, both public and private, must conform. In traditional tyranny, in contrast the obligation of the subject was more modest, conformity to the powers. All you have to do in a traditional tyranny is accede to the commands of dictators and not challenge them. In modern tyranny, there is an official truth. You have to publicly express and embrace it, in matters of great import, but also in the most trivial of acts: as Vaclav Havel put it in his classic essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” including putting the sign “Workers of the World Unite” in a greengrocer window, along with the fruits and vegetables.
Now, it seems to me, we have a kind of postmodern tyranny looming globally, with the United States once more as a hegemonic vanguard. It’s not a traditional tyranny, nor, clearly, is it a modern one, but truth again is in play, in that it doesn’t matter at all. Factual truth is simply ignored, and the interpretive “truths” of ideology, also are not at play.
Trump has beliefs, prejudices and enthusiasms. He loves a (military) parade, and he hates when people don’t like him, especially when they disdain him. Yet, he has no systematic idea about a new role for the military nor a new account of loyalty. And he is so unfamiliar with truth that his lawyers fear that if he testifies under oath that he will inevitably not tell the truth and commit perjury.
Trump is presenting a break in the relationship between truth and power. It’s post truth authoritarianism. It’s a creative “advance.” In modern tyranny facts didn’t matter, but ideas did, in the form of official ideology. Now both facts and ideas don’t matter, in a systematic way.
Thus an important response, an important act of resistance is to take truth, both factual truth and the struggle over interpretative truths, seriously. Now is the time, more than ever, to cultivate an understanding of factual reality and demonstrate the power of ideas and reach a broad public in doing so, no small challenge given the bifurcated nature of public life.
It is because of this that I am so proud of Public Seminar’s publication of #Charlottesville: Before and Beyond (click here for a free download). Among its chapters are pieces that reveal how the facts on the ground looked in a Virginia city, and other chapters which present alternative interpretations of the facts’ meaning. We published serious differences in perspective, no official Public Seminar truth, all deeply concerned about what actually happened. Goodbye to good people on all sides.
It is because of the imperative of being concerned both with factuality and informed debate that I was so struck by the public letter addressed to the directors of the national museum in Krakow, Poland. The petition’s signatories call for the presentation of the rich cultural history of art’s resistance to fascism. They call upon the leaders of a Polish national institution to present the national and international cultural heritage in its factual richness, against the actions of a ruling party that presents a one dimensional ultranationalist account of the connection between past and present, and censors and attacks those who disagree. This includes, most infamously, passing a law making it a crime to accuse “the Polish Nation” for complicity in the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities, a law designed to falsify history, as Jan Gross put it a few days ago. The open letter to the Polish directors underscores that to be silent in face of the new authoritarian threat is passive collaboration.
And when we see a systematic injustice, the conversation must not stop, as Elena Gagovska shows as she recounts her experiences of recurrent sexism in her life and their implications. Facts matter and must be shown. This is most powerful when it is considered from multiple perspectives and locations, as our series of posts on #MeToo demonstrate. By the way, we are planning in the near future to publish a book on this. My idea for a title is #MeToo: Before and Beyond. But that still is a matter for collective decision.
Jeffrey C. Isaac and I are about to recommit to Public Seminar’s critical examination of the bending of history toward regress around the globe. It is a continuation of work he and I have been doing separately in our individual contributions here and elsewhere, and together in our election and post election forums, and in the series on “liberal democracy in question.” As Jeff and I bring together many friends and colleagues to address these questions, and as we invite submissions, I am convinced that the changing relationship between truth and power will be a recurring question, ubiquitous, but with significant variations on the theme.
And by the way, I welcome Jeff’s new Blue Monday column to our weekly line up, joining Claire Potter’s Purple Wednesday and my Gray Friday columns. As is Jeff’s fashion, he started off with elegance and insight, combining now his theoretical and musical talents.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar