Don’t Blame Nietzsche for Donald Trump
“Facts” may not be what they used to be, but philosophers aren't responsible for the GOP candidate’s slippery grasp on reality.
Back in 2001, just after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a number of commentators blamed both the event and the perceived weakness of the response to it on something called postmodernism, characterized by its critics as an extreme form of relativism that leaves its adherents unable to tell truth from falsehood or fact from fiction.
Now, in the wake of a series of terrorist attacks and the baffling (to some) rise of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, this accusation has been revived. Here, for example, is Peter Pomerantsev, writing in a recent issue of Granta magazine:
This equaling out of truth and falsehood is both informed by and takes advantage of an all-permeating late post-modernism and relativism…. This school of thought has taken Nietzsche’s maxim, there are no facts, only interpretations, to mean that every version of events is just another narrative, where lies can be excused as “an alternative point of view” or “an opinion” because “it’s all relative” and “everyone has their own truth.”
Now if postmodernism really said that, it would deserve all the criticism directed at it. But it doesn’t. Postmodernism doesn’t teach the lessons its opponents attack it for; and because it is a philosophical view in conversation with other philosophical views rather than a recipe for political action, postmodernism has no causal relationship to either the spread of terrorist ideology or the primary triumphs of Trump.
What postmodernism says is that while the material world certainly exists and is prior to our descriptions of it, we only have access to it through those descriptions. That is, we do not know the world directly, as a matter of simple and unmediated perception; rather we know it as the vocabularies at our disposal deliver it to us. The philosopher Richard Rorty put it this way: “The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not.” The world does not come equipped with its own language, its own directions for stating the truth about it; if it did, we could just speak that language and be confident that what we said was objectively true.
But in the absence of such a language (called by the historian of science Thomas Kuhn a “neutral observation language”), we must make do with the vocabularies that are developed in the course of our attempts to make sense of things: the vocabularies of science, philosophy, political theory, anthropology, sociology, law, aesthetics. Merely to list those vocabularies (and there are of course more than I have instanced) is to realize that in every discipline — every laboratory of description — there is more than one; there are many and those many are in competition with one another, vying for the right to wear the labels correct and true.
If different vocabularies deliver different worlds and different measures of true and false, does that amount (in Pomerantsev’s words) to the “equaling out of truth and falsehood”? Only in reference to a measure of true and false attached to no vocabulary at all, a measure proceeding directly from an unmediated, perfectly seen world. Were there such a measure, all assertions would equal out because they would be equally (though differently) far from the truth as seen from a God’s-eye point of view. But postmodernism tells us that no such measure is available to us. And since we all live and move within the points of view given to us by time and experience, the equality of our assertions in relation to an impossible standard of objective truth is theoretical rather than practical; it has no effect on our ability (or inability) to make judgments of truth and falsehood in real life situations.
In those situations — political, domestic, military, whatever — there are all kinds of standards to which our assertions are held responsible — canons of evidence, accepted authorities, calculations of usefulness — though practices differ in the firmness and stability of the standards they recognize. The norms adhered to by scientists, anthropologists, historians, and others last for years, even generations.
The norms politicians adhere to, on the other hand, last only until someone violates them and gets away with it. In the present election cycle, Trump has said things considered beyond the pale before he said them and he suffered few if any consequences. He was continually pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable. But even as he did, those boundaries were redrawn, not erased; there were still things he could not say without being labeled “wrong”. (It appears that his criticism of a Gold Star family was one of them.) Ideas of right and wrong are always in place even when they are being challenged and reconfigured.
What this means is that despite the dire pronouncements of critics like Pomerantsev, the categories of right and wrong, true and false are never empty or up for relativist grabs; it is just that they always being renegotiated. At any given time we always know what is right and wrong, true and false, even though, in the course of time, what we know can take a different form. It may seem odd to say so, but the unavailability of an independent, objective standard — a standard hostage to no ideologically inflected vocabulary — is without consequence, except for the consequence that the project of determining what is true or false, correct or incorrect, accurate or off the mark will never be brought to a final resolution; like psychoanalysis, it is interminable.
Can this project be captured and manipulated by unscrupulous actors? Of course it can, but this is the result of garden-variety human depravity, and not of postmodernism, which, as a form of philosophical speculation rather than a set of moral imperatives, generates neither sincere nor insincere behavior.
If the categories of right and wrong, true and false are never empty, neither is the category of accepted and obvious fact, although what fills it will vary from age to age and vary too among interlocutors in a given age. These days, both Democrats and Republicans are secure in their knowledge of the facts about the economy, immigration, climate change, unions, the military, and a thousand other things. It is just that they know — and can support with statistics, massive documentation, and a host of reasons drawn from history, morality and philosophy — different and opposing facts, and there is no impartial benchmark that can independently sort out the true facts from what is mere opinion or error.
Again, this does not mean that there are no facts, only that there are no facts so independent of perspective — so above it all — that they can end the war of fact that is always going on in politics, science, marriage, and everywhere else; there are no facts that stand to the side of argument and can settle arguments; there are only facts that emerge in the course of argument, facts to which at least some people have been persuaded, although given what persuasion is, its effects are unlikely to last; persuasion can’t be done once and for all.
Because facts that emerge in the course of argument will not be considered facts by everyone, the world of fact is not a settled landscape, but a battlefield. In a dispute, either side can invoke what is, within its vocabulary and presuppositions, indisputable fact, but any such invocation will lead not to the white flag of surrender but to renewed dispute as those who inhabit a different vocabulary and are committed to different presuppositions reply, “Let me tell you why your so called facts rest on shaky ground,” or, “What you call fact is just the opinion of discredited pseudo-authorities,” or, “What you count as a fact for your position actually supports ours.” So we’re off to the races again, with no finish line in sight, although there may be temporary victories that last until the facts established in debate are challenged and dislodged. (The period can be 200 years or 20 minutes.)
When two parties speak from different assumptions and within different basic vocabularies that generate different facts, each will say of the other, “you lie.” They say that because from where they stand or sit, what the other guys are asserting couldn’t possibly be true; they can only be saying that because they want to deceive and mislead the public. No, they are saying that because they believe it. I am not suggesting that believing in something makes it true; only that if you are seriously committed to a position and not just asserting it frivolously or maliciously, you can back it up with evidence and argument; you have reasons for your belief, as do those who believe something else; and making an effort to back up one’s beliefs when challenged is essential to the joint effort of figuring out what the truth is, an effort that can succeed provisionally, but never finally. Lying, the act of professing what you know to be false, is not typically what either side is practicing. There is, after all, something called an honest difference of opinion, where “honest” means “I really believe this and let me tell you why I do and then you can tell me why you are not convinced.”
There are, however, those who are neither serious nor honest. They say things not in order to initiate a dialogue, but because they want to wound people; they trade on ignorance and prejudice; they rehearse gossip and baseless rumors they know to be false; they really are liars. In a recent edition of his TV program Last Week Tonight, John Oliver made high fun of people who just toss stuff out with no care for its accuracy or for the harm it might do. He has two examples. The first is Antonio Sabàto Jr., a less-than-minor celebrity, who in an interview said of President Barack Obama, “I don’t believe that the guy is a Christian.” The interviewer tried to ask, “based on what?” but Sabàto cut her off, declaring, “That’s what I believe and I have the right to believe it.” Sure he does, but his manner of belief is a refusal of serious engagement and has all the probative value of a grunt or a belch. Oliver’s second example is Newt Gingrich, who seems to have more political lives than a cat. In an interview, Gingrich waved away the statistics and reports showing that crime is down in the United States. “That’s not how people feel,” he said, and when confronted with a recitation of fact he retorted “That’s your view” and “I’ll go with how people feel and you can go with the theoreticians of fact.”
Now one of these is a fool (guess which) and the other is a knave, openly pandering to the uninformed opinions of his audience. But neither is a postmodernist; neither performs in a way dictated by postmodern tenets.
And when Donald Trump links Ted Cruz’s father with the John F. Kennedy assassination or suggests, on the basis of nothing at all, that Ghazala Kahn, the mother of a slain Muslim-American soldier, didn’t speak at the Democratic convention because her husband and her religion wouldn’t allow it, he isn’t being a postmodernist either; he is just practicing the art of innuendo and slander that has been around since the beginning of time, eons before postmodernism was the name of a form of thought that those who had never engaged with it could caricature. Postmodernism neither licenses slander not gives us the resources for combatting it. We cannot “cure” die-hard Trump supporters by requiring them to read some pages of Nietzsche or, for that matter, some pages of Kant or Aristotle or Abraham Lincoln. In fact, die-hard Trump supporters cannot be cured by anything, necessarily, although in a given circumstance almost anything they encounter — a homeless man, a newborn child, the lyrics in a song, a sunset — might bring about a conversion in their way of thinking.
This is one of the lessons postmodernism teaches us: What persuades someone to embrace or break away from an agenda or a leader is entirely contingent; it cannot be predicted or designed. But that contingency is not produced by postmodernism; it has been a feature of life since the beginning. Postmodernism just explains why contingency cannot be overcome by invoking a set of independent, freestanding facts to which all parties, including Trump supporters, would bend the knee. There are no such facts; there are only facts embedded in some challengeable form of life, and because they are so embedded, they are forever challengeable too. Nothing can shore them up permanently.
Again, this is not postmodernism’s fault; it’s just the truth its arguments urge on us. Postmodernism doesn’t do anything more positive than urging that truth. It is not a politics; it neither gives marching orders to those who are persuaded to it, nor tells you whom to vote for or how to live. To be a postmodernist is not to have an agenda, but to give a particular set of answer to some questions (about fact and truth) traditionally posed in philosophy. Giving those answers commits you to no course of action. You could be converted to postmodernism and find that nothing else in your life had changed.
The bottom line is that abstract forms of thought like postmodernism do not cause bad actions. (They do not cause good actions either; they don’t cause any actions.) Bad actions are caused by bad character. Sabàto, Gingrich, Trump don’t say reprehensible things because they have read Nietzsche. They say reprehensible things because they are reprehensible and their way of talking and thinking couldn’t be further from the careful and patient elaboration of difficult problems that marks postmodern discourse. Blaming a set of largely academic arguments for the source of our troubles is a combination of irresponsibility and ignorance, a shallow response to problems that are left unaddressed. I expect that the next proposal coming from those who declare that the dangers we face emanate from philosophy departments will be to ban postmodernists from entering the country and to burn the postmodernist texts (if not their authors) that have already been let in.
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