Fools said I you do not know Silence like a cancer grows
When my son, Alexander, was little, he used to get himself into all sorts of trouble. He had a lot of energy and didn’t know how to channel it. Finally, I started to say to him: “Use your strength for good.” He didn’t understand at first what that meant, but eventually he began to stand up to bullies. As a result, bullies don’t tend to like him, which used to bother him but now it just makes him shrug.
When I first came back to politics in 2014, I was astounded at how many of my “friends” either sided with Hamas in that summer’s conflict or acted as though nothing of note was happening in Israel. Most had very big platforms, and I kept thinking: why aren’t they using their platforms for good?
In retrospect, that was nothing compared to what I’ve come to call the #KabulSilence. The biggest humanitarian disaster in our lifetimes was happening, and not one of my friends on the left posted about it. Not one. One could argue that this is merely toxic partisanship on steroids, but as each day goes by I keep thinking to myself: maybe they were never the people I thought they were. How do you intentionally ignore a genocide in the making to protect a man who should never have been president as well as his incompetent administration?
There are bullies of action and there are bullies of inaction—those who enable and empower evil. Silence is not violence, but it does speak volumes about character. The fact that leftists were able to destroy the consciences of moderate Democrats is perhaps the most telling aspect of this horrific moment in U.S. history.
And in the naked light, I saw Ten thousand people, maybe more People talking without speaking People hearing without listening
The Taliban has reminded us that there really isn’t that much difference between leftists and Islamists. Both are part of a cult. Both are taught from birth to hate and segregate. Both follow an arbitrary set of rules that can’t be deviated from. Both don’t allow individual thought. Both use violence. Both see the U.S. military as evil white supremacists. Both want to annihilate Judeans.
So the fact that leftists don’t see any of what has been happening in Kabul as bad is not surprising. The ones that did had a simple response: It was Trump’s fault. Despite the fact that Biden did not follow one part of former Secretary of State Pompeo’s pull-out plan.
The Silent Liberals are a bit more complex. Silent Liberals claim to still believe in classical liberal values, meaning they ostensibly find leftists as detestable as Islamists. But speaking out in the face of evil is a fundamental part of classical liberalism. Free speech requires both the ability to speak out—the lack of government restrictions—and the bravery to do so.
I have come to call Silent Liberals the “Good Germans”: the moderate Germans in the ‘30s and ‘40s who knew what was happening but looked away, who made obedience into an art form. Many have argued that the Good Germans had no choice: if they spoke out, they would be executed immediately—as were many members of the original White Rose group.
But Silent Liberals have no threat of death hanging over them. In fact, one could argue that cancel culture—what Bill Maher calls “the giant dorm room bitch session”—is losing its edge, so many if not most Silent Liberals have nothing to worry about in terms of losing their jobs.
What, one must ask, keeps them silent? As photo after photo was more heartbreaking than the last—as 13 U.S. marines were gratuitously murdered—Silent Liberals adhered to a strict code of “we couldn’t care less.”
It’s true that photos of abandoned children and blood-saturated parents don’t mix too well with photos of Cape Cod or the Hamptons. But we all know the very ugly truth: if Trump was in office and had not followed his own plan, these same Silent Liberals would be posting these photos non-stop.
It appears they suffer from the 21st century version of what Tom Wolfe called “radical chic” in 1970. Consumed by “status,” they live in fear of sitting next to a leftist at a dinner party and receiving a public scowl. Or—I can barely write these words of shame—not being invited to the next dinner party. #JihadiChic?
Or maybe they were never the “smartest people in the room,” as they liked to call themselves. The smartest people in the room now appear to be Independents, willing to take on both the left and the right as classical liberals are required to do. For Silent Liberals, maybe classical liberalism was just a trend—a means to an end: status and power.
But that’s not even the worst of it. Leftism and the toxic tribalism it created destroyed the consciences of Silent Liberals. I doubt that many thought twice about not speaking out: their humanity has been deadened. That’s what happens in authoritarian societies. Ask the Russians. Ask the Chinese. Ask Arabs living under Sharia Law.
Did anyone ever think that this could happen here? America has never been perfect—but it has always had a soul. A soul that came from immigrants who fled fascism and would do anything not to experience it again.
Kabul was the final nail in the coffin of humanity on the left. One could argue that it started with making abortion into an industry, forcing parents to allow their prepubescent children to undergo life-altering surgery, resegregating children, ignoring shouts of “F*ck the Jews,” “Rape their daughters,” “Hitler was right”—yes, we’ve been moving to this point quite rapidly.
But to watch some of my own friends—people I truly did think were good people—act as though Kabul wasn’t happening… There’s only one question to ask: What happened to your soul? Sadly, their inability to answer will haunt us for generations.
And the people bowed and prayed To the neon god they made And the sign flashed out its warning In the words that it was forming And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls And tenement halls” And whispered in the sound of silence
To complement the ‘Judean Voices’ art exhibition by Moshe Katz, I’ve included songs by each of the musicians he highlighted. In addition is Nicole Raviv, a Canadian Israeli singer. Nicole’s musical influences resemble a traveling journey throughout the Middle East and the world. She has performed with Grammy award winning musicians and producers in the United States, Canada as well as Israel. Nicole’s cover of a song by Idan Raichel, “Mima’amakim” (Out of the Depths), resonated with her because of its powerful message about being saved as well as the biblical imagery and verse depicting a beautiful love story.
“It is the absolute right of the State to supervise the formation of public opinion.”
Journalism in the United States has always been a bit of a mess. Not as worrisome as it is now, but it always had its rogues, liars, and scoundrels. Likewise, it always had its biases. In the nineteenth century, newspapers made little or no pretense to objectivity. It is hard to imagine now, but the “progressive” Los Angeles Times was once a hard-line, right-wing, Republican journal under the management and editorship of Brigadier General Harrison Gray Otis from 1882 until his death in 1917. His reputation for being right-wing was so pervasive that it was rumored he had a canon mounted on his armored 1910 Franklin Model H automobile. This rumor even fooled famous writer, journalist, and historian David Halberstam, who repeated the claim in his book, The Powers That Be (1979).
From the beginning of the American republic until the early twentieth century, almost all newspapers were clearly and unapologetically attached to specific political parties. The Democrats had their newspapers and the Republicans had theirs. In the early years of the United States, the Federalist Party had its newspapers. The Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans had their newspapers. The Anti-Masonic Party had its newspapers. The Whig Party, the Free Soil Party, and the Socialist Labor Party of America had their newspapers. Teddy Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” Party (the Progressive Party) had its newspapers. Everyone was partisan and everyone knew it. Journalistic partisanship was generally accepted and expected.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that there was a significant increase in the practice of objectivity in the field of reporting. The New York Times and other major institutions rose to prominence on the promise of presenting the news in a fair and objective manner. Whether they actually did so is another question entirely. The universities established Departments of Journalism, and it became a field of academic study grounded in the dream of universal objectivity.
From the early to mid-twentieth century until Walter Cronkite and shortly after, most Americans tended to believe that the news they received, whether on television or on paper, was more or less honest. Cronkite was widely considered the “Most Trusted Man in America” and his nightly sign-off for CBS News was the confident assurance that, “that’s the way it is.” By the 1970s, however, the American public was losing faith in both journalists and politicians.
It became increasingly clear that each individual news outlet, even the high-profile and “objective” newspapers like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Chicago Tribune had their distinct ideological tendencies. This also became accepted as true for the more serious political magazines such as the New Republic, which came to be known as the “in-flight magazine of Air Force One.” The New Republic also had its shifting ideological tendencies over the decades before its deterioration into irrelevancy in relatively recent years.
The New Republic was founded in 1914 by leaders of the Progressive Movement, and its stated purpose was “a liberalism centered in humanitarian and moral passion and one based in an ethos of scientific analysis.” For many years the New Republic was a well-respected left-leaning political magazine. In 1974 it was purchased by Harvard University instructor, Marty Peretz, a former member of the radical New Left who became alienated from that movement after it allied itself with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) following the Six Day War of 1967.
Decades later, in 1998, Stephen Glass was perhaps the hottest young journalist in Washington, D.C., and at the age of twenty-five was the youngest journalist at the New Republic and had already published in various magazines including Policy Review, George, Rolling Stone, and Harper’s.Everyone in the magazine seemed to like Glass because he was both modest and fun. His stories were a kick and they pulled no punches. In “Spring Breakdown” (March 21, 1997), for example, he tells the story of young conservatives at the Conservative Political Action Conference. In their room at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington D.C., young conservatives drank to excess, smoked pot, snorted coke, and engaged in sexual harassment of an innocent young woman whom they lured to their room for the purpose of sexual humiliation.
Seth, a meaty quarterback from a small college in Indiana, and two others will drive to a local bar. There, the three will choose the ugliest and loneliest woman they can find. “Get us a real heifer, the fatter the better, bad acne would be a bonus,” Michael shouts. He is so drunk he doesn’t know he is shouting. Seth will lure the victim, whom they call a “whale,” back to the hotel room. The five who stay behind will hide under the beds. After Seth undresses the whale, the five will jump out and shout, “We’re beaching! Whale spotted!” They will take a photograph of the unfortunate woman.
The problem is that Glass made it all up.
He wrote fiction for the New Republic and passed it off as fact. And it was not merely that one story. In the end Glass either wholly, or partly, fabricated twenty-seven articles for the New Republic through the end of the 1990s.
In the 2003 film, Shattered Glass, drawn from the 1998 Vanity Fair article of the same name by H. G. Bissinger, we see one writer-editor speaking with another and it is quite telling, even though it is a movie representation. She also was young, as were most staff writers on the magazine at the time and was a little intimidated by the rise of Stephen Glass. She felt that she did not have enough pizzazz to compete with the emerging style of personalized journalism that he represented. This trend owes much to what they called the New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s as represented by such well-respected writers as Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Tom Wolfe, of The Right Stuff and Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test fame. The difference between these renowned writers and journalists and Glass is that they generally did not fabricate material, although in Thompson’s case you could probably dig up a few factually questionable, tongue-in-cheek claims at a politician’s expense in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.
At the time, the New Republic, under editor-in-chief Charles “Chuck” Lane, had the integrity to fire Stephen Glass from the magazine despite the uncomfortable disapproval of much of his staff, due to their loyalty and friendship to Glass. Glass, however, merely represents one example of a journalist taking the New Journalism—which reified a blending of objectivity and subjectivity for the purpose of turning journalism into art—to its final destination, i.e., lying for fame and profit. He did it, however, strictly on his own. There was no collusion with his employer or the government in his deceptions.
Journalists with similar tendencies who came later, particularly out of Europe, are even less nuanced in their occupational malpractice. What Boston University historian Professor Richard Landes dubbed Pallywood is a perfect example. Pallywood is when Arab-Palestinian activists, in collusion with the Western press, defame the Jewish State by faking and staging incidents of IDF brutality. Although there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of other Pallywood productions, it was the Muhammad al-Durrah case in September, 2000, that gained world-wide fame, in large part due to the efforts of anti-Israel French journalists partnering with anti-Semitic Arabs in Judea and Samaria.
In a March 26, 2008, article titled “One on One: Framing the debate” for The Jerusalem Post, Ruthie Blum Leibowitz tells us that Pallywood represents “productions staged by the Palestinians, in front of (and often with cooperation from) Western camera crews, for the purpose of promoting anti-Israel propaganda by disguising it as news.” There are countless clips of Palestinian-Arabs filmed by local and foreign film crews demonstrating obvious journalistic fraud.
On September 30, 2000, during the opening round of Arab violence in the Second Intifada, Muhammad al-Durah and his father Jamal apparently found themselves between IDF forces and Arab-Palestinian fighters and terrorists in the Gaza Strip. Talal Abu Rahma, a Palestinian cameraman, filmed the scene for France 2 News on French national television. They broadcast fifty-nine seconds of that footage resulting in international outrage against Israel and violence toward Jews, both in Israel and the diaspora, even as the bloody Arab “Intifada” raged throughout Israel.
Talal Abu Rahma later claimed that the al-Durrahs were under Israeli fire for forty-five minutes before they were murdered by the IDF. This, of course, is not a possibility because if the IDF wanted to kill these two people, crouching behind a barrel, they could easily have done so and it would not have taken forty-five minutes. Furthermore, other footage shows cameramen running up just behind the al-Durrahs to get footage, something that no one would do if under direct fire. There is a very interesting documentary titled “Muhammad al Durah: The Birth of an Icon,” laying out the al-Durrah case as an instance of Pallywood collusion.
The same cannot be said for Judith Miller of the New York Times or the Bush Administration during the lead-up to the Second Iraq War. Miller used the war and her connections in the White House, including Dick Cheney, to advance her career. No one accused the White House of ordering her to write that Saddam Hussein was hiding “weapons of mass destruction.” Or that the Iraqi government purchased aluminum tubes for the advancement of nuclear weaponry. She did it on her own because she was friendly with the administration, because she believed in the Bush Doctrine and the war, and because it would advance her career. She therefore promoted the view, reflected in George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union Address, that as Bush said, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.”
However distasteful, this represents normal human behavior. Miller did not act on the direct orders of Dick Cheney or anyone else in the White House. She did not need to. Many years later she wrote in a New York Times piece, “The Iraq War and Stubborn Myths” (April 3, 2015), “No senior official spoon-fed me a line about WMD. That would have been so much easier than uncovering classified information that officials can be jailed for disclosing.” Nonetheless, as Simon Maloy tells us in Salon a few days later, it was “Miller’s reporting on those same tubes that the Bush administration waved around so enthusiastically as proof that Saddam was trying to go nuclear.”
The point, however, is that there is nothing in the record to suggest that anyone in the Bush II White House ordered or pressured Miller to write anything. She was, instead, an enthusiastic advocate intending to advance her career. With the current administration we are looking at something entirely different.
With the rise of online social media, a million different political views are shared daily all around the world. People are no longer stuck gaping at CNN or the Washington Post. This means it is considerably less effective for the federal government to merely make nice with high-profile journalists for favorable coverage. This lesson is not lost on the Biden Administration. Instead, it takes the step of leaning on already friendly news outlets, both in social media and legacy media, to maintain as much ideological uniformity as possible throughout the country. Therefore, the Biden Administration pushes itself into the face of sycophantic social media outlets, such as Facebook. The social media giants are eager to comply, particularly in censoring views unfavorable to the administration. Such views include those that oppose the vitriolic partisanship of contemporary American political culture and the relentless push of Critical Race Theory (CRT), intersectionality, and the New Socialist “Woke” culture into every aspect of American life (corporate world, education, entertainment, and sports).
White House press secretary Jennifer Psaki even admitted it in a press conference, although in reference specifically to COVID-19, when she said that the Biden Administration is “flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation.” This admission of collusion with social media outlets resulted in a Republican Congressional backlash exemplified by Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), who on July 27 introduced the Disclose Government Censorship Act. “The recent collusion that has come to light between the Biden Administration and Big Tech is not only disturbing, but inconsistent with the government’s constitutional role in American life,” said Hagerty. The purpose of the bill is “to require officers and employees of the legislative and executive branches to make certain disclosures related to communications with information content providers and interactive computer services regarding restricting speech.”
The most prominent example of social media muzzling of political voices on behalf of their preferred political party is, of course, when Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube banned President Donald Trump from presenting his views to the American people through their outlets. Trump’s attorney, John Coale, intends to prove that the tech companies are “government actors,” colluding with the Democratic Party, and that “therefore, the First Amendment does apply” to their actions.
While all of this is murky, and yet to be worked out by the courts, still another example of apparent social media collusion with the current presidential administration is the stifling of the New York Post story concerning “its exposés about Hunter Biden’s emails — with Twitter baselessly charging that ‘hacked materials’ were used.” The Post alleges that Hunter Biden introduced then-Vice President Joe Biden “to executives at a Ukrainian energy firm less than a year before the elder Biden pressured government officials in Ukraine into firing a prosecutor who was investigating the company, according to emails obtained by The Post.”
This collusion is not limited to the government and social media but includes the deteriorating mainstream legacy media. In April of 2020, the Washington Examiner reports that the New York Times allowed itself to be pressured by the Biden campaign “to edit out allegations of sexual misconduct.”
This is not an example of one immature and dishonest journalist, as we saw with Stephen Glass. Nor does it represent anything like the New Journalism, which sought to subjectify and personalize the craft by introducing the journalist into the story. Nor is it an example of activists and terrorists colluding with journalists as we see with Pallywood. Nor, even, is it an example of the U.S. Executive making nice with preferred journalists in exchange for preferential access and career advancement, as we see in the case of Judith Miller.
The Biden Administration, in compliance with anti-liberal “Woke” sensibilities, smothers freedom of speech through outsourcing that practice to friendly social media venues, like Facebook, and skews the national discussion with the complicity of the legacy media. The nineteenth-century passion for partisan political journalism is back, but it is now advancing through social media, grounded in federal coercion. If the traditional legacy journalism of the twentieth century created public opinion, today big-tech media does likewise, but with the Biden Administration staring at the screen over its shoulder and with a hand on its neck. It was during the reign of nineteenth-century partisan journalism that President Teddy Roosevelt broke “the trusts” out of a conviction, derived from the founders, that power corrupts and that monopolies, like kings, can become tyrants.
The question is whether or not the American people today will allow ourselves to be led around like pigs with rings through our ideological noses. One alternative is legislation forcing the social media giants to abide by the same legal standards as newspapers. Another alternative is to follow Teddy Roosevelt and break up these monopolies before they do further harm to our national discourse.
Michael Lumish is a Ph.D. in American History from Pennsylvania State University, and has taught at Penn State University, San Francisco State University, and the City College of San Francisco.
Nevergreen is an academic satire that examines campus cancel culture and the ideological excesses that generate it. It has a subtle but deep Jewish angle in particular, as Jews are increasingly the target of campus cancel campaigns. This excerpt occurs as the cancel campaign against J., a middle-aged physician who has been invited to Nevergreen College to give a lecture, is just getting underway. No one actually showed up for his talk, but that doesn’t stop it from becoming the center of a firestorm of controversy, with potentially fatal consequences.
“Ah,” Robert exclaimed. “I thought I might find you here.”
“Did you have to jab me so hard?” J. rubbed his back.
“I did. You were pretty lost in thought there.”
“Ah! It was the strangest thing. That man. There was a—”
“Tell me while we walk,” Robert interrupted.
J. followed him through the corridors as Robert began walking. “What’s the matter? Did something happen?”
“Have you seen the student newspaper today, by any chance?”
“No,” J. worked to keep pace as they left the Depository onto the main campus. They came to a broad path (the one the female students had been dragging their mattresses along earlier) that ran between a pair of prominent signs. The sign on the right bore the words Walk of Fame; the one on the left, Walk of Shame. J. pointed as they crossed over the path. “What are those about?”
“This path connects the two largest lodges in the Hex.” Robert indicated the oblong buildings at the opposite ends of the path. “One and six, if you’re taking notes. The students here are like bunnies on bennies. Get shook up with a hook up, they like to say. Before they abolished sports the jocks used to say bump, hump, and pump. Oh, and dump. I think it’s something in the pomo. It perks them right up.”
J. felt slightly repelled. “And the signs?”
“The walk you do the next morning. Fame or shame, depending on your perspective. They installed extra security cameras in the guidestones there too, for good measure. See something, say something, you know. Ah, excuse me, please.” Robert maneuvered them past and through several tourists clustered around a red smelly pile of droppings, snapping photos. “Bonanza! They got to see some pig shit.”
Have I missed another ferry? J. wondered, momentarily overcome by the stench. He would text Brenda again as soon as he could. “So,” he said, out of breath attempting to keep pace, “what is the story with that Freinz fellow I just met? The librarian?”
“A real character. Allegedly descends from a long line of librarians. More likely from a long line of inmates at the asylum.”
“He seemed to think I was in danger.”
Robert stopped walking for a moment. “He’s a good librarian. And he seems to always know what’s going on around campus. But he’s a little—he’s a character. You’ll probably be fine.”
“Probably fine? What does that mean?”
“Come, we’ll discuss it at Aaliyah’s office. We’re almost there. Hexant 4, if you’re taking notes. Just around the Maze here.” Robert quickened his step as J. struggled to do the same.
“Who,” he breathed, “is Aaliyah?”
“The Vice President. If we still used that title. Now we just call her ‘friend Aaliyah.’ Here we are. The Center for Community Priorities.” Robert gestured upwards as they arrived at the base of the tallest Pacman building. “Administrative building, also known as the Castle, the Hive, and of course—” he gestured upward again, “the Big Dick. Bottom three floors home to the President and Vice President, the Provost, the Vice Provost, the Deputy Vice Provosts. The Deans of Student Life, Student Affairs, Student Concerns, Student Wishes, Student Fancies, the Vice Deans, the Dean of Deans. If we still used any of those titles.”
“And all the upper floors?” J. asked. The building had had additional floors added some years back, J. would eventually learn when he read the rest of the Information Desk literature stuffed in his jacket pocket.
“Department of Community Values. See?” Carved in bold block letters in the stone arch over the main doors were some of the community’s most fundamental values: Benevolence, Charity, Lovingkindness. “Quick, let’s catch that elevator.”
They went through the doors, caught the open elevator waiting for them.
“But why,” J. asked as they waited for the elevator doors to close, “am I going to see your—” He stopped, unable to think of what to call the administrator.
“Patience, grasshopper,” Robert said.
“And what about the student newspaper?” J. remembered after a long moment of silence as he began pressing the elevator’s “close door” button.
“That button doesn’t do anything, grasshopper,” Robert ignored him, putting his hand on J.’s. “Just there to give you the illusion of individual liberty.”
“This is the slowest elevator I have ever experienced,” J. observed moments later as they finally made their slow ascent.
“To remind you of your lack of liberty. Ah, we’re here.”
They walked out into a waiting area. A young woman wearing a bright yellow sari and sporting flesh tunnel earrings big enough to squeeze a thumb through lazily looked up, indicated they could take a seat on the low plush sofa along the wall, then returned to expertly manipulating her phone despite her multicolored fingernails being at least an inch and a half long.
“How does she do that?” J. whispered to Robert.
“No idea. But I think it’s a ‘he.’ I had him in my topology class last year. Brilliant kid, despite the fashion philosophy.”
“Robert,” J. said again, “why am I here?”
“It’s nothing, grasshopper.”
“Stop calling me that! And what’s nothing?”
“It’s probably nothing. Just precautionary.”
“What are you, the librarian now? Speaking in opaque parables?”
Robert straightened his bowtie. “Look, there was this thing in the student newspaper. It’s not a big deal but Aal asked me to bring you in, just to be safe. Here, I’ll show you.”
But as Robert pulled out his phone, the person in the sari called out in a sleepy deep voice, “Friend Aaliyah will see you now.”
They were led into a roomy office distinguished by the many colorful cushions scattered on the enormous colorful Persian rug and the absence of any conventional furniture. The scent of incense filled the space. A woman in a billowy multicolored gown seated on a cushion put her hands together on her chest, palm to palm, bowed gently in greeting, and said, “As-salāmu ʿalaykum. Please, my dears, sit where you like.”
“Thank you,” J. took a cushion.
“Welcome to New Ghana, J.,” Robert took another. “Friend J., meet friend Aaliyah, your new long-lost pal.”
“Please,” the Vice President said warmly to J., “You can call me Aal. And I’ll kindly ask you, friend Robert, to stop referring to this office as ‘New Ghana.’”
“Free speech! Viewpoint diversity!” Robert protested. “Budget cuts across the college, but the admin comrades import their office furniture from across the globe. You know how Persian rugs are supposed to have a flaw, because only the alleged Comrade in the Sky is flawless? I have it on good authority that this rug’s flaw is that it is actually flawless. Comrade knows what they paid for it.”
“Friend Robert enjoys his tenure,” Aal said cheerfully, then turned to indicate a lanky student with a goatee seated in the corner of the room, laptop atop lap. “And please meet Shawn. He’s my student shadow this week, from Undergraduate Social Support Resources. Now, may I offer you something to drink, my dear?”
“Would there be—just straight coffee?” J. asked hopefully.
Aal chortled. “Good one, friend! I can offer you pomo, of course. Or have you had the opportunity to try poco?”
“And what is poco?” J. asked hopefully again.
“I believe it’s a blend of pomo and cola. It’s officially served only above,” she pointed upward, “but we sometimes can squirrel some away for ourselves. On occasion faculty are permitted a drop as well. When they behave.” Friend Aal winked at Robert as she said this.
“They got rid of coffee on campus a couple years ago,” Robert explained. “The Student Capitalists revolted against the Fair Trade policy the student government had adopted against Big Coffee, in fact they occupied these very offices specifically demanding Unfair Trade coffee. The eventual compromise was to boycott all coffee from campus. As for the poco,” he added, “some people love it but all I can say is it’s nasty. Drink down a bottle and you’re ready to kill. I’m not sure if that’s a plus or a minus. But there is one thing the grown-ups all agree on.”
“And that is?” J. asked.
“We keep it out of the hands of students. Am I right, Shawn? Does Bossy Boss Bacharo let his shadowlings at the poco?”
They looked at the shadow, whose only reaction was to begin typing on his laptop.
“Perhaps, then,” J. turned back to the group, “we can just—get started?”
“Of course, of course,” Aal said. “So let me just begin by saying immediately that I see nothing to discipline you for, my dear.”
“That’s a relief,” J. responded with relief, until he realized from her glance at Shawn that there was something which she could, conceivably, consider disciplining him for.
“Aal,” Robert said, “he hasn’t seen the Howler yet.”
“Ah, I see. Well, then, shall we rectify that?”
The Vice President pulled over her laptop, hit a few keys, then swiveled it around so that J. could see the homepage of the newspaper. There was a large headline consisting merely of the word “THIS,” followed by a colon and a web address.
“Oh, apologies,” Aal said and clicked on the link, which took them to another site on which was posted an opinion piece addressed to “The Community of Nevergreen College.” It began:
We are enraged, and numb. There are dangerous forces there, right there in your home, in your heart, on your sacred ground. If you do not stamp out the hate within, then you become that hate. You must resist that hate.
You must hate that hate.
And you must hate it now.
The byline was someone or something called The Resistance.
“That’s odd,” J. said, noticing the two angry face emojis at the bottom and thinking that enraged and numb seemed mutually exclusive. “What is the Resistance? And what does this article have to do with me?”
“Do you—” the administrator began, then scrolled down some paragraphs to the bottom of the article, “Did you have some interaction with this young woman? Some altercation, perhaps?”
On the screen was a photo of the young woman with severe eyes at the Student Clubs Expo that morning.
“Altercation? What? No. I—met her. But why are you calling me in about this article? What does this have to do with me?”
Aal glanced over at Shawn. “Well, it isn’t so much the article, I’m afraid. It’s the complaint that was filed above a short while ago. The violation.”
“Of the Virtue Code, my dear. An Offensiveness Complaint.”
“But again. What does that have to do with me.”
“I am sorry for being unclear. The complaint has been filed against you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The Virtue Code spells out a procedure for individuals—” Robert began.
“No,” J. interrupted. “I mean, what did I do?”
“I am afraid,” Aal answered, “I cannot give you that information.”
“I don’t understand. I’m charged with something and you can’t even tell me what?”
“It’s confidential. To protect the plaintiffs, my dear.”
“Plaintiffs? Was there—more than one?”
“I’m sorry, I cannot give you that information.”
“I don’t understand—Aal. Was it something I said?”
“Possibly. Not necessarily.”
J. couldn’t think. Who had he spoken to on campus? The students in front of the library? That woman at the Clubs Expo, who apparently wrote the opinion piece or maybe just represented The Resistance? She had glared at him but what had he said to her? Nothing, nothing at all. He was distressed at the thought that he may have offended somebody; but even more distressed at the thought that—he hadn’t.
His talk last night?
There had been no one there to hear it.
“What,” he asked tentatively, “are the possible consequences of an Offensiveness Complaint?”
Aal sighed. “I don’t actually know, my dear. The Virtue Code addresses complaints between students and against professors by students. Apparently we lack rules governing complaints from outside organizations against visitors. I understand that Bob has already petitioned the good people on the Virtue Committee above to work on rectifying that.”
“Comrade in Chief,” Robert said. “The President.”
“If we still used that title,” Aal glanced at Shawn.
“You said outside organization,” J. said, his mind racing.
Aal grimaced, glanced at Shawn. “Ah, I wasn’t supposed to reveal that. An honest mistake, I assure you. I trust we can keep that amongst ourselves?” At least she hadn’t revealed, she thought, that they weren’t entirely certain the organization was an outside one.
“So what happens next?” J. asked, unconcerned with Aal’s concern.
“Well, I hope you will stay on campus until this works itself out.”
“Do I have a choice? I’ve been unable, so far, to figure out how to get off campus.” He still hadn’t heard back from Brenda and had no information about the ferry schedule. Maybe he should just head down to the dock and wait—
“Of course you have a choice, my dear. You are a free agent. You may freely accept our firm insistence that you remain on campus. We just hope you are as committed to virtue as we are here and will choose to remain among us until the wheels of virtue have had a chance to turn.”
So what, leaving would mean he was somehow opposed to virtue? Maybe he should call his wife. No. The thing was absurd. You can handle this on your own, she would say.“Fine,” J. lifted his hands, in surrender.
“Wonderful, thank you,” Aal said with a warm toothy smile that revealed (J. thought) a perhaps early case of periodontitis. “As there is a process that is automatically triggered whenever an OC is filed. The first step is that the offended party may present its perspective, its preferences, its wishes directly to the offending party, if they choose. And in this case, the plaintiffs have demanded you meet with their representatives. Have a conversation. I am delighted to inform you that they have selected some of our finest students to represent them in this capacity. A real testament to the quality and integrity of our community.”
“They just get to demand this? Don’t the grown-ups around here,” J. said, unable to think of a better word, “have some say in the process?” He noticed that Shawn began typing furiously when he said this.
“We are all equal here, my dear. Everybody belongs to everybody. If that is what they want, then we want it as well.”
“And that would resolve the complaint?”
“Possibly. Not necessarily. But it’s a start, my dear.”
“I really don’t understand, Aal.”
“The ways of virtue,” the administrator said, flashing the V signal for virtue, “can be mysterious. But surely there is no harm in a little conversation with their representatives, is there, my dear?”
“Yes,” Robert chimed in, “good things always come from a little ‘conversation’ with the Politburo.”
“Or perhaps,” Aal rebuked him, “we can all learn a little something from our students, friend Robert?”
“She’s referring,” Robert turned to J., “to my opposition, a few years back, to the proposal that students assume teaching responsibilities for some of the classes here. Nonsense dressed up as sense, I said, and pushed the radical line that, generally speaking, professors are better prepared to serve as professors while the students are better prepared to serve as, you know. Students. I lost. Isn’t that right, Shawn?”
J. saw that the shadow’s fingers were flying over his laptop keys.
“Come now, my dear,” Aal said to J. “It’s almost twelve. I believe the students are waiting for you upstairs.”
Excerpted with permission of the author.
Andrew Pessin is a philosophy professor, campus bureau editor at the Algemeiner, and author of three novels. You may order Nevergreenhere.
Truth in the World of Sophistry
Since, as Andrew Sullivan aptly puts it, we all live on campus now, many Americans–who have not experienced or learned about critical theory, post-colonialism, queer theory, intersectionality, etc.–are hard-pressed to learn about how academic scholarship has become activism and how truth has been eviscerated. In this new era, we need to learn how to distinguish truth (not the word, “truth,” which has been repeated over and over in association with this or that thing or identity) from falsehood.
To do that, we not only need to learn more about how things have changed over the last few decades vis-à-vis the shift from teaching in academia to activism and the shift that has occurred in the meaning of language and its relationship to truth. But we also need to know how Theory (with a capital T, since it is, as John McWhorter says, a religion of sorts) displaced the textual openness and play introduced into academia by deconstruction. Through an authoritarian policing of language and identity on social media, academia, and the traditional media, the focus on language has shifted from one of openness to one that is very narrow and essentialist. Today, just because words like “Critical Race Theory,” “systemic racism,” “intersectionality,” and so on are repeated over and over doesn’t mean that they are true or speak a truth. Repetition of words creates merely the illusion of truth.
Truth has fallen to the wayside, and the only truth that we see or hear about is associated with whatever words this or that affinity group of activists in the traditional media, academia, politics, and social media deem important. These terms are loaded with false alternatives and other fallacies, and we need to unpack them and learn how to, once again, make the knowledge of truth and the deciphering of truth our main priority if truth is to matter in the public sphere.
To do that, we need to understand what is at stake.
In our age of post-truth, millions of Americans are realizing that they are being lied to on a regular basis. Fake news has been normalized. And instead of thinking for oneself or even knowing how to think, most of us turn to this or that opinion (doxa in Greek) for truth. But, more often than not, this or that opinion falls apart and we are left wanting to know what is true. As a result, we become cynical and lose trust in political institutions, the media, academia, etc.
Who doesn’t want to know the truth?
Whether that truth is personal or philosophical, the desire for the knowledge of truth is essential to becoming human. Aristotle called it our greatest desire and argued that it was built into human nature.
When we know something is true, we experience a sense of pleasure, meaning, and purpose. According to Aristotle, the Greek dramatists called it anagnorisis. Aristotle defined anagnorisis as “a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune” (1452a, Poetics). Plato called it anamnesis (memory), since you learn what you have always known about the ideas (eidos), but unconsciously.
The process of coming to that knowledge–whether personal (anagnorisis) or philosophical (anamnesis)–is the stuff of the greatest stories, novels, movies, and philosophical allegories.
It all starts here, with me and you. I’d like to give a brief accounting (logos = account in Greek) of my own search for truth to illustrate and then turn back to the general search for truth.
My Personal Search for Truth and Yours
Through my own personal experience of growing up in America, I always believed that American dreams are dreams of transformation. My family came to America from Europe and transformed their lives. Their truth was the life they made for themselves. What was my truth? Could I find it in America in the 1980s and ‘90s?
When I left high school in my small Adirondack town (which was named after the main profession—making gloves, Gloversville), I traveled across America in search of my truth and for the knowledge of truth reading books, dancing, writing, playing music, tenting out, and making friends. I wanted to have a uniquely American epiphany, an experience of truth that would alter my world, and this was my journey to find that truth.
During this time, I went off to university, to the Berkeley of the East Coast: SUNY (State University of New York) at Binghamton. I became a philosophy major and took classes on Plato and Aristotle, Existentialism and Literature, Descartes, Hume, Kant, and more. I wanted to know if truth existed and if there was a way of life that one could live that would be guided by knowledge of the truth.
My passion for literature and philosophy was fostered by a professor who became my mentor. As an undergrad, I took graduate seminars in Heidegger, art, and language. I went on to pursue my PhD in Comparative Literature and Philosophy in the lauded PLC (Philosophy, Literature and Theory of Criticism) Program at SUNY Binghamton. What really touched me most in my doctoral work was the bread and butter of our program: a close reading of language. Language was the key to deeper meaning, to truth. Literature and philosophy share the same mission: anagnorisis.
Language, as Heidegger said, is the “house of being.” All meaning, all truth, is in language.
Nuanced readings of text sought to bring one into a state associated with what Roland Barthes called “the neutral,” a state of bliss. The opposite to this state of reading bliss was ossified language or what Barthes called “mythology.” Mythology is linguistic essentialism, sheer propaganda, and what Jean Franciois Lyotard called metaphysics (for him the use of language for power).
After I received my PhD and taught for 13 years in University, I learned, from within the academy, about the major turn to post-Marxist language by critical theory. The move to politicizing language and creating new words for political purposes, turning scholarship into activism, destroyed all the lessons from Derrida, deMan, Bloom, and the deconstructionist crowd and gave Marx the lead in formulating post-Colonialist discourse (vis-à-vis Edward Said), Queer Studies, etc., which used a similar framework to Marxism but with different terms (oppressor/oppressed, colonizer/colonized).
Deconstructionism is considered to be at the origins of post-modernist theory. Derrida, for instance, wrote specters of Marx well into his work on Deconstruction. Marcuse and the Frankfurt School were key to Critical Theory which was on a different trajectory.
Power and language going hand in hand are the core of what was to be deconstructed. This move had more to do with Michel Foucault’s interest in power, and to a major extent, his work on power relations and discourse displaced Derrida and the Yale schools’ interest in language and deconstruction. The mission of the deconstructionist was to deconstruct essentialism and participate in the proliferation of meaning and language. One celebrated the opaque and what George Bataille and Maurice Blanchot called powerlessness. That started to change with Foucault and Said; today, the tables have totally turned.
Language has been turned into a tool for the acquisition and distribution of power.
Heidegger’s whole critique of the work centered on moving away from seeing language as a tool. To see language as language was the ultimate challenge to power and metaphysics.
Rhetoric, the Sophists, and Us
Rhetoric is the key to politics. It creates a mythology based on language games.
As Socrates once pointed out, sophists love to play word games and act as if they know things when it isn’t knowledge or wisdom that they have. It’s fake news. It’s an illusion.
The sophists were not a school (they didn’t have one, like Plato and Aristotle). They were a group of wandering thinkers (sophos means “wise” or “skilled”) from around 400-300 BCE who would travel from city to city to teach people public speaking and rhetoric for a fee. Their main claim was that they could teach arete (virtue) to anyone. This consisted of a set of competencies in speech that would enable people to be successful speakers and powerful people (good oration was valued by the Greeks). These competencies were informed by a knowledge of general culture and public ways of speaking, and, most importantly, a passion for debate.
As Plato points out in many dialogues, sophists were more interested in winning arguments than in finding the truth. This contrasted with Socrates who was in search of truth and knowledge as opposed to making a weak argument into a seemingly strong one.
Socrates believed the sophists were misleading people, and in many dialogues Plato depicts Socrates as winning this or that sophist over to philosophy. He helps them to come to the realization (anagoresis) that the sophists had duped them into thinking that they were not only knowledgeable but also virtuous. The good (virtuous) life, for Socrates, was lived in the light of truth and dialogue (in logos), not in the life of words espoused by the Sophists.
In the post-truth world we live in, the sophists rule. As they love to demonstrate, some words, if repeated enough by an elite group of experts, magically become truths. Today the authority of these words is based not simply on what is being said but on who is saying it.
Aristotle’s rules of logic were part of a major effort, which started with Plato, to challenge the sophists and their fallacious way of reasoning. Sophists believed, as Protagoras once stated, that “man is the measure of all things,” that there is no objective measure. The measure (truth) is relative to what will appeal to different audiences, it is what I say it is or it is what the person who wins the admiration of his or her listeners says it is.
When there is no objectivity or objective truth, the Will to Power, as Nietzsche would say, determines what things mean or “are.” Data and statistics, well-reasoned arguments, are judged not on the basis of whether one has a strong or reasonable argument; they are determined by those who are most popular—the influencers, as it were, have the last word on truth.
The false sophia (wisdom) of the sophist has to do with making rhetorical flourishes into truth by way of gaining consensus that this or that term is the “measure of all things.” Truth, according to the sophists, is something that can be revised. It is, as Harold Bloom would say, the subject of revisionism and power, which overthrows what came before. There is an element of time and temporality since what is true “now”—in the moment of this articulation—is better than what was. It has more power.
Jean Francois Lyotard, who went a long way to discuss the meaning of postmodernism, notes in his book, The Inhuman, that the new metaphysics will be based on the creation of new words, what he calls “third terms.” These words and their meanings control what we can say, what we can mean, and who we are. Our words and our very selves have meaning or no meaning whatsoever based on these terms.
From Judith Butler to Ibram X. Kendi
Judith Butler, who is considered a major voice for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) and the Palestinians, was hired by Berkeley to teach rhetoric—not philosophy and not gender studies. But she has invented terms that have, as Nietzsche would say, inverted hierarchies. Heteronormativity, one of many terms she has coined, makes heterosexuality into a dominant discourse that marginalizes homosexuality. The same goes for “gender ambiguity” and “gender performativity.” With these third terms, all people who think their gender is either male or female, in accord with their biological sex, are oppressing those who change their sex or perform or identify as non-binary, etc. The trick is to create a new term that forces people to pick sides. The binaries are built into this new essentialism.
Either you are heteronormative and oppressive, or you are against heteronormativity. Either you affirm gender ambiguity, or you deny it and are a gender fascist.
This is a taste of the metaphysics at work in academia, which gets translated into activism on social media and on the streets. Its main goal, in the spirit of post-Marxism, is to divide and conquer. Power accrues through the use of language. Man is the measure of all things translates into the third term is the measure of all things. Rhetoric backed by power and the veneer of wisdom is the new measure, the new metaphysics. All arguments are won rhetorically, not through data, facts, or truth. Truth is relative to what I say it is. And what I say it is, is something you either are or are not. It is about whether you conform to my definition of what is or is not.
We see it at work in the work of Ibrim X. Kendi and those who support him. In a recent article addressing his critics, he did away with their criticisms in one fell swoop. Instead of addressing any of their claims, he argued that they didn’t understand him and are really talking to their own image of him. While it is abundantly clear to anyone who is logical that Kendi–with his word, anti-racism–divides the world into racists and anti-racists, creating, in effect, a “false dichotomy,” he is using a gnostic kind of Manichean rhetorical scheme. He says it in his book and on camera, endlessly. The denial of racism makes you a racist and admitting to it makes you a racist (unless you are a Person of Color). Who you are by virtue of the color of your skin defines you within a system over which you have no control. You were born into it. One can only choose to accept it or reject it by being an “ally” and fighting to create policy that is anti-racist so that all institutions can be regulated and transformed. The current system must be destroyed.
If you disagree with that position, you must be talking to yourself and your racism and not Kendi.
The sophistry here is clear. If you do not believe that power defines what is true and instead believe that all men are created equal and that not everyone is racist in America, you are on the wrong side of history. Truth, we hear, is a Eurocentric notion. Power is more universal, in a post-Marxist sense. Kendi is clear about this. He wants power redistributed. To do that, he must silence all his critics and claim that all who argue against him must be racist.
But that’s not logical. It’s rhetorical. The counter-enlightenment argument that progress doesn’t exist when, in fact, it is measurable and documented with ample data, demonstrates what we are up against. Kendi denies reality and argues that this progress doesn’t exist just like he argues that his critics don’t have any real arguments or that Critical Race Theory isn’t understood by anybody who criticizes it. It has to do with changing inequities in the legal system and has nothing to do with a movement to divide America into racists, anti-racists, and allies. But we know better. The sophists use words to create realities. It isn’t about sharing wisdom. It’s about dividing and conquering through third terms.
Not all things American are racist or anti-racist. America is much more complex than this sophistic formula purports. We need to learn how to think again and take up Socrates’ challenge to the sophists. There is truth. It does exist, but it is not about who has power. It’s not about who you are or what you are, it’s about what you think.
Don’t let the sophists tell you otherwise. You’re not talking to yourself when you criticize Kendi. You are speaking truth to power. Truth is the measure of all things, not man, not “anti-racism,” and not the people who are aligned with that term.
When once trusted institutions—from academia to the media and our own government—dwell in lies and sophistry, where do we turn? Like Socrates (a white man who is Eurocentric and not worth listening to according to the woke), we must wake up and realize that our anagnorisis must come from ourselves and through a language that is open rather than a language that is policed by ideologues and demagogues in academia and the media. We aren’t discovering a word within ourselves called racism, we are discovering a truth that transcends “anti-racism.”
And… who doesn’t want to know the truth?
Dr. Menachem Feuer is a member of the Jewish Studies Faculty at the University of Waterloo. He was previously a member of the Center for Jewish Studies at York University. Feuer has written numerous articles, essays, and book reviews on philosophy, postmodern literature, and post-Holocaust philosophy and literature. He has published in Shofar, Modern Fiction Studies, MELUS, International Studies in Philosophy and the Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy, and in numerous book collections. He was a Senior Editor at the popular literature, art, and culture website Berfrois (https://www.berfrois.com/tag/menachem-feuer/). He is the author of the highly acclaimed blog, Schlemiel Theory (www.schlemielintheory.com).
The New American Rebel Seeks the Truth
What is today’s truth? Well, that depends. The truth today can be whatever one wants it to be as long as it does not offend. Let me rephrase that: as long as it doesn’t offend the Woke. Let me add: as long as it acquiesces to the Woke.
The real truth–the actual truth–is offensive because it counters the Woke narrative. The truth stands in defiance to disinformation–to false narratives. The truth is buttressed with facts–the strongest enemy of lies and the Woke.
Facts that counter the narrative mobilize the Woke mob into attack mode, and the weak respond. They kneel, acquiesce, and assuage the mob–they empower the mob. The weak take positions favorable to the Woke mob in hopes of insulating themselves from their attack.
Acquiescence to the Woke signals weakness, but that is not enough. The mob demands sacrifice: sacrifice of job, position, status, money—sacrifice of pride and self-respect. It’s time to fight back. It’s time to fight back with questions and facts.
Questioning authority, critical thinking, and pushback against draconian government policies are default American positions. We push back against narratives meant to divide and control us: it’s who we are.
An alliance is forming in response to vicious Woke cancel culture, and while these allies may disagree with each other’s policies, they don’t want their opponents’ positions silenced or canceled–they want them challenged with debate and facts out in the open in order to change minds. To change minds, not coerce under threat of cancellation.
Classical debate and constitutionally defended defiance are casualties of this new environment of caving to the Woke. Classical liberals, middle of the road Americans, and conservatives are ready to ally and push back. They need champions to lead the way.
The enemies of today’s “truth” are filter-less and fearless facts, even if they offend emotional mobs. Those willing to push back must not stand alone. The mob is extremely powerful; powerful enough to get Big Tech, the mainstream media, and spineless politicians to acquiesce and give a stage to the idiocy of the unchallenged narrative. But the mob has an exposed Achilles heel: baseless and divisive lies. Their narrative is a house of cards.
What is the narrative? It’s that statement or position you read or hear that makes one wonder whether you are being told the truth, being condescended to, being told what to think, or being told how to live. It’s the narrative that wants to cancel that playground battle cry, “It’s a free country! I can say and do anything I want!” Not anymore, and that’s un-American.
The narrative has many authoritative avenues. The government puts it out, the media parrots it, and Big Tech censors push back and spotlight the attacks on those few rebel critical-thinkers in hopes of shaming them into submission.
This pro-narrative trifecta attacks critical thinking by labeling it conspiracy theorizing and worse: racist. This grouping and their lemmings then use “whataboutisms” and phrases meant to shut down debate like, “That’s been debunked as a conspiracy theory!” When in actuality, the ammo they cite as debunking the rebel default position is actually “confirmation bias”—information that only supports the position one is defending, often lacking facts. The debunker is more often a likeminded “fact-checker” and aligned with the narrative position.
We long for the truth-seekers of Greenwich Village and Haight Asbury, the classical liberals and radicals that questioned the media narrative, who asked for and presented facts to counter what they believed to be disinformation. Whether they were right or wrong, those American rebels would never hold up a New York Times opinion piece and shout, “See, that’s been debunked!”
We are close to making “debunked” and “conspiracy theory” as weak as “my mommy said so.” All we have to do in this emerging alliance–one still in search of leadership–is say, “weak, not good enough. Give me some facts.” In our rebel counter-attack, the first person to use a slur or grab a crutch loses the argument, loses the debate. If one cannot defend the narrative with facts–the narrative is exposed as a lie.
The narrative activates the rebellious “What the F*– Over?” response. It’s the statement repeated by the masses that prompts you to ask, “Is this real? Am I alone in thinking the way I do?” You are not; there really is a giant that is waking up to cancel the Woke.
The purveyors of false narratives have unintentionally invited questions–they don’t allow questions, because those questions, if answered, reveal the lie.
The new American rebel doesn’t carry a flag or align with a party. The new American rebel is the American that is witnessing the erosion of freedoms and is demanding elected officials adhere to the constitution to stop it. The American rebel is asking questions, the American rebel is pushing back, the American rebel is doing this against the concerted effort of being silenced, attacked, and targeted for cancellation by the Woke mob and their allies in Big Tech, government, and the media. We need to ask questions and demand fact-based answers. We need to debate the issues and discredit those that view facts as the stubborn obstacles they are to their lie.
The new American rebel is looking for the truth and is armed with facts. Facts, though they may challenge and sometimes offend, are the truth. Facts expose false narratives and they offend the Woke, and that’s a good thing.
Michael Pregent is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He is a senior Middle East analyst, a former adjunct lecturer for the College of International Security Affairs, and a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.
Wisdom in the Age of Chaos
The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos by Sohrab Ahmari
The question “What is truth?” could certainly be considered a question of our modern age. Never in human history has information been more readily available, literally at our fingertips, on any topic imaginable. All the collected knowledge of humanity can be held in the palms of our hands, viewed with a swipe of a finger. However, while information can be accessed from any place in the world at any time of day, every day, it is becoming more and more evident that truth is what eludes us, and in fact, we are unable to agree on what truth is.
In his new book The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos (Convergent Books, 2021), Sohrab Ahmari considers truth through the lens of tradition, and he holds it up as a counterpoint to truth as defined and understood in today’s cultural context. Ahmari writes:
In the realm of tradition, truth is something that precedes individual human beings, something we inherit and must hand down, in turn. We can discover truth and reason about it, to be sure, but we can’t change it. In the realm of progress, however, truth is what individuals or groups can articulate or build on their own, through scientific inquiry and their acts in history. Truth thus becomes an ongoing project, a malleable thing. In our realm of progress, tradition is viewed as not only antiquated and inefficient, but as an impediment to achievement. (p. 19)
Ahmari approaches this examination between truth that produces tradition and progress that creates truth as a challenge to the modern world view. “But what if that confidence of the modern world is an illusion?” Ahmari asks. Have the truths that we moderns designed and discerned addressed any of the “fundamental human dilemmas” as he identifies in his book, that humans have encountered through the ages and that we still experience today?
The Unbroken Thread is Ahmari’s effort to examine this question, both broadly and deeply, and he makes a consistently compelling and often extraordinarily moving case in providing his commentary and observations. There are answers that the reader may understand from the stories within the pages, but as Ahmari admits, it is not his intent to provide answers so much as it is to “explore the possibility that our contemporary philosophy might be wrong in crucial respects—that we may have too hastily thrown away the insights of traditional thought and too eagerly encouraged the desire for total human mastery” (p. 21).
It is this exploration that is Ahmari’s gift to the reader, and it does not require getting far into the book to see that the treasures of antiquity are not the artifacts recovered in an Indiana Jones-style adventure. Rather, they are the stories that people pass down from one generation to the next; stories of kindness and compassion so transcendent that they can only have come from a source before us and greater than us. It may be that we can only hope to maintain and replicate the behaviors and actions from these stories through tradition, while the chaos of the modern age obscures and distracts from that realization.
The structural framework of the book provides a narrative of how some of our important traditions originated or came to us. While Ahmari is a practicing Catholic, he doesn’t limit his discussion of traditions to those stemming from Catholicism; he includes the stories from Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Confucians, and feminists in order to touch upon the fullness of humanity. The book is divided into two main sections: “Part I: The Things of God” and “Part II: The Things of Humankind.” In each section Ahmari asks six enduring questions (divided as chapters) that he feels modern culture should be able to answer, if its method of building or divining truth is sufficient and effective. The questions are about “the nature and scope of reason; our responsibility to the past and the future; how and what we worship; and how we relate to each other, to our bodies, and to suffering and death” (p. 20). One of the key points that Ahmari makes in his introduction is that philosophers and theologians have examined these questions for hundreds of years, yet the modern culture has thrown away their answers and all of the thinking behind them because we have “outgrown or become too sophisticated” for that kind of thinking, as though the value of the fruits of the mind and spirit are subject to an expiration date.
The questions themselves are thought-provoking, and I realized upon reading the table of contents that I have had both internal and external debates about every one of these questions over the course of my life. Such is the relevance of the content. Some of the questions are, “Is God Reasonable?” “Can You Be Spiritual without Being Religious?” and “What is Freedom For?” One can easily imagine chewing over these topics in a variety of social or academic contexts, and even during times of private meditation. For some people in certain situations deliberating over them can have a profound impact, and that is enough to justify the investment of time in reading.
Every question-as-chapter is structured similarly. Ahmari will begin with a short personal anecdote about his life or current situation, for example talking about his childhood in Iran or an interesting interaction with his son, Max. (Readers, by the way, owe a debt of gratitude to Ahmari’s son, as Max was largely the impetus behind the writing of the book.) Next, Ahmari will tell the deeper story that provides insight into the role of tradition as it pertains to the central question of the chapter. The story itself revolves around a historical figure (ancient or recent), and a significantly defining time in that person’s life. Some of the people whose stories Ahmari recounts are C.S. Lewis, Thomas Aquinas, Victor and Edith Turner, Qui Kong (Confucius), and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
The delight of Ahmari’s prose is that it is both sharply analytical in a way that both reveals underlying foundations and subtly insightful in a way that yields satisfyingly epiphanous moments of clarity. Throughout, Ahmari calls upon Christian scripture or the seminal texts from non-Christian cultures to demonstrate or exemplify the unbroken thread of a modern lesson, practice, or pearl of wisdom that ties back to some long-held yet possibly forgotten, unappreciated, or now-abandoned tradition. Not unexpectedly, Ahmari’s book covers a fair amount of ground from a historical perspective, and that contributes to the understanding of how time and tradition are intertwined, and how modernity does not negate tradition simply on the basis of its chronological position on the timeline. New thinking does not guarantee the best thinking when it comes to the deeper philosophical and theological questions.
In many ways, The Unbroken Thread is a book of paradoxes, with the central paradox being that the traditions of structure and restraint are the very keys to freedom and growth for the human experience in both body and spirit. In his introduction, Ahmari writes of Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic Priest from Poland. In laying the foundation for Kolbe’s story, Ahmari presents some of the paradoxes in accepting tradition:
The message of tradition runs counter to “the fundamental credo of a utilitarian society.” Why? Because, Soloveitchik taught, traditional belief “speaks of defeat instead of success, of accepting a higher will instead of commanding, of giving instead of conquering, of retreating instead of advancing.” The whole of the Psalms can be summed up as finding joyous liberation in binding oneself to the Mosaic law, which the psalmist treasures as a guide to the inner structure of the cosmos. Jesus’s entire teaching, meanwhile, might be encapsulated in his Gethsemane prayer, recorded in all three of the Synoptics: “Not what I will, but what you will.” (p. 17)
Kolbe’s story illustrates perhaps the most dramatic paradox, and one that clearly lies beyond the realm of human experience and understanding without acknowledging something greater than ourselves. Maximillian Kolbe was alive during World War II, and he was staunchly and outspokenly anti-Nazi—publishing and broadcasting anti-Nazi literature and radio messages. He took further action by sheltering between 1,500 and 2,000 Jews in the monastery until the Gestapo arrested him. They sent him to Auschwitz, where Kolbe was to finish out his life.
However, once in Auschwitz, Kolbe did not cease his life’s work. He continued ministering to the prisoners at the camp, urging them not to give into hatred. He even gave alms to the poor—those poor being the other prisoners and those alms coming from his own rations. Kolbe’s story comes to an end with a prison escape in which he did not participate.
Karl Fritzsch, the deputy commandant at Auschwitz, would carry out the punishment for the prisoner who escaped, which was to select 10 men to die of starvation. When the men were selected, one of the condemned cried out that he had a wife and children. Kolbe volunteered to take the other man’s place, and Fritzsch accepted the exchange.
After two weeks with no food or water, six of the 10 men were dead, three were unconscious, and only Kolbe remained awake and alert. He said a prayer and offered his arm as the camp guard administered the injection to complete the execution.
Here is where Ahmari writes with great awe at the paradox of Kolbe’s sacrifice:
What gripped me the most, what I couldn’t get out of my head once I learned about Kolbe, was how his sacrifice represented a strange yet perfect form of freedom. An ordinary man, once Fritzsch had passed over him in the line, might be stunned by his luck and gobble up the night’s rations all the more eagerly, knowing how close he had come to death. Kolbe, however, climbed the very summit of human freedom. He climbed it—and this is the key to his story, I think—by binding himself to the Cross, by denying and overcoming, with intense spiritual resolve, his natural instinct to survive. His apparent surrender became his triumph. And nailed to the Cross, he told his captors, in effect: I’m freer than you. In that time and place of radical evil, in that pitch-black void of inhumanity, Kolbe asserted his moral freedom and radiated what it means to be fully human.
This form of freedom is at odds with the account of freedom that prevails in the West today. Plenty of people still carry out great acts of sacrifice, to be sure. Witness the heroism of physicians, nurses, and other front-line health workers in response to the novel-coronavirus pandemic. But the animating logic of the contemporary West, the intellectual thrust of our age, if taken to its logical end, renders the actions of a Kolbe insensible. (pp. 7-8)
Refining his thoughts inspired by the story of Kolbe’s sacrifice, Ahmari touches upon a way of thinking that cannot make sense (“renders the actions of a Kolbe insensible”) to a people or a culture that does not accept the existence of a power or authority greater than ourselves, responsible for our existence and inviting us to understand and accept that death is not the greatest thing to be feared and the end of all stories. Ahmari observes, “If sacrificial love and freedom persist today, they do so in spite of, and no thanks to, our reigning worldview. We have abandoned Kolbe’s brand of freedom—freedom rooted in self-surrender, sustained by the authority of tradition and religion—in favor of one that glories in the individual will.”
Admittedly, this is not an easy message to hear and truly comprehend. Modern culture plays lip service to concepts such as sacrifice and freedom, but in discarding tradition so easily (and in some cases so completely), it is difficult to comprehend how a few decades or maybe a century or so of free-spirited self-exploration can supplant millennia of deep thought, supplication, and experience shared over generations.At the end of the book, Ahmari closes with a brief letter to his son, Maximilian. He offers up advice for his son, and he closes with the sentence, “Saint Maximilian will be there for you, too.”
After reading Ahmari’s book, I am able to take comfort in the fact that Saint Maximilian is here for me, too, as I maintain my own unbroken thread to the traditions of those who came before.
Living in an Endless Mirage
In 1925, the Eiffel Tower was a great topic of conversation among the Parisians. The structure was falling into disrepair, and the city found it excessively expensive to maintain. The newspapers published endless columns about this, mobilizing public opinion to the idea that the city needed to dispense of it. Amidst the debate, the government decided to sell the structure as scrap, and assigned the Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs, Victor Lustig, the task of selecting the dealer to whom to transfer the ownership of the Tower.
Lustig invited a small group of scrap metal dealers who had the reputation of being the most honest businessmen in the city to a confidential meeting. He conveyed that the upkeep of the Tower was a huge burden to the City Exchequer, and the government wished to sell it as scrap. The businessmen felt a bit uneasy about a city landmark going down so unceremoniously, but they were satisfied by the assurance that the Eiffel Tower, howsoever popular, wasn’t as artistically iconic as the city’s other great monuments, such as the Gothic Cathedrals and the Arc de Triomphe.
Finally, an ambitious businessman, Andre Poisson, who had shown the keenest interest in purchasing the monument, was shortlisted for the final deal. M. Poisson, amidst feelings of acute “post-purchase dissonance”–the jittery feeling we experience while making a big purchase—walked into Lustig’s office to sign the final deal. As the closing meeting began, the Deputy Director General spoke of the hardships in his life as a government servant and the challenges he had to undergo to make ends meet. Poisson was too familiar with such conversations. His years of doing business with the government alerted him that Lustig was hinting at a bribe.
Not one to miss out on this opportunity, he greased Lustig’s palms sufficiently and walked away with the deal in his pocket. Such was the state of corruption in the French government in the early 20th century.
So, what happened to the Eiffel Tower? The story recounted here is not about corruption in the French government. Lustig was not the Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs. Victor Lustig is considered the biggest conman in history, and he has the unique distinction of having sold the Eiffel Tower, not once, but twice!
This story is no different than typical stories we read in newspapers, magazines, or journals. We do not always read with suspicion. We do not verify the truth of everything we read. We are not always expecting deception nor are we guarding against it. How many of your beliefs, philosophies, ideologies, and world views are unwittingly shaped by unsuspecting lies and half-truths?
With the truth of Lustig’s story known, it is now possible to determine which events in the story transpired naturally, and which of them he engineered. In the narration of the whole event, there isn’t any lie regarding the events that transpired. However, the narration does have untold truths about Lustig’s intentions. For example, Victor Lustig “posed” as Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs to the group of scrap-dealers in his “confidential” meeting, but the meeting itself actually happened.
That the Government wished to sell away the structure was a similar instance of manipulation, but that’s exactly what Lustig communicated to the invited group.
As a matter of fact, that these businessmen were short-listed for their “honest” background was the biggest of the lies Lustig told them–a familiar maneuver of using “flattery” so that individuals drop their defenses.
What tops it all is how Lustig acted like a “corrupt government official.” As Poisson got jittery about the expenses involved, with no way to validate the veracity of the deal, his anxiety caused him to doubt Lustig’s credentials and the authenticity of the deal. Lustig, the best conman in the world, sensed it instantly. An “ordinary” conman would have tried convincing Poisson about the authenticity of the deal and produced evidence. Not him. He was the master craftsman of his art. The best in the world. He spoke about the difficulties of his life as a government servant, leading Poisson to conclude that he was just a corrupt government official hinting at an underhand deal.
Identifying Lustig as a corrupt official also melted away Poisson’s doubts about the authenticity of the deal, and he signed the contract instantly. Retrospection is wise, but … with the right context in place, it is easier to read through a story and unearth the truths and the lies.
Realizing the relative ease with which deception might enter into our experiences, we find ourselves confronted with a number of insistent questions: What could you do when you do not have such context available? How could you prevent yourself from being influenced? How could you ever know if a story about world affairs is Truth, Half-Truth, or a plain Lie? How could you ever know if a story was written to inform you, entertain you, or simply manipulate you? In how many areas of your life are you the unsuspecting scrap dealers of Paris or a self-congratulatory Poisson, being led, manipulated, and maneuvered by a Victor Lustig all the way to his dangerous, lethal trap? How could you figure all that out?
In the world of mythologies, “Evil” had been ascribed powers of creating magical illusions. From golden deer to stunningly pretty damsels who could seduce kings at the snap of their fingers only to display their claws and fangs at the most opportune moments, the world of demons and monsters was full of mirages. Everything that was too beautiful was likely an illusion created to ensnare, trap, and destroy. How would life in that reality be? How would it be to go about living with an eternal anxiety about whether one is engaging with something real or a magically created prop?
We do not need to look that far to experience it. We are living in such a world right now. We dwell in a world where it is impossible to distinguish between the real and the illusory, the authentic and the fake, the Truth and the Lie. In this illusory world, Truth and Lies co-exist like identical twins, having identical faces, wearing identical costumes and accessories, looking absolutely inseparable and indistinguishable. In fact, the Lies are often dressed up to look more attractive than the Truth, and generate more affection, attention, and acceptance than the Truth. This is the hideous, dark world of Propaganda.
No conman walks around with his intentions written all over his face. The more successful a conman is, the more he knows the art of being perceived as the “Chosen” one. The lesser-known artists of deception use the crude means of coaxing, convincing, persuading, etc. as their tools of manipulation. The fine artists of deception function differently. They morph into figures and shapes that are stunningly authentic and real. They fit amongst us with ease, and hide behind humanitarian, kind, and compassionate faces. It’s only in Bollywood movies or Shakespearean dramas that the villain looks ugly, weird, and scary, and proudly proclaims–“I am a Bad Man.” In the real world, the villain is the most virtuous, most noble, and most humane, and it’s no surprise he is able to fool others so easily.
All propaganda is designed to sneak through our radar. It is deliberately and masterfully crafted to be non-recognizable from the Truth. That’s what makes this world such a dangerous place. Propaganda begins when the lines between the Truth and the Lies are blurred.
Propaganda may take a variety of shapes and forms: An appeal to higher, nobler human emotions, stimulation to deep intellectual thought, or the need for entertainment, humour, art, and creativity. A lot of propaganda is based on appeals to our sense of equality, liberty, humanity, kindness, compassion, non-discrimination, etc. A master propagandist could get an entire nation and the entire globe to discuss, debate, and argue humanitarian issues, cleverly planted as red herrings. While the world is busy debating which lives matter and which do not, those orchestrating the show conveniently fill themselves up with multiple helpings of deception.
Jokes are another effective tool of propaganda. Humor melts away all defense and unites us with those who make us laugh. It’s difficult to laugh together and think differently. It starts with finding it harmless to laugh at a joke, even one that is purported to be offensive. “After all, it’s only a joke.” As we keep encountering such jokes, the barriers to laugh at them keep dropping, until the day we find ourselves speaking the language of the joke.
It’s nearly impossible to figure out whether an appeal to higher values, an emotional touch, an intellectual analysis, or a hilarious joke is a natural, authentic expression or a plant designed to manipulate us into believing, saying, and doing what the propagandists want us to believe, say, and do. How do we identify propaganda? How can we stop being sold out to propaganda?
If, on Wikipedia or aother handy reference, you read the story of Victor Lustig selling the Eiffel Tower and compare that with the opening story and context in this article, you would know first-hand the difference between the structure of Truth and a Lie-Masquerading-As-Truth. The narration here is a perfect example of how well-crafted Lies sneak into our world, silently and subtly, manipulating us into believing and accepting them. Many of our thoughts, ideas, emotions, opinions, ideologies, and world views of which we are most proud have been subtly and silently implanted by master propagandists.
Propaganda might be easier to deal with if it were loud and explicit. It being subtle, silent, and sly makes it unassailably dangerous. In a world that is increasingly “woke,” being “awake” is not merely an option, but a clarion call to protect our existence.
Here we have identified the world in which we live as a grand illusion, where it is nearly impossible to distinguish between Truths, Half-Truths, and Lies. By its very nature, Propaganda is designed to make a Lie look, sound, and feel identical to the Truth, appear more authentic than authenticity, and more real than reality. Like the Eiffel Tower story, we rarely get to know if we are looking at a Truth or a Lie-Masquerading-As-Truth. To defeat this deception, we must cultivate the skills to distinguish Truth from Lies and go a step further by exposing the Lies for all to see. This begs a question that must be considered: What’s the way out for surviving in a world where Truth and Lies are inseparable?
Navin Sinha is a Computer Science researcher. His work in Algorithms and Artificial Intelligence coupled with his exploration of Indian Spirituality provided first-hand experience into the ways humans function, from the cognitive to meta-cognitive level. His company, ReInvent, examines how people think, learn, and solve problems. Deeply passionate about the world and how it is being shaped through propaganda and ignorance rather than through truth and wisdom, Navin has endeavored to explore and share the ways our minds respond to what we perceive. His blog series “Behind Pretty Masks” has been widely acknowledged for covering topics with candor and a commitment to truth.
Literature for Humanity
“Based on our small group discussion last week,” I heard a colleague say once, “I started to think a lot about the black student I have in my fifth period. He probably has been so miserable. We haven’t read any black authors in the last quarter. And probably,” she continued, shaking her head, gripped by genuine guilt, “he has just been sitting at his desk feeling totally removed and unwelcome.” In the school where I worked before coming to grad school, and in many other wealthy, well-intentioned, private high schools in the area, comments like this are frequently heard. Progressive education has created such an extreme position that it no longer detects the absurdity—the offense—in a statement like the one made by my colleague. At this point, there is nothing new in what she said, nor anything new in what I have to say about it, yet both will seem radical to those who feel the opposite.
When I began to write this for a presentation I gave at the Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs, I worried that it may be too obvious. So I ran it by a few friends. “What’s your topic?” another English teacher asked me. “The tendency in progressive education to think that students in the English classroom can only really, truly relate to authors of their own race, and the idea that such thinking is reductive to both the students and the author,” I told her. “Wait… do people actually think that?” She looked at me, disbelieving. “I mean I’m sure there are educators saying it’s important for students to see themselves reflected in the writers they read, but to really think there is a one-to-one correspondence about meaningful reading between race of student and race of author? Who is arguing that?” Okay, I thought. Maybe it is worth discussing.
Do people actually think that students, both minority and majority, can only relate personally when the author shares their skin color? Yes, some people do. Some of them are teachers, department heads, or directors of diversity programming. I heard this very sentiment expressed and worried over so many times during my work in a small private high school in D.C. I heard it from my colleague when she fretted, so upset with herself, that she hadn’t matched up author race to student race in the last month in her class; I watched nine or ten adults in the group nod along with her. I heard it when a faculty member voiced her utter disdain that people still thought Holden Caulfield, the catcher in the rye himself—that dated, privileged, little white boy—had anything worthwhile to offer anyone in these enlightened times, and certainly to anyone non-white and non-middle class. Such, according to the truly progressive, are the highly limited parameters of meaningful communication from Holden these days.
But there are many more examples of this kind of reductive perspective that haunt the most forward-thinking of halls, and not only halls of English departments, but halls, as we know, of all kinds and levels of academia everywhere. I was a college counselor for a few years after I was an English teacher, and the extremity of focus on race in those halls, without any ability to step back for a moment and question itself, is perhaps worse there than anywhere else. “Let’s have a separate orientation day for students of color,” many colleges (and some high schools) have suggested, and some have implemented. And most commonly heard while perusing stacks of applications: “Well, she’s just a middle-class white girl. What can she really bring?” This is something people really say and really mean; this is something educated adults will give you that sideways look for and even roll their eyes, if you stop to point out that it may be—may be—a bit of a preemptive way to judge a person’s life.
None of this is to say that race cannot be tied to other factors and experiences in a person’s life. It is one part of who we all are. But it is often human nature to swing from one extreme to the other, and we are currently mired in the other extreme. The opposite of externally imposed separation, it seems, is self-imposed separation. We have lost sight of that middle ground of a deeply woven and textured integration. In our well-meaning attempts to find common ground, we have lost it and our way to it. If we are really being honest with ourselves, we have actually moved into an ever-widening quest for separated spaces. We (in the wealthy, private, liberal high schools) are inadvertently teaching our students to make assumptions about everyone based on what they see. “Ok, I know,” I’ve heard students say about each other in between classes, “she’s black and she’s probably had a really hard life.” How heinously demeaning. I don’t need to explain the flagrant blindness in a statement like that, but this is the lesson that students are learning from our best efforts at teaching compassion. They are learning separation.
If we are going to do “the work”—as I often hear diversity programming called–why not try to teach ourselves to make the safest assumption possible in meeting someone new and thinking first of all: “This person might have so many things in common with me.” Better still: “I know nothing about this person—nothing—until I know them.” But if this is beyond our grasp, let us immediately assume that we share many important commonalities until proven otherwise. This may sound naive, though I’m not sure why. In diversity work, there is much exhortation toward the checking of premises and checking of privilege. Perhaps better would be to actively work our thoughts away from imagined barriers and toward imagined common ground. If we must assume something prior to knowing a person, why not assume our shared humanity?
In my third year of teaching, I worked at a very small high school in Washington, D.C., with a disproportionately large number of international students. Out of about 50 students in the high school, about 10 were from countries outside the U.S., and almost all of those were in my Introduction to Literature class that year. This included two boys from Tajikistan and two girls and a boy from Vietnam—all five of whom had very recently come to the U.S. and were, at that point, barely speaking English. They were taking an ESL (English as a Second Language) class in conjunction with my Intro to Lit. The rest of the class was a racially diverse group of American students, including black and Hispanic, some from D.C. with parents from D.C., some first-generation students with parents from Eritrea. The global influence of places far and wide in that tiny room was astonishing. We read Romeo and Juliet and parts of The Odyssey, which the kids took in stride (and even asked if there was a toy pig somewhere, for use in their performance of the latter). But when we arrived at Catcher in the Rye, there was absolute magic.
I have never seen a room of high school students so transfixed every day by the alchemy taking place in the pages. You could almost see their hearts on their faces. They had never read a book quite like this—of course no one will ever read a book quite like this—that spoke to their very own experience of the world in that moment in such a personal way. (And to those who would say Catcher is dated—I would suggest another good, hard look past the slang and into the miracles of relationship, symbols, and salvation that Salinger is pulling off. Something timeless cannot be dated.) Every day, these students came in with stunning insights and sincere concern for Holden, ready to digest what was a very difficult English text for some of them at that point, and to make something beautiful together out of it. I was the fortunate witness of a masterful literary resonance at work on these readers, even when they did not yet understand its mechanisms of operation.
The insights abounded. One student, black and at the school on financial aid (as far away as possible from the white privilege of Holden, some would have us believe) found a deep connection with the book. He said thoughtfully that Holden could have fared better if he had some form of art to carry him through adolescence. This student was a break dancer, and it was dancing, he said, that was carrying him and at least one kind of innocence intact from childhood to adulthood. On another day, the boy from Vietnam wrote a letter to Holden, offering to be the kind of friend for the protagonist that Holden had been for him. And when we reached Salinger’s poignantly ironic closing, warning to never “tell anybody anything; if you do, you’ll start missing everybody,” the boy from Tajikistan, an immediately popular student and a devout Muslim, walked into class and threw his book on the desk. “Ms. Rozenman,” he said, in a still thick accent, “I need your help. I started crying when I read the last sentence, but I don’t know why. It made me cry and I need you to explain me why.” That has to be my favorite reaction to a piece of literature, ever.
It was incredibly moving to be with that class and watch firsthand the power of literature do what it is meant to do, transforming all kinds of boundaries, breaking down all kinds of imagined walls. At the end of the year, one of the girls from Vietnam asked me if there were any other books anywhere “like Catcher in the Rye?” That question led me to create the Coming of Age Lit class I taught the next year, because that’s what they were really asking for: books about the excruciating, exquisite movement of growing up, as human beings tend to do.
A similar thing happened the next year, in a World Lit course at the same school. This time the class was nine girls: one white and eight black. About half were from D.C.; the other half from or with parents from Ethiopia or Eritrea. We read many works in that class, including Siddhartha, Things Fall Apart, Cry, the Beloved Country, short stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and a too-brief unit on Daoism. But something strange happened. Of all the stories we read that year, their collective favorite by far was All Quiet on the Western Front. Yes, the World War I novel written from the perspective of a young German soldier. My favorite memory from that class was Destinee literally bouncing in each day, eager to talk about Paul. “I’m worried about Paul,” she’d sometimes say on her way out, thinking about the homework ahead. “I don’t know what’s coming, and I’m not sure he can handle it!” There was, again, something in that delicate and still fresh writing that allowed them to trade worlds with each other. As the girls discussed Paul every day like a friend, they poured themselves into themes of adolescence enjoyed and lost, the horrors of war, the bonds of and gulfs between family and friends. They asked me to interview my grandfather, a World War II vet, over winter break and bring back stories.
Let me be clear: none of the gratification in this was because the students were black and the protagonist (and author) were white. The fact did not occur to me then. Any teacher who felt the level of personal engagement with a text that Destinee was bringing to that class every day would have been thrilled. It was only later, after hearing the increasingly radical progressive—and separatist—theories in the humanities that these experiences began to replay themselves in my mind in this light.
Many more such examples come to mind. In my first year of teaching at a large public school in Fairfax County, my predominantly white tenth-grade class read many works, from Shakespeare to Dickens. But they were awed by Achebe. Things Fall Apart proved a quietly compelling, a moving and unsettling experience for them. Felix, a white, actively Christian student who had the privilege of homeschooling before coming to the school to play baseball, sat hushed at the end of Things Fall Apart. “What else did Achebe write?” He asked me. “I mean you don’t… you don’t write this”—waving his book up and down in a gesture that said “HOW DID THE PIECES OF THIS DO THIS TO ME”—“you don’t write Things Fall Apart and then not write anything else, right?” His enchantment proved a love with staying power. His comparisons the rest of the year came back against the measure of Achebe’s masterpiece. When we arrived at Merchant of Venice, Felix nodded appreciatively but allowed only: “I mean, it’s no Things Fall Apart.”
It still seems strange that I would need to use any of these as examples to prove something. It would be strange if any of these moments were not the case. This is what literature is; this is exactly what literature is for. To speak to all of us humans, across time, across place, across race, across poverty and wealth, across religion. There is nothing earth-shattering in what I am saying. But I wish I could say this to my colleague who did a disservice to her student in thinking he could not relate to white authors, to non-minority authors. I wish I could say it to the Multicultural Coordinator at that school, who required that discussion in the first place. I wish I could say it without the obvious caveat: this is not to say, of course, that authors of all races don’t need to be represented in curriculum—they do—and that their representation can be meaningful both for minority and majority students. It is quite simply a reminder against extremes, and one particular extreme that is doing much more damage than healing. I was one of a handful of Jewish students in my two thousand-student public high school. I never once felt put out or unwelcome by, or even ever paused to think about, the near total lack of Jewish authors in our curriculum.
Why should I? Why even consider that, when every human story we read was so good? In fact, I much preferred Toni Morrison to Saul Bellow (sorry, Mr. Bellow). And I would have been horrified if someone had suggested a “separate orientation day for Jews.” It is a favorite slogan of diversity work to “speak your truth,” as we should all do, and we may be, as George Orwell put it, “sunk to such a depth that restatement of the obvious is our first duty.” I hope that what I leave you with is a deeply felt, and not naive, call to first and always look to find our shared, foundational experiences and past our differences, real or imagined; an invitation to discuss and ponder further; and a love letter to the ways that literature helps us do all of this, to the way it makes even difficult things joyful in their shared experience. If we call it literature, then it is for human beings—every single one of us.
Jordi Rozenman recently earned a master’s degree from St. John’s College in their Great Books curriculum, and is currently looking forward to receiving her yoga teacher certification. She is deeply grateful to the students and texts that informed this essay, which was first presented at the national conference of the Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs. Find more of her work at Reach and Reason.
Disinformation is Power
Disinformation is an old enemy with new weapons and powerful friends
In Book II of The Republic, Plato launches social philosophy’s foundational inquiry by posing social philosophy’s foundational question. Imagine discovering a ring which made you invisible so that you could behave with complete impunity. The person in possession of such a device “might with impunity take what he wished even from the marketplace, and enter houses and be with whom he pleased, and slay and loose from bonds whomsoever he would, and in all other things conduct himself among mankind as the equal of a god.” Why, Plato wonders, should a person facing no accountability or sanction ever behave justly or morally? Behind that moral question stood a political one: how, if at all, can a society be constructed to withstand the force of sociopathy?
The American founders, like Plato, predate modern psychological jargon, but they possessed deep psychological insight, and they recognized that the problem of sociopathic behavior challenges every social order. America’s founding generation feared sociopathic demagoguery as much as they did anarchy, and they understood that the two abet each other. In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton warned of the dangers posed by men with “talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity”—men who commence as demagogues and end as tyrants. Later, in a letter to President Washington, Hamilton warned that the “only path to a subversion of the republican system of the country” is by way of the ruthless demagogue who uses fear and flattery to “throw things into confusion [so] that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’ ”
Trolls and Shitlords
In 2017 the Huffington Post unearthed a style manual for The Daily Stormer, a white supremacist website. The guide advised using “naughty humor” to draw in curious readers, and then hammering them with a few repeated points “over and over and over and over again.” The guide’s author, Andrew Anglin, added, “The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not. . . . This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas kikes. But that’s neither here nor there.”
Trolls, despite their pose as online Jokers, seemed to grasp classic propaganda methods and had a knack for adapting them to the online world. Outrage and humor, they understood, were viral and addictive and could be weaponized to seize attention and occupy people’s brains. They understood psychology. “Remember the main law: EMOTION IS THE HOOK, FACTS ARE THE SIDE DISH,” propounded the trolls’ style manual. They understood insurgent tactics and asymmetrical warfare. “We have the advantage of being an anonymous swarm with a singular goal,” said the manual. “We don’t have to play fair. We can say and spread whatever we want.”
Firehose of Falsehood
The study of propaganda and disinformation has a long and distinguished history. Propaganda is a campaign to influence public opinion without regard for truth, often (but not always) conducted by a state actor seeking some political outcome. Although the means vary widely, the end is this: to organize or manipulate the social and media environment to demoralize, deplatform, isolate, or intimidate an adversary.
Propaganda is a tool, not an ideology. Today, so-called cancel culture—the use of social coercion to silence or isolate targets—is primarily the province of the left, while disinformation is primarily the province of the right; but it might just as easily be the other way around, and someday no doubt will be. Disinformation attacks not just individual people or facts but the whole information space. In a famous remark to the journalist Michael Lewis in 2018, Steve Bannon, the Breitbart News chairman, said this: “…The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” Flood the zone with shit: although the formulation is crude, there could be no more concise and accurate summation of what modern information warfare is all about. All communities, and especially the reality-based community, rely on networks of trust to decide what is and is not true. Every aspect of trust and credibility is degraded when the zone is flooded with shit.
For a disinformation operative, the goal is to subvert truth’s compulsion. That is difficult to do by changing people’s minds but making people confused and mistrustful is easier. As [Hannah] Arendt famously wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
The firehose of falsehood aims not to persuade but to confuse: to induce uncertainty, disorientation, and attendant cynicism.
Epistemic helplessness—the inability to know where to turn for truth—was the desideratum of the firehose of falsehood. “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda,” the Russian dissident Gary Kasparov observed in a December 2016 tweet. “It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.” The goal was demoralization. In a chillingly candid interview in 1983, Yuri Bezmenov, a Russian intelligence defector who had specialized in propaganda and ideological subversion, explained: “A person who is demoralized is unable to assess true information. The facts tell nothing to him. Even if I shower him with information, with authentic proof, with documents, with pictures.”
(Dis)information Is Power
But why spend many millions of dollars and build national bureaucracies and international networks in order to demoralize people? As always with politics, the purpose was power.
“It’s to make people passive and not want to fight,” the British journalist and disinformation expert Peter Pomerantsev told me. Whereas Communism had tried to convince people it was forging a great socialist future, the newer model focused on sowing confusion and disseminating conspiracy theories. Pomerantsev thought it resembled an “unserious version of postmodernism.” He noticed that as the Kremlin consolidated its control over media, it drove messages which were aimed not at motivating people to support the government but at demotivating them in order to make them feel helpless. “When you’re surrounded by conspiracy theories, you feel you can’t change anything, and there’s nothing to guide you,” he said. “The metanarrative is that there is no alternative to Putin.”
In this way, troll epistemology could achieve something rather like censorship, only perhaps better, and certainly easier. Suppose, instead of banning unwelcome ideas, you swamp and swarm them? In a landmark 2017 paper called “Is the First Amendment Obsolete?” the legal scholar Tim Wu argued that traditional censorship assumed that information and access to audiences were scarce and could be blockaded or bottlenecked. In the digital era, however, information (good and bad) is abundant; attention is what is scarce. So instead of blockading information, why not blockade attention? If you flood the zone with distractions and deceptions and just plain garbage, people’s attention would be diverted and exhausted and overwhelmed.
To demoralization, disorientation, and de facto censorship, one might add a further virtue of disinformation, from the point of view of the authoritarian or kleptocrat. Recall conformity bias: we conform our beliefs to the beliefs of others in our social environment. By swarming social media platforms and using software to impersonate masses of people, trolls can spoof our consensus detectors to create the impression that some marginal belief held by practically no one is broadly shared.
The point is not that the public is gullible and always falls for spoofing, trolling, and disinformation. The point is that by fouling and defrauding the information environment, troll epistemology could make it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, to distinguish experts from imposters, to know the provenance of information, to assess what others do and do not believe, to know whom (or what) one is interacting with, and to orient yourself within the information environment.
Thus, when they succeed, trolls and their sponsors achieve something like the powers of Plato’s invisibility ring, lying with impunity, mocking and marauding and harassing at will.
Reality Pushes Back
Cause for alarm, yes. Cause for fatalism—no. There are many reasons not to assume that troll epistemology will prevail, and many reasons to hope it will fail. The reality-based community has its share of vulnerabilities, but troll epistemology has vulnerabilities of its own. It is, again, entirely parasitic and destructive; its inability to do anything constructive limits its sustainability and appeal. It relies on the information networks it targets to spread and amplify falsehoods, but those networks tend to wise up. It can coordinate its attacks but has little control over the demons it lets loose. It is not good at building durable institutions, because its norms are sociopathic. It is not good at maintaining its own situational awareness, because, as Thomas Rid notes, propagandists tend to become enmeshed in their own lies and half-truths.