Home to Roost

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”.

Some examples.

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.

This entry was posted in Academia, Generalist's Work, Oh Not Again He's Going to Tell Us It's a Complex System, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Home to Roost

  1. Alice says:

    I don’t know if this is a meaningful distinction, but I actually think that you are explaining why conspiracists invented those stories, and not why they are believed. Conspiracy theories are fabrications, and so they incorporate the real stories of the times because pure invention require stunning creativity.

    But people believe conspiracy theories because they serve some psychological function. Like, here’s Clinton, whom many hate and wish to cause harm to. I could believe that my hatred for her is because I am using her as a stand-in for everyone who ever acted like they worked harder than me, or were smarter than me, and “got ahead of me” and thought that they were better for me and realize that my hatred of her isn’t about her Hilary Rhodham Clinton and is actually about the whole arc of my life. OR I can believe that I hate her because she has committed a shocking and appalling string of crimes.

    I don’t know. There’s always been a large segment of US citizens who have seen the participation of non-white people in politics as illegitimate. Right? This is a group that fought a Civil War to maintain slavery, and then launched a decade of terrorism until the compromise of segregation was agreed to. I think that what we are seeing is backlash against pluralism simply because there has always been a large contingent of anti-pluralists.

    Like, you draw out a “college educated elite consensus vs. others” but I actually think that this is less important than “opposes racism” it happens to be that upper class whites get to choose to endorse racism AND classism to maintain our social status, and thus sometimes use anti-racism as a cudgel against lower class whites.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I think you could argue that some conspiracists are extremely good “readers” of what is out there in the world, and adroit at crafting narratives that let them capitalize on that to their own advantage. And certainly you are right that “conspiracy” is a general category of causal reasoning that has some deep appeal to human beings, whether that’s psychological or otherwise.

    But it’s important if one wants to defang something like “fake news” or “conspiracy” to recognize where it has an underlying reason to it, where it’s based on something other than the psychological predispositions of an individual. I keep coming back to this point, but it’s just because this is how I came to this understanding about my own society: in the places I’ve spent time in contemporary southern Africa, “witchcraft” is frequently a cogent and somewhat reasonable explanation of phenomena that really no one has observed directly. If someone asks me how Robert Mugabe remains in power, and I steadfastly refuse “witchcraft” or some other form of spiritually-derived power as any kind of explanation, I’m still working either with something that’s almost as mystified and indirect like “legitimacy” (can you see legitimacy? measure it? no) or I’m positing some other form of conspiratorial action, whether that’s among elite “super-Zezuru” heads of kin groups or between Mugabe and his security forces, or something else. I can’t walk into that history and say that I have a clear, measurable, empirically demonstrable explanation that in no respects invokes conspiracies or vague composite qualities or concepts. So it would ill-behoove me to get into a conversation with people at a bar in which they’re telling me about the spiritual underpinnings of Mugabe’s regime in which I dismiss those interpretations out of hand.

    If someone believes that the powerful routinely traffic in underage victims for sexual purposes, and is therefore predisposed to believe that about Clinton and Podesta, I can’t afford to just laugh at the intrinsic stupidity of that idea, even if there’s obviously nothing really to the rumors that were circulated in the last year. A review of the case of Jeffrey Epstein, for example, reveals a number of claims made within the court system, though yet untested, that are very nearly that awful and conspiratorial–and the charges against Epstein himself resulted in his conviction. More importantly, at this point in time, is there any figure of public renown at this point where it would be wise to declare that there was no possibility ever, none at all, of that person having another side of their life in which they engaged in criminal or abusive activity involving other real people? How many times have people (often men) disbelieved such accusations only to have to acknowledge them later on? Is there a major private prep school in this country, for example, where there wasn’t a significant number of teachers who engaged in sexual misconduct with students between 1950 and 2000? At this point, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

    So while some accusations might still be false, and others imagine absurd conspiracies, there is underneath it all a social reality that has rocked a lot of people to their core and unsettled their sense of public and private morality. We have to at least start by acknowledging that people are generally right to view powerful people with some degree of skepticism in this regard.

  3. Josh says:

    If someone believes that the powerful routinely traffic in underage victims for sexual purposes, and is therefore predisposed to believe that about Clinton and Podesta, I can’t afford to just laugh at the intrinsic stupidity of that idea, even if there’s obviously nothing really to the rumors that were circulated in the last year.

    I guess I’m left wondering how this is a new thing. Lots of historical parallels come to mind, from the Satanic child abuse panic of the ’80s to 18th century France to the blood libel. What distinguishes this particular instance from the larger pattern?

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Honestly? The accumulating weight of evidence. Meaning, yes, there’s still a moral panic element even now–that’s what the ‘fake news’, fervid right-wing conspiracy thinking part of this all is. But also at this point compared to various moments in the 20th Century past, we just have to face it: power and sexual misconduct just really are somewhat systematically linked. I think the successive revelations about the Catholic Church, various schools, etc., plus the serial conduct of people like Cosby and Savile, makes this somewhat different.

    The historian in me would insist that we not casually thread more recent examples together with 18th C. France, the blood libel, etc.–that moral panics may have some degree of commonality or recurrence but also that the past is another country–other publics, other structures for culture and knowledge to circulate, etc., matter a good deal.

  5. Alice says:


    I think here my youth is showing. I was still in high school when the Boston Globe began reporting on the cover-up of abuses in the Catholic Church so I think of the realization that every institution and every public figure has the potential to commit every abuse as a basic part of growing up, akin to realizing that I myself am capable of evil and that my parents are likewise merely human.

    And I mean, in the case of the pizza pedophilia ring, it doesn’t make sense. I can believe that Clinton or Podesta has serially molested children, but then the story should pattern match other serial pedophiles. Which probably means some sort of school child volunteer program or children of family friends or staffers. The fact that the conspiracy theory doesn’t match the way that these crimes are actually committed when they are committed makes me skeptical of the claim that some sort of realism is central to their believability?

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    You and I think similarly about realism and so to us that was obviously a lunatic accusation. And I think we are right to think that everyone should in some sense be using some of the same rough yardsticks for judging what’s realistic.

    My point would simply that in a context in which it feels, in a somewhat feverish way, as if many previously respected institutions and individuals were in fact involved in some form of sexual misconduct, that it is easier for some people to give in to more unreal, conspiracy-laden accusations. And not the least because in many of those past accusations, there were people dismissing their credibility on grounds of realism and evidence as well.

    I think generational awareness is an important part of the story, too–as well as relative worldliness. For the oldest Americans, they may with some justice really feel as if the world used to be purer etc. I think we all know that’s not the case–e.g., that what Catholic priests were doing in 1970 they likely were doing in 1950; the same for powerful men and celebrities. But the degree to which we know and that knowledge is part of a public transcript are different.

  7. Alice says:

    Yeah, I can see this as an example of where where I need more empathy – to understand what it means to experience those realizations in later adulthood. It is hard because say, to not know that teachers at Choate were abusing children, or the Catholic priests, it all feels like a willful and wishful ignorance. And in the face of that I do not know what to do but to despair.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    But think even on this side of that change-over: you (and I) still think, I hope, that most teachers and priests and celebrities don’t do anything like this. But that’s where it gets hard: why do we trust in anyone? Or insist on evidence about anything? We know how the demand for evidence has been misused to stall, defer, delay, excuse, diminish, after all. But we do still insist, or at least I know I do: most people are trustworthy, etc.–#notallmen. So we have to find a way to talk in a wider context about why we do or should trust some people, in a way that lets trust grow without insisting that the gold standard for trust is sainthood, performing incessantly.

  9. Alice says:

    Hmm, that’s an interesting point. I mean, I think that I trust /all/ accusations from alleged victims that fit my understanding of prevalent modes of those crimes. And I suppose that I mostly trust people because I don’t have a good alternative. Certainly, my attitude towards older white men who I do not know is one of guarded suspicion. I mean, I’ve seen (and believe) estimates that ~1/8 of men in the US have committed rape at least once. Not all men have, but all humans /can/. That’s maybe a hard thing to live with, but I believe it very much – our own virtue is contingent and contextual.

    But even if I thought that /most/ had molested children, I don’t have the luxury of removing myself from the world. So I accept that I will work with, and maybe even be friends with, and maybe even fall in love with, people who have done horrible things.

    I mean, I insist on evidence because evidence changes my level of certainty, which I require at various levels to be comfortable with doing or not doing various things.

    I mean, after the Holocaust, how do you live as a person in Germany? After slavery, how do you live in the United States? I think that maybe I have a much darker view of the world than you? But we live half our lives in the dark, so what if it is full of horror? Then I will live with that too, even while I try to make my own light.

    I mean, trust is a choice because without trust I can do nothing, will be nothing. Whatever the risk, it is worth it to maintain our best hope of building meaningful lives. Against all evidence, I reject the nihilism of absolute distrust. My government murders children, what of it? I need a government and this is the one I have, I must learn how to make it the best that it can be. That has to be enough because it’s all I have.

  10. Ed says:

    Hi Tim, thanks for returning!

    I didn’t follow much of this. Are you saying that you predicted an upsetting of the international political order, were ignored (or scorned), and then were vindicated by recent events?

    Are you saying that voters in various nations have, in reaction to recent high-profile scandals, transitioned from being overly trustful-of-government to being overly mistrustful-of-government?

    Are you saying that establishment Democrats harmed the interest of their party by being too corrupt recently?

    Are you saying that Trump’s election was only possible because large portions of voters held false beliefs, or weren’t able to evaluate basic claims of fact?

    Is this post intended as a philosophical treatment of the concept of “trust” and a call for readers to not assume the worst of others?

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    As I often do in blogging, I kind of wove together several different ideas or points and hoped there was a theme to connect them.

    The theme might be as simple as “from tiny acorns mighty oaks grow”–and that often people resist seeing what an acorn might grow into, arguing that it’s such a tiny thing, we mustn’t overestimate it, don’t fall for a slippery slope argument. At least sometimes we should take seriously warnings that what appear to be isolated events have the potential to accumulate into a trend or some other form of emergent structure, and that once they do, the consequences could be serious.

    I think there’s a global crisis of confidence in the ability of the nation-state to deliver what it claims to deliver to its citizens (security, prosperity, some degree of equity or fairness, some feeling of unity or belonging, etc.) that’s largely based on the real accumulation of numerous small disappointments and failures.

    Similarly, I would argue that technocrats and other establishment figures in almost all mainstream political parties have failed to deliver the outcomes that they claim ought to follow from the crafting of policy or institutional procedure.

    That suspicion of power and of political elites is based on some genuine truth.

    Etc. The point would be, since I would still hold out a lot of hope for liberal democracy in some form, for the nation-state in some form, for the belief that knowledge and expertise can lead to a better world, and so on, that people who feel similarly cannot rebuild what they have lost incrementally without first acknowledging that there’s a great deal of truth that fueled that incremental but accelerating change. That even when that process arrives at something that’s frankly deranged or untrue, it’s not good enough to stand pat on that observation (that something is frankly deranged or untrue). It’s fine to say Trump is grossly irresponsible, dangerous and ugly when he accused Obama of wiretapping him, but we have to understand that the charge rattles around and sticks not merely because there is a sort of will-to-untruth on the far right but because we live at the other end of a relentless incremental stream of revelations about the political abuse of surveillance powers, about the careless misuse or overuse of signals interception, about the unreliability and untrustworthiness of claims about oversight, and so on. To try and get us back to where we only hear responsible, carefully evidenced accusations of this kind in our culture at large takes more than just scornfully dismissing Trump. It takes acknowledgement of why the concept of wiretapping and surveillance is so much with us, in us.

  12. Isidora says:

    An insteresting point really Tim. The case where the fake stories about a pizza restaurant in Washington DC being a center of sex trafficking really can be truth if the system is crawled.

Comments are closed.