As Weiner (himself a former newspaper reporter) notes, “It is the media’s discomfort with objective truth that disqualifies it from being believed when it calls Trump on his violations of objective truth now.”
The Spring 2017 issue of National Affairs contains a thought-provoking essay by Greg Weiner, assistant professor of political science at Worcester’s Assumption College, titled “Trump and Truth.”
Weiner lays out, in carefully reasoned prose, exactly why our current president’s difficulties with the truth matter.
His point is not — or not exclusively, anyway — to take issue with this policy or that pronouncement by the 44th occupant of the White House [Grover Cleveland, remember, served as president twice in nonconsecutive terms.]. I am sure that Weiner, like any thinking American (including many who cast ballots for Trump) has a qualm or two (or many) regarding the man’s comportment.
Anti-Trump screeds being as common as inane Twitter posts, however, Weiner wisely takes another, more interesting path. He returns to several touchstone authors of our Western culture — Aristotle, Thucydides, Madison and Orwell among them — to explore the fate of “logos.”
Or, to put it more plainly, the word. Language. And, by extension, political discourse and meaning in present-day America.
You may have guessed that Weiner concludes that language and meaning matter. The interesting part is how he gets there, and the stops along the way.
I cannot do justice to the complexity of Weiner’s essay here, but will touch on a few points.
“The isolated individual has no need for logos,” Weiner writes. “He who can share nothing or needs nothing ‘is either a beast or a god.’ Few of these walk among us, which means that the atomized individual is incapable of arriving at truth except in community with others.”
This, at an everyday level, helps explain why we humans love to gather in cafés, bookshops and sports bars to argue about all manner of things. We are social creatures, and it is through that engagement with others that many of us find our way, slowly and painfully, to that which we call truth.
From here, Weiner goes on to explore the nature of governance and political truth, and asserts that “politics is much more often a matter of prudential judgment than scientific precision,” and musters Madison (particularly the Federalist No. 37) in support of his point.
This leads, naturally, back to Trump, and what Weiner calls the man’s “steady deflation of the currency of language through serial exaggeration, gratuitous superlatives, and, yes, reflexive distortion.”
It is at this point, when a president moves from mere politicking to a reckless disregard for the truth, that the Fourth Estate would normally muster ink and quill to set the Republic aright once more.
But as Weiner (himself a former newspaper reporter) notes, “It is the media’s discomfort with objective truth that disqualifies it from being believed when it calls Trump on his violations of objective truth now.”
Weiner takes aim at mainstream liberalism as well, noting that the left has for a very long time undermined the very notion of objective truth, and now finds that “… in the era of Trump, they are disarmed.”
Is all hope lost, then? Are we Americans simply, as Weiner notes, “retreating not just behind partisan lines but also into private and disparate realities” while raw political will rules the day?
I think not.
Sure, some publications less balanced than National Affairs — any recent issue of The Nation and the editorial page of the New York Times come to mind — paint a very dark picture of an America bereft of hope and under threat of a rising neo-fascism. But while such material may sell subscriptions, it doesn’t ring true.
Weiner concludes, to believe Trump is corrupting language in an effort to inhibit resistance is to give the man too much credit.
The way I see it, some of the left’s portrait of the president as nefarious is no more true than the right’s fading hope that he may yet prove to be the second coming of Ronald Reagan. The grim reality is that sometimes a buffoon is just a buffoon.
That said, while buffoons and fools can do much harm, they can also puncture pieties, call bluffs, expose hypocrisy, and help us explore difficult truths. It is too soon to know what kind of fool our new president will prove to be.
But it is not too soon to note that if we Americans expect to preserve the civility and integrity of our society through the next four years and more, we need to stop relying upon the media to do for us what we must do for ourselves: Restore meaning to language. Seek prudential judgment in those whom we elect. And listen to one another with care, respect and forbearance.
Chris Sinacola is a Worcester Sun columnist. His observations on politics, current events, history and more appear every Sunday.