Tag Archives: Tom Block

Truth or Politics

Tom Block is an author, artist, and activist whose most recent book, Machiavelli in America, explores the influence of the 16th-century Italian political philosopher on America’s politics.  Machiavelli’s impact is particularly apparent today, as Block explains in the post below.  Block (who you can follow on Twitter at @tomblock06 and learn more about at www.tomblock.com) is also the founder of the Institute of Prophetic Activist Art in New York, where he works with artists and activists in building their social interventions along the lines of the activist theory he developed.

THOMAS

Tom Block

One of the greatest dangers to our democracy is the insignificant role that “truth” plays within our political discourse. The 16th-century Florentine political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli first enshrined the importance of lying within the political realm in his seminal treatise The Prince.  As Diana Schaub (professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland) noted in “Machiavelli’s Realism:” “Machiavelli deployed words as a weapon . . . Machiavelli, the supposed champion of the force of arms, was in fact a practitioner of verbal fraud and distortion.”

Far from fading away over the ensuing centuries, Machiavelli’s strategy has expanded to overwhelm our contemporary political discourse.  And this dynamic, nurtured by the media and exploited by politicians, has helped lead in a direct line from the Florentine thinker to the viable presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump.

Publisher and Founding Father Ben Franklin stated: “It is a principle among printers that when truth has fair play, it will always prevail over falsehood.”  But as Jim Rutenberg noted recently in the New York Times, “Mr. Trump’s surrogates…regularly go on television to push the point of the day from a candidate who . . . has asserted more outright falsehoods than all the other candidates who ran for president this year combined.”

While truth may well overmatch falsehoods in a forum where each has equal play, as Rutenberg notes, that is simply not the case currently in our political discourse.  Truth is rarely utilized as the lodestar for public dialogue.  Our journalists and pundits opt instead for simply repeating outright lies, reporting them as “news,” or – in the best of cases – for a dubious objectivity, often representing little more than a midpoint between two opposing political or social opinions, regardless of these opinions’ relationship to the truth.  As was pointed out this July 18, 2016 in the New York Times, the press bears much responsibility for the unimportance of truth to our political discourse, and therefore the rise of Trump:

There’s still a real chance that [Trump] might win. How is that possible? Part of the answer, I’d argue, is that voters don’t fully appreciate his awfulness. And the reason is that too much of the news media still can’t break with “bothsidesism” — the almost pathological determination to portray politicians and their programs as being equally good or equally bad, no matter how ludicrous that pretense becomes.

Ben Franklin must be spinning in his eternal resting place (Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia).

The sad and frightening fact is that what is perceived by the public as “truth” often represents little more than a stew of popularly held (though often misinformed) attitudes. These arise as a reaction to polling data, Super PACfueled propaganda (the $3 billion in dark money sloshing around this election season), surrogates’ meaningless blather on cable news programs, a narrow reading of history (“remember the good old days!”), the weight of tradition, and a basket of other impressions, none of which are forced by the press to relate in any meaningful way with the actuality of the matter.

It is certainly not difficult to see how politicians gleefully exploit this Machiavellian dynamic to “play” the media, spewing any garbage they think will help their cause, while suffering little (if at all) when their mistruth is uncovered.  Since I started paying genuine attention to this gloomy aspect of American democracy, I have been astounded by the bald-faced lies used to win political elections, running from Lee Atwater’s “Willie Horton” ads (Bush I v. Mike Dukakis in 1988) through Karl Rove’s “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” lies (Bush II v. John Kerry) and continuing through Mitt Romney, whose team falsely claimed, among many examples, that President Obama doubled the deficit (it was actually slightly down in his first four years) and that “up to 20 million people [would] lose their insurance as Obamacare [went] into effect” (almost the opposite of what’s actually happened).

Donald J. Trump has raised the bar of political falsehoods that perhaps all of us thought could go no higher.  None have exploited the media’s obsession with objectivity and false equivalency more successfully than the current Republican standard bearer.  His ability to lie, lie, and lie again, and not be called out once and for all (through references in every single citation as “Lyin’ Donald J. Trump,” for instance) allowed him to vault over 16 Republican candidates and stand at the precipice of taking the reins of the most powerful nation in today’s world.

As Machiavelli stated: “The great majority of humans are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.”  The art of the lie is far more important to the leader than learning how to tell the truth.

Donald Trump follows Machiavelli’s dictum with the same passion that the devoted practice their religions. An astounding 70% of Donald Trump’s statements are mostly or completely false, according to PolitiFact, while only 15% are mostly or entirely true.  And though now, finally, there is a growing chorus of media members gingerly stepping in to call a lie a lie, they also dutifully repeat the lie over and over again before refuting it.  Through this repetition, the lie itself becomes embedded in the public consciousness, thus giving the many and absurdist propositions spewed from the latest Republican candidate for President a patina of reality.  Journalists should lead every article about Trump with this fact: he is, as Bernie Sanders averred, a pathological liar.  But unfortunately, despite the few truth-based journalists writing in alternative outlets like The Intercept or in the back pages of the Washington Post or New York Times, the media is central to the problem.

Journalists too often imagine their obligation to be simply reporting the “news” (whatever any partisan actor tells them), remaining indifferent to whether the statements have any relation to reality or truth.  In the journalistic code of ethics, this impartiality represents the highest code of honor.  As Sharon Bader noted in “The Media: Objectivity:”

Objectivity in journalism has nothing to do with seeking out the truth, except in so much as truth is a matter of accurately reporting what others have said. This contrasts with the concept of scientific objectivity where views are supposed to be verified with empirical evidence in a search for the truth. Ironically, journalistic objectivity discourages a search for evidence; the balancing of opinions often replaces journalistic investigation altogether.

Journalists such as Thom Hartmann, Glenn Greenwald, Rania Khalek, and other lesser known (to your average American, at least) writers do point out this problem, though they are always in a very slim minority. We find little succor in the mainstream media. Even such alleged “truth tellers” as the website PolitiFact, the Washington Post’s soothsayer Glenn Kessler, and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman (now a New York Times columnist) have a dubious relationship with the facts.  As the editor of this blog has shown, all three of these sources have ignored evidence and/or gotten storylines completely wrong during this election cycle.

Without a genuine moral ombudsman to separate fact from fiction in our public square, all opinions – true or not – are simply viewed as offering differing “points of view.” Katrina vanden Heuvel (publisher and part-owner of the magazine The Nation) noted in the Washington Post:

For too many journalists, calling out a Republican for lying requires criticizing a Democrat too, making for a media age where false equivalence — what Eric Alterman has called the mainstream media’s “deepest ideological commitment” — is confused, again and again, with objectivity.

This quote comes from the last election (Romney v. Obama, 2012), though the situation has not gotten better, and perhaps has even worsened. As was noted in the aforementioned July 18, 2016 article from Krugman in the New York Times:

And in the last few days we’ve seen a spectacular demonstration of bothsidesism in action: an op-ed article from the incoming and outgoing heads of the White House Correspondents’ Association, with the headline “Trump, Clinton both threaten free press.” How so? Well, Mr. Trump has selectively banned news organizations he considers hostile; he has also . . . attacked both those organizations and individual reporters, and refused to condemn supporters who, for example, have harassed reporters with anti-Semitic insults.

Meanwhile, while Mrs. Clinton hasn’t done any of these things, and has a staff that readily responds to fact-checking questions, she doesn’t like to hold press conferences. Equivalence!

Perhaps more frightening than these simple facts is that we’re not talking about a subterranean conspiracy of which only a privileged few are aware. This dynamic is embedded in the journalistic canon. Krugman has said, for example, that his editors at the New York Times did not allow him to use the word “lying” back in 2000 when debunking the George W. Bush campaign’s claims about tax cuts Bush proposed.  And in an editorial by the Los Angeles Times calling the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth allegations against John Kerry fictitious, the editors stated:

[T]he canons of the profession prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false. As a result, the voters are left with a general sense that there is some controversy over Dukakis’ patriotism or Kerry’s service in Vietnam…And they have been distracted from thinking about real issues (like the war going on now) by these laboratory concoctions.

The most disturbing line in this editorial is: “The canons of the profession prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false.”  Why is this so?  That they can’t call a lie a lie?  Who wrote these “canons,” which seem to explicitly demand that journalists lie to their readers, in the name of “objectivity?”

Although I have seen many instances of this overt self-awareness by journalists, I am still left with the mouth-agape question: why not?  Why can’t truth be the central pillar of journalistic ethics, instead of a “canon” of false equivalency which allows Lee Atwater, Karl Christian Rove, Donald J. Trump, and others to use lies to great effect?

Matt Taibbi (a journalist reporting on politics, media and finance for Rolling Stone and other outlets) noted in On the Media:

Though we’re tempted to blame the politicians, it’s time to dig deeper. It’s time to blame the press corps that daily brings us this unrelenting symphony of horseshit and never comes within a thousand miles of an apology for any of it. And it’s time to blame the press not only as a class of people, but also as individuals.

This lack of accountability in the media presents one of the greatest threats to democracy and the American republic. Greater then climate change, greater than the terrorist menace, greater even than a frontal attack by a nuclear North Korea, the media’s unwillingness to base their reporting in the truth, opting instead for a mushy and moving center point between whatever the members of the two major political parties are saying, reduces the public conversation on matters such as climate change, the terrorist menace, and a frontal attack by a nuclear North Korea to a debate over points of view (one often factually inaccurate), instead of an exploration of the unassailable truth of any issue.

The unwillingness to base reporting in truth allows lies to fester, metastasizing from the corners of the Internet into a presidential campaign (Donald J. Trump’s) which fuses White supremacists, climate denial, fascist undertones, and an increasing series of lies into a viable candidacy.

Even worse is the level of awareness and even pride some journalists show concerning this “canon” of objectivity.  As Washington Post journalist Melinda Henneberger observed, concerning her profession’s (lack of) attachment to truth in reporting: “Newspapers hardly ever haul off and say a public figure lied, and I like that about us.”

This same mainstream columnist stated, concerning some media outlets which tagged as “flatly inconsistent with the facts” a number of points vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan made in his Republican National Convention speech in 2012: “of course, each of these pieces is analysis or opinion rather than a straight news story.”  And this “opinion” (i.e. the truth) has less impact on the shared reality of the public square than a “straight news story” (i.e., one that does not separate fact from fiction).

Political campaigns agree: facts can be presented as “spin” by partisans, and therefore fall under the rubric of “opinion.”  Consider, for example, this excerpt from an article in the Washington Post in 2012:

Jon Cassidy, writing on the website Human Events, said one fact-checking outfit declares conservatives inaccurate three times as often as it does liberals.  “You might reasonably conclude that PolitiFact is biased,” he wrote [as opposed to the fact that Republicans simply lie more often].

…Brooks Jackson, executive director of FactCheck.org, said he fears that the campaigns have come to see running afoul of fact checkers as something of a badge of honor.

Now, in Donald J. Trump’s America, even the lying spinmeisters are welcomed into the journalistic tent.  After Corey Lewandowski was fired as Trump’s campaign manager on June 21, 2016, he immediately resurfaced as a CNN political commentator – even though he had signed a non-disclosure agreement with Donald J. Trump!  As Rutenberg noted in his New York Times article:

Mr. Lewandowski has frequently wandered past the bounds of truth…[though, when he was hired by CNN,] Mr. Lewandowski told [fellow CNN journalist] Erin Burnett that he’d call “balls and strikes” in spite of his agreement with Mr. Trump.  But when he weighed in on Mr. Trump’s big economic speech last Tuesday, all he saw was a home run (“Mr. Trump’s best speech of the presidential cycle,” he gushed).

For the sake of full disclosure (and the truth), it must be noted that, although the Democrats are certainly not immune from this particular political sport (see: “Hillary Clinton” + “emails,” for instance), the Republicans have perfected the Machiavellian art of conflating “truth” and “lie.”  Two longtime Washington insiders, Thomas Mann (Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution) and Norman Ornstein (Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute), wrote a book that got at this idea and summarized it four years ago in an article entitled: “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans are the Problem:”

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition . . . “Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias . . . But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomena distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we could change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

Our advice to the press: don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth?

Finally! One true statement about the political situation in the United States.

However, those in the media did not appreciate the sentiment.  After publishing their book and then article in the Washington Post, these two writers were essentially ostracized for their bipartisan, honest point of view.  As the alternative news outlet Media Matters noted a couple of weeks after the publication of the piece, “their [Mann’s and Ornstein’s] recent conclusion that Republicans are responsible for political dysfunction has been largely ignored, with the top five national newspapers writing a total of zero news articles on their thesis.”  Media Matters also pointed out that, after years of being go-to voices on the various Sunday political programs, Mann and Ornstein saw those invitations dry up after the publication of their book.

Given all of this, the rise of Trump should come as no surprise.  He is simply better at using lies to shape reality than the other 16 candidates he bested.  And he is cognizant that the press – compliant concubine that it is – will mostly parrot whatever garbage he spews from his mouth.

Donald J. Trump has risen from the fetid fertilizer of years of Republican obfuscation, lies, false accusations and other pernicious verbiage, all of which have been dutifully reported as one “opinion” (countered by an equally-weighted “opinion” known as the truth).  And when respected journalists have attempted to point out the problem of false equivalence, they have been “ostracized” by their mainstream compatriots or even shut down by their editors.

Trump is not an outlier, surprise or anomaly. He is the natural outgrowth of years of terrible reporting, coupled with Republican exploitation of this dynamic.

In a sense, Trump is doing us a favor. He is exposing the undercurrent of American democracy which has been hidden beneath the surface of “civility” and “objectivity” provided by the supine press. However, we must learn from his rise, and demand – once and for all – that truth, and not false equivalence, becomes central to our political discourse and public square.

If not, we might well learn just how far America can go toward becoming a fascist government ourselves, instead of fighting against them as we have in Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea and other places around the world.  While all of us certainly want to “make America great,” the question becomes for whom, and at what cost?  A question that the mainstream media should – but never seems to – put at the exact center of the conversation about Donald J. Trump, and our public square in general.

2 Comments

Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Philosophy, US Political System

A Response to Machiavelli: Three Legislative Proposals

Tom Block is an author, playwright and artist.  In his last 34justice guest post, Tom described Niccolò Machiavelli’s influence on American politics.  He also laid out his proposal for a “Moral Ombudsman,” a nonprofit that would “offer a true moral center from which to judge the legislation and actions of” politicians.  In this follow-up, Tom explains three specific policies a Moral Ombudsman might recommend.

Tom Block

Tom Block

Twentieth-century political theorist Hannah Arendt said of her friend Walter Benjamin (a philosopher and social critic) that he was a “clumsy theorist.”  Not that he couldn’t theorize and walk at the same time, but that he was only interested in developing theories which couldn’t be implemented, in the messy world of the public square.

I share this clumsiness with Walter Benjamin, and so I am transforming the theory for my Moral Ombudsman – proposed in my last posting in this space – into three very real proposals to begin implementation of this anti-Machiavellian political program in the rough-and-tumble world of contemporary American politics.

Though these ideas might at first appear heuristic (theoretical or exploratory), they are in fact common sense responses to some of our most pressing social challenges – and ideas which could be implemented at the local, state or even national level.

I. Family Legislation War Act

My fascination with the socially binding attitude toward war was heightened while watching the build-up to America’s incursion into Iraq in 2003.  An “adventure” which still haunts our economy and foreign policy today, more than a decade later.

My morbid attraction to the subject led me to write a book, A Fatal Addiction: War in the Name of God, which explored the conflation of war, spirituality and the state.  It investigated not only the religious language used in fomenting war fever in the country, but also the reasons why this framing of this deadly form of politics (which often amounts to genocide) resonated so successfully with the general public.

I also realized how ubiquitous war is, both in the United States and throughout human history.  By one count, the United States has been at war during 214 out of our 235 calendar years of existence.  Hardly surprising, however, when you learn that throughout the past 5600 years of recorded history, 14,600 wars have been fought, more than two wars for each year of human “civilization” (p. 17).

The American addiction to war has many causes: psychological (situating the generalized anxiety we feel inside in some far off “other” and then destroying it); economic (at least 50% of the American economy is dependent on the military-industrial complex) and political (nothing brings a population together or rallies them around a leader as does war).  As such, stemming this gruesome tide might appear nearly impossible.

However, for our psychic as well as social health, it makes sense to do everything we can to phase this activity out as a political option.  To this end, there is one simple legislative proposal which might help stop, or certainly slow, the pace of American wars – and if adopted throughout democracies and republics worldwide, could do much to stanch the bleeding around the globe.

If politicians were forced to vote a single member from their own immediate family into war at the head of the army, they might think twice about casting that politically expedient vote.   From Bill Clinton’s (42nd President of the United States) daughter Chelsea to President Barack Obama’s (44th President of the United States) daughters Malia or Sasha to one of George W. Bush’s (43rd President of the United States) twin daughters or even Senator Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY – at this writing, the Minority Leader in the US Senate) children: we could do much to lessen the rush to war if the vote was modified in this manner.

By personalizing the vote for bellicosity, the noxious pattern of sending other people’s children (usually from the underclass, as the armed forces often provides the best employment option for those who have few of them) to die for our country might be halted.  While it is easy for the rich and powerful to send unknown bodies off to other lands to be psychically or physically maimed, even politicians might think twice about involving their beloved kin.  And if a particular representative didn’t have children?  A sacrificial brother, sister or first cousin would suffice.

This simple law would allow even the most stolid of politicians to appreciate in its entirety what it means to go to war.  Not to say that all wars would be stopped – World War II, for instance, might well have been fought under these pretenses – but the succession of wars of choice that we have entered (and often instigated) over the past 75 years (currently numbering 18 and counting) would have been considered far more gravely beforehand than they in fact were.

II. National Service

My Father (b. 1933), drafted into the army as all of his generation and then recalled during the Cuban Crisis (1961-62), tells many stories about his experiences there.  In particular, he relates how people from all strata of American life came together to live in the shared cultural environment of the armed forces.  Living as equals, these men from rural, suburban and urban America, some toothless and poor, others headed to Ivy League colleges, shared an experience for months, a year or more which would stay with them for a lifetime.  Most importantly, it deepened their sense of the American community as one which involves people from all walks of life, even though they might have disparate political and social views, as well as economic prospects.

This sense of a national citizenry – in which all Americans got to personally know people from every segment of our society – has been lost with the passing of the draft.  In my opinion, much of the political and social fracturing of our country that we have seen over the past two decades might be due to this loss of shared experience.  We no longer get to know each other as equals, in a common American endeavor.  Community members from the rural South to the urban Northeast have grown insular, identifying more with their local culture than with the country at large.  And as our political life has suffered, our social discourse has soured and the answers we so desperately search for concerning everything from global warming to unemployment have become more and more difficult to come by.

I do not advocate reinstating the draft.  As you can see from my first idea, I am far more in favor of fazing out the standing army, rather than getting more Americans to serve in it.  However, I do strongly feel that we need some kind of national program to help knit our American community – far more diverse now than when my father was in the army fifty years ago – together into a singly polity.

I propose a democratizing event that brings all segments of our society together.  A year of national service concentrating on public and social work – from environmental cleanup to light infrastructure jobs to helping the poor in cities or rural areas where there is need – would reinstitute this shared sense of American community.  Taking place for one year between high school and college, and perhaps modeled on an existent program like Americorps, Teach for America or even the Depression-era Works Projects Administration (WPA), this endeavor would help heal the fissures that have been appearing in our culture, and threaten to grow from cracks into chasms of difference between disparate segments of our population.

Not only would young adults at a formative time in their lives come to feel the warmth of working for the common good, they would also be forced to work with and perhaps even befriend people from different socio-economic, religious, ethnic and geographical backgrounds.  This would do much to combat sectarian, economic and racial rifts that have yet to be healed (and sometimes seem to be on the rise) in our society.

III.  Into the Voting Booth

One of the unfortunately, though rarely remarked upon, concerns with our democracy is that such a small percentage of the voting age population votes in elections.  In presidential years, a bare majority of Americans vote – not even 60% of the voting age population in recent elections (since 1960, the percentage has ranged from a high of 63% in 1960 to 49% in 1996).  In off-year elections, known colloquially as “midterm elections,” a little more than a third of the voting public casts ballots, allowing only a 20% minority of voting age citizens (the majority of those voting) to make decisions that affect the whole country!

According to Howard Stephen Friedman (a professor at Columbia University and economist at the United Nations), the USA trails virtually all advanced democratic, economically healthy nations in voter participation.  According to his graph, the United States of America lags far behind Belgium, Australia, Italy, Greece, Spain, Korea, Portugal, Japan and many other industrialized nations, coming in with a paltry 38% of eligible voter participation, on average.

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 12.02.34 AM

Different countries address voter participation concerns in different manners.  Unfortunately, in our country, legislative energy has recently been expended in depressing voter turnout even further, rather than encouraging it.  One party has realized that the majority of Americans do not agree with their political program, so the surest way to electoral victory is to make it more difficult to vote, not easier.

As Wendy Weiser, who directs the Democracy Project at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, noted:

For the first time in decades, voters in nearly half the country will find it harder to cast a ballot in the upcoming elections. Voters in 22 states will face tougher rules than in the last midterms. In 15 states, 2014 is slated to be the first major election with new voting restrictions in place.

These changes are the product of a concerted push to restrict voting by legislative majorities that swept into office in 2010.  They represent a sharp reversal for a country whose historical trajectory has been to expand voting rights and make the process more convenient and accessible.

It should also be clearly stated that these restrictive measures were passed in response to a problem (“voter fraud”) which has been shown time and again not to exist.  And that “of the 22 states with new restrictions, 18 passed them through entirely Republican-controlled bodies.”

American democracy should not be about inventing fraudulent, though “legal” (in the narrowest sense of the word) means to assure electoral victory.  We should work toward the kind of voter inclusion of Belgium (93%) or Australia (80%), instead of being satisfied with a little more than half of a bit more than a third of our voting age population making decisions for the whole country.

To this end, I propose not only making access far easier, but also moving the election day to the weekend (or declaring it a national holiday); having voting laws administered by the Federal Government (instead of a patchwork of state and even local jurisdictions, allowing partisan election judges to make, shift and change laws to the best effect for their political party) and even go so far as to – like Australia or Belgium – pass a law making voting in this country mandatory, instead of attempting to restrict it to partisan friends, while discouraging others from participation.

Democracy (a system of government by the whole population) cannot be healthy if certain segments of the citizenry are discouraged or even prevented from voting.  Current election tightening – something, that Weiser assures, hasn’t happened on this grand a scale since Reconstruction, more than 125 years ago – is bad for the country, though certainly better for one of the major parties.

We must take the ballot box back for all Americans.  Twenty two countries in the world have some form of compulsory voting, including much of Latin America, Australia and Belgium.  The State of Georgia (USA) had such a law on its books in its Constitution of 1777 which stated: “Every person absenting himself from an election, and shall neglect to give in his or their ballot at such election, shall be subject to a penalty,” though it was omitted from the State Constitution of 1789.

We cannot live in a democracy where some people control who votes, while more than half of the country doesn’t even cast them.  This leads to results which do not reflect the “will of the people,” but simply the will of the powerful.  As Joseph Stalin noted: “It is enough that the people know there was an election.  The people who cast the votes decide nothing.  The people who count the votes decide everything.”

A participatory democracy must include the voices from the vast majority of its citizens, even if their voices are compelled to speak.  If we, as a country, can pass laws to narrow the vote, then we can just as assuredly pass one that will compel it.  And if we truly want to live in a “democracy,” we should do it sooner rather than later.

3 Comments

Filed under Philosophy, US Political System

Machiavelli in America and One Response to this Social Illness

Tom Block is an author, playwright and artist, whose work spans more than two decades.  In this blog post, Tom introduces us to his political antidote to our Machiavellian political sphere.  Adapted from his book, Machiavelli in America, this piece is part of Tom’s greater exploration of how to bring spiritual and even mystical values to bear on contemporary society. His work is collected under a theory he calls “Prophetic Activism,” a model of using art, thought and other means to infiltrate (rather than simply oppose) the power centers of business and politics.  For more information about Tom’s work, please visit his website.

Tom Block and his most recent book, Machiavelli in America

Tom Block and his most recent book, Machiavelli in America

Nowadays, the Machiavellian notion that political arrangements may not be judged by any objective standards of right and wrong, that there is neither any natural or any divine law, but only the law of will, of success and failure, is almost unchallenged (p. xvi).

Many people are familiar with the controversial thinking of the Renaissance political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli (d. 1527).  His influence has been so widespread that the word “Machiavellian” has been incorporated into our language as a pejorative, defining a person who is cunning, duplicitous and operates in bad faith.

What might be less well known is the profound influence that Machiavelli has on contemporary American politics.  From state houses to the Presidency, Machiavelli’s ideas and motivations are central to building winning political campaigns and passing legislation, however un-democratic and antithetical to a healthy, pluralistic society.  As Renaissance scholar Paul Grendler noted (p.149): “Today, Machiavelli’s influence on political policy may be greater than at any time since he served the Florentine government.  Machiavelli has become American.”

The foundation of Machiavelli’s political ideology is straightforward: everyone in society is selfish, acting primarily for personal gain.  And for a politician to succeed in mastering this world, she has to either manipulate or frighten people into believing that their interests ally most closely with her own.

Machiavelli’s program concentrates on subjugation and mastery.  He does not concern himself with the common good, democracy or human rights.  For Machiavelli, the concepts of moral philosophers from Moses to the Sufis and the religions within which they operate are certainly important.  But only because these religious systems provide a fraudulent tool for the relentless, morally unhinged pursuit of power.  In terms of their direct relation to political reality, however, he considers them as meaningless as music.

Machiavelli’s central tenet is that the truth of any matter must be overwhelmed by two stronger factors: fear and fraud. In terms of inspiring fear in the populace, it is the surest method of gaining control over them:

I come to the conclusion that, men loving according to their own will and fearing according to that of the prince, a wise prince should establish himself on that which is in his own control and not in that of others (p. 82).

He also noted that truth can be easily shunted aside, using fraudulent means to inspire fear, and then oneself offered as the palliative, inspiring a populace to follow the leader:

The great majority of humans is satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and is often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are (p. 182).

It is through inspiring fear in the citizenry, as well as using fraud as a tool to appear to be what the people want (i.e., safe, religious, moral, “like” them etc.) that political victory can most easily be won.

In terms of winning political office or legislative battles by immoral means?  Not to worry.  He noted: “When the act accuses, the result excuses” (p. 139).  Whatever actions undertaken to attain political victory are excused if the actor is successful.  Machiavelli absolved triumphant leaders of all blame or responsibility for any act necessary to attain and retain power:

A wise mind will never censure anyone for having employed any extraordinary means for the purpose of establishing a kingdom or constituting a republic . . . when the result is good, it will always absolve him from blame (p. 139).

Machiavellian inspiration is not hard to discern, either throughout American history or even in our most recent political season.  A brief study of George W. Bush’s (43rd President of the United States) manner of attaining a very dubious electoral victory, and then his perverse political use of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 (on New York’s World Trade Center and other sites) would suffice.  But for our purposes, it is important to mention that George W. Bush was acting in a time-honored American Machiavellian tradition.

Neo-Conservative thinker Michael Ledeen (b. 1941) noted the similarities between the beginnings of America and the Florentine’s ideals: “There is much in Machiavelli that sounds like the American Founding Fathers…Machiavelli’s notion of the good state calls to mind The Federalist Papers” (p. 109).

Ledeen continued on to reference specific Machiavellian influence on James Madison (fourth President of the United States), Alexander Hamilton (first United States Secretary of the Treasury) and Benjamin Franklin (Founding Father and so-called “First American”).  The Florentine’s inspiration can also be found on the thinking of George Washington (first President of the United States); Thomas Jefferson, (principal author of the Declaration of Independence) and John Adams (America’s first Vice President, as well as the second President of the United States).  All of this has been outlined in more depth in my book.

The reverberations of the long-ago Florentine political philosopher can clearly be ascertained in the most recent electoral campaigns, which often are based in fear, character assassination and moral fraud.

For instance, in this current electoral cycle in North Carolina, Republican challenger Thom Tillis is ratcheting up the fear by linking Senator Kay Hagan (D) to terrorist threats.  A campaign advertisement of his notes: “Hagan and [President] Obama are to blame for the growing emergency linked to extremist groups like ISIS.”  And in keeping with the Machiavellian dictate that another sure way to win a political campaign is to assassinate the opposition, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has undertaken a scorched-earth campaign against his challenger, Alison Grimes (D):

As many observers predicted, the McConnell strategy was to bring Grimes’ popularity down.  She has been bombarded by negative attacks over the summer by McConnell’s campaign and super PACs.

The reality of American politics turns away from the moral intentions of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution and toward a power-driven oligarchy, ruled over by the most pernicious, negative and fraudulent.

It should be noted that this problem infects one side of the aisle far more than the other.  Although the mainstream press would be loathe to appear anything but “objective” (defined as the midpoint between the two parties), it is the Republican Party, and even more so the right-wing “Tea Party” members of that party, who most clearly exhibit the influence of the medieval political philosopher.  Renaissance scholar Paul Grendler noted that this linkage between America’s right wing and the Renaissance philosopher goes back to at least World War II:

Machiavelli has been a theme in American conservative political discussion since the 1940s.  It is likely that the use of Machiavelli has contributed to the combative mentality that characterized American Cold War politics, the belligerency of American conservatism and the take-no-prisoners tactics and language employed against liberalism and the Democrats (p. 168).

In my book, I outline many specific manners in which Machiavelli not only influenced our Founding Fathers, but also can still be felt in the legislative, executive and even judicial branches of government, including the overwhelming power of money, the efficacy of character assassinations and the use of war-like language to the utilization of religious and moral fraud and war itself, all as immoral political tools.

Regardless of what we might wish, think or work for, it is the Machiavellian dictates of power politics which are accepted as “politics as usual,” while all other potential moral methods of political interaction are simply shunted to the side as the strategy of losers.  And time and again, the results of political elections confirm the view that Machiavelli is for winners.

Although this dynamic is well known and even remarked upon, we (as a society) haven’t developed effective responses to Machiavelli, specific manners of combatting this pernicious dynamic.  What I offer in my book, and will summarize here, is one manner of attempting to combat this social cancer.  And one which takes into account our zeitgeist, from the deeply religious nature of so much of America’s public life, to the unwillingness of American journalists to base their reporting on the truth, opting instead for some mushy middle between the positions of the two major parties, which they define as “objective.”  This lack of moral clarity in the press corps only allows fraudulent political actors more leeway in creating their own alternate reality, a vile combination of fraud, character assassination and amoral pandering.

Though at least one administrator of this blog might disagree with me, I feel strongly that God and religion must be taken into account when considering a palliative to the shared social illness exhibited in our public square.  Activist responses to social illnesses must take into account the reality of that society; and offer familiar (i.e., religiously-based for Americans) manners of infiltrating and changing it – instead of simply standing outside of the metaphorical walls to the city and lobbing well-meaning and ineffectual ideas toward a population that couldn’t care less.

A Response to Machiavelli: The Moral Ombudsman

Conservative columnist Cal Thomas put forward an interesting proposal concerning the insertion of truth into politics:

Before an election, have candidates take a lie detector test.  Put it on TV and/or the Internet.  A panel of reporters or other experts could ask the questions, just like they do in presidential debates.  In fact, this could be a five-minute segment at the end of the debates.  “And now, to the lie detectors…”

Ha, ha, ha!  The political participants on both sides of the aisle would never accept common sense remedies such as this one.  It would too easily and clearly unmask the whole pernicious system.  Lie detector tests are for criminals!  Not for politicians, they would assure.

And we certainly can’t rely on the press to offer us a reportage of current politics and events based on truth (instead of some bizarre combination of “objectivity,” generally held opinion and polling data – which itself only represents the desires of the most powerful propagandistic machine).

The unwillingness to base journalism in truth is well-noted, by the way.  As the Los Angeles Times noted in an editorial: “the canons of the profession [journalism] prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false.”  And as Washington Post journalist Melinda Henneberger said, concerning her profession’s (lack of) attachment to truth in reporting:  “Newspapers hardly ever haul off and say a public figure lied, and I like that about us.”

So it falls to us, we the people, to devise our own method of inserting truth into the Machiavellian world of American politics, and what follows is one such proposal.  I have devised an idea that can be implemented within our political system, offering a muscular response to the ingathering of power and money by the top one percent of American citizens.  As Machiavelli noted (p.211): “So enormous is the ambition of the grandi that it soon brings that city to ruin if it is not beaten down by various ways and various modes.”

This response to Machiavelli offers one manner to “beat them down.”

Honest discourse and unimpeded knowledge is virtually impossible to come by in the American political panorama.  For this reason, I propose that clearly stated information itself represents the greatest potential tool supporting genuine democracy.  In a country where voter suppression, lying, cheating, stealing and all manner of fraud are accepted as “politics as usual,” the ability to come by clear and concise information on any issue is virtually impossible.

The Moral Ombudsman would operate within the parameters of 21st-century Washington D.C., acknowledging the manner in which power is won and imposed.  Specifically, this is the call for the creation of a non-profit organization of the same name: “The Moral Ombudsman,” to develop and insert a moral lodestar into politics.

The Moral Ombudsman would bring together a board of recognized religious and social leaders to form a non-governmental organization to provide moral oversight of our lawmakers, as well as the laws that they make.  This collective would be constituted of leaders from the following religious and spiritual groups, representing the breadth of faith and secular communities in the United States: Christianity (two each from Baptist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Presbyterians, Methodist, Anglican, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox); Judaism (one each from Reformed, Conservative and Orthodox); Muslim (one each from Sunni, Shi’a and Sufi); Buddhism, Sikhism, Hindu, Mormon; Unitarian, Secular Humanist and Atheist.

Other potential board members might include an academic leader, an agreed upon politician (preferably at the end of his public career, and not at the beginning), a social theorist or perhaps lay leader who would add perspective to the conversation.  The final constitution of the board would represent the vast majority of American citizens.  It would also acknowledge the Christian heritage of our nation by weighting the board in that direction.

The board would first be charged with developing a social and political moral code that would be agreed upon by all members of the board.  Although at first blush, this step clearly seems to present a potentially insurmountable obstacle, it is not as difficult as it might appear.  At the core, virtually all religions are in accord.  There are moral values shared by all creeds, which inform the hearts of every sacred path.

In this response to Machiavelli, the common good will take into account such things as the obligation of those who have the means to aid those who do not; the right to adequate health care access to for every citizen (hardly revolutionary, as thirty-two of the thirty-three developed nations have universal health care, with the United States being the lone exception); adequate shelter, a necessary amount of nutritious food, free education, freedom of religion and association and freedom from racist or ethnically deleterious laws and treatment.

Social issues such as the following would be discussed and agreed upon, becoming the bedrock formulation for the Moral Ombudsman.  These positions would help define the manner in which politicians, their actions and their laws, would be viewed:

  • Obligation of the rich to help the poor
  • Human right to health care
  • Human right to adequate, nutritious food
  • Human right to satisfactory housing
  • Forgiveness, restitution and rehabilitation as bases for the prison system
  • Minority rights
  • Women’s rights
  • Freedom of association
  • Freedom of worship
  • Freedom from racism
  • Freedom from hate speech
  • Foreign policy based in respect and commonality
  • Truth as the basis for news reporting
  • Truth as the basis for political language and ideas
  • Truth as the basis for political campaigns

Each religion’s scriptures provides many different readings, from the suppression and slaughter of the “other;” veiling of women; polygamous and tribal laws to readings that emphasize peace, respect and open-mindedness.  Put bluntly, George W. Bush could find plenty in the Scriptures to justify his views, as could Martin Luther King Jr.

Leaders from the various religious creeds would be sought who believed in the opening and loving aspects of their creeds, not the close-minded, “us” vs. “them” manner of politicizing religion.  They would conceive of theirs as a valid path, and not the single road to spiritual grace.  They would be leaders whose views shared much with the contemporary zeitgeist in respecting the plurality of ethnic, social and cultural diversity and the worth of individuals (instead of holding that the religious system is more important than the rights of its constituent members).

The Moral Ombudsman would reach beyond social, economic and political barriers, speaking in the best interests of all Americans, all the time.  The Moral Ombudsman would be immune to fluctuations in the stock market, monetary reward, poll numbers or television ratings.

Issuing its decisions in policy papers, op-ed articles, newsletters, scorecards on the votes of members of congress, governors and the president and other like manners, this non-profit watchdog group would finally offer a true moral center from which to judge the legislation and actions of our elected princes.

Once the moral structure was set into place with the creation of a specific set of political virtues, the work of the organization would be to judge both legislators and legislation by its precepts.  Each law coming up for a vote in Congress would be compared to the moral principles agreed upon by the Board.  A grade would be issued, with a zero representing a completely immoral law (such as raising taxes on the poor so that the rich might have a lower tax burden), to a 100% (universal health care, for instance).  There would be a written release issued, as well as a rating.

Each legislator would have his votes analyzed, and would receive a sum-total number score for his moral centeredness.  This method is modeled on the scores issued by NGO groups from the National Rifle Association to the Nature Conservancy.

Additionally, the Executive Branch, military, State Department and actions of members from other governmental arms would be so judged.  Pilotless Drone attacks on other people’s soil?  Nope.  No matter how much verbiage there is about terrorism, eliciting the fear response of the population, this cannot be morally justified.  Secret Ops work in Latin America?  Presidential pandering, military posturing, and State Department dithering?  No, no and no.  The Moral Ombudsman’s job would not be to garner votes or make friends with the higher ups.  It’s job would be to begin the vital but nearly impossible work of centering American politics in a moral schema, instead of allowing it to continue to founder in the media created world of “objective reality.”

In the end, difficult though it might be, a moral middle would be carved out of the amorphous and amoral public and political square.  Finally, some manner of shared values would emerge that each of us, in our heart of hearts, might agree upon.

Is this solution easy?  Absolutely not.  Is it fraught with potential problems?

Yes.  Oh, yes.

But we are left with no choice but to try.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Philosophy, US Political System