Oprah Maybe, Arpaio No

One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one’s eyes. . . And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and powerful. — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, #129

Sometimes, the conjunction of two very different people or events or ideas can provoke a perception that would not have been possible otherwise. The ascendancy of Oprah in the wake of her Golden Globes speech, and the announcement in The New York Times that Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff, is running for the senate, provides such a moment.

One of the foundational myths of American culture is that anyone can become president. It is a story, usually bolstered by reference to Lincoln, that is meant to widen our horizons and reassure us that opportunities seized can result in the fulfillment of private ambition rendered for the public good. No matter how humble one’s origin, the story goes, America’s egalitarianism theoretically makes it possible for the guy down at the 7-Eleven, or your neighbor—hell, even for you!—to strive and to rise to presidential heights.

Never mind that the 2016 presidential campaigns alone racked up a price tag of $2.4 billion out of a total of $6.5 billion after the congressional elections were tallied. That means that our last presidential election cost just under the United Kingdom’s gross domestic product (GDP) for 2017 ($2.5 billion), as estimated by the IMF.

Never mind that our last political contest, by contrast to other democracies, ran to 596 days, while Britain’s 2015 election was 139 days, Canada’s longest election cycle was just 78 days, and Japan’s elections, which are limited by law, are never more than 12 days.

Somehow we live with the cognitive dissonance that the office is open to anyone over 35, while still knowing that a presidential candidate must be prepared to raise and spend about a billion dollars for the privilege.

But in a curious and vulgar way, Donald Trump proved that the myth is true: anyone—no matter how unqualified, incompetent, and dangerous—really can become president, provided the money is there.

We have now entered the era of the celebrity president, one who has no discernible ability to lead and negotiate among the factions of American society nor any desire to support allies across the world. The confounding spectacle of a billionaire whose racist sympathies and misogynistic attitudes were enough to win him the White House but not the popular vote seems to have set the stage for other improbable candidates. If success is name recognition, vast wealth, and the unlimited ability to indulge oneself, then we can expect other celebrities to be courted for a presidential run.

And that brings us to Oprah, whose Golden Globes speech won her the applause of the audience, and the fervent endorsement of Meryl Streep and other Democrats desperate for charisma in 2020. She’s a self-made billionaire, a philanthropist, a uniter instead of a divider, and beloved by millions. What’s not to like? But the fact that people are seriously considering Oprah as a candidate shows how low the bar has dropped for American democracy.

Her achievements are extraordinary, made all the more so by what she has personally overcome through life. But none of that has prepared her for the decisions that must be made when there are no good outcomes and the lives of millions are at risk. If she is serious about public service then she should run for mayor of Chicago. If she could do that job with grit and grace then perhaps she could try for a governorship or a Senate seat. From there, with experience and testing, she could become a powerful candidate for the presidency, taking into account her character, her charm, and her many other likable qualities.

On the other hand, there is Joe Arpaio, the controversial Arizona sheriff who was facing jail time for abusing his power and defying a court order until Trump pardoned him, and who has announced he is running for the Republican senate seat soon to be vacated by Jeffrey Flake.

Arpaio was entrusted with the protection of his citizens and with upholding justice under the law. In his tenure as sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona he styled himself as “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” He consistently mistreated prisoners, discounted and ignored crimes against women, misused public funds, defiantly bucked a court order to stop illegal immigration roundups, and relished the power he wielded to terrify people of color. If he wins the seat for Arizona Trump will find a senator who is devoted to him, who is willing to flout the law, and whose stance on immigration and civil rights is illegal under current laws.

For elected office a candidate must possess character, vision, and prudence. Character would include, at the very least, courage, integrity, honesty, and compassion. Vision would be a capacity to imagine and to articulate plans for the future that understood historical patterns and present problems. Prudence would be the ability to exercise good judgement about the use of one’s power.

With time and experience it’s possible that Oprah could be that person.

As for Arpaio, his record should stand as disqualifying him for public office of any sort. He represents the worst of what people fear in a politician: blinding ambition, cruelty honed to a knife-edge, a willingness to bend the law until it breaks, and a profound contempt for those he considers his inferiors.

In a country of 343 million people, surely we can do better.

A Case Study in Lying

th

When Donald Trump tweets millions of people pay attention. And when Donald Trump lies it affects millions of people. If he stays true to his penchant for lying we will have a four-year dynamic case study in deception and lying from the President of the United States.

We need to pay attention to his lying for it can teach us a great deal about his methods of leadership and his views on democracy. We need to be alert to the various kinds of lies he and his administration will use, and the effect they will have on us as members of an experimental democracy. Most of all, we need to examine ourselves and our own tendencies to lie.

Recently, the editor of the Wall Street Journal, Gerard Baker, in an appearance on “Meet the Press,” demurred when asked by Chuck Todd if the Journal would call out Trump when he lies. “I think if you start ascribing a moral intent, as it were, to someone by saying that they’ve lied, I think you run the risk that you look like you are, like you’re not being objective,” he said. Baker believes the Journal should report what Trump said and let the readers decide if it was a lie or not.

But this betrays the historic role of the news media in ferreting out the truth no matter what. Few of us have the time or the means to drill down through the layers of propaganda, news releases from public relations firms, and “image refurbishing” that goes on daily. To a great extent, we rely on real journalism to do that for us, the kind of investigative journalism that doesn’t just find two opinions on the same topic and hit “publish.”

Journalists need to call out the lies when Trump doubles down on a statement that has been proven false, such as his claim that he saw thousands of Muslims celebrating when the towers fell on 9/11 or that he was against the Iraq War. It is crucial to our moral vision that we distinguish, regularly and clearly, between truth and falsehood. And it’s even more important, in an age that is skeptical that truth even exists, to persevere in searching for the truths that can be established.

As someone who teaches philosophy and ethics, I have a professional as well as a personal interest in understanding lying and deception. This semester, at Trinity Washington University, I will be teaching a course in Social and Political Philosophy. We will study historical sources on how societies are formed, maintained, survive and are destroyed as a result of their ideas and practices. In addition to selections from the usual suspects such as Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Marx, and Gandhi, we’ll be reading and commenting on current views on our political process and ethics. One of the readings for the semester will be Sissela Bok’s 1978 book entitled Lying, as relevant now as it was in the wake of the war in Vietnam, the bombing of Cambodia, and Watergate.

Every administration lies, even if it’s using Plato’s “noble lie,” to hide from the people what they supposedly could not understand or to advance the public good. This is not a partisan issue. But I believe that with the Trump administration we will see lying on a scale we’ve never seen before. I think we should understand what lying is, what the many forms of lying and deception are, and ultimately, how we can be more honest with each other. I’ll be writing occasionally about these topics as a way to personally sort out what I’m thinking and learning about lying. I invite you to join me.

I’ll close with a quote from Sissela Bok that reads, “Trust is a social good to be protected just as much as the air we breathe or the water we drink. When it is damaged, the community as a whole suffers; and when it is destroyed, societies falter and collapse.”

Help, Help, I’m Being Depressed

Those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness. — Alcuin, c. 804

On an otherwise lovely day in the tentative transition zone between a Maryland winter and spring I fell into a melancholia that lasted into the night. Some might say this was a perfectly natural reaction to an American Zeitgeist that had inexorably, over the months, twisted its grip like the coils of a python around the necks of the innocents. Others, less given to reflection on civilization and its discontents, were insistent that America would be great again, and proved it by punching out reporters and protesters who dared object to the emperor, who not only had no clothes but was gleefully parading, butt naked, across the arena stages of these Untied States of America.

As the Republican party trudged along on its trail of tears, the E pluribus unum (out of the many, one) of elimination trials powered along at a burn rate of millions per day, each approved Superpac message arcing through its trajectory like incendiary flares. In that white-hot glare every pore, every bead of sweat, every curl of the lip and glint of the eye transfixed the doubtful and transported the faithful.

Whatever is new is news — history need not apply  — and the news, like an unholy simulacrum of God’s creation, was brought forth every evening and morning in the fullness of time. The chairman of CBS chortled that whatever else was clear in the wake of yet another episode of the reality show called the Republican debates, the news for the stockholders was very, very good as 14.5 million viewers tuned in on February 13 for the Saturday night fights.

Throughout it all the doctor from Detroit, Ben Carson, ambled through his campaign with a benign smile as he pronounced the president a psychopath, Obamacare worse than slavery, and the pyramids — who knew? — to be ancient granaries. In the debates he was both literally and figuratively sidelined, giving way to the bombast of his opponents, while occasionally bleating that he got no air time.

Carson’s campaign was fueled from the beginning by his inspirational story of rising from poverty to become one of the world’s leading neurosurgeons. He was the recipient of countless awards, honorary doctorates, and royalties stemming from his autobiographical books. A movie starring Cuba Gooding, Jr. was made of his life. It was a good life.

Friends of mine who knew him from the Spencerville SDA Church spoke of him with respect for his accomplishments while quietly sidestepping a commitment to his campaign. But many Adventists believed he was sent “for such a time as this,” and enthusiastically followed his every pronouncement on the campaign trail.

When Adventists hit the news it’s rarely a good thing. Despite our relevance as an indigenous American product of the Second Great Awakening, our global hospital and educational systems, and our healthy lifestyles, we usually get pegged in the media as vegetarian blood brothers of David Koresh. Add to that the full coverage of our refusal to ordain women during last summer’s world-wide gathering of delegates at San Antonio, and we can be forgiven for wanting a different profile.

Thus, when Ben Carson, Seventh-day Adventist physician and inspirational speaker, dissed the President at a National Prayer Breakfast, it seemed like once again we’d be known for all the wrong reasons. And then he announced his candidacy. Compelled, he said, by thousands who implored him to run, and given the green light by a revelation from God, Carson jumped into a crowded and boisterous Republican field.

Well, we thought, okay, maybe his personal integrity would make up for his lack of experience. Maybe all that street cred he’d built up all those years, and his notable charisma, would carry the day. He might bring some civility and professionalism to a fractious national arena. His political positions didn’t seem all that different, in many ways, from those of Cruz and Trump, but at least he didn’t raise his voice when he insulted  immigrants, his Democratic opponents, and the president.

We want to believe that political candidates don’t toy with our trust. We hope that we’re seeing the real person  when he speaks and that he believes what he says. We hope that these candidates are not just pandering to their audiences to get the vote. Most of all, we hope that their personal integrity runs like a silver thread from past to present, that whatever their positions on issues they respect themselves enough not to bow the knee to whatever Mammon looms up demanding their worship.

But no. Carson took himself out of the race in the same oblique fashion that he entered it. He did not join in his last debate, but it was unclear if that meant he’d be heading home to Florida to chill. Finally, he made the decision, picked up his bags and headed for the exit. At that point one could suppose that he’d retire gracefully, beaten but not bowed, his dignity intact to fight for his causes another day, another way.

Thus, when he endorsed Donald Trump, the very antithesis of his own campaign style and of his personal Christian values, it was a stunner. He was consistent, though, in that his flair for the bizarre came through when he declared Trump to be “cerebral” and that they’d buried the hatchet. There may be depths to Trump that only Ben Carson and Trump’s wife have seen. Humans are complex, act for a variety of reasons, and do things surprising even to themselves.

But the notion that a kinder, gentler Trump might appear on January 20, 2017 is about as plausible as Ben Carson signing on with all his heart and soul to the whole Trumpian package. Because that’s what he did when he endorsed Donald Trump on March 11, 2016. Carson said yes to The Wall, to reducing freedom of speech and of the press, to violently throwing peaceful demonstrators out of public spaces, to labeling an entire country as rapists and murderers, and to regarding waterboarding as but the beginning of horrors for captured enemies.

So that is why I fell into a melancholy. While I would never have voted for Carson for president I respected his self-discipline, his abilities, and his faith. Chris Christie endorsing Trump seemed sheer opportunism for two combatants who certainly gave the impression that their blows were intended. But Carson?

Has all this rancor, this bile, this winter of our discontent, just been a show? Off the stage, behind the scenes, out of range of a hot mike, are these candidates really just good buds who have figured out who the alpha dog is and where each of them might line up in the pack? Were Carson’s good manners, apparent Christian faith, and personal integrity just chips he was willing to trade for a bigger score?

I had hoped he was better than that.