By Tyler Lascola
For some strange reason, it always seems that whatever books I’m currently reading directly correlate with whatever major issues are currently affecting me. I don’t know how it happens. Maybe I have some kind of weird clairvoyance that subliminally attracts me to timely reads; or maybe it’s just some weird trick of fate. Whatever the cause, it keeps happening. Right now, the literary synchronicities are by-and-large mental health and college-related (how foreboding…), but it’s the one I experienced in mid-November that I want start my discussion with.
A few weeks ago, after having shelved it for about a year, something compelled me to take out my copy of David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” again. I finished the section I was on and moved on to the part titled “An Orison of Sonmi-451” – a dystopian story set in a future East Asia, written in the form of an interview. A character called the Archivist begins: “Please remember, this isn’t an interrogation, or a trial. Your version of the truth is the only one that matters.” To this, the interviewee incisively responds: “Truth is singular. Its ‘versions’ are mistruths.”
Meanwhile, as I resumed “Cloud Atlas,” the congressional impeachment hearings commenced.
As I tuned in and out of NPR’s live broadcast and analysis, Mitchell’s ethical and epistemic musings lingered in my mind. The House Intelligence Committee’s hearings concluded on Nov. 21; as of press time (Monday night), the official report was being reviewed by the committee (chaired by Adam Schiff, D-Calif.), who should have voted to approve its release yesterday. However, earlier on Monday, Republicans released a second report, preempting the one presently being forwarded to the House Judiciary Committee. This is, of course, problematic. How can there be two different reports of the hearings? Paradoxically, it would appear that there are indeed two competing versions of the facts that the hearings ascertained.
But let’s return to the first hearing, because I think those original opening statements to this whole episode best capture the extent to which the framework of political discourse has deteriorated. When I first tuned in to that hearing, I was deeply alarmed by what I heard. Allow me to explain why.
If you weren’t paying attention to what he was actually saying, it sounded like Schiff could have been performing a prologue to the gigantomachy, such was the gravitas of his speech. You would have thought he were prefacing a legendary struggle between forces far greater than mere mortals, a battle whose outcome would decide the fate of the world. His words, laden with drama, befit a scene on the cusp of climax.
“If the President can simply refuse all oversight,” he said, “particularly in the context of an impeachment proceeding, the balance of power between our two branches of government will be irrevocably altered. That is not what the Founders intended. And the prospects for further corruption and abuse of power, in this administration or another, will be exponentially increased.”
What is at stake, Schiff concluded (referencing Benjamin Franklin), is nothing short of the Republic.
An equally apt comparison, I think, would be with the prologue to “Romeo and Juliet.” Here, too, is a conflict between “two households” whose “civil hands” are “unclean.” Furthermore, this “fearful passage” is now the “traffic of our stage.” In other words, the whole thing is subject to the scrutiny of the general public.
Is anyone else reminded of Hannah Arendt on the Eichmann trial?
If you aren’t familiar, let me summarize. In the early sixties, Adolf Eichmann, the man principally responsible for the logistics of the Holocaust, was captured in Argentina, brought to stand trial in Jerusalem for crimes against humanity, found guilty, and executed. His trial was the first in history to be televised, and Arendt covered the entire affair in a series of articles for The New Yorker, which were later compiled and published in book-form as “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.” (It was assigned reading for one of my classes last spring.)
At the start of the book, Arendt describes the courtroom as a kind of stage. As Eichmann’s fate was virtually guaranteed before the trial even began, Arendt’s implication is that the trial was more of a publicity stunt than an actual judicial affair; it was a theatrical performance, the purpose of which was to give its audience some catharsis about the Holocaust, to assure everybody that justice had been served. I daresay the impeachment hearings are similarly theatrical. Perhaps all public hearings are like this, but this one is theatrical in a radically different way.
What unnerves me, what distinguishes these hearings from the Eichmann trial, is that the people on stage are asserting the theatricality of the event.
Now, Shakespeare does this in his prologue. He essentially says to the audience, “Hello! You are attending a play. This is what it’s about; this is how it ends. Enjoy!” But while “Romeo and Juliet” really is just a play, and while the Eichmann trial arguably was scripted for conviction, the impeachment inquiry is a real event developing in real time. The outcome has yet to be determined. And in this context, the drama of Schiff’s speech is entirely appropriate: dialing down his rhetorical flourishes, what is actually at stake is the efficacy of the checks and balances written into our constitution.
If the president is not in some way held accountable for his many malfeasances, then a precedent of impunity will be set for the office. Congress’s leverage over the executive branch will be weakened and the power of the president will be dramatically expanded. If the present investigation is smothered, then these will be the repercussions, and they will be real.
But reality is in danger. It is being undermined by politicians on the side of the president.
After Schiff finished his speech, ranking member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., made his own opening address. His most crucial assertion: “What we will witness today is a televised theatrical performance staged by the Democrats.”
By playing into and “revealing” the hearings’ theatricality, Nunes asks his audience to suspend belief instead of disbelief. I reaffirm though that despite their performative qualities, these hearings are not theater. They aren’t even reality TV; they are just simply real. But Nunes, on behalf of his party, was trying to convince people that the hearings are not grounded in reality, that any concern about potential wrongdoing on the part of the president is based on stories fabricated by Democrats for the express purpose of leading to impeachment. Nunes, toeing his party line, wants people to believe that Democrats are conspiring to oust the president, not that they are following up on real, legitimate concerns.
Nunes and his allies, following in the footsteps of Trump, no longer engage in civil discourse. They do not bother with counterarguments or with sound, logical reasoning. Reason has been thrown out altogether. Instead, they have taken up the ideological equivalent of scorched-earth tactics. They simply cast doubt over whatever their political opponents say or do. They categorically deny everything – including objective, confirmed facts, if they have to – and they aggressively promote their fictive counter-narrative, vociferating it so persistently that even rational, informed people may begin to internalize it. And then – deviously! – they accuse their enemies of doing the exact same thing: promulgating counterfeit facts and “fake news.” For years now, these denunciators have attempted to discredit news media to the same effect. Their whole strategy is like an appeal to anti-ethos: they batter the reputation and authority of their opponents and erode public trust.
This scares me.
What’s even scarier, though, is how easy it is to fall into the trap of such pseudo-rhetoric. The reason it’s so effective is that they don’t have to convince you of anything, they just have to sow seeds of doubt.
So, with public trust so destabilized, how are we to defend the truth? Calling out the denunciators feels frustratingly ineffectual, as their responses don’t amount to much more than variations on that old childish retort, “I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I?” A testifier affirms that Giuliani conducted a smear campaign against former ambassador Yovanovitch; the denunciators cry out, “No! YOU are conducting a smear campaign against US! Conspiracy! Witch hunt!”
Maybe that’s why Schiff barely even addressed Nunes in any of his speeches. You reach a point where you just have to ignore the denunciators’ antics, and you just focus on the task at hand.
Nunes’s speeches, by comparison, are these dazzling pastiches of deflective non sequiturs and invective. When you read the transcripts, though, and start to pick them apart, they collapse. I don’t have the time or space to thoroughly do that to one of his speeches right now, but I assure you, it isn’t that difficult, if you would just try it yourself. So I suppose that’s my call to action: we need people to be active, responsible consumers of media.
This is the threat to reality: in this infernal, Orwellian political atmosphere, truth and trust are under attack by a contingent of politicians in league with the president. This goes beyond the group polarization we see in public discourse; facts, scientific and historical facts, are hanging in the balance. The only way to maintain our grasp on reality is for people to seriously question the sources that they get their information, then decide for themselves who is reputable and what’s true.
Now, today is the first House Judiciary Committee hearing. They will be seeking to establish a constitutional definition of the crimes for which a president may be impeached, so as to later determine whether the president in fact committed any of these crimes. I implore you to take what you hear with a grain salt; do not passively accept everything you hear. With a small, healthy dose of skepticism, we can cut through the streams of fabulation. Trust me: a discerning, well-informed public will recognize the Truth from its “versions.”