This seminar is devoted to the contemporary crisis of Truth and Democracy.
Liberal democracy can only survive if people agree about what it means to tell the Truth and live within the Truth. Once upon a time, defenders of this proposition engaged in debates over how one could discern the truth and then arrive at a consensus on Truthtelling and Truthliving. On this basis, equal and free-thinking individuals could make intelligent decisions about how best to live together and nurture a just society.
Unfortunately, this consensus has been undermined. Truth is up for grabs. People’s feelings and their exaggerated sense of self-importance have become more precious to them than the acceptance of elementary facts. For this reason, it is no wonder that democratic values and institutions are in crisis. Politicians of all political persuasions consider gaining and retaining power more important than serving the public good. They and other powerholders—cable talk-show hosts, craven megacorporations, and clinically narsissistic social media pundits—have become masters of Untruthtelling. Amidst this pandemic of Untruth, it is no surprise that citizens no longer trust the democratic system and are susceptible to manipulation by conspiracy theorists, predatory disinformationmakers, and petty demagogues.
Over the course of this seminar, we will explore numerous aspects of the troubled relationship between Truth and Politics in our difficult times. As you will see, I have a uniquely broad conception of these twin concepts. My perspective is based on the idea that Truthtelling and Truthliving are essential components of a good society. In living up to this promise, I believe that politicians and powerholders are obliged to seek, speak, and act upon the whole truth. By democratic politics, I mean the noble activity in which free and equal citizens collaborate in pursuit of a common good. I am convinced that there is no better system for facilitating this activity than Liberal Democracy. Yet, Liberal Democracy is in peril. We must fight for the Truth if we want to save it!
An Opportunity and a Challenge
Because our seminar comes at an unprecedented time in modern history, we are presented with both an opportunity and a challenge.
The Opportunity: The immediacy of the flagrant abuse of democratic institutions, the increasing frequency of political violence, the threat that the war in Ukraine will spread into other parts of Europe, and above all, the impact of the global Coronavirus pandemic on the rich and poor alike have world-historical significance. They present each of us with an “epistemic opportunity” to reflect upon the human condition in ways that were unavailable to generations of Notre Dame students since the Vietnam War and World War II.
The Challenge: We meet at an historical juncture at which America is deeply divided and polarized. There is blame to go around on all sides, especially among Republicans and Democrats. Thus, it is important to me that we try to look beyond our fleeting partisan loyalties and perspectives. As you will see, I have designed this entire seminar to encourage you to disagree about major political issues. I relish disagreement about politics.
Naturally, being open to disagreement does not mean that Truth is only a matter of perspective and that anything goes. It would be irresponsible for me to treat truthful, scientifically-verifiable, and factual claims as matters of belief or opinion. Whether you or I like them or not, these claims are what they are. Truth.
For example, the existence of an overwhelming consensus among climatologists about the existence, causes, and threat of global climate change is a fact. Interestingly, most students at Notre Dame seem to accept this consensus.
Similarly, there is no significant evidence that the 2020 Presidential election was fraudulent. If the evidence existed, it would have been recognizedd by 60+ courts and conceivably led to the decertification of state election results. See former Atty Gen. William Barr’s statement here. See Sen. Mitch McConnell’s statement about the threat that democracy will enter a “death spiral” here. You undoubtedly know people who still believe the election was fraudulent. Okay. All they need to do is to marshal evidence to prove they are right. In that case, the courts, Republican politicians like Barr and McConnel, and I will be wrong. It would be undemocratic to deny the evidence. I, for one, am definitely open to being wrong. But first, the doubters must prove they are right. This point applies to the 2022 mid-terms as well. See here and here. Anecdotes are not enough!
Am I trying to provoke you. Absolutely!
Your privileged time at Notre Dame is quickly slipping away. When we first meet, you will have less than three semesters left! The gnashing of teeth will soon commence. Thus, I have deliberately designed this seminar to challenge you to ask big questions and to reflect on the significance of the substantive courses in political science and other fields that you have already taken.
I have divided seminar into four sections. In the first, I will lay the foundations for our investigation by inviting you to reflect on what some great political thinkers have had to say about Truth and Politics. Although many of these writers are long dead–Machiavelli, Kant, Mill, Dewey–I will seek to persuade you that their arguments are as perceptive and powerful today as they were centuries ago. At the same time, we will read a book by the courageous journalist, Maria Ressa. In the second section we will examine multiple manifestations of the contemporary crisis over Truthtelling in political life. In the third, we will consider what can be done to resuscitatte the pursuit of Truth and restore the good health of our democracy. Finally, we will conclude our seminar by asking why it is so important that each of us attempts to “live within the truth.” If politics is not personal, I don’t believe it’s worth studying.
Our topics and discussions will evolve with the ebb and flow of political circumstances. The advantage of a web-based syllabus, the format I use for all of my courses, is that I can modify it as we move along. On the importance of this syllabus, WATCH this instructive video. This is a reading, writing, and speaking-intensive seminar. Therefore, it is essential that you keep up with all of the syllabus’s topics and assignments.
Please go to the Requirements tab now to familiarize yourself with my expectations.
A Personal Reflection: The Privilege of Being at Notre Dame
All Notre Dame students should seek to live within the truth. When you arrived at Notre Dame several years ago, you immediately joined the ruling class. Even before then, you had already won the Ovarian Lottery (Warren Buffett). Otherwise you wouldn’t be here.
Moreover, you are studying at a Catholic university that is committed to pursuing the ultimate Truth. Hence, you should be in the business of Truthseeking, Truthtelling, and Truthliving. To paraphrase an eighteenth century writer whom we will soon encounter, Dare to Act Truthfully!
These obligations apply to professors as well. I am fortunate to teach at Notre Dame. My life could have easily taken a different turn. Every time I teach a class, I look for new ways to live up to this obligation.
Please leave your technology at home. This includes electronic devices of any kind, such as laptops, Kindles, IPads, IPhones, video cameras, video games, FBI trap-and-trace devices, iris scans, Meta’s avatars, and other digital technology.
My class is a no-tweet zone. Some behavior is just not dignified!