This seminar is about 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 the Truth. Yet, we we are now living through a period of history in which Truth is up for grabs and people’s feelings and their exaggerated sense of self-importance have become more precious to them than scientific knowledge and facts. For this reason, it is no wonder that democratic values, norms, and institutions are in crisis. Politicians of all political persuasions act as though staying in power is more important than serving the public good. They and other powerholders–hostile states, corporations, media giants, web service providers–have become masters of Untruthtelling. Amidst this pandemic of Untruth, it’s no surprise that citizens no longer trust their leaders and are susceptible to manipulation by conspiracy theorists, predatory opinionmakers, greedy cable talk-show hosts, and petty demagogues.
In this seminar, we will consider numerous aspects of the uneasy relationship between Truth and Politics in our troubled times. As you will see, I have a broad conception of these twin concepts. My perspective is based on the idea that Truthtelling and Truthliving are essential components of a good society. By Truth, I mean the obligation of politicians and powerholders to speak “the whole truth,” and not just pick and choose elements that serve their personal interests. By Politics, I mean the noble activity in which citizens collaborate in pursuit of a common good. I believe 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 global Coronavirus pandemic has given us, whether we like it or not, an “epistemic opportunity” to reflect upon the human condition in profound ways. This opportunity has been unavailable to generations of Notre Dame students since World War II.
The Challenge: Our seminar is taking place at an historical juncture at which America is deeply divided and polarized. When it comes to the positions of both Republicans and Democrats, there is blame to go around on both sides. 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 induce you to disagree about major political issues. I relish disagreement about politics.
At the same time, 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 it or not, these claims are what they are. For example, the existence of an overwhelming consensus among climatologists about the existence, causes, and threat of global climate change is a fact. Similarly, there is no significant evidence to show that the 2020 Presidential election was fraudulent. If substantial evidence existed, it would have been presented to the courts or resulted in the decertification of state election results. See former Atty Gen. William Barr’s statement here. See Sen. Mitch McConnell’s statement regarding false claims about the election and the threat that democracy will enter into a “death spiral,” see here. For a recent review of some of the efforts to prove the election was fraudulent, see here. You undoubtedly know people who still believe the election was fraudulent. Okay. All they need to do is to marshal evidence to prove that these public statements and articles are wrong. In that case, the courts, the politicians (above), and I will be wrong. But first, the critics have to prove it.
Am I trying to provoke you. Absolutely!
Your time at Notre Dame is quickly slipping away (you now have less than three semesters!). Thus, I have deliberately designed this seminar to provide you with the opportunity to ask big questions and to reflect on the significance of the substantive political science courses you have already taken. You are already uniquely positioned to pose these questions.
Our seminar is divided into four parts. In the first part, we will lay the foundations for our investigation by reflecting 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–you will find that their arguments are as perceptive and powerful today as they were centuries ago. In the second part, we will examine multiple manifestations of the contemporary crisis over the role of Truth in political life. In the third, we will consider what can be done to restore the good health of our democratic system. Finally, we will conclude our seminar by asking what it means for each of us to “live within the truth.”
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.
The Privilege of Notre Dame
All Notre Dame students should do their best to live up to the demanding task of living within the Truth. You are now members of the ruling class. You have already won the Ovarian Lottery, as Warren Buffett points out. Moreover, you are studying at a Catholic university that seeks to pursue 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!
Unless I say otherwise, 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, and other personal digital technology.
My class is a no-tweet zone. Some behavior is just not dignified!