In Part i. we talked about the GOP’s cognitive dissonance and how they plan to invite everyone into the corner they’ve painted themselves into — since there’s no time to unpaint it. In Part ii. it was noted that we have moved “beyond freedom and dignity” into an utterly amoral world of Skinnerian rat conditioning and how Frank Luntz targets the message to the reptile brain, bypassing the conscious mind by manipulating language. That you are no longer citizens or voters, but laboratory mice. (Not human, in other words, if your soul is not yet so dead that you fail to take offense at this implicit slander.) Now, in Part iii. we ask whether “Truth” matters at all. Take it away, Talking Points …
Part iii. Life Among the Sophists
a. Oh, Poor Socrates!
I have reprinted the “Old Jesus University” story (“yesterday”) so that I can tell you this story.
I switched my major to philosophy in my junior year, disgusted by the sophistry of “Old Jesus University”s sleazy, amoral debate success. Clearly that was what America wanted, and I haven’t been swayed from that position since.
The required philosophy course for all majors was “History of Philosophy,” which covered two semesters and brings one up to date with the kurrent kerfuffle.
First semester covered classical philosophy, and the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences himself taught the course.
Entirely too soon, the required paper on Socrates’ Apology was assigned, and, having written this selfsame paper more than once, courtesy of Bill Gill’s legendary “Humanities” course at Santa Fe High School, and, beginning to feel that perhaps I was going to be doing a lot more writing in my career, I distilled my anger at the misapplication of rhetoric and the sleazy sophistry that had overwhelmed modern debate and I wrote a tongue-in-cheek paper on “The Apology” entitled “A Debater’s Perspective on Socrates’ Apology.”*
[* What’s scary is that I can look at my file cabinets and see the drawer that it’s in. I saved most, if not all of my college essays for some obscure reason, and given the physical changes of residence and various disasters, I cannot for the life of me understand how these were preserved when so much valuable stuff was lost. Life is inscrutable, it seems.]
And I basically took Socrates’ very good arguments and noted how none of them would be considered the “right” arguments, the Sophists Triumphant. Now, to make this work, I made sure that I evidenced plenty of knowledge of the Apology, in its clueless negation. And I was carefully aware of EVERY logical fallacy I was propounding (sticking to the “classic” and not the modern fallacies, out of respect for antiquity) as I darkly turned the Aristotelian Applecart on its ear.
He gave me an “F” along with a angry and despairing note as to how I had completely MISUNDERSTOOD Socrates.
Only one problem, and I can certainly understand WHY he did what he did, appreciating that many students undoubtedly DID turn in such papers, wide-eyed and majoring in Ranch Management. It had not occurred to me that he’d consider me such an idiot as to have written such a paper, nor was it the first time I’d suffer for having been a shade TOO arch.
I protested, and we had a meeting about it, and he dropped behind the “I can’t change your grade” dodge beloved of school bureaucrats everywhere, when followed with the requisite “If I did this [SPECIAL THING] for you, I’d have to do it for everybody.” Even though he “got” that I was writing tongue-in-cheek.
He had taken it utterly at face value, and could not retreat from his initial judgment — though it was clearly in error. And for whatever reason, he could not back down from his initial interpretation of the paper. The Universe does not understand irony. (Which is why it’s not a good idea to name your dog “Cujo.”)
But, I think he must have felt a little bit guilty, since I ended up with a “B” in the class, and we subsequently became friends, on the level that he KNEW FULL WELL that I knew a little bit about Socrates. We tried to design a degree path that would straddle the B.A. and the B.S. It was about computers and the arts, but it was too early, and never materialized. But we got to know one another fairly well.
But my point was only reinforced: while we worship at the altar of Socrates, we practice the Dark Arts of the Sophists. In law school, laughably, professors use the “Socratic method” to teach our present sophistry.
But, years later, I empathize with him, for having to grade papers from students who’d have never for a moment recognized the utter speciousness of my “funny” paper, but would, rather, be convinced by it. I see them in the blogosphere all the time.
THAT was what enraged Aristophanes into writing The Clouds. But, being an indifferent journalist, he cast “Socrates” as the lead Sophist of the school that Socrates despised, as I despised the sophists of Old Jesus University.
Ironically, here is what Plato (transcribing Socrates) says about Aristophanes’ play:
I will begin at the beginning, and ask what the accusation is which has given rise to this slander of me, and which has encouraged Meletus to proceed against me. What do the slanderers say? They shall be my prosecutors, and I will sum up their words in an affidavit. “Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.” That is the nature of the accusation, and that is what you have seen yourselves in the comedy of Aristophanes; who has introduced a man whom he calls Socrates, going about and saying that he can walk in the air, and talking a deal of nonsense concerning matters of which I do not pretend to know either much or little – not that I mean to say anything disparaging of anyone who is a student of natural philosophy. I should be very sorry if Meletus could lay that to my charge. But the simple truth is, O Athenians, that I have nothing to do with these studies. Very many of those here present are witnesses to the truth of this, and to them I appeal. Speak then, you who have heard me, and tell your neighbors whether any of you have ever known me hold forth in few words or in many upon matters of this sort. … You hear their answer. And from what they say of this you will be able to judge of the truth of the rest….
Socrates was convicted and condemned to death. So much for Truth. The debaters at Old Jesus University would have been pleased.
Debate: Not exactly Lincoln-Douglas; more Proctor & Gamble
Evidently, Fox News was first distributed on cuneiform tablets.
b. When NOTHING is the absolute Truth isn’t everything a Lie?
There are lies and there are lies. And there are inaccuracies and exaggerations. But night is not day, while we may argue about twilight.
Struggling to justify a recent television spot that reached new heights of deception, a top operative in Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign put it plainly, while insisting on anonymity:
“First of all, ads are propaganda by definition. We are in the persuasion business, the propaganda business…. Ads are agitprop…. Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing. It’s ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context…. All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art.”
“Manipulative pieces of persuasive art“: this is the Credo of the Sophist. It is also what Aristophanes was so enraged by that he wrote the remarkable play “The Clouds,” and in that eternal moment of bitter irony, Socrates, falsely accused of being a Sophist is condemned to death FOR sophistry BY sophistry.
J. Jonah Jameson action figure with desk-pounding action
But we also recognize that we have, for twenty-five centuries and more, attempted to resolve disputes through an adversarial process in which we adjudge the FACTS. The nature of this process has been debate (when it wasn’t something worse, like trial by combat or witch dunking), and it has NOT been “manipulative pieces of persuasive art.” To merely speak the phrase is to adopt the ululating sonorousness of Eden’s Serpent.
When manipulation fails and we are only left with false “facts,” then there IS no shared Reality. When facts are in dispute, the very foundation of Western Thought is at risk. You see it everywhere: well, THEY did it too! and they’re ALL crooks! and the Job Creators will Create Jobs if only their Taxes are CUT!
Roger Ailes was there when “You Won’t Have Dick Nixon To Kick Around Anymore” was repackaged into the “New Nixon,” who, as it turned out, was as ugly and unscrupulous as the Used Car Nixon (from 1960’s “Would you buy a used car from this man?”) if much more successful. For a while.
Nixon: The Repackage, 1968
Ironically, while Nixon’s White House was ultimately brought down by its endless lies and secrecy, Nixon himself valued facts and unvarnished intelligence highly, unlike, say, the Bush the Dumber Administration, where the CIA was told to PRODUCE the intelligence they wanted to hear, including yellowcake from Niger, infamously.
Having, as noted, nothing to stand on, no agreement to unify and no proposals to move forward, the Republican campaigns and the Republicans in Congress have adopted the Nihilist Nothing position: Agree on Nothing, Compromise on Nothing, Accomplish Nothing.
Or, as Hemingway put it in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place“:
Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada [then nothing]. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.
And, as facts and debate are thrown out of the nix [sic] we are left with ONLY conditioning. Skinnerian rat psychology, as it is ofttimes called.
Now, Roger Ailes runs Faux Nooz™.
Ailes and boss Murdoch
Mañana: Pavlov in action.
A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, a survivor of Texas and a veteran of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently lives in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog.