The ulterior

It may be savvier to avoid the distraction of political arguments about factual questions, e.g., the truth or falsehood of climate change, racial classifications, fetal viability, Muslims as national security threats, immigrants as job stealers. The more salient questions are why people are manipulated into certain beliefs, what about our power structures require people to think such a way, what uses those beliefs have for power-holders?

Clues may be found in considering the incongruity between a policy’s purported goals and actual effects. For example, the Muslim ban does not target countries from which terrorist threats have emerged, and is so offensive that it can be expected to actually increase the threat of terrorism, becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. Similarly, defunding Planned Parenthood does not protect life because it promises to increase the number of abortions, joining an array of other lethal policies, such as refusing to take measures to curb gun violence and police shootings.

While most voters who support these policies may genuinely believe they match the goals, the officials and lobbyists responsible for marketing and developing the policies have ulterior motives. The Muslim ban does not make us safer; rather, it makes the concentration and militarization of power more appealing. Defunding PP does not save lives; rather, it perpetuates the instrumentalization of women for biological and cultural reproduction.

Critique for the sake of

Having previously critiqued the presuppositions underlying our conceptions of truth, morality, and progress, I now find myself in the awkward position of defending those concepts against Trump and his intellectual supporters. Richard Rorty’s explanation of John Dewey’s pragmatism helps articulate why it is possible to do both:

“The culminating achievement of Dewey’s philosophy was to treat evaluative terms such as ‘true’ and ‘right’ not as signifying a relation to some antecedently existing thing – such as God’s Will, or Moral Law, or the Intrinsic Nature of Objective Reality – but as expressions of satisfaction at having found a solution to a problem: a problem which may someday seem obsolete, and a satisfaction which may someday seem misplaced. The effect of this treatment is to change our account of progress. Instead of seeing progress as a matter of getting closer to something specifiable in advance, we see it as a matter of solving more problems.”

Take, for example, the ideas that we are destroying the planet and we should stop doing so. These are not assertions of objective reality or universal morality. After all, Earth will persist and life will adapt. But these ideas can help us to solve particular problems more satisfactorily than other ideas, such as the idea that the planet is ours to do with what we will. The latter leads to pollution, depletion, species loss, climate change, all of which harm many people, while benefiting a few. The former, on the other hand, lead to clean air and water, sustainability, biodiversity, relative climate stability, which on the whole benefit most people, while inconveniencing a few. Thus, there is great social utility in positing the truth of anthropogenic global warming and the moral imperative of curtailing it.

More please

The solution to the problem of culture? More culture. Virtually every culture, left alone to its traditions, is oppressive. But look at polyglot cities, outside of insular enclaves, and you see freedom, the freedom to choose aspects from multiple cultures and create new ways of relating.


Is there a benevolent impulse behind white nationalism? It is hard for we pluralists to see it behind the ugly meanness of racism and xenophobia, but I suspect that white nationalism’s divisive exclusion is motivated, counterintuitively, by a yearning for community. In this post-industrial world, alienation cries for a cure, and perhaps white nationalists believe that extirpating all who are “they” will bring all who are “we” closer together. Perhaps this explains why the great philosopher Martin Heidegger was, infamously and confoundingly, a member of the Nazi party: his concept of Dasein emphasizes the state of being-with-others.

But what if genuine community actually requires diversity? Perhaps it is only by exposure to people who seem to be “other” that we can ever experience togetherness, because their otherness provides us the opportunity to see how contingent is so much of what we take for granted about ourselves, thereby freeing us to experience an expanded sense of self, a more universal self that shares an essence in common with all beings.

The greatest danger

The difficulty is that Trump is correct: truth is interpretation; news is biased; elected officials are corrupt; America is not innocent; protecting individual liberties makes us vulnerable. The technical correctness of these claims makes Trump’s effort to delegitimize our institutions alluring to many who resent the bullshit, hypocrisy, and moralism in our culture.

But that does not make him right. It is precisely because knowledge is contestable, objectivity is impossible, self-government is imperfect, power is violent, liberty is precarious that we must strive all the more wholeheartedly toward truth, democracy, freedom, fairness — even though we can never fully obtain them.

Without faith in the legitimacy of our institutions of science, discourse, democracy, diplomacy, and constitutionality, then we have have only the rule of brute, unconstrained power. If Trump delegitimates everything, then there is no argument against him.

This danger should make conservatives of us all, not in the ideological sense of contemporary “conservatives,” but in the civilization-affirming sense that we must fight to conserve our imperfect institutions.

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