lies/truth

My wife, Ruth, took a course about pragmatism this last semester at HILR, the life-long learning program we both attend. The last person they discussed was the philosopher and neo-pragmatist, Richard Rorty. I have admired Rorty and have often cited his work. His claim that solidarity with all human beings is the fundamental underpinning of a liberal society resonates with my arguments that care is the essential relationship to enact. It is also consistent with the mastery of the right brain. In the course of our conversations, she pointed me to an article about him in the Los Angeles Review of Books. In his article, Rorty and Post-post-truth, Eduardo Mendieta paints a stark picture of our political future.

I strongly encourage everyone who has concerns about the future of the US to download and read the whole article. The author’s intentions can be found in this quote.

As I stood there pondering this, I recalled how I closed my introduction to a book of interviews with Richard Rorty that I edited back in 2006, a year before he died:

Rorty’s America is Lincoln’s America, and what Rorty hopes to do with American pragmatism, and the party of hope, the American left, is not unlike what Lincoln did with the Declaration of Independence, namely, to provide us with new ways of reading it so that we could become a different American, one with more expansive and generous loyalties.

I chose to title this book Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself, with what Rorty himself called his slogan. This slogan has another iteration: “If we take care of political freedom, we get truth as a bonus.” Thus over the last few months, I have been thinking a lot about what Rorty would say were he alive today. What would the Rorty who argued so insistently and vigorously against truth say now that we have entered the age of Post-Truth politics.

The rest of the article is a commentary on truth in the public sphere. Written early in the Trump presidency, it is even more stark and relevant today. Truth and solidarity are tightly interwoven. If one cannot trust others to be telling the truth, it quickly becomes impossible to enter into and maintain a caring relationship. Relationships suffer without truth as, per Jurgen Habermas, consensual actions (communicative actions in his vocabulary) are unlikely, if not impossible. Without truths that do their best to describe the real world, it becomes fruitless to plan for the future because whatever reasons have been used to shape the subsequent actions have no validity. No matter what the actor would like to happen, outcomes are always and inevitably determined by the “real” world.

His article closes with an extraordinarily clear and loud warning to everyone, regardless of any partisan leaning. The mirror image of his closing words – “a mausoleum to past privileges and faded glories” is the call to “Make America Great Again.” The way we tell and are told the truth will determine our future.

We may not be able to pin truth to the wall of the really real, or trace its roots to the essence of being, but we certainly know that truth is essential for our relations with others and ourselves. Truth as a relation to others is called democratic truthfulness; while truth as a relation to ourselves is called ethical truthfulness. Neither can subsist without the other; each potentiates the other. A democracy that does not care about truth, is a democracy that does not care about either the character of its citizens or its legitimacy — and thus we may as well trade it for despotisms, oligarchies, and timocracies, to use the catalog of bad forms of society Plato listed in his Republic. The will to truth is not simply the will to fashion our truth, but the will to uphold our integrity as citizens in a community that links truthfulness to truth, and these together to holding each other in equal constitutional regard. A democracy that allows itself to be relentlessly lied to has lost its self-regard, its democratic pride. And for Rorty, this would have meant that we have ceased to think of our democracy as a project, as something that gives us a sight of ascent and hope, and instead have apathetically settled into thinking of it like a monument to our past accomplishments — a mausoleum to past privileges and faded glories.