Our very democracy has been on the edge of catastrophe, not only because of a president who lies as a way of life, but because of many who have come to accept his lies as “truth,” or who have lost any concern with truth in the name of apotheosis and hubristic party line politics. How does the language of treason function within this context, especially in terms of derelict “leadership,” disrespect for the Constitution, and the failure to be concerned for hundreds of thousands of Americans who have died from COVID-19? In this interview, Eduardo Mendieta, who is professor of philosophy at Penn State University, and editor, co-editor and author of many books, including The Adventures of Transcendental Philosophy and The Philosophical Animal: On Zoopoetics and Interspecies Cosmopolitanism, boldly and insightfully delineates what is at stake when morality, hope and truth are seriously under attack.
George Yancy: I would argue that truth-telling, transparency and critical intelligence are central to any thriving democracy. Speak to how our fragile democratic experiment is being tested — perhaps even crushed — under Trump’s dangerous penchant for lying.
Eduardo Mendieta: Let me begin by underscoring what you say about the relationship between truth and democracy by way of reflecting on our 1776 “Declaration of Independence.” Paragraph two begins: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” In the introduction to her recent and powerful history of the United State, These Truths, Jill Lepore informs us that Thomas Jefferson had originally written, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” and that Benjamin Franklin crossed those words, and suggested instead “self-evident.” Lepore then notes that, “Truths that are self-evident are laws of nature, empirical and observable, the stuff of science.” I take it that our “Declaration of Independence” was also a declaration for a government based on truth and denunciation of the rule of untruth, lying and mendacity. Democracy is the governance of the people, for the people, by the people, as Abraham Lincoln put it, that lives “in truth.” Democracy, in other words, has an epistemic dimension. This means that there is not only a politics of truth in democracy, but also the truth of democratic politics. My colleague Nicolas de Warren and I have named this entanglement of truth and democracy “democratic honesty.” Honesty has two pillars: truthfulness and integrity. Democratic honesty is not only an epistemic virtue of democratic citizens, it is just as importantly also an epistemic virtue of “democratic” societies.
Now, turning to Trump’s assault on truth, I would have to say that it is not so much his relentless lying, mendacity, dishonesty, deception and hypocrisy that is worrying, but that Trump is a national phenomenon. And that no matter how rapidly he is “fact checked” — and his lies are unmasked and called out as lies — that nonetheless there is a sizable group of citizens who believe him, who have remained loyal to him, notwithstanding the piles and piles of lies, his brutality, his crassness, his belligerence and vulgarity. What is just as worrying is that our government is in the grip of Republicans who not only tolerate all of this, but who enable it and weaponize it. His lying is one thing. More important, in my view, is how he has frontally and in plain view of everyone attacked all those institutions that hold up the integrity of our democratic commitment to truth. He attacks science, the law, the media and the ballot. He attacks experts, lawyers, judges and journalists, everyone and anyone who is labeled a “never Trumper.” In his very grotesque and Machiavellian way, he has undermined the integrity of all those institutions that hold up our democracy, make it honest, just, fair, accountable, transparent and trustworthy.
Trump initially downplayed (and continues to misrepresent) the dire seriousness of COVID-19. We now know, thanks to the interviews conducted by journalist Bob Woodward, that Trump has been lying. As of this interview, over 215,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. This catastrophe is beyond words. Existential bad faith is one thing, but Trump’s behavior seems homicidal. What do you make of this manner of “leader”? And must we not hold him accountable for the blood that is on his hands?
The language I would use would be “dereliction of duty” and “treason.” The president of the U.S. swears to uphold the Constitution and protect the American people. And he swears on a Bible. Trump has depleted our democratic lexicon of terms to use about his malfeasance and utter contempt for the rule of law, and our American commitments to rights and equality before the law. He has also eroded down the meaning of the word “unprecedented.” That he knew already so early in the pandemic about COVID-19’s mortality and lethality and that he “decided” not to act accordingly is simply criminal, and should be to all of us, simply astonishing and unprecedented. I would say that lying and downplaying the virus, when he knew its dangers, is a form of treason, because he decided that his reelection was more important than the well-being of our fellow citizens. He is not only criminal, but also treasonous.
On the other hand, let me also underscore that every life lost to the virus that could have been brought under control is a wasted life. We must also note, and this a huge point to note, that the deathly effects of the virus have been more adversely and severely suffered and shouldered by African Americans and Latinos. The APM Research Lab reports that African Americans are 3.4 percent more likely to die of COVID-19 than a white American. Viruses don’t discriminate, but our institutions do, and above all our health care system does, and of course, our labor market system does, and so a virus is not simply a thing of nature, but a political fact. I read about the contrast between how many U.S. citizens died during Vietnam, or World War I, and so on, and how many have died because of COVID-19. I am not sure that is the right way to think about it. A pandemic is a sociopolitical fact, not death as “it is what it is.” Many of these deaths could have been prevented, but our “protector”-in-chief decided not to. In this pandemic, who died, who will die, who will remain vulnerable and infectable is a political decision.
As we know, Trump is the symptom of a larger systemic problem of white racism. Indeed, he is a product of a larger historical sedimented history of xenophobia, sexism and homophobia, a larger history inextricably linked to white male patriarchy. Given this, I guess that the real issue has to do with the end of white supremacy. I have no optimism. What about you?
You and I have been committed for most of our lives to this long-term struggle for the soul of our country, to rescue it from its long history of racism, sexism and its amnesia of the genocide of our Native American brother and sisters. A pandemic is not genocide, but a virus can be used as what the French called a “dispositif” — an apparatus or device — for racial killing. You know that I am an optimist and I have argued for skepticism of the mind and optimism of the heart. These days, however, I am not feeling optimistic, of either the mind or the heart. I feel that far too many Americans have decided that America is “theirs,” and not “our” America. The America we all built over the last centuries, one that is most inclusive, just, egalitarian, more available to all kinds of people — that in the recent past has cowered in the shadows of racial hate — that America is being rejected. Some want the old America back. Yet, I don’t know what to make of the sociological data coming out about how the post-George Floyd killing protests are the most racially integrated demonstrations we have seen in the U.S. — by far, more inclusive than those of the civil rights era. It seems like “racial justice” is not simply a “Black” thing, but an “Us” thing, an “American” thing. However, the resurgence of white supremacy, and that some white supremacist groups have been working on “igniting” a civil war — a racial war — and that the president won’t condemn their acts of hate and violence, and in fact condones and encourages them, should make many of us be pessimistic.
Philosophy is concerned with truth, even as there are some philosophers who deny we can ever have access to “things as they really are” or access to some grand metaphysical reality. Trump is not a philosopher who worries about the status of truth. Rather, he is someone who doesn’t give a damn about truth. Yet, philosophers should give a damn. How do you understand the role of us philosophers under this Trumpian “post-truth” nightmare?
Indeed, the question of truth is at the heart of philosophy. Kant told us that there are three fundamental questions: What can I know? What ought I to do? What can I hope for? Then, he said that these three questions boil down to one: What does it mean to be human? I always found Kant’s questions generative, especially that they are one question: What it means to be human. What I take from Kant’s three questions is that morality, hope and truth are entangled, interdependent and mutually supportive. I can’t know what I ought to do if I don’t know what the facts of the matter are, and I can’t know that if I don’t have access to truth (or ways of verifying), and I can’t hope, if what I think I ought to do based on the facts will not have any relevance or efficacy, that what I will do will change things. Holocaust deniers, for instance, make all this so evident. And all those, too, who have challenged the efforts to think about enduring effects of centuries of slavery in the U.S…. Those who deny facts, history, what happened, are refusing the basis on which we can act and hope. There is no democratic hope without democratic honesty, truthfulness and integrity.
Trump is, in his own way, ceaselessly shouting at us: We can’t know anything (unless it confirms his worldview), we can’t know what the right thing to do is (unless it is for his glory), and you can’t hope that what you do that is right will have any efficacy (for that is up to him to decide). That is giving him too much credit, perhaps. We philosophers know that to be human is to be a creature of responsibility, truth and hope. We are human by the speech that holds us together. Lying and untruth are an assault on what makes us the social beings of language that we are.
“Post-truth” is the fake news of Trumpites. Truth is out there: It is a virus, it is climate change, it is gravitational waves, it is the truth that journalists discover — the documents, the emails, the tweets, the trail of deception and malfeasance, and obstruction of justice — there is the truth by which and on which we decide collectively to forge a collective future. There is no democratic future without democratic truth.
Some look to the vigorous protests here and globally, following the tragic killing of George Floyd, as a sign of hope for something better. What do you see as the necessary steps that will move not just the U.S. forward, but also the broader world — a world where white nationalism has become a global danger, a different kind of global pandemic?
That the post-Floyd demonstrations went global is extremely significant. First, because as manifestations across the world, they were global manifestations of solidarity with our struggles against police violence and for social justice. Second, they are also significant because they are also an expression that state violence, racial violence and social injustice are intolerable anywhere and everywhere. I think they are manifestations of a growing global racial justice consciousness and movement. This can’t be neglected. These protests are also taking place in the midst of a global health crisis and pandemic that have made it all too evident that we live in “one world.” There are no vaccines for the virus that can be developed by one country; there is no way that we can inoculate just one country and expect the virus will be contained. The economic effects have devastated communities across the world — although shock waves have impacted more the United States and poorer countries than Europe and Asian countries, where there is less systemic and enduring poverty. Viruses that are zoonotic — born in animals that then infect humans — are going to become more frequent because of climate change.
Over the last century, since the end of World War II, we have become aware at a global level of how profoundly interdependent we are. Trump’s nationalism, chauvinism, isolationism, his anti-internationalism, all his know-nothing-ism and adulation of white supremacy belong to a time that is long past. We are past the time when the United States was the sole world power. It is time that we rejoin the global community.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.