Truths Without Consequences

Francisco Goya, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” (Wikimedia Commons)


Full disclosure: I am a big fan of Jill Lepore, the Harvard historian and regular writer for The New Yorker. She is a big-picture academic, rare enough these days, who knows how to write for a general audience without diluting her often tart observations of the contemporary scene. She is a top-flight public intellectual, and not just a “thought leader” or single-idea hustler, custom-fit for TED talks and little else. While I have my disagreements with her, my respect and admiration for her work is abundant. I want to make that clear. What follows is one of those respectful disagreements.

In “Let History, Not Partisans, Prosecute Trump”, her noteworthy piece in the Washington Post today on the prospects for truth-telling in a (hopefully) dawning post-Trump era, she raises salient and accurate points about the dangers of opting for conflict and public reckoning rather than normalcy. Yet I think she misses another, even more salient point: that the citizens of the United States of America may be in a no-win situation where neither a genuine reckoning nor conciliatory relief is in the offing. The best we can hope for in the 2020 election’s aftermath is damage control, and even there we should not get our hopes too high. But this does not mean letting bygones be bygones or going all-out for bipartisan comity. That’s finished.


Lepore questions the arguments of Chris Hayes and others that a “Truth and Reconciliation” commission will be needed to confront the decay of Liberal Democratic Republican institutions and norms over the past four years. Lepore does not challenge that basic idea: the decay is obvious and broadcasted by the media, especially by old-school print institutions like The New York Times, the Washington Post, and The New Yorker, which take factual accuracy and journalistic honesty seriously. But she says, of implementing such a commission, that “This is a terrible idea.” Why?

First, because “None of the conditions of a truth and reconciliation commission apply to Trump’s four years in the White House”:

Coming to terms with centuries of dispossession, enslavement and racial violence is a very different matter from reckoning with four years of a democratically elected president who, even if he loses, will probably have been the choice of 2 out of 5 American voters. Because a fair election is itself a verdict on an administration, truth and reconciliation commissions do not take place after democratic elections — they take place during transitions from authoritarianism to democratic rule, which is why this kind of proceeding is usually called “transitional justice.”

While a Truth and Reconciliation committee might be warranted to convince Americans to take stock of the national crimes of chattel slavery, racism, and the Indian genocide, all historical episodes that transcend electoral politics, it ill fits the deeds of a single administration, however execrable its actions:

Truth and reconciliation commissions do not provide a means for the winners of a democratic election to issue a verdict on the losers. Democracies have all sorts of other institutions that do that: investigative journalism, a functioning judiciary, legislative deliberation and action, and dissent itself. In the United States today, those institutions need fortifying, not bypassing. . . Democracy is in a bad way in the United States, for sure. But even if we need to strengthen them, we still have a free press, freedom of assembly, the freedom of expression, and meaningful and peaceful public dialogue.

“[T]he Trump administration is not Nazi Germany, nor is it a nation defeated in war.” A Truth and Reconciliation committee is the wrong response, and would be like trying to kill a fly with a bazooka. The collateral damage — in particular to those whose political fortunes would dim with a Trump defeat — would render its use foolish.

Second, even the softer pursuit of Truth and Reconciliation through standard democratic means — federal and state prosecutions from crimes committed by Trump and his administrative enablers — might not be worthwhile either: they would merely keep scratching at a political scab that needs to heal. It is worthwhile to quote Lepore at length here:

If Joe Biden is inaugurated in January, the Justice Department might decide to pursue charges against Trump officials. So might state attorneys general. Biden has said such prosecutions would be a “very unusual thing and probably not very … good for democracy” . . . In his recent House Divided speech at Gettysburg, Biden — no Lincoln — said, “We are facing too many crises, we have too much work to do, we have too bright a future to have it shipwrecked on the shoals of anger and hate and division.” In the trade-off between prosecution and stability, Biden chooses stability. Much of the left does not.


As someone who has long described herself as considerably and consistently Left-of-Liberal (“a polite radical” in George Carlin’s words), I think Lepore’s swipe at the Left hits its target only some of the time — but often enough. Many on the Left are so attached to a politics of ideological purity, a mirror-image of the ascendent Right, that they fail to distinguish short term tactics (e.g., defeating Donald Trump by electing Joe Biden) from long term strategy (addressing the problems of racism and economic inequality through radical reform), and guarantee their irrelevance. And stability is a political value not easily dismissed — as if the past four years wasn’t evidence enough of that.

But neither is stability an end-in-itself. As Just War theologians and theorists from St. Augustine through St. Thomas Aquinas to Immanuel Kant understood, war is a sometimes-necessary evil, but an unjust peace is odious. An appeal to peaceful stability and an easy end to “anger and hate and division” would ignore the reality that the conflicts between Trump, and his supporters, and Trump’s enemies, Left, Right, and Center, are not between two contending visions of Liberal Republican Democracy, but between advocates of a true and honest Liberal Republican Democracy and its enemies who invoke democratic rhetoric only to disown its substance. It is not between two parties that would, like Jefferson when he defeated Adams and Reagan when he defeated Carter, pledge allegiance to the peaceful transfer of power and respect for “the loyal opposition”, but between those who do so pledge allegiance and respect and those who say “we’ll see what happens.” It is not an agon between two parties who accept each other’s legitimacy to rule. One party does not. It is not a contest between parties equally committed to arguing in good faith. One party isn’t.

I do not think Lepore would cavil too much at the asymmetry of our political cold civil war. But nevertheless, I think she misunderstands the heat and rancor of our present political scream-fest in procedural, rather than substantive terms. She notes:

In the end, the strongest argument against either criminal trials or a truth tribunal, should Biden win, is that it would let the Democratic Party and every other institution that is not the Republican Party off the hook for driving the nation into a flaming cauldron. The left is keen to blame the right. But what the nation needs, pretty urgently, is self-reflection, not only from Republicans but also from establishment Democrats and progressives and liberals and journalists and educators and activists and social media companies and, honestly, everyone. Does The Washington Post not bear some responsibility for the state of the nation? Or, most of all, Facebook? Or CNN? Or people who spit all over each other on Twitter? Or the guy who shows up for a town hall meeting to talk about a budget line for reseeding the Little League baseball field and calls his opponents morons? No commission can demand that each of us tell the truth about ourselves and reconcile ourselves to one another. Meanwhile, as for people you disagree with, and probably hate, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated, where reason is left free to combat it.

There is a lot of truth to this. As one trained in Philosophy I certainly do agree that self-reflection is something that everybody, whatever their political persuasion, ought to practice. And indeed mainstream media, biased as they are toward neither Conservatism not Liberalism but toward profit, deserves a great deal of blame, though not as much as social media in general and Facebook in particular. (A recent fantasy of mine is that of Attorney General Elizabeth Warren legally pulverizing Facebook, sending Mark Zuckerberg with his retirement funds to some island in Polynesia, where he can contemplate his sins on a deserted beach, piña-colada in hand. Fat chance.) And sure, those on the Left are not immune to self-congratulatory oblivion. (Case in point: the recent interview of Noam Chomsky by the Bad Faith podcast, where Chomsky is castigated for having lost his radical edge because he is voting for Biden to prevent authoritarianism and environmental collapse. “Chomsky for Bloomberg”, the Twitter tag reads.) Anti-Trumpers, and the status quo ante of the present administration do have a lot to be reflective — and repentant — about.

But to reiterate, it is hard to see this kind of national soul-searching being anything other than an exercise in impotent self-praise if you cannot count on the GOP, and the 30-odd percent of the US electorate that thinks its current trajectory is just Jim Dandy, doing the same. If truth emerges from good journalism and historical consciousness — and Lepore is right to think it does — what kind of consequences does it have if one’s interlocutors sharpen their political chops on their Facebook QAnon feeds and AM talk radio? An entire Right-wing crypto-despotic culture is wedded to a worldview that equates truth with confirmation bias. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, a stubborn refusal to think opens the door to totalitarianism, and the first casualty of totalitarianism is truth. Goya put it even better: the sleep of reason produces monsters.


Whether a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a worthy goal or not may be an open question. What is no longer an open question is the utter formlessness of truth itself in what passes for contemporary American political discourse.

Please, please, please do not blame “postmodernism” as the proximate cause of all this. Aside from the fact that “postmodern” is a term that covers so much drastically varied ground as to be almost meaningless, those who turn a deaf ear to truth in favor of their “alternative facts” really do not think of their truths as “alternative” at all. They are as dogmatic in their intentions as they are radical relativists in deed. And appealing to “the facts” or “the truth” all by themselves never persuaded anyone hell-bent on believing what they already believe. Something else is lacking, then, other than cognizance of truth and factuality, something not a property of assertions but rather an excellence of character — a virtue, that of truthfulness.

Truthfulness is more fundamental than truth. Unless one has been educated and self-educated in truthfulness, the concept of truth will lack content. It will be a placeholder for what you would want to believe anyway. The virtue of truthfulness emerges from the giving-and-taking of reasons between conversational groups. You can be truthful or honest about yourself only if you have been trained to discern a gap between who you are and who you need to be, and that is a social practice. Autonomy is great, but not something you can achieve all by yourself. It is a social and political virtue.

What relevance does this have for Lepore’s case against prosecutorial zeal and “Truth and Reconciliation”? Two things, I believe. First, a polity that has lost hold of the importance of truthfulness will not be moved by deployment of official Commissions, nor will it be chastened by the prosecution of malefactors on either side. But this does not, pace Lepore and Joe Biden, mean we should avoid “being shipwrecked” in political conflict lest we fail to realize our “bright future”. It means that we lack the resources to advance this future because we value stability over truthfulness: the shipwreck has already occurred. If the Black Lives Matter protests have proven anything, it is that the willful oblivion of the truth concerning the violent, racist, endlessly acquisitive past of the USA has become second nature to those who treasure stability over justice. It is a sign not only that the democratic political culture of the USA has decayed to the point that truthfulness is at best a virtue only when it is convenient: it is a sign that we Americans have come to believe our own bullshit.[i]

Second, a Liberal Democratic Republican polity needs not only the political practices of good faith argument, debate, constrained nonviolent conflict, and a willingness to compromise for the common good: it needs the virtue of truthfulness to engage in such practices honestly, and not as players in a manipulative, self-interested scam.

This virtue has been absent from the scene for a long time. The Reagan presidency was a catalyst for it: “Morning in America” and the resurrection of the “city on the hill” mythology presupposed an unwillingness to discern things as they are and to state one’s case rationally. Newt Gingrich perfected it: his vision of politics resembled that of Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson far less than that of the Right-wing jurist Carl Schmitt, for whom politics was a matter of helping friends and trashing enemies, of pure sovereign will usurping truthfulness. And who could surpass Bill Clinton in marginalizing personal honesty and believing his own bullshit? Oh, yes. Right. Donald Trump.

The longstanding absence of truthfulness, as a key part of a democratic political culture, is not “normal.” And as super-abnormal as the Trump years have been, its abnormality is rooted in a political culture that was already spiraling toward greater and greater oblivion of the “normal” need for truthfulness in any kind of politics worth having.

While I plan to be at the head of the line when early voting happens next Saturday in New York State, ready to pull the lever for the Biden/Harris ticket, I am under no illusions about any kind of “bright future” that will dawn if we put aside a reckoning of the consequences of the 2016 election — children in cages at the border, 220,000 COVID deaths, forced sterilizations, economic policies that advance the interests of the rich and the penury of everybody else, the winking embrace of white supremacists, and so on ad nauseam. If these truths are of no consequence in our understandable rush toward political calm, we will only see them bounce back, with different dramatis personae, perhaps cleverer than the evil clowns of the present moment. If this is normal, we should fear it.


In These Truths, Lepore recounts an incident where Benjamin Franklin, editing Thomas Jefferson’s draft of The Declaration of Independence, replaced “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” with “we hold these truths to be self-evident”, thereby shifting the balance of the Founders’ convictions from matters of faith to matters of reason. But, Lepore correctly argues,

The real dispute isn’t between Jefferson and Franklin, each attempting, in his way, to reconcile faith and reason, as many have tried both before and since. The real dispute is between “these truths” and the course of events: Does American history prove these truths, or does it belie them?

Any honest answer to the above would have to go something like: “Sometimes yes, sometimes no.” But this is true of any nation, any state — any endeavor, actually. I suppose my most significant difference from Lepore is my conviction that, for the most part, American History puts the lie to these truths — or rather to the idea that the USA exemplifies them.

Nothing finite escapes corruption: we should not assume that the United States of America is the only polity with no expiration date and which can never embody lies. But I think the problem goes deeper than that: there is an unwillingness to discern and bear witness to those lies, a feature of American life that James Baldwin called the Lie, the big lie, that we are exceptional in our goodness, our equality, our freedom, our nobility. Our unwillingness to put aside this mythological exceptionalness has chipped away at the moral and civic virtue of truthfulness to the point that politics has become civil war by other means. No official commission can resuscitate truthfulness as a virtue: the virtue of truthfulness would have to be intact already for any such commission to make sense, no less be effective. We would have to recover truthfulness ourselves by committing ourselves decisively to a Liberal Democratic Republican culture that captures us at our best. If I am pessimistic about the prospects for this happening, it is not without cause or reason. Whether we can transcend this dire state, however, will require something more than yearning for fellowship and solidarity, as comforting as this thought may be. It will require a form of truthfulness that does not flinch from uncomfortable consequences.

[i] I am alluding to Harry Frankfurt’s book On Bullshit here. Frankfurt’s claim, in a nutshell, is that bullshitting is different from lying, and far more damaging, politically. Liars recognize the claims that truth makes on people, and then proceed to speak falsely to advance their aims. Liars thus live in a conceptual universe where truth and truthfulness are values, but then proceed to nullify those values to get what they want. Bullshitters, on the other hand, do not acknowledge truth and truthfulness at all. They do not care whether what they say is either true or a lie: they act in oblivion of these concepts. If one believes one’s own bullshit, I think this takes Frankfurt’s conceptual analysis of “bullshit” down one more circle of hell.

Writer, philosopher, information technologist,guitarist, neurotic, polite radical, avid and indiscriminate reader, Episcopalian, trans woman.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store