Populism

Yesterday was very busy. I attended the lunch hour talk at Massey College by Cliff Orwin on “Populism.” I then went to my dentist and heard the disappointing news that my implants were not yet fused solidly enough to my jaw bones to put on crowns; I would have to wait another two months. I then returned to the University of Toronto and attended the J.F. Priestley lecture delivered by Jill Lepore on “Facts.” Today and tomorrow I will attend the second and third of these lectures by Jill Lepore on “Numbers.” And “Data” respectively. The three-part series is called, “The End of Knowledge.” In the evening I returned to Massey College to listen to a panel discussion on “Religion and Conflict.” I will report on each in turn in this and subsequent blogs as a way of gaining an understanding of the university as a Social Service Station.

Cliff is a brilliant scholar who was educated at Cornell University under the aegis of Allan Bloom and at Harvard in the sixties and then, like many American academics, migrated north. He is a professor of political philosophy renowned for his work on Thucydides (The Humanity of Thucydides), but is also engaged with modern, contemporary and Jewish thought. In his own bio, he writes that his main current concerns are compassion and the emergence of justice or righteousness in the Torah. Coincidentally, at the panel on “Religion and Conflict,” Rabbi Yael Splansky, one of the panelists, handed out a drash (an interpretation of religious text) from the Talmud, Bereishit Rabbah 8:5, that dwelt on the interplay of kindness or compassion, truth, justice and peace. As is customary, it is written in the form of “on the one hand” and then “on the other hand” in an argument among the angels over whether God should create humans. Because humans will be bestowed with compassion and justice – Cliff’s two current topics – in the angel’s eyes, this argues for human creation. However, humans will also be characterized by the propensity to lie rather than seek the truth and with the propensity for conflict and dissension rather than peace, the arguments offered for not creating humans.

These will be the four themes that run through the next series of blogs – the expression of compassion and the quest for justice offset by the propensity to lie rather than seek the truth and the propensity for dissension or conflict rather than peace. What does God do after listening to the debate amongst his angels? He “took truth and flung him to the ground. Thus it is written: ‘You will cast truth to the ground.’ (Daniel 8:12)” “Why did you do that?” asked an angel. Why would you despise your seal of truth since truth must rise from the ground? “Truth will grow from the earth.” (Psalms 85:12)

Two historians of the past and a rabbinic scholar on the same day are really all mesmerized by the issue of truth in juxtaposition with developments in the external world. The scholarship of the two professors is used to offer different reasons for the current passion to denigrate “truth” and to explain why this is so. They are not addressing abstract topics, but issues we now confront daily. They may be political philosophers or scholars in modern intellectual history or preoccupied with the Talmud, but the issue before them all is explaining the current widespread disdain for truth and assessing the significance of this turn of events. They are esteemed thinkers, two of them working in a university still characterized as a Social Service Station focused on and guided by the current problems of the day which they use their scholarship to address. In addition to their scholarship, Orwin, Lefore and Splansky are all prolific contributors of op-eds.

Populism is certainly on the rise. In the past ten days we witnessed Doug Ford, a local populist, being elected to lead the Conservative Party of Ontario, an event reported by Foreign Affairs in its coverage of the noteworthy issues around the world. In the Italian elections on 4 March, populist parties emerged triumphant, Matteo Salvini’s Northern League (Lega Nord), the far-right Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia), Luigi di Maio’s Five Star Movement (MoVimento 5 Stelle or M5S) and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forward Italy (Forza Italia), the latter now portrayed more as a traditional centre-right party than a populist one. Together, they won a majority of the seats in Parliament with M5S winning a much greater proportion of the votes than expected. Then, of course, there was the latest flood of news from the strongest label in the populist arena, Donald Trump himself and his shenanigans.

Trump’s initiative to meet with North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, first unconditionally, then conditionally, then quasi-conditionally, that is, unconditionally with some conditions, his firing of Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State via a tweet, his protectionist trade policies and imposition of duties on imported steel and aluminum, at the same time as he was embroiled in the suit be Stormy Daniels, the porn star with whom he allegedly had an affair and to whom he indirectly paid $130,000 to shut her up just before the elections. Yesterday, Trump reviewed the design prototypes in San Diego of his long-promised wall along the Mexican border, one of the main planks of his populist program that won him the presidency. The cup of populism runneth over.

What did Thucydides have to say about populism? As Cliff noted, the pattern of lying is not unique to populism. Look at the big lie of the George Bush presidency about nuclear weapons in Iraq that justified the American invasion. As Thucydides wrote (Book VI of The Peloponnesian Wars), the Athenians based their invasion of Sicily, ignorant of the deep divisions within that population, on advancing their imperial and pecuniary interests, but based on misinformation and downright lies as revealed by Nicias who had been appointed general against his will. Nicias thought that the decision to go to war was based “upon slight and specious grounds.” Nicias warned of the many existing enemies that would arise from such an expedition and the new ones that would emerge from within Sicily.

One populist response to these lies and historic consequences was a rejection of global overreach and a propensity towards neo-isolationist policies. The imperial elites that populists subsequently rejected in the name of self-determination and the opposition to bringing more foreigners to Athens because the needs of Athens’s own population were being neglected, were the same problems pointed to by liberals. Neo-cons were the enemies of both liberals and populists as were the mandarins who supported those imperialist adventurers.

The populists simply marked all bureaucrats with the same brush. The populists were correct in at least one sense – liberals had lost touch with the people. And Cliff is driven by a need to reconnect intellectual elites with the people in the pattern of his hero, Thucydides, who he claims always displayed a sympathy for the victims of power. Trump went further along another path and insisted, “Let us have no more allies such as ours have often been to whom we are expected to render aid when they are in misfortune, but from whom we ourselves get no help when we need it.” (Thucydides, Book VI)

Further, as with Athens, America is an innovative state that has always been dedicated to imperial expansion and glory in pursuit of its own interests at the expense of others. Populists simply insist, contrary to fact, that it is the U.S. that has been suckered. Further, the populism of Athens, and any other city-state in the ancient Greek world, preferred safety even at the cost of justice. So wherein comes justice, wherein comes compassion, in a world torn between imperial passions and defensive self-concern? Even Sparta, rooted in conservatism, moderation and the old-fashioned virtue of justice, was motivated by fear, fear of the helots on whose labour the city-state depended. States are caught between imperial overreach (such as that of the neo-cons) that expresses a willingness to sacrifice for a larger cause, and an obsession with safety of self characterized by populism. Liberals must manage the two diverse and rival passions of glory versus safety, ambition versus self-determination, and must do so by a reverence for candor and truth.

Cliff made the same point that Thucydides did – the need to make liberalism more populist. In order to reinvigorate a democracy that had abandoned its roots, its foundations in self-determination and in democracy. The problem, of course, is that populism and liberalism, whatever their overlaps, are very different. Populism embraces a politics of resentment, of negativity rather than offering a positive program based on a canonical text outlining core beliefs. Further, populism is anti-elitist where the elites are NOT defined by their wealth, but by their failure to identify with the problems of ordinary people. The elites are journalists, academic intellectuals and mandarins who speak what to them is a foreign language and who substantively appear to be hypocrites in their ostensible concern for resolving social problems while neglecting the decline in jobs, the decline in hopes and the general distress of a working class displaced by globalism.

Localism, anti-mandarinism, neo-isolationism in both trade and foreign affairs, mark them off from liberals. In Europe, populist parties have tended to don a liberal dress to attract a wider appeal. In North America, they market themselves as anti-liberal. In both cases, populists regard the position of these academic elites as consisting entirely of lies and responsible for the dissension in society because they do not attend to “the core values” that once purportedly characterized the nation. To top it off, these liberals lacked compassion towards their own and a determination to deliver on the promise of justice. Barack Obama bailed out the banks but not the people who were underwater because of the history of the banks disregard of the impact of their policies on small homeowners.

But the central characteristic that I take to be typical of populism is a total disregard of the truth that they project onto elites. It is they who sell out their heads for what they feel. It is they who base policy on sentiment in response to a deep need for compassion and justice directed toward themselves. In The New Yorker (5 March 2018), there is an investigative report by Mike Spies on the famous or infamous gun lobbyist in Florida, Marion Hammer who earns US$316,000 a year for her efforts. Florida witnessed the second-deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in the attack of a killer with assault weapons on a largely Latino gay nightclub in Orlando on 12 June 2016. 49 were killed and 58 others were injured, a fatality toll only surpassed by the attack in Las Vegas a year later. But the killer was Omar Mateen, a follower of radical Islam.

This was not the case in Las Vegas. This was not the case of the 17 killed most recently at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. A majority of Americans may support increased gun control, but a populist-rooted NRA and its lobbyists have been behind a series of efforts to expand the access to weapons by Americans, including the unique privilege of carrying firearms by the ordinary public, bills that punish officials who even attempt to establish gun registries, the right to carry concealed weapons and, more fundamentally, for overturning 100 years of American judicial interpretations of the second amendment of the American constitution that protects the rights of states to arm militias and converting it to a policy that insists on the natural-born right of every individual in America to bear arms. Not only to bear them, but to use them if they have a reasonable belief that they are acting to defend themselves. “Subjective feelings of fear were grounds to shoot someone even if there were other options available.” (p. 28)

Law and order displaces the rule of law and a respect for due process. It is no surprise that subsequent to the passage of such legislation, “the number of homicides ruled legally justifiable had increased in Florida by seventy-five percent.” “Such killers need provide zero evidence of self-defence to avoid not only being convicted but being prosecuted at all.” (p. 31) On 26 February 2012, George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida killed an unarmed black man, Trayvon Martin, and was found innocent. Since the law took effect, seventy percent of those who invoked it (the belief in a justified fear of danger) as a defense had gone free.” (p. 28)

Behind it all is not a politics of informed debate, but a politics of lies and threats, of coercion and manipulation. The NRA has 300,000 members in Florida. It is Marion Hammer, a non-elected lobbyist, who writes bills and oversees their passage and who prevents ANY and ALL legislation that would limit access to and the use of guns to even come up for vote. She controls a politically very active voting bloc that she manipulates with provocative language, paints even her most loyal legislative supporters as traitors if they deviate one iota from the line she establishes. Their miniscule attempts at deviation are marked as “unforgiveable betrayals.”

The basic position is that she is not just defending the right to both bear and use weapons, but a way of life under attack defended by a large “number of fanatical supporters who will take her word for almost anything and can be deployed at will.” (p. 26) She sends out 2-3 million e-mails on an issue and there are 4.6 million registered Republicans in the state. Hammer refused to be interviewed for Mike Spies’s story and in response to queries insisted that, “facts are being misrepresented and false stuff is being presented as fact.” But she offers no proof. She offers no rebuttals. As a complete fabrication based on no offered or available data, Hammer contended that “before the law (the one allowing the use of a weapon if you had a reasonable belief that you were in danger) was enacted, innocent people were being arrested, prosecuted and punished for exercising self-defence that was lawful under the Constitution.“ (p. 28) Ask for even one example and the answer is, “Not relevant.”

Mandarins who supply objective and disinterested “facts” are called liars propelled by the political intent to kill the legislation she supports. Anyone who does not support the positions she advocates, no matter what their past activity and support had been, become enemies. “(I)f you cross me once, even if the issue doesn’t involve the Second Amendment, I will take you out.” In defence of a Hobbesian state of nature in opposition to responsible government, any lie is permissible, any libel justified.

Though truth is thrust on the ground and covered with dirt and filth, truth will still grow from that earth, but it will take courage, commitment and compassion to protect those tender shoots against the assaults of populism. The duty of academics in a Social Service Station is to launch a full-scale attack on behalf of truth against these purveyors of lies and manipulators of voters. The dilemma, as Cliff points out in his book on Thucydides, is that reason and truth are weak in dealing with fears; hypocrisy must be employed to win support. Both liberalism and democracy need to be reclaimed by ensuring that truth can grow and thrive and that compassion rather than coercion, justice rather than injustice, can prevail. But it won’t come without costs.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Tomorrow: Jill Lepore on Facts

 

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