The Place for Ideas in a Post-Truth World: A Conversation with Marci Shore

March 2019
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Marci Shore is a professor of intellectual history at Yale University. Her last book, The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution, explores the 2014 Maidan Revolution and the subsequent invasion of Ukraine by Russian military forces through the eyes of the firsthand witnesses, raising the ultimate questions of the meaning of human dignity and freedom, of sacrifice and the place of the transcendental in the political domain.

Q: You are an intellectual historian, so let’s start with the question—what is the place of ideas in today’s world? The authority of ideas in the political domain comes from the premise that some ideas may help us understand the world, explain it and navigate through it. However, today we extensively talk about post-truth which means that no idea is capable of grasping the reality.

A: I do think that the history of post-truth can be traced to ideas that took shape in postwar Europe. Modernity was all about finding a replacement for God: the Enlightenment pushed God to the side; then Nietzsche and Dostoevsky came along and killed off God entirely. So the question became: if God is dead, then what can we put in His place—History, Nation, Man (all with capital letters)? What can anchor us epistemologically, ontologically, ethically? What can serve as the transcendental key unifying our disparate experiences and giving a meaning to the whole of our lives? (The short lesson is that it’s really very difficult to replace God.) The culmination of some of these big ideas, grand narratives that promised to fill the gap left by God’s absence, was Nazism and Stalinism. Understandably, in the aftermath of those two hells (and especially after 1968, the beginning of the end of belief in Marxism), intellectuals became skeptical about grand narratives as such. And so postmodernism in general and post-structuralism, in particular, was motivated by a search for defense against those grand narratives and absolutist truths that seemed to open a path to tyranny. For Jacques Derrida, deconstruction was precisely an antidote to totalitarianism. This impulse to reject any kind of all-encompassing meaning or absolute truth was—or so it seems to me—entirely natural and rational.

But ideas—like actions, as Hegel tells us—inevitably have consequences in excess of their intent. I don’t think that Derrida can be blamed for Putin’s Russia (in which, as Peter Pomerantsev writes, “nothing is true and everything is possible”), but I do think that there’s a history of unintended consequences that can be understood through exploring postwar European thought.

Q: Can it also be the case that the diagnosis of post-truth is a bit misleading? Looking, for example, at Russia, the Eurasian Nazism consistently promoted by the so-called intellectuals like Alexander Dugin, it seems like even behind this whole post-truth facade, there is a consistent vision of the world, which basically can be understood as a metaphysical fight between the pure Russian soul and evil forces (this is how the Second World War is remembered, as well as current war in Ukraine justified). Can it be that the current US President also has some kind of a terrifying vision? In particular, his focus on us versus them, the attempts to undermine the international order and go back to bilateral agreements, the mobilization of passions reminds of the famous idea of German philosopher Carl Schmitt and his idea of politics as an eternal conflict between friends and enemies. By asserting that all ideas are mere opinions we fail to grasp the power of ideas and how transformative different ideas and visions of the world really are.

A: There are always ideas, even “post-truth” is a meta-idea that there no longer is such a thing as truth. With respect to Trump, I’m personally skeptical as to whether he actually has any vision or motivation beyond his own narcissism and desire for self-aggrandizement. I find him terrifying in part because of the absence of ideas—i.e. it doesn’t seem to me that he has any moral sensibility (even one very different from my own) that one could appeal to—he strikes me as completely unhinged, untethered from empirical reality or any kind of moral consideration. Yet even assuming that Trump does have some kind of personality disorder, that fails to explain the 45% of Americans who support him.

They must have their own reasons for being drawn to him and the “vse pozvoleno” [Rus., everything's allowed—ed.] politics he represents. We cannot dismiss them all as mentally ill. I do not find it difficult to empathize with why many Americans would feel anger and resentment: after all, living conditions in many parts of the country are extremely poor. What is much more difficult to understand is why those people who feel justified resentment (because they have lost their jobs; the public schools fail to provide a good education for their children; they cannot afford health care; the streets where they live are not safe; their standard of living is lower than that of their parents; their communities are suffering from epidemics of opioid addiction; and so on and so forth) believe that Trump and his administration will help them in any way.

After our presidential elections of November 2016, I decided that I would focus on teaching the classics of totalitarianism. And so in my classes we read Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem, Victor Klemperer’s Language of the Third Reich, Tadeusz Borowski’s “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” Heda Margolius-Kováy’s Under a Cruel Star. I also taught René Girard’s cultural anthropology on scapegoating, and the idea (which he shares with Claude Lévi-Strauss) that cultural anxiety tends to emerge not when there is too much social differentiation, but rather when there is too little—i.e. when the borders become blurred between sacred and profane, humans and Gods, man and beast. And these kind of crises often get resolved through the expulsion of some more-or-less arbitrarily chosen scapegoat; the act of expelling the scapegoat unifies the conflicted society. Girard’s theory purports to explain everything and at moments can seem a bit fantastical, but at other moments can seem uncannily on point: the crowds on the streets of Paris chanting “death to the Jews!” during the Dreyfus trial or the calls for “death to the traitors!” during the Stalinist show trials.

Trump’s rallies have come to appear eerily reminiscent of such moments. At the rallies, for instance, he frequently recites a (bad) poem about a snake, a recitation he dedicates to American border guards.1 The poor snake is lying on the border, cold and lonely and hungry, and a woman takes pity on the creature and takes him home and cares for him until he is well—and then what does he do? He recovers and bites her. The video is much more striking than any description I could articulate. You can also see the crowd’s wild response. My friend the philosopher Jason Stanley began using this video clip in his course at Yale on ideology and propaganda. It’s a classic Girardian moment: a mob ecstatically coming together against a scapegoat—in this case, the immigrant. And of course it is not actually the immigrant who is responsible for the very real problems in their lives, but putting all the blame on the immigrant functions extremely effectively to mobilize and unify—as well as deflect attention from the political policies and corruption that actually are responsible.

Q: From what you say it seems like the reflections that came out of the tragic events of 20th century, especially exploring how the totalitarian regimes came about, enabled the mass murders, in the process raising the universal questions about the nature of evil, the human freedom and dignity may serve as a key in understanding the current moment in time. It seems a little bit that now we are in this defying moment—when the political choices become the paradigmatic choices between democracy and new forms post-truth tyrannies, between good and evil, between freedom and slavery. How do you react then, when people say that history does not repeat itself, that what happened in the past is totally different from today?

A: It is always important to ask what we can learn from the past. Public discourse tends to relate to historical comparison in a very reductionist way: i.e. either X is just like the Holocaust, in which case it's the ultimate evil; or X is not like the Holocaust because either A) the Holocaust will forever remain the unique embodiment of absolute evil, or B) the present situation is not bad enough (yet)--and in both cases we should all calm down, it's not the end of the world. But the either/or doesn't work here: both of these positions are based on misconceptions of what it means to understand the past.

Any historical situation contains elements of both the particular and the universal. The job of the historian is to help disentangle the universal from the particular, and understand the relationship between them. No moment is ever exactly the same as any other, just like no human being is exactly the same as any other. Nevertheless, there are things that we do learn from the past about the human condition: we learn, for instance, how quickly people can normalize the abnormal. We learn how things that people believed totally unimaginable can become the new normal just a few months later. We learn that most people most of the time will behave in a way shaped by the social situation in which they find themselves. The percentage of people who possess an uncanny moral clarity and will think for themselves regardless of the pressure of the situation is probably more or less equal to the percentage of people who take some sadistic pleasure in harming others. Both groups are “outliers,” so to speak. The vast majority of people are doing what they are doing because they find themselves in a particular situation, and in some other situation they would be acting in a completely different way.

I’ve been obsessed with the terrified refugee children wrenched away from their parents and thrown into cages at the Mexican-American border. It’s naked cruelty. This is the moment when our border guards should be refusing. I assume that those border guards were not selected based on their sadistic inclinations. I assume that many if not most of them would prefer to be doing something else. And yet as far as we know, not a single one has said no.

Q: Was it a mistake of liberals and democrats to assume that everyone would value individual freedom, the rights of people and the rule of law, if they had a say in politics? I am thinking specifically about the current political discourse—we get outraged when the US President discards the rule of law and the institutions, when the ruling elites monopolize the press and restrict academic freedom in Hungary, or assault the courts in Poland. However, this seems outrageous only if you hold such ideas as individual freedom, the freedom of thought, the human capacity of moral judgment, or universal political rights as valuable in themselves.

A: I suspect that Europeans might have reflected more than Americans thus far have on the fact that democracy and liberalism are not synonymous. They have never been synonymous. Carl E. Schorske describes this very well in his classic book Fin-de-siécle Vienna: Politics and Culture: in the 19th century, Habsburg liberals believed that would raise the masses to enter the political stage. And the masses do enter the political stage—but not on the side of the liberals. Democracy simply means that the people can choose—it does not mean that they will necessarily choose liberal values. Liberalism has always borne all the weaknesses of the Enlightenment philosophy which it grew out of: the assumptions of rationality and an ultimate harmony of interests between the individual and the society, for instance. Enlightenment reason has always been vulnerable to assault by Romantic will—this is what Dostoevsky portrays so viscerally in Notes from the Underground.

One thing we Americans have failed to think through, I sense, is the tension between freedom and equality. If there’s one thing that Europeans perhaps tend not to understand about the United States, it’s the depth of the cult of individualism. Bill Clinton speaks about politicians’ claiming that they were all born in a log cabin they built themselves. This is a joke, which in fact captures a deep truth about American political culture. The cult of individualism has in effect led to a lack of responsibility for social conditions. We like to believe that each person is solely responsible for taking care of him or herself, and for his or her own behavior.

But that means that if you’re a child living in a neighborhood plagued by violence and poverty, where parents lack the resources to feed and clothe their children, where the adults are often suffering from drug addiction, or are in prison, where children and adults lack proper health care, where apartments are infested with cockroaches and rats, where it’s not safe for young people to walk into their own school because even the hallways are frequently the scenes of violent crime, then it seems to me it’s not legitimate to say that these children are simply bad people if they don’t grow up to be law-abiding members of society. And after all, why should they respect a social contract that has never protected them?

Another example: the absolutizing of the value of the free market. This has resulted in a situation (in particular since the 2010 Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court) in which, in effect, oligarchs can buy the American elections. The right to lobby the government on behalf of one’s interests has become the right of the National Rifle Association to buy Congress. This has resulted in a situation in which anyone can walk into a Walmart and purchase toothpaste, jogging clothes, and a semi-automatic weapon—“one-stop shopping,” as the advertisements say. Even prisons have now been privatized, which naturally creates a profit incentive to find—or create—criminals to fill them. This has effectively resulted in widespread provokatsia [Rus., instigation, provocation, incitement—Ed.] (a concept we strangely lack in English) as public policy.

Individualism in general and free enterprise in particular might be perfectly good values—I’m not against them, as such—but that doesn’t mean they remain good values in the absence of any limits. One of Hegel’s useful observations is that changes in scale can become changes in kind.

Q: Coming back to modernity, which as you say was all about big ideas, it should be noted that a lot of thinkers in the post-war era were extremely critical of modernity, citing the example of the problem you mentioned—the failure to provide the moral and epistemological substitute for God. What we see today is the popularization of this critique, calling for counterrevolution (in response to the Enlightenment revolution). For these people, there is nothing good about modernity and hence nothing worth preserving, including the authority of facts (through the authority of scientific language), freedom of the individual and the universality of rights. Instead, they call for the return to pre-modernity, to the idea of some transcendent meaning. What would be the sensible way to think about modernity and its discontents?

A: The Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski (1927-2009) described this problem particularly well in a slim book called The Presence of Myth, as well as in a lesser-known essay titled “Historical Understanding and the Intelligibility of History.” We can choose to accept life in its naked empiricism, its horrible indifference, its radical contingency—that is, we can accept the role of chance, the reality of chaos, incoherence, injustice and meaninglessness, the fact that bad things happen to good people for no reason. Or we can impose a transcendental key—God or History, for instance—that pulls all of that chance and chaos and incoherence into a meaningful whole and gives tragedies a higher purpose. Essentially Kołakowski presented the problem as a Kierkegaardian "Either/Or": either we face the empirical disorder of history with eyes wide open, or we admit to ourselves that naked contingency is existentially unbearable and we resort to the transcendental key imposed from outside of empirical reality. Kołakowski is sympathetic to our need for the transcendental key, our need for myth. He only asks that we be honest with ourselves about what we are doing.

Q: Speaking of Kolakowski, in his book Is God Happy?, he writes about two types of man in modern world, he calls them homo economicus, the one whose mind is self-interest centered, and the other homo historicus, the one that keeps searching for transcendental meaning, but in the absence of God finds it in history. Hence for modern man history is becoming a point of reference for meaning—history becomes a substitute for theology, which then turns the fact of history into myths, human tragedies, such as mass murder or war into some higher meaning—attributing the higher meaning to human tragedies and so on. Do you think that there is a tendency, especially now with the vast manipulations of history we witness (from disclination measures about what language and phrases to use talking about the partition of Poland, to manipulations of narrative of the heroic nation in Hungary or even in my country, Lithuania, to such extremes as manipulations of the whole Second World War narrative in Russia, where it represents the Great Patriotic War, and where the evidence of the Soviet crimes is being systematically destroyed) to confuse the two—the ideas with facts?

A: This turn to history was definitely true in the 20th century. It was Hegel, in the early 19th century, who made history a primordially constituent element of philosophy. Heidegger later radicalized this. For Heidegger we are “always already” thrown into the world, which means thrown into history.

Polityka historyczna (“historical policy”) as it has developed in Poland, for example, is a particular case of the manipulation of history for purposes of present-day ideology. Essentially, polityka historyczna legislates a version of the past in which anything bad that has ever happened to Poles or Poland has come from the outside, and is therefore entirely the fault of outsiders. The Polish historian Dariusz Stola, now the director of POLIN, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, wrote an eloquent editorial in Gazeta Wyborcza in response to the 2006 version of the proposed law making it a criminal offense, punishable by up to three years of imprisonment, for “publicly imput[ing] to the Polish nation participation in, organization of, or responsibility for communist or Nazi crimes.”

Dariusz wrote:

With this, the authors claimed that no Polish citizen has ever taken part in any Nazi or communist crime. . . . As a history professor, I hope that such an opinion results only from thoughtlessness, and not from a complete lack of knowledge about Polish history in the twentieth century, or an equally harmful desire to deprive Poles of a fundamental aspect of human dignity: the capacity to choose good or evil. For if neither groups of nor individual Polish citizens had anything to do with these crimes, then why all the ado about the iniquities of the communist regime? After all, everything bad was done by some alien creatures, most likely Martians.

The desire to find a safe space in the world by convincing oneself that everything bad comes from the outside, from foreigners, from “Others,” and that therefore one can be secure among one’s own, is entirely understandable. Unfortunately, the tragedy of the human condition is that there is no safe space in the world.

Q: In your last book, The Ukrainian Night, you basically gather the impressions of people on the Maidan in 2014. However, throughout this short book, these questions of the relationship between the private versus public, individual freedom versus responsibility are raised. To me, it represents a nuanced and sensible way to talk about the metaphysical and transcendental in the political domain. Could you tell a little bit about why the story of Maidan was captivating for a historian of ideas?

A: For me, the Maidan was the moment of the return of metaphysics. And that captivated me: ideas mattered in a way I had not seen or felt in the twenty-some years I had been coming to Eastern Europe. As a college student, I was enchanted by the philosophy of the East European dissidents: solidarity, living in truth, taking responsibility. The Maidan was called The Revolution of Dignity, and I think that people on the Maidan understood “dignity” in the Kantian sense: to be a full human subject exercising free will and making moral choices.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Adam Michnik spoke about “subjectivity” (podmiotowość) and insisted that people live as if they were free. This was part of “anti-political politics;” it was an existential stance: to live as if you bore responsibility for your actions regardless of any political constraints. I suspect that it was this conviction that allowed Adam to hold up so well in prison all those years: his insistence that he would live as if he were free. He would act as a subject and not an object. He would not lose his dignity.

Q: Did you feel the influence of Hannah Arendt when writing the book? It seems a bit like the book is written in conversation with Arendt’s thesis about the revolution in On Revolution, where she differentiates between the revolution that manifests as a political event, with people putting their lives on the line for the sake of regaining that political subjectivity you refer to, and the revolution that is grounded in the socio-economic motives and hence is not political in essence.

Marci Shore, The Ukrainian Night (Yale UP, 2018)

A: I always feel the influence of Arendt—she was one of my first intellectual passions and has been among the most long-lasting. In some sense, I’m never thinking without her. I wouldn’t say that the book was a conversation with that thesis about the revolution in particular, though—at least not consciously.

In this book perhaps what I take from Arendt above all is her attempt to extract the universal from the particular. When I write, I try to begin with the empirical, with a description of particular facts, rather than beginning with a concept and filtering the facts through the concept. I try to begin with individual people, with respect for their singularity and particularity. One of my favorite quotations by Arendt is from her response to Gershom Scholem, who, after having read Eichmann in Jerusalem, accuses her of lacking Ahabath Israel, “love of the Jewish people.” And Arendt responds:

I have never in my life "loved" any people or collective—neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed love "only" my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is this love of persons.

At the same time, even as she begins with the individual, she ultimately seeks a universal essence. In the end, for her, both Nazism and Stalinism were above all lessons not about Germans or Jews or Russians or Ukrainians or any other group, per se, but about the human condition.

The Ukrainian Night is a book about the very personal experience of revolution as given to particular individuals. The heart of the book is the description of that experience. And at the same time, I try to illuminate aspects that seem to me could be universal. And I hope non-Ukrainian readers will feel that this particular experience can also speak to them, that there are universally human aspects of this experience of revolution.

Q: Can these questions that reappeared during the Maidan come back without some monumental, tragic event that disrupts the routine we live in? Is it possible to take those ideas seriously and to really take time and contemplate these questions without such disruption, because in the case of Ukraine these questions returned into the public sphere at the cost of violence and death?

A: A lot of philosophy in the 20th century was about this moment of “shaking,” of being shaken. For Heidegger, the only way to break free from the inauthentic mode in which we live most of our lives is to be shaken through a confrontation with our own mortality, the fact that we are all Sein-zum-Tode, Being-towards-death.

For Jan Patočka, in turn, the only authentically ontological intersubjectivity came from “the solidarity of the shaken,” the shared experience of having descended into darkness and confronted death, even if on opposite sides. We could understand Viktor Shklovskii’s idea of ostranenie [Rus., alienation, estrangement—Ed.] this way as well: we only see with clarity when something disrupts our usual perception, our habituation to the world, and makes things strange.

As for the "Chto delat'?" [Rus., What is to be done?—Ed.] question:2 I wish I had an answer. I feel myself very much in the tradition of Kołakowski and Isaiah Berlin and Tony Judt in the sense that I see there can be no utopia, because there is no such thing as a perfect reconciliation, either of interests or of values. There is no such thing as perfect freedom and perfect equality. But the fact that there are no perfect solutions does not mean that there are no preferable solutions.

For example, I’m not a communist, I accept inequality as the necessary price for a space of freedom. But that doesn’t mean I accept any amount of inequality. I can accept that some people in a given society will have more money and others less, some will have fancy designer clothing and some will have inexpensive clothing—but I’m not willing to accept grotesque inequality. I’m not willing to accept that some people will be paying tens of thousands of dollars for designer curtains while children starve on the streets. In the United States, we now have grotesque inequality. Again, this is a moment when I think Hegel was right: sometimes quantitative changes can become so great that they become qualitative changes.

This interview was recorded as part of the Open Lithuania Foundation's program for researchers and first published in Naujasis Zidinys-Aidai in December 2018.

Edited by Oleh Kotsyuba and Anisa Mycak.

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