Formal argument in the classic style has real limits. Sometimes when we try to rule some sentiment or response in an argument or dialogue as “out of bounds” by classing it as a logical fallacy or as some other form of argumentative sin, we box out some important kinds of truth. Not all contentious discussion between two or more people is an exchange of if-then statements that draw upon bodies of standard empirical evidence. Sometimes, for example, it’s actually important to talk about matters marked off-limits by formalists as ad hominem: there are plenty of real-world moments where the motivations of the person you’re arguing with matter a great deal in terms of deciding whether the argument is worth having and whether it’s worth the labor time or emotional effort to assess what’s been said.
Equally, there is a sort of casual hand-waving manner of dismissing something that’s been said as an invalid “slippery slope argument” as if any argument that says, “A recent event might have long-term cumulative consequences that are more severe” is always invalid, always lacking in evidence. Typically the hand-waver says, “Come, come, this event is a minor thing, where’s the evidence that it will lead to something worse, that’s a fallacy because you can’t prove that it will.”
I find this especially frustrating as a historian, because often what I’m doing is comparing something in the present to a wide number of examples of change over time in the past. And in many cases, people in the past who have noted the incremental or cumulative dangers of an event or trend and been correct have had to endure finger-wagging galore from mainstream pundits who try to stay deeply buried in the vaults of consensus. When someone says, “Eventually this will undermine the legitimacy of something important”, that’s a slippery-slope argument of a kind, but it’s a completely legitimate one. Eventually it will. Now it has.
For almost the entire lifespan of this now more-than-a-decade-old blog, one of the things I’ve been warning about is the dangers posed by a failing sense of connection between citizens and the formal political institutions of many nation-states, including the United States–and that one of the foremost dangers would be that a kind of populist anger that might be potentially indeterminate or plastic in its ideological loyalties would be captured by reactionary nationalism. Well, here we are: the slide down that slope is nearly complete. One of the reasons I’m not sure what to blog about any longer is that I don’t think there’s any way back up that slope. There’s no do-overs. I don’t know what to do next, nor do I have any kind of clear insight about what may come of the moment we’re in.
The one thing I do know is that we cannot form anything like a coherent political or intellectual response if we refuse to understand how we got to this moment, and how the history of the present looks to the people who have registered their alienation from and unhappiness with conventional political elites and their favored institutions in a series of votes over the last five years in the United Kingdom, in Colombia, in Austria, in the United States, in India, in Turkey and elsewhere, including in the imminent French elections. Even when we are intensely critical of what they’ve done, and even when we say with complete accuracy that one of the major motivations for what they’ve done is deep-seated racism, xenophobia or other form of desire to discriminate against a class or group of their fellow citizens, we still have to see when and how some of what they think makes a kind of sense–and where people tried to warn long ago that if things kept going as they were going, the eventual consequence might be an indiscriminate feeling of popular cynicism or despair, a kind of blanket dismissal of the powers that be and an embrace of a kind of flat form of “fake news”.
First, let’s take the deranged fake stories about a pizza restaurant in Washington DC being a center of sex trafficking. What makes it possible to believe in obvious nonsense about this particular establishment? In short, this: that the last fifty years of global cultural life has revealed that public innocence and virtue are not infrequently a mask for sexual predation by powerful men. Bill Cosby. Jimmy Savile. Numerous Catholic priests. On and on the list goes. Add to that the fact that one form of feminist critique of Freud has long since been validated: that what Freud classed as hysteria or imagination was in many cases straightforward testimony by women about what went on within domestic life as well as within the workplace lives of women. Add to that the other sins that we now know economic and political power have concealed and forgiven: financial misdoings. Murder. Violence. We may argue about how much, how often, how many. We may argue about typicality and aberration. But whether you’re working at it from memorable anecdotal testimony or systematic inquiry, it’s easy to see how people who came to adulthood in the 1950s and 1960s all over the world might feel as if we live on after the fall, even if they know in their hearts that it was always thus. Just as we fear crime far more than we ought to, we may overestimate dramatically how much corruption is hidden behind a facade of innocence. We should understand why it is easy to believe that anybody powerful, especially any powerful man, might be engaged in sexual misconduct. Think of how many male celebrities and political figures marketed as dedicated to “family values” have turned out to be serial philanders. Cultural conservatives sometimes try to blame this series of revelations on the permissiveness of post-1970 popular culture, but the problem is with the gap between what people pretend to be doing and what they are doing–and it is the kind of gap that readily appears in the rear-view mirror of the past once you see it clearly in the present, as a persistent consequence of male power. The slippery slope here is this: that at some point, people come to accept that this is what all powerful men do, and that any powerful man–or perhaps even powerful woman–who professes innocence is lying. All accusations sound credible, all power comes pre-accused, because at some point, all the Cosbys and teachers at Choate Rosemary Hall and Catholic priests have made it plausible to see rape, assault, molestation everywhere. And by making all of that into that kind of banality, we make it harder to accuse any given individual, like our current President, of some distinctively awful behavior, even though he’s plainly guilty of that. We have to reckon with where we’re at. There’s no way out of where we are without some change in the entanglement of gender, power and sex. Yes, of course it doesn’t mean that every accusation is by definition true, but we should understand why any accusation can make a kind of sense, no matter what other ideological overtones come along with it.
Second, let’s talk about wiretapping. Again, mainstream punditry complains of how President Trump accuses the Obama White House of having him tapped, and they ask: where’s the evidence? And they’re right: the evidence is laughably absent. What they don’t reckon with is that once again, we’re on the bottom of a long-since-slid slope. How many times did Americans and other citizens in other countries have to warn of the consequences of ubiquitous surveillance by intelligence services in terms of the faith and trust that democratic citizens might put in their institutions–and in the degree to which those citizens might believe their own privacy to be safely respected? With each revelation, with each disclosure, with each accusation, sensible liberals and conservatives alike have insisted that this case was necessary, that that practice was prudent, that this example was a minor misstep or judgmental error. That the world is a dangerous place. That the safeguards were in place: secret courts, hidden judges, prudent spies, classified oversight. That citizens just had to trust in the prerogatives of the executive branch, or the prudence of the legislators, or the professionalism of the generals and spies. And so many times that trust has been breached: we have heard, many years later, that surveillance that was crudely political was approved, that signals were intercepted without a care in the world for restraint or rights, and that what intelligence was gathered was ignored, distorted or misused. So are we surprised that today, the current occupant of the White House, can indulge in bad conspiracy theory and evidence-less speculation and strike a chord with some listeners? We shouldn’t be surprised–and we should recognize that this is what happens when you misuse surveillance decade after decade.
I could go on. Corruption: despite a brief spasm of reform after Nixon, pretty soon we were back to numerous elected officials who thought little of lying and covering up, or saying one thing while grossly doing another behind closed doors. Crony capitalism–having another law for the rich than the poor–all the current material that Trump likes to preach to his favored audiences. People were warned that if something didn’t change, if some acts weren’t cleaned up, if folks didn’t think about what happens when mistrust grows to an epidemic, if there wasn’t some urgency about a more transparent and honest government, then the public would grow accustomed to it all, would come to believe in the ubiquity of those sins. They would stop listening to cries of wolf, because they would falsely believe all the world to be a world of wolves. Some of what Trump throws at the wall sticks because there’s a truth to it, however woefully he may stink of the worst of what he hurls.
Undoing that will take something like a revolution, or at least a cleansing. If we still hope to avoid that being Steve Bannon’s “unravelling of the administrative state”, then it will take something quite the opposite of what Bannon has in mind. It will take a new generation of public officials, political leaders, and prominent citizens who understand that even small ditches will increment eventually into bottomless pits. Who live up to what they profess, who build something new. So far I see almost no sign that the mainstream of the Democratic Party understands this at all.