Bringing Philosophy to Life
#22: Democracy and Rhetoric
Henry Kissinger has died at the age of 100. Here is a quick summary of that story from The Washington Post:
His divisive legacy: Kissinger ushered in some of the most momentous developments of the late 20th century. But critics branded him as a war criminal who appeased dictators (Jamie Ross, The Washington Post, November 30, 2023).
During the past year, this series has focused on examining the philosophical foundations of democracy and explaining why government by the people is superior to other forms that place power and control in the hands of only one or at most only a few people such as a king, a cleric, the rich, the military, or a single party, class, or gender. Democracy requires universal moral principles that apply to all; only democracy can justify such a genuine moral demand because of its universality.
By contrast, Henry Kissinger embraced realpolitik, an amoral practical approach that ignored the common good and other values such as truth, justice, equality, civil rights, and human dignity. Realistic politics, which is antithetical to democracy, has a long history in the United States and throughout the world. Many Republicans, who currently control the U.S. House of Representatives, manifest Kissinger’s brand of realpolitik; that same approach seems to drive current changes in other parts of the globe. The most recent example is the Netherlands:
The shocking success of Geert Wilders’ far-right PVV party in Dutch elections has left climate activists fearful of a drastic shift to fossil fuels and a rollback of climate policies if it manages to form a government.
Best known abroad for its rhetoric against Muslims, the PVV, which came first in Wednesday’s election but may struggle to find coalition partners, has taken a hard line on policies to stop the planet getting hotter. The party wants to extract more oil and gas from the North Sea and stop building wind turbines and solar farms. It also wants to abolish the Dutch climate law and leave the Paris agreement on climate change.
“If these elections make one thing clear, it’s that politics will not save us,” said Yolande Schuur from the Dutch branch of activist group Extinction Rebellion (The Guardian, November 26, 2023).
Earlier in that same week, Reuters reported a similar right-wing victory in Argentina:
Argentina elected right-wing libertarian Javier Milei as its new president on Sunday, rolling the dice on an outsider with radical views to fix an economy battered by triple-digit inflation, a looming recession and rising poverty.
Milei, who rode a wave of voter anger with the political mainstream, won by a wider-than-expected margin. He landed some 56% of the vote versus just over 44% for his rival, Peronist Economy Minister Sergio Massa, who conceded (Reuters, November 19, 2023).
We are now hearing daily about Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing supporters, just as the news has long been filled with stories about Vladimir Putin in Russia, Xi Jinping in China, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and a host of other authoritarians.
In this episode, I will focus on the value of truth in the struggle between democracy and authoritarian governments. Truth alone will not produce democracy, but it is a necessary ingredient. Moreover, the denial of truth, especially the claims (1) that there is no truth, (2) that we cannot know the truth, and (3) cannot share truth with other people, is a common first step in preparing the way for authoritarian governments. From a philosophical perspective, it is important to point out that truth is a function of language and its relation to reality. The ancient Greeks, especially Plato and Aristotle, explored “rhetoric,” a general term that included both oral and written media.
The kind of rhetoric people use is closely connected with their ideas. For example, on Veterans Day, Donald Trump used language that resembles the rhetoric of Hitler and Mussolini:
Former president Donald Trump denigrated his domestic opponents and critics during a Veterans Day speech Saturday, calling those on the other side of the aisle “vermin” and suggesting that they pose a greater threat to the United States than countries such as Russia, China or North Korea. That language is drawing rebuke from historians, who compared it to that of authoritarian leaders (Marianne Levine, The Washington Post, November 13, 2023).
Here are Trump’s actual words:
“We pledge to you that we will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections” . . . . “They’ll do anything, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America and to destroy the American Dream” (The Washington Post, November 13, 2023).
The similarity between Trump’s rhetoric and that of other authoritarian leaders is significant because it reveals its primary political function. Language such as this has little to do with truth. The function of such rhetoric is to persuade, not to establish facts or reason to support sound conclusions. To acquire and maintain political power, falsehood, deception, and lies are more useful than what is true precisely because they are more pliable and can easily be altered or even created without having to be encumbered by reality. The clearest example of such rhetoric is Donald Trump’s “big lie” about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Language that persuades without regard for truth and reality has been used by authoritarians at least since the time of the ancient Greeks.
Consider the view of rhetoric provided by Plato’s character Gorgias, who appears in a dialogue by that name. Socrates has just asked Gorgias about the nature and purpose of rhetoric. Here is his reply:
Gorgias: Socrates, it really is the greatest good; it is what gives freedom to individuals and gives rulers the power of ruling over others.
Socrates: And what do you think that is?
Gorgias: It is the power of words that persuades judges in court, senators in the legislature, citizens in the assembly, or participants in any other public meeting. If you have this power, the physician and trainer will serve you. Because of your ability to speak and persuade others, the businessperson will make money for you.
Socrates: Now, Gorgias, I think you’ve accurately explained your understanding of the art of rhetoric. You say that rhetoric produces persuasion. This and nothing else is the summit and goal of rhetoric (Plato, Gorgias, Jowett translation revised by Albert A. Anderson, Agora Publications, Kindle Edition, Greek page 452).
Socrates immediately points out to Gorgias that even if people can be persuaded by rhetoric, the most it can provide is belief. However, there is another important path to persuasion—knowledge. Their dialogue continues:
Socrates: What kind of persuasion does rhetoric produce and about what? Is that a fair way to put the question?
Gorgias: I think it is.
Socrates: Then, if you approve the question, Gorgias, what’s the answer?
Gorgias: Socrates, rhetoric is the art of persuasion in courts and other assemblies, as I was just saying. And it’s about the just and the unjust.
Socrates: That was my hunch, Gorgias. Now don’t be surprised if later on I repeat what seems to be a simple question. As I said, I’m asking you not for your sake but for the sake of logical argument. I’m trying to avoid the habit of anticipating and speculating about the meaning of each other’s words. I want you to be able to proceed in your own way.
Gorgias: I think that you are quite right, Socrates.
Socrates: Then let me ask this question. Is there such a thing as learning?
Socrates: And there is also such a thing as believing?
Socrates: Are learning and believing the same thing?
Gorgias: In my judgment, Socrates, they are not the same.
Socrates: Your judgment is correct, Gorgias, which you can demonstrate this way. If a person were to ask you whether there is false belief as well as true belief, I think you would reply that there is.
Socrates: But is there false knowledge as well as true knowledge?
Socrates: No, indeed! So, this proves that knowledge is different from belief.
Gorgias: That is true.
Socrates: But both those who have learned as well as those who have believed are persuaded?
Gorgias: That is as you say.
Socrates: Then should we assume two kinds of persuasion, one that is the source of belief without knowledge and the other the source of knowledge?
Gorgias: Yes (Plato, Gorgias, Greek page 454).
This view of rhetoric presented, defended, and taught by Gorgias, continues to play a central role in contemporary education and in the political realm that includes legislatures, executives, and courts. Henry Kissinger was not interested in truth or any of the other values that are central to democracy. He was a pragmatic actor in a world that was amoral and indifferent to justice, civil rights, and goodness. Robert Reich, tells a story on Substack that makes this point clear. In 1973, Salvador Allende, who had been elected president of Chile, was driven from office by a military junta led by Augusto Pinochet. Kissinger led the way as the United States celebrated Pinochet’s victory over Allende. Here is Reich’s story:
At the height of Pinochet’s repression in 1975, Kissinger met with the Chilean foreign minister, Admiral Patricio Carvajal.
Rather than press the military regime to improve its human rights record, Kissinger opened the meeting by disparaging his own staff for putting the issue of human rights on the agenda.
“I read the briefing paper for this meeting, and it was nothing but Human Rights,” Kissinger told Carvajal. “The State Department is made up of people who have a vocation for the ministry. Because there are not enough churches for them, they went into the Department of State” (Robert Reich, Substack, November 30, 2023).
Authoritarian leaders not only ignore values such as truth, justice, and goodness, they actively discourage learning, knowledge, and science in favor of whatever rhetoric will allow them to gain and retain power. Does the truth matter concerning the war currently being waged between Israel and Hamas? For example, to justify shutting down the Al-Shifa Hospital—the largest in Gaza—official reports from Israel claim that Hamas uses tunnels under the hospital as a headquarters for military command. Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept reports: “We were told that it was like a Hamas Pentagon.” However, Scahill, in a carefully reasoned statement, says: the Israeli disinformation campaign concerning the hospital was a “lethal lie.” Here is Scahill’s conclusion based on his investigation:
Israel finally then lays siege to it, with the backing of the Biden administration and Biden himself—they co-signed all of that. They said that hostages had been held under the hospital. They said it was used as a command and control center. When Israel finally starts to access the hospital, they take embedded journalists on these propaganda tours. And what they found was essentially nothing of any significance” (Democracy Now!, November 28, 2023, https://democracynow.org).
When we consider Israel’s supposed justification for waging total war in Gaza and elsewhere in Palestine, the truth of such claims matters. The United States has invested billions of dollars in supporting Israel’s military and is considering sending billions more. It is not enough merely to persuade the U.S. population and the rest of the world by promoting belief. As Socrates said to Gorgias, there are two kinds of persuasion, one that is the source of belief without knowledge and the other the source of knowledge. If we are to have a democracy, the goal of rhetoric should be to acquire and share knowledge about fundamental values and whether and how they are being implemented. Later in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, Socrates, and another character, Callicles, return to the distinction between two kinds of persuasion and connect them with two kinds of rhetoric, one that is harmful and the other that is essential for a free society: Socrates poses this question to Callicles:
Socrates: Callicles, we have discovered a kind of rhetoric that is addressed to a crowd of men, women, and children—slave and free. But this isn’t really to our taste because we have found it to have the character of flattery.
Callicles: True. Socrates: Very good. Now what do you say about the other rhetoric which addresses the Athenian assembly and the assemblies of free people in other states? When they make speeches, do rhetoricians aim at what is best, desiring what will really improve the citizens? Or do they intend only to give them pleasure, forgetting the common good in favor of their own interest, playing with the people as with children, trying to amuse them but never considering whether they are better or worse as a result?
Callicles: I would make a distinction, Socrates. There are some rhetoricians who really do care about the public when they speak, but there are others of the sort you describe.
Socrates: That’s good enough for me. Rhetoric, then, is of two kinds, one which is mere flattery and shameful rubbish; and the other which is noble, aiming at the education and improvement of the souls of the citizens. This second kind of rhetoric strives to say what is best, whether welcome or unwelcome to the audience (Plato, Gorgias, Agora Publications, Kindle Edition, Greek pages 502-503).