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‘Truth is the Oxygen in the Air of Democracy’ (1)

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Two events in recent weeks have proven profoundly significant for our nation’s politics and likely future. The first was the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer over the course of nearly 9 minutes of torture on May 25, 2020, as the perpetrator’s colleagues watched impassively and a bystander recorded the scene.[2] That horrific turn unleashed protests across the United States and internationally concerning the evident injustice and impunity toward African Americans that it represented. Huge numbers of Americans of all races, classes and genders, as well as citizens of other nations were, and continue to be, outraged by this event, and other similar deaths that preceded and have followed it.

The second incident I wish to highlight was the decision by The New York Times to publish an opinion essay by Sen. Tom Cotton (R) of Arkansas on June 3, 2020 that, among other things, argued for widespread deployment of military personnel to end the largely peaceful protests occurring across the United States in the wake of Floyd's death.[3] Cotton’s essay deeply misrepresented what was occurring in the nation by contending that “rioters had plunged many American cities into anarchy,” and by suggesting that the only recourse to “restore order to our streets” was an “overwhelming show of force.”[4] Overall, in addition to its patent falsification, and as The Washington Post reported:

The Cotton op-ed made several questionable assertions, such as that ‘leftwing radicals, like antifa, [have] infiltrated marches,’ and that ‘some elites’ have condoned vandalism and looting. Cotton didn’t identify any individual making such statements, nor offer any support that antifa — a vaguely defined group of radicals — had instigated violence. As one Times reporter pointed out, the antifa claim has been debunked in Times reporting as misinformation.[5]

Ultimately, following attempts by both the publisher and the editorial and opinions editor, James Bennet, to defend the decision in the face of outrage among the Times staff members and widespread public condemnation, Bennet resigned and the newspaper reassigned his deputy and laid its choice to publish Cotton’s mendacious and inflammatory screed to a breakdown in its internal review process.[6]

President Donald Trump, too, chose to mischaracterize the protests occurring in the wake of Floyd's killing and called for military intervention as well. He labeled protestors “rioters and terrorists” and called on state governors to deal with them harshly.[7] While both of these recent episodes and their consequences are extremely important in a number of ways, I want to concentrate here on the question of the Cotton essay and Trump’s lies in the wake of Floyd's murder and the challenge they represent to the news media, to the academy, to democracy and to our country’s citizens, who are the heartbeat of our governance.

Ezra Klein has dealt thoughtfully in a recent essay with the first of these concerns: how journalists should approach deliberate propagandizing and lies, which Trump and his party have practiced since he announced his campaign for office and arguably, for many years before. Klein has contended that news outlets have always had to make such gatekeeping choices, but that dealing with outright deceits and propaganda on the scale now practiced by Trump and the GOP represents a fresh firmament of such challenges. This ongoing scenario was sharply revealed by the Times regrettable decision concerning the Cotton piece:

It’s interesting to imagine what would’ve happened if The Times had simply never solicited Cotton’s op-ed, or if he had submitted it and they had passed. The answer, quite clearly, is nothing. That would have been perfectly normal. It’s because the op-ed was reclassified as deviant after its publication, through a semi-public process, that it’s become such a flashpoint. It made visible a process that is often invisible, and it turns out that process is messy and contested. Trump has sharpened the contradictions here. He and his allies operate in ways that are fundamentally opposed to the basic values that animate newsrooms.  This has long caused newsrooms trouble — consider the endless effort to find euphemisms for the word ‘lying’ when describing the president’s comments in headlines.[8]

And yet, the Times ultimately and emphatically made the right decision in this instance to repudiate Cotton’s lies for what they were. There was no widespread anarchy on the nation’s streets, as the Arkansas legislator asserted, and there was none when Trump painted a picture of an America characterized by little but carnage in his 2017 inaugural address or, more recently, when he lied about the character of the protests and the lion’s share of those involved with them.[9] The fundamental question at stake here is not who should make these gatekeeping choices, which, as Klein asserts, are both inevitable and innately political. Instead, what is at stake is ensuring that various sources in society are willing, in the name of the truth and democracy and of freedom of the press and of speech, to call out lies for what they are and thereafter to engage in a public dialogue concerning their own interpretive reasoning. It is vital to emphasize that Cotton and Trump’s contentions were not questions of construal or even of values differences or valences, but complete mischaracterizations of reality, designed to elicit fear and loathing. They were contemptible and obvious fabrications that never should have been embraced, let alone have been publicly pressed.  

Our news media and other major institutions, including the military, religious organizations and most especially, the academy, cannot permit themselves to be cowed by such corrupt misuse of office and authority, or by attacks on the press or the law or on the rights that enable the free discourse that calls out such behavior and the constitutionally protected right to protest against it. These rights and the possibilities they unleash for public dialogue and deliberation are the lifeblood of self-governance, and no official or political party should be allowed to undermine them on any basis. Lies and misrepresentation are not and can never be the empirical or moral equivalent of honest attempts to describe and understand reality. Green is not red nor is the sun the moon simply because a political figure says they are, or because saying so, in a partisan’s view, serves a political mobilization or ideological agenda. As The Washington Post has daily noted on its masthead since 2017, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

Indeed, the Cotton op-ed episode and its unfolding illustrate the profundity of legendary broadcaster and journalist Bill Moyers’ recent comments concerning Trump and his party’s calculated daily embrace of deliberate lies and misrepresentation:

This man (Trump) has a penchant for one-man rule. And he wants a one-party state. And it’s been day after day, act after act and he is unable to tell the truth or recognize the truth. This is the last point I would make: unless we see the truth and act on it, we are going to run out of oxygen. Truth is the oxygen in the air of democracy and we are going to run out of it.[10]

The New York Times controversy concerning Cotton’s essay also reminds members of the academy particularly of the importance of doing their best to tell the truth, irrespective of ideology or political claims. When a president has lied publicly more than 18,000 times during his still unfinished term, it could not be more important for those who study politics to inform Americans of that fact and to share their views of its implications.[11] No one is helped by scholars assigning false standing or legitimacy to untruths or by their quiet acceptance. As Moyers noted, taking such a stance will instead lead only to the death of democratic possibility, which can only thrive when citizens have recourse to the information necessary to make prudent choices.

I have personally had to address what might be dubbed the “Cotton question” for this commentary series. Well before Donald Trump announced his campaign with several outrageous lies in 2015, I had to make a considered choice concerning how I would treat the issue of officials’ misrepresentations and fabrications concerning the issues I treated. During George W. Bush’s second term, I moved from seeking to offer all points of view, even when I believed one of those a mischaracterization or worse, to electing to instead present reasoned arguments in pursuit of the truth. For me, the latter position meant calling out lies as lies and seeking as straightforwardly and clearly as possible to label them as such and provide reasons for doing so. I came to believe that any other position abandoned my roles as scholar, public intellectual and devotee of freedom and democratic governance, and as one who would seek to contribute to the broader public dialogue with a modicum of integrity.

In this sense, it seems clear that neither Cotton’s, nor Trump’s, nor any other political leader’s lies should ever be accepted by scholars, journalists or, indeed, any friend of democratic self-governance. These individuals, regardless of their social roles, should instead repeatedly point out official fabrications for what they are and suggest their implications. Ethically, their roles demand no less. Democracy cannot survive without an informed and prudential populace. More, persistent sharing of the truth can offer citizens opportunities to consider their own assumptions, proclivities and biases. That stance can offer residents the possibility for reassessment of those, which can result, as Klein noted, in shifts of what constitutes acceptable treatment of others, as has occurred, for example, on the question of gay marriage in the United States in recent years.

That is, that dialogic process can lead to what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called a more reflective judgment among citizens.[12] According to Kant, such a stance required that individuals make decisions on the basis of what they share with all others, rather than from a privatized or egocentric perspective. At its best, a broad public dialogue in quest of truth will yield a citizenry that considers questions not from hate, prejudice, fear or perceived self-interest, but from the vantage point of what the political theorist Hannah Arendt called an “enlarged mentality,” one whose imagination, as she put it felicitously, is “trained to go visiting.”[13] In short, and by definition, lies corrode democratic dialogue and the potential for prudence. More deeply, they undermine the possibility of an enlarged imagination on which all self-governance must ultimately rely. Our news media and other major social institutions and the academy alike owe this nation’s politics and its citizens an undivided effort to provide that opportunity by relentless pursuit of the truth, and by just as ceaselessly calling out those who systematically undermine self-governance when they lie and mislead those who entrust them.

Notes

[1] I have borrowed this memorable phrase from Bill Moyers. Moyers on Democracy, “Bill Moyers and Christiane Amanpour: ‘Truth is the Oxygen of Democracy,’” June 10, 2020, https://billmoyers.com/story/bill-moyers-and-christiane-amanpour-truth-is-the-oxygen-of-democracy/, Accessed June 10, 2020. 

[2] Hill, Evan, Alnara Tiefenthäler, Christiaan Trieebart, Drew Jordan, Haley Willis and Robin Stein. “8 Minutes and 46 Seconds; Bow George Floyd was killed in Police Custody,” The New York Times, May 31/June 18, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/31/us/george-floyd-investigation.html, Accessed June 18, 2020. 

[3] Cotton, Tom. “Send in the Troops,” The New York Times, June 3, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/03/opinion/tom-cotton-protests-military.html, Accessed June 5, 2020. 

[4] Cotton, “Send in the Troops,” June 3, 2020.

[5] Izahdi, Elahe, Paul Farhi and Sarah Ellison. “After Staff Uproar, New York Times says Sen. Tom Cotton op-ed urging military incursion into U.S. cities ‘did not meet our standards,’” The Washington Post, June 4, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/media/2020/06/03/new-york-times-tom-cotton/, Accessed June 4, 2020. 

[6] James, Meg. “New York Times opinion editor resigns following ‘Send in the Troops’ Controversy,” The Los Angeles Times, June 7, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/business/story/2020-06-07/nyt-opinion-editor-resigns-cotton-controversy, Accessed June 10, 2020. 

[7] Rogers, Katie, Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman. “As Trump Calls Protestors ‘Terrorists,’ Tear Gas Clears a Path for his Walk to a Church,” The New York Times, June 1, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/01/us/politics/trump-governors.html, Accessed June 15, 2020.

[8] Klein, Ezra. “America is changing, and so is the media,” Vox, June 10, 2020, https://www.vox.com/2020/6/10/21284651/new-york-times-tom-cotton-media-liberal-conservative-black-lives-matter, Accessed June 10, 2020. 

[9] Trump, Donald J. “The Inaugural Address.” January 20, 2017, White House Briefings, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/the-inaugural-address/, Accessed June 18, 2020. 

[10] Moyers on Democracy, “Bill Moyers and Christiane Amanpour: ‘Truth is the Oxygen of Democracy,’” June 10, 2020, https://billmoyers.com/story/bill-moyers-and-christiane-amanpour-truth-is-the-oxygen-of-democracy/, Accessed June 10, 2020. 

[11] Markowitz, David. “Trump is Lying More Than Ever: Just Look at the Data,” Forbes, May 5, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidmarkowitz/2020/05/05/trump-is-lying-more-than-ever-just-look-at-the-data/#2baf502c1e17, Accessed June 14, 2020. 

[12] Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgment, Trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987.

[13] Arendt, Hannah. Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, Ed. Ronald Beiner. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, pp.42-43.

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

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