The author’s New York Times ID, more than the sub title, seduced me to read and review this book. I learned English on the Times upon arriving in America 60 years ago, and I have remained addicted to it.
Being interviewed on laser weaponry by its legendary military affairs correspondent, Hanson Baldwin, is among my life’s memorable thrills. Occasionally, I even wrote for the Times.
Far more important, the Times is the arbiter of the language in which the English speaking world’s ruling class conducts its business (and, alas, ours). The paper’s transition from Left to shamelessly aggressive Left has been all too reliable a barometer of the storm by which that class has battered our lives. I wanted to see what Thompson portends.
His adoption of the distinctions in Aristotle’s Rhetoric piqued my curiosity. His use of the word truth without quotation marks, his distinction between doxa (opinion) and episteme (knowledge of fact), his abjuration of “a plot behind every political or cultural development that runs counter to one’s own preferences” lulled me into the illusion that his Times might lead our rulers back to the Liberalism of old — until the last eight pages. But, as Thompson’s conclusions remove doubt about what is driving him, one wonders why he went through the trouble of writing the first 290.
Going back over the book, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that its technical analysis of rhetoric’s cognitive and affective functions and its heartfelt regret of political dialogue’s descent into manipulation and mutual insult are just cover — though more artful than usual — for yet another denial of intellectual/moral standing to people who object to such as Mr. Thompson. Indeed the book’s bulk, not just the conclusion, abounds with examples of contraventions of its own advice for fixing our dysfunctional public rhetoric.
The book is about how politicians and journalists created an age of post-truth politics, and how to exit it. Although Thompson gently chides politicians and journalists on the left for having taken part in the descent of public speech, he leaves no doubt that the problem is on the right, and that it is to be fixed by identifying truth itself with the left. Thus, in the Times’ columns, Jim Rutenberg, Timothy Egan, and William Davies argue that, here and now, devotion to truth means not reporting on such as Donald Trump as if they or anything they say might be of value.
The far left’s argument for de-legitimizing the opposition has long been that giving equal consideration to people and positions that stand in the way of Progress amounts to “false equivalence.” President Obama himself has made this argument in public (Washington Post May 23 2014). Thompson’s book is the nuanced, long form of it.
Thompson never mentions a conservative person or cause without some kind of dig. Yes, “the gap in the level of trust expressed by elite (or “the informed public”) in political and other institutions and that expressed by the general population had widened,” leading the latter to support a variety of outsiders.
The latter’s success “tempted some politicians” — he names only Britain’s Boris Johnson and America’s Ted Cruz — “to ape their style and tactics.” Margaret Thatcher’s ineptitude at communication overshadowed whatever substantive merit her policies might have had. Ronald Reagan’s natural aptitude at communication meant that “serious policy didn’t stand a chance.”
The book begins by citing former NY lieutenant governor Betsy McCaughey’s statement that section 1233 of Obamacare’s draft bill “would make it mandatory…that every five years, people on Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life…” and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s characterization of that provision as constituting “death panels.”
Gleefully, Thompson points out that “it’s untrue.” Obamacare would merely pay for “end of life” counseling, acceptance of which would be as “voluntary” as suicide itself. Then he explains the ways in which McCaughey’s and Palin’s falsehoods are powerful, and prototypical of our public rhetoric’s perversion: “denying any complexity, conditionality, or uncertainty…presumption of irredeemable bad faith… accepts no responsibility to explain anything to anybody…treats the facts as if they were a matter of opinion…rejects even the possibility of rational debate…”
But Thompson pretends not to notice that the accusation that Obamacare places the government’s hands on the spigot of life proved powerful because it is profoundly true. Ordinary people had noticed that Obamacare’s champions, the powerful folks who run the U.S government (and the Times), who want to make health care universal by standardized decisions, are the very same who have been touting withdrawal of treatment from the terminally ill in the name of “death with dignity.”
Hence, when the powerless ones read that Obamacare’s counseling about “end of life” is part of a complex governed by something called the Independent Payment Advisory Board, all powerful and insulated from accountability, they worry with reason. But for Mr. Thomson, this is reason only for mocking.
The book’s intellectual core is the interplay between Chapters 7 “How to fix a broken pubic language,” and 9, “Consign it to the flames.” The first begins by distinguishing between the relationship of words to things and the sensations that they evoke. It then opens its focus to the bigger distinction between “rationalist” speech based on the former, and “authenticist” speech, based on how words relate to the experiences that the speaker and audience share.
“Whereas rationalists venerate the facts to the exclusion of almost everything else, authenticists often find them suspect, calling them factoids or statistics — which in the anti-technocratic language of authenticity amounts to the same thing — to distinguish them from the bigger “truths they prefer to promote…their “truths” are inextricably bound with the narratives they tell about their community.”
Who — other than Trump — is Thomson’s palimpsest of authenticism? Adolf Hitler. And so, after passing references to St.Augustine and Wittgenstein, he ends up with the left’s old reliable reductio ad Hitlerum.
Having established that truth is what he deems to be rational while what he deems sub-rational are “truths they prefer to promote,” Thompson pounces. Chapter 9 begins with one of Trump’s rambling innuendos, goes directly to a dialogue from the film Dr Strangelove in which General Jack D. Ripper tells of becoming conscious of a communist conspiracy during sexual intercourse. He closes the loop on his innuendo’s premise by asking: “Why should anyone pay any attention to what celebrities and other entirely non experts have to say on [any] subject?”
Expertise is better than the opposite, as is deference to experts, especially since “public policy formulation became progressively more technocratic as the century progressed.” But now, “willingness to ignore or argue against science and the facts in pursuit of one’s own point of view…obfuscation and outright denial of even those facts which all the experts regard as incontrovertible is endemic.” The scientific consensus regarding anthropomorphic climate change (formerly Global Warming) is perhaps this luddism’s principal target.
Now the main point. “I almost always find myself instinctively on the side of mainstream science. I don’t do that because I have personally checked the evidence…I haven’t the expertise…No, I back science because I find Karl Popper’s account of the scientific method compelling.”
Furthermore, Thompson is “convinced that the culture and practice of science generally aims at truth.” Why any of that should have any effect on how he comes down on any particular scientific question he does not say. But what he does say amounts to a profession of faith in a class of people that just happens to be his own class, who prefer to promote the same “truths” as he.
Doubtless, Thompson would accuse the previous sentence of being a denial of expertise, of reason, and of truth itself. But in fact, none of the preferences that Thompson expresses are argued based on facts – only on authority. What does he know about the professional competence, honesty, or even intellectual acumen of any of these authorities that makes them authoritative? Except in France, these experts rose not through competitive examinations but rather through co-option.
He cites “the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC), the Royal Society, the American Academy of Sciences” as paragons. In fact, what makes these and so many other contemporary scientific institutions (and scientists) authoritative, namely government patronage, is highly problematic.
As President Dwight Eisenhower warned in his 1960 farewell address, the practice of science in our time has become “more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.…the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution …a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.”
Hence, “the prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.” The result has been that academics rise through government grants and that the government exercises power by claiming to act on science’s behalf. If you disagree with government, you are an obscurantist or just dumb.
Thompson’s conclusion, however is that, although it would be prudent for the government/scientific complex not to be offensive in their claims of authority, authoritativeness is rightfully theirs. Hence, true journalists – e.g. the BBC and The New York Times – should be “careful about creating a false balance between scientists and climate change skeptics.”
Quickly, he covers himself with moderation. It is also important not to give credence to charges of censorship because, given the public’s intellectual limitations, no one “has ever won an argument by stopping the opponents from being heard.” This is as complete an argument for bias as I’ve seen.
Thomson’s conclusion blows away any and all subtlety. It showcases his vision of truth and the proper use of rhetoric by quoting “hip hop artist Killer Mike” about “Michael Brown who was killed by policemen in Ferguson Missouri”: “…that child was slaughtered like game and left face down as a public spectacle while his blood drained down the street…”
In fact, a six-foot-six, three-hundred pounder high on drugs who had just knocked over a convenience store punched a cop in his car while grabbing at his weapon and then was shot as he charged at him. Truth, you say? Perhaps in Russian: Pravda.
Again, Thompson celebrates the judicial imposition of same-sex marriage on America by writing: “The advocates of reform, moreover, took care to make their case not on the basis that those opposed to homosexuality were wrong or bigoted….”
But surely, Thompson’s Times had reported Justice Kennedy’s rulings. The Federal Defense of Marriage Act, wrote Kennedy, was motivated by the “bare desire to harm” homosexuals and seemed “inexplicable by anything except animus.” As well, the Times had reported extensively on lower courts’ imposition of severe penalties and on the press’s infliction of opprobrium on persons who refuse to take part in homosexual weddings.
Thus, Thompson ends by celebrating the predominance of “moral language” that moves its opposite to “the margins of public discourse.” He should not be surprised that those whom he deems immoral do their best to return the favor. Moreover, when sectors of society diverge, who is marginalizing whom is a matter of opinion as well as of contention.
Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University, and a member of the Hoover Institution’s working group on military history. He is the author of 14 books, including Informing Statecraft, War, ends And Means, The Character of Nations, Advice to War Presidents, and To Make and Keep Peace. He served on President Ronald Reagan’s transition teams for the Department of State and the Intelligence agencies. He was a US naval officer and a US foreign service officer. As a staff member of the US Senate Intelligence committee, he supervised the intelligence agencies’ budgets with emphasis on collection systems and counterintelligence. He was instrumental in developing technologies for modern anti-missile defense. Codevilla has taught ancient and modern political thought and international affairs at major universities.