tv American Democracy CSPAN October 12, 2019 10:35am-12:01pm EDT
here on american history tv. >> next we hear from sophia rosenfeld, who was the author of democracy in truth, a short history. she talks about the long-held tensions among citizens in a democracy to determine what the truth is, rather than relying on an elite class to determine what the truth is for them. >> welcome ladies and gentlemen to the robert c. byrd center for congressional history and education. i think i know most of you. in case you don't know me, i am the director here at the byrd center. i thank you for joining us as we celebrate constitution day. constitution day, as i'm sure many of you know, was yesterday. we are a little bit belated in celebrating, but that's ok. before i get started i want to take a minute to recognize the passing of cokie roberts.
many of you were here in july when cokie and steve roberts very graciously came out and event on thein an stage to help us raise money for our internship program and we and we had a wonderful dinner afterward. they could not have been more generous and considerate. i just want to say that our thoughts and prayers are dedicated to them. as we are getting started here, i want to gently remind you all to silence your cell phones. i would like to thank four seasons books for your support and organizing the book signing that is going to follow tonight's talk. this will be a similar format from what we normally do.
we will have a wonderful reception and a book signing. i want to recognize mr. tom s's three- mose daughters and their husbands. they have helped us with this wonderful program this past decade and a half. they have carried forward his legacy of activism, which is more important. working together, we have brought u.s. senator's, policy scholars,egal esteemed political scientists, and a few historians here for constitution day to talk about historical contemporary and constitutional issues. we very much appreciate their continuing support. with that in mind i want to tell
you about mr. tom moses. the man this lecture series is named for. he was a decorated world war ii veteran. we learned tonight he was a medic at the battle of the bulge. he was a devoted civil libertarian and spent much of his life defending american civil liberties and the u.s. constitution. among the many things he worked on during his life, including fair housing and civil rights issues in cleveland and baltimore, and while living in ohio, he started the first welfare rights organization in the united states. as a longtime resident of jefferson county, he founded the eastern panhandle branch of the american civil liberties union of virginia. he served on the board of directors for many years and he was recognized often by community and state leaders for his service, including senator byrd and senator rockefeller.
before i formally introduce tonight's speaker, i want to share some revealing statistics from the pew research center that i discovered while researching this book create in june of this year a pew research report revealed 68% of u.s. adults believe that "made up news and information" greatly confidence inan's institutions. 40% believe it's in having a major impact on confidence at each other. 79% believe steps should be taken to curtail news. the report revealed americans news as a larger problem than violent crime, made up crime, immigration change and racism. we are no doubt in a crisis in discerning truth in america.
we are not alone, because this is an endemic problem in democracies across the world. it is for these reasons that we are really excited to have dr. rosenfeld here tonight. dr. rosenfeld's work is really eye-opening in terms of providing context for this. sophia rosenfeld is the professor of history at the university of pennsylvania. she is the author of several books, including the forthcoming "choices we make and the roots and she is theom author of "common sense in political history."
sophia's articles and essays have appeared in the american historical review, the journal of modern history, william and mary quarterly, as well as the new york times. at penn, sophia teaches intellectual and cultural history with special emphasis on the enlightenment and the legacy of the 18th century were -- 18th-century for modern democracy. each of these subjects are explored in her recent book, democracy in truth, a short history which was published by , 10 press and provides the basis for today's talk. provides in truth historical context for this contemporary moment. 176 pages,s only which isn't readily short for book which will
, be on sale in the rotunda after our event, provides a deep historical analysis of the central tension that lies before american democracy. who gets to determine what is and is not the truth? i think more importantly, it explains why the current iteration represents something new. it is not something that is a of old arguments. it has been described as incisive, inspired, essential, and my favorite, brilliantly lucid. that's my new goal, to be described as brilliantly lucid. as you can see by all the markings, i have done a deep dive on this book and couldn't be more excited to welcome sophia as this year's lecturer. please join me in welcoming dr. sophia rosenfeld. [applause]
dr. rosenfeld: thank you, that was a nice introduction. i feel like i should sit right back down because you have given it all away. it's a great honor to be at the robert c. byrd center for congressional history and education. it is an honor to be here at and an honorersity to be giving the 2019 memorial lecture on what is almost -- i especially want to think jim wyatt and the moses family and i want to thank the audience were coming out on what is a beautiful wednesday evening. it is very kind of you to be here. i will try to be lucid. i will see if i can do that. even though i'm a historian by training and profession, i'm
going to begin this evening by talking about the present. we will back up a little while. it probably won't surprise anyone in this room if i start out by saying truth has been having a bad time of it lately, not at least within 70 miles to the southeast of here. the most obvious, but by far from the only example, is the current president. by most accountings, i think i'm saying something that is actually objectively true and nonpartisan by saying the president often says things that are false, the washington post helps us notice by chronicling this in depth. if you have been paying attention to politics at all, i see you have been or you would not be sitting here this
evening, you know that president trump often reaches falsehoods about his own past actions or statements. he also routinely circulates what might be called inaccurate or unverified information, whether it is a matter of research finding or something somebody said they did. uddiesen he frequently m the waters, blurring the lines between truth and untruth. like i've been hearing, people are saying -- who knows what is going on? or, of course, it's all fake news. i will get to just one highly publicized example that might seem trivial but it fits a pattern. two weeks ago, president trump claimed alabama was one of the states most lucky to be hit by hurricane dorian. everybody is laughing which means everybody knows this already.
the national weather service at birmingham set out, was not going to be impacted. the president proceeded to first show a doctored national weather said he did not know who drew that nice loop with a sharpie through alabama, thereby creating a false form of documentation. then he got another government agency to defend his claim with an anonymous statement contradicting the birmingham making what should be a source of apolitical information a source of politically motivated disinformation. the problem was the press reporting on it. there was some corrupt and fake news media. who can you trust to tell the truth in the first place? what i'm talking about tonight is not just about trump and his
acolytes. it's not just about the u.s., either. according to reports globally, misinformation and disinformation are circulating everywhere in contemporary culture and around the world, from government to party platforms, to social media feeds where we have all become pendants and publishers and distributors and lastly maybe consumers. more seriously, polls show not just that people have lost trust in media, but also that a lot of people don't actually care about these boundaries. on the contrary, many people seem to embrace this blurry distinction between truth and falsehood. some value, what might seem like
authenticity, telling it like it what breaking through might seem like pc more than veracity or accuracy. some people want to win at all costs. many people, currently more heavily on the right, but i would more than likely be talking about the left, come to see that everything that an establishment culture is more like a matter of opinion. or any real arbiters of truth out there are any pure objective information at all. you can think about the phrases that have been circulating in media in recent years. alternative facts or even my truth suggestions that this , whole realm of objective truth doesn't quite exist.
we've learned that even weather predictions can be sources of my truth. and a kind of all-purpose description of the world to deny reports of a very real attempted genocide of muslim minority people. in 2006 just after brexit, just before the last presidential election, post-truth was named the word of the year by oxford english dictionary. not simply because of the brazenness of all the lying, but because a lot of people concluded in the media, we've lost any common ground about where to find truth in the first place, and the whole situation suggested an existential crisis for democracy.
some people might say the situation looks even worse years later. what can we point to that is changed? there is something developing called deepfakes. some of you are nodding along or are familiar with it. ways that audio and video can be so convincingly remastered. it makes it look like people are saying and doing things the never did. new technological capacities are more and more aware -- we think of russia and how many states are engaged with campaigns and disinformation, often using for-profit companies cambridgefirms like analytica. trust has been declining in terms of knowledge.
a similar result have been found all over the world. and we know more and more about the effects of untruth circulating from a rash of murders in india, of perceived child abductors. it is a crazy phenomenon that spread out of a misinformation campaign to the propping up of anti-immigrant sentiment in the u.s. and around the world. that is my depressing introduction, probably not much of a way to start constitution day, but i'm going to switch gears a little bit. before we conclude that we are really post anything, that democracy itself is exceptionally at stake, we need to ask more about what came before. it is hard to figure out what has changed if you don't know it existed at an earlier moment. my subject today is the subject
of my new book, democracy in truth. it is a question of history, i ask how do you get to this , point? how does a marriage of democracy in truth go astray? that's kind of an abstract sounding question, no. that's the kind of question that particularly appeals to me. as a historian, i spent a lot of theareer thinking about unspoken and taken for granted assumptions rather than the more prominent fights over big marquee ideas. the nature and value of truth in the context of democracy turns out to be one of those assumptions. something we only really talk about when it is under threat. it is vital to uncover if we want to understand the ground on which we are standing. if we look closely, most of the
commentary takes it to be a short period of time. if we are looking a little farther back, we'll find the big story doesn't start in 2006 with brexit or the election of president trump. in 2005.it start around 2005 is when a two, twitter and facebook, all basically in a row, came to be what we now know as social media. you have to look further back the 1980's and 1990's in the u.s., with the emergence of 24 hour cable infotainment in the d regulation of radio that gave us talk radio. all of these trends i am pointy to are really important for the latter part of the story. these are things that will intensify things that happened earlier.
i think the full story starts much earlier in a truth regime, in which modern democracy was founded and in which modern democracy was baked. that is the age of enlightenment. i use this phrase truth regime. because, very specifically to main there may be only one thing that counts as truth in certain topics. the way truth has been looked for, understood and even celebrated and is different in different places and times. and we are starting to discover how we understood what truth was in different moments. i've like to take a deep dive this evening back some 250 years ago before the age of revolutions that took off in north america france and then try to work our way a little bit
forward toward the present and our current predicament. at the core of the enlightenment, if i can generalize across geography, it was a single preoccupation. how do we collectively eradicate errors and myths and false beliefs? how do we get to something closer, like an accurate picture of what the world actually looks like? many responses focused on methods. on the larger social and political context in which truth about the world would best come to light. in the second half of the 18th century, critics of monarchy on both sides of the atlantic developed a particularly novel argument.
they claim that one real is thate of republics they have a uniquely close relationship with truth. we are kings, like priests and aristocrats had relied on , secrecy and cunning and deception as ways for leadership. here you can imagine something like louis the 14th of versailles. republicans would operate on a different that republics would operate on a different set of values. a taste of concrete evidence or proof, and personal sincerity. trying to imagine a future, imagine in some perfect world,
the whole world have become a book of morals, where everyone and everything would become legible. those who lied would be committing crimes. this is an enlightenment fantasy of the future. the promise of early republic or democracy is truth ends and democracy would be instrument of one another. in other words, established truths would serve as the starting point for deliberations. participation in a democratic process would from -- from debating to voting would aid in the cause of truth's discovery and expression. this is an idea that took off as appealing, not just the devote ease of enlightened ideas but also in early capitalist markets as well. in republics it was thought this
would ultimately make the dream of the kind of coincidence of virtue and knowledge where truth seeking and truth telling would be a reality. amazingly still convinced -- just a few years later during the debates in the 1790's, james still said, it is an unassailable fact in a republic that light will prevail over darkness, truth over error. to a certain extent, i think we agree which may be why so many , of us have some sense that a crisis in truth means a crisis for democracy. i might be back to those pew findings one more time.
why are some people worried about this look at all the other , catastrophic things. in some sense democracies can't , work without some commitment to truth. that is one side of the story, the idea that democracy and truth have to be close cousins. there was a catch. this is where things went tricky. think of the strategic use of we in behold these truths to be self-evident, the opening remarks of the declaration of independence that introduces the idea of the possibility of a republic. for 18th-century republican anchors, what would distinguish all truths under the condition of popular sovereignty? i should add a caveat that is not logical. all of these truths would be
collective communal conclusions. in other words, no one person no , one institution, no one sector, king or priest would get to call all the shots. moreover, these same truths, these moral and factual ones would never be definitive or fixed or treated like dogma either. instead, something like what scholars today my call public knowledge would be ideally worked out with some sort of open back and forth, where all of these different sectors would be weighing into arrive at this thing called truth. number of people would have specialized leadership roles as a result of their specialized knowledge, and a larger number -- although not would play a role as
well. to get there, they would form some sort of loose consensus. it did not mean everyone had to agree on everything, but some .ort of loose consensus basic ideas about what causes what, what is broadly die desirable -- broadly desirable, and what is dangerous, also how to characterize what happened. that is how people in the late .0th century imagined it all of this was supposed to transpire -- how is this going to happen? power all of these people going to arrive at truth -- how are all of these people going to arrive at truth? the founders imagined a few basic principles. one was the idea of plain speech. people would speak in plain ways
so they would understand across all other divides -- education, religious, regional. you can think of the straightforward language of rather like ben franklin than the fancy, euphemistic, language of courts. the other, of course, was free speech, which was quickly enshrined in constitutional law. here is the idea dating all the way back to john milton that -- competition in information, in claims, books, periodicals -- in a world where it was really hard to be certain about anything, ultimately work to dispel errors of fact and interpretation alike, especially those born of religious orthodoxy. supposed to make this all happen. but what this meant was commitment to truth combined with this weird way of getting
there. turn from theory to truth,e, most kinds of under the conditions we call democracy, have actually never been self evident at all here it it sounds good, but it is not quite how things of work out. there has always been something to fight over in terms of what counts and who gets to make the call and on what grounds. at press freedom, many times there are microcosms of a larger debate. what counts as dublin information. and what is more -- and this is the key point -- this process has always been threatened --
since the 18th century founding moment from those who have tried to monopolize it. people or factions or groups who try to hustle out of this contentious public sphere and capture the power that comes from having the exclusive power to define it you read on the one threat hasimes that come from knowledged elites. in the 19th century, you get the term experts. we can call them that now, but that was the innovation of the 19th century. people who claimed access to truth and superior trustworthiness on the account of their specialized training, which also implied something about their gender and wealth and race, too. the threat of these experts has been especially vivid when the experts have argued for the validity of their expertise in isolation, without the leavening
effect of ordinary people's experiential sense of the world. but on the other hand, the threat has sometimes come from those claim to speak for ordinary or real or regular people, people who are thought to be endowed with a knowledge of the world born of living in it, and the danger comes when they insist on popular consensus alone, without a collective of expert trained perspectives or outlying voices of any kind. while both of these things, elite or expert knowledge, and the common sense perspectives are vital for democracy, either without the other leads to not just potentially really bad policies, they can lead to the dismantling of democracy altogether.
democracy depends on this kind of contentious pluralism when it comes to the realm of truth. sorry, i have to turn the page here. what i would like to do next is basically tell you the story from two sides, and that would be the side basically of what happens when experts have too much say, and one argument might be that what happened between the 18th century and now, the expert authority keeps escalating, and retell the story from the other side and come back to the common sense perspective and how it escalates, which also seems to have happened, particularly in our own moment, and how these two storylines come back into some kind of clash. but let's start with the expert side of the story first. one interesting thing about
expertise is even before the democracy states in western europe realized they needed a lot of these people, you need mapmakers, explorers, military specialists, some inside the government, some outside, or you cannot really have a state. one of the things that starts to grow well before the age of revolution is what you might call knowledge bureaucracies, and that means the emergence of a new class of people, which are all the people with this useful knowledge. and even in the earliest republics, those formed in north america and france in the 18th century, it was widely understood that leadership roles, if you wanted to have an effective government, had to go to those who were assumed to be the most virtuous, often described as men of their word, so in other words people of honesty, and wise men were sometimes called men of knowledge.
these were going to be the preconditions for imagining this new intellectual leadership and class. but it was really only once revolutionaries turned their attention to putting these republics on stable foundation that real efforts began on both sides of the atlantic to try to build something that jefferson called a natural aristocracy to replace on earlier one. from this vantage point, we cannot really be surprised that the members of the federalist
faction behind the new u.s. constitution came into being in the 1780's insisting on the importance of leadership drawn from "men's special obligations to wisdom and integrity." those are the words of benjamin rush, who also had the ideas that people needed to be trained in a federal university that trained these aristocratic leadership classes that would be based on its expertise rather than its birth. that never happened. americans have been skeptical of statist solutions. they also failed to make the case for financial requirements early on for eligibility to vote and hold office, as well as indirect forms of voting when it
came to electing senators and presidents. and the electoral college is one of the great holdovers from this era of thinking about how to make sure that the people didn't say too much. this was all put exactly that way in the 18th century, in the words of another federalist. the point of these plans was so that "the people may have as little to do as may be about the government." even if they were going to be sovereign. if you think this is an american twist, it isn't. because after the terror when the revolutionaries want to stabilize the situation, what do they do? some of the very same things. they build normal schools. i believe this institution has
its roots as a normal school. they built the first normal schools to create a corps of teachers who would be experts in how to disseminate knowledge. they reintroduced various kinds of censorship. and they restore property qualifications for voting, all in an effort to find ways to create democratic structures while letting those virtuous, knowledgeable people have more of a say. and ironically in some ways, just as nationstates in north and latin america and much of europe were democratizing in the sense of eliminating slavery, extending educational opportunities, trying out universal suffrage, at the same time what also grew was this new professional knowledge class, on both public and private payrolls. men who now called themselves not only experts, but these are only words of the 19th century, professionals, scientists, proved themselves more useful than ever as governments extended their purview. one of the reasons the governments expanded their purview was to deal with the growth of capitalism and marketization.
they do more and they need more information, particularly in this increasingly arcane kind of statistical information, what we would now call data. these are the precursors of the people we know called policy experts, like economists and urban planners, who would dominate the late 18th and 19th century governments around the world. japan to mexico, they have experts by the late 19th century. you see them in postcolonial settings, now you see them in transnational political organizations as well. you might think of one man writing in germany during the weimar period. he was fascinated by the way that democracy and bureaucracy seemed to grow up together. what he put his finger on is how they needed each other, but they were always going to be intention. the more democracy expanded, the more you need bureaucrats who
are essentially not democratic citizens. and much of the 20th century borne out his hunches. he did not live to see what happened, but we talk now about things like technocracy, which is another word for a planning state. some like to point to the eu as the primary example of this. it is a state that seems almost entirely to be run by these bureaucrats, knowledge professionals. when europeans complain about something they call the democratic deficit, they don't mean simply that europeans are not involved in making policy in a direct way. what they are really complaining about is that they have so little influence over the nature of policy, so little means to hold officials accountable, that what gets passed in eu law -- the classic example always involves fishing rights. what they establish as fishing rights has so little connection to the lived experience of fishermen across europe that they are creations of bureaucrats in the eu sitting in geneva or brussels dreaming this stuff up. this is the end of the first side of this story. one of the dangers of modern political life is this
trajectory that seems sometimes to many people to have pushed all truth but technocratic truth to the side. that is one storyline we can tell. of course, this is half the story, and it is evident to anybody who knows any history going back any amount of time, because of resistance to elite's domination of knowledge, production, and elite ways of knowing. it also began very early. we can go right back to that founding moment again. here i am going to give an example. my current hometown of philadelphia, very early on not only were they writing the declaration of independence, but you can think of quakers' investment in different types of knowledge. simplicity, practical know-how.
african-american churches insisting on faith-based ways of knowing. these local commitments divided the seeds for early backlash against this kind of intellectual superiority or pretension, as they were perceived to be. they were for the idea that some truth was known through a different mode. not the fancy of experts with their statistics, but through faith or through instinct or through the commonsense born of everyday lived experience, or what we might call the logic of the kitchen table. i know how to pay my bills at the kitchen table, so that is how we might think about the deficit. a translation from self to the world.
and this idea had an enlightenment pedigree as it was one of the ways enlightenment thinkers challenged what were in their day establishment truths by saying, there is a common sense that runs counter to many of these elite ideas. in 1776, tom payne -- i would call this alternative epistemology, which is to say knowing things a different way. he gave it political significance by saying that when it came to the truths of politics, and this is a radical idea in his moment, ordinary people not only knew enough to participate in the aggregate,
they actually knew better. to make this point, he called on a reverse snobbery in which he suggested it was precisely ordinary people made of honesty understanding things that allowed them to cut through the absurdities spouted by churches and kings and aristocrats and overeducated people, like some absurd idea like a colony being ruled by an island, and get back to common sense truths. he insisted you could use this common sense as a foundation on which to build a new kind of government. and until they were put out of business by his federalist opponents, payne's radical friends and contemporaries forged the first state constitution for pennsylvania that temporarily tried to make this vision a reality, basically to try to see if they could create a democracy without this ruling class. so there would be elections, everything would be transparent. there would only be one house. radical measures of different
kinds. less than 15 years later -- it did not really work in philadelphia. but less than 15 years later, in france, they tried the same thing, getting rid of active and passive citizenship, coming up with a common education system for the nation, and ever since there has been this possibility of a defense of the wisdom of ordinary people, meaning those outside the realm of educated expertise, which at various moments could include women, it could include black people of both sexes, it could include ordinary workers, peasants. it is an elastic category. but the idea that those people know something and is born of a different source has helped fuel all sorts of social and political movements directed to giving a voice to those traditionally denied one. that would include the early
labor movements, abolitionists and later civil rights movements, labor movements. all premised not in the idea of rights, which were awfully familiar, but also in the idea of truth that elites have failed to see. again, there is a complication. this isn't the only recent dominant form that challenges to elite truth has taken. non-expert, non-elite claims to truth have often worked the opposite way, to make a claim not on behalf of those marginalized by the dominant conception of truth, but as a way to reinforce the idea that the people in the singular know something that is true, whether they represent the state, the nation as a whole. and that they know something that they don't need other people to weigh in on. for claims about elite knowledge without the collective popular truth can turn exclusionary and lead to this inside the beltway, technocratic notion. arguments for the people as the primary source of truth can run a different risk. that is encouraging disdain for all kinds of verifiable expert knowledge and its purveyors. you can think of the british
figure right before the brexit vote who said, i think people have had enough of experts. this kind of disdain can often also attach itself to outlying voices, whether it is immigrants or foreigners or marginal voices of different kinds until a demagogue comes along who seems to perfectly incarnate the people's truth in this singular form. many of you may recognize that what i am describing rather loosely here is a phenomenon that can happen on the left or the right or in between, and often gets labeled as populism. what i want to say about populism is that at its core it populism is that at its core it is a storyline about who owns the truth. and the starting point goes like this. it is almost always the same story. the story is something like, some group of people, usually intellectual elites with or without being in cahoots with some kind of oppressed group, like immigrants or racial or religious minorities, has with its obfuscating jargon and its phony claims learned at school
usurped the people's basic right to define the way the world is. but the story goes like this. when the real or true or honest people wake up and realize that everything around them is subterfuge or fake news, from government intelligence to scientific inclusions at universities, they will be able to restore the reign of the true people's true candor. and in some ways, politics won't have to exist anymore because real-life solutions to real life problems will be found.
this story too has very old roots. even the antifederalists, going back to our early american history, or edmund burke writing about the french revolution, stressed in their different ways a similar story that all these fancy people with their philosophical abstractions talking about liberty and equality were pulling the wool over the eyes of ordinary people. and that the people with their basic faith or their basic business know-how needed to see through this kind of highfalutin rhetoric of their opponents. the same names and storylines have cropped up repeatedly ever
sense, from french party platforms to presidential rhetoric, stoked by a free press. the press does not always lead us to the truth. and stoked by propaganda, federal and domestic alike. sometimes it seems these days as if an anti-elite notion of truth and knowledge is becoming the fastest growing, if not necessarily the dominant, idiom of politics in the world today, and at a steep price. and that brings us back around finally to the present. i promise we are getting to the end here. if we accept that technocratic and populist truths have been on a collision course, something is built into the enlightenment understanding of truth. both sides of the story have been ramped up in unprecedented
ways very recently by technological and media shifts, and by macrotrends like deregulation. the obvious question is, what can we do? and here, i am going to tread very carefully. for one, i am a historian. secondly, the stakes are high, as a philosopher once said. when it comes to truth -- and i am really paraphrasing because she does not say it exactly like this -- when it comes to truth, there is the danger of doing too little and there is the danger of doing too much. too little and you risk fascism, where everyone accepts lying as a matter of course and nobody expect anything different. too much and you get the reign of terror with the obsession of unmasking every person and every
claim. we do need to tread carefully and we might think on different scales. i will throw out a few ideas, and if other people have other thoughts, i would love to hear them. at the micro level, i think we can continue to encourage basic fact checking, sober, nonpartisan fact checking, even if most of the time it is ignored, and on occasion it backfires, pulling up conspiracy theories into the light of day. at the grandest macro level of national or global political change, the hill is a lot steeper. but citizens might push hard for policies that attack growing income inequality so we are not so very far from each other in experience opportunity and -- in experience and opportunity and education, that we seem to be inhabiting very different worlds. i think that is vital. and we can also try to step away from increasingly obsolete notions of a free marketplace of ideas.
that is a 20th century term. but we might need to think more about actually regulating this marketplace so the truth is as important a variable as sensationalism when it comes to the algorithms used to determine what we read and see. and the sources and the money behind misinformation are made more visible to us. i don't think we can really count entirely on self-regulation and voluntary codes when it comes to technology giants like google and facebook. and europeans are probably leading the way in trying to address some of these questions. in the middle, i believe we have to do more to support institutions concerned with the discovery and promulgation of truth, especially those that work to bridge social and epistemological gaps. that means colleges, universities, libraries, centers of all kind, this one being a good example, and especially schools so that people are encouraged, starting with the very young, both that develop a
healthy, properly democratic skepticism toward official truth but also some sense of how and where verifiable knowledge if produced can be found, and what too much ability and proof consist of. in the end, i would say verifiable truth, no matter how contentious and open ended it is, does matter to the survival of democracy. some forms of truth, maybe medicine, could survive without democratic politics. but democracy probably cannot survive without any commitment to a common foundation in truth and some kind of hostility to lies. at a practical level, democracy depends on us trusting each other, which means some kind of conviction that we are telling the truth when we speak to each other. it is a necessity of sound factual information as a starting point for debate. we might disagree about what to
do about unemployment, but we actually need to agree if it has gone up or gone down until we have some kind of debate about what to do about it. and finally, maybe even more, i think democracy requires truth as a key aspiration. without this aspiration toward knowing more, there is little reason why we might want to live under such an uncertain or precarious system in the first place, i think. some of you might say, maybe we don't need democracy at all. it isn't working very well. maybe it is just a nice papering over of various forms of exclusion and domination and injustice. maybe truth is just another one
of its mythologies, because we can't really pin it down anyway. democracy has, though, as reimagined in the late 18th century, i think, the extraordinary virtue of always providing for the possibility of second or maybe even third and fourth chances. and that is because of its relationship to truth. by this way of thinking, democracy's great advantage is not in the empirical outcomes it produces, as one political scientist might argue. it is rather that we can never be sure we have gotten things i would say only if we can imagine moral and epistemic progress that it is progress away from not just lies, but wrong information, and toward better information. knowing more, can we rectify the gaps between democratic theory and all its promises, and the world in which we actually live and operate now? that is where i think history can in fact see the work that needs to be done.
i will stop there. [applause] sophia: i would be happy to hear your thoughts or take questions, or anything anybody would like to say. >> thinking about the young people. sophia: i think you are supposed to -- >> i was just thinking about the young people. i was an educator and am recently retired. i don't see too many of them here. and then the future. can we do a better job of preparing them to deal with these matters by introducing critical thinking on a more pervasive scale? because i think a lot of people let these things slip by them. they don't really think about
them deeply. sophia: of course, that is an incredibly important question. and one important thing i think students today do need to learn is something we might call media literacy, how to even begin to figure out -- nobody knows instinctively. these things come through their snapchats, facebook pages, whatever vehicle they are using, twitter. they need some way of assessing information that is unvetted, unlike most material in newspapers. they need to learn something about where information comes from. but i think at a more foundational level, what i was trying to suggest is they need to cultivate two rather different habits. one is questioning what they have heard, which i might call skepticism. democracy requires that all the time. is that really true? is he being honest? is that how things are?
and simultaneously, to learn something about -- you cannot operate in life entirely as a skeptic. some things you have to accept as working premises, which we might call truth, and also how you arrived at those. when you hear the national weather service says the tornado is going to hit this location, you have some idea, how has this information been ascertained? it is not a guess. it may not be 100% foolproof, but it is a very educated guess. students also need to know how real information is developed. >> when i was in grade school, especially, that there was an assumption about democracy that
we were taught, that democracy equates with wisdom and that we might make mistakes from time to time, but ultimately you have to have faith in the american people because when they go to the polls, eventually they will do the right thing and things will get better. what do you think of that? [laughter] sophia: that sounds like a loaded question to me. [laughter] i think there is very little actual evidence that democracy always produces the best outcomes. all sorts of terrible states actually began with people voting for them, including totalitarian states, fascist states. elections themselves do not to me suggest that the people always know best. however, what i was trying to suggest at the end, maybe the less exalted vision of democracy is that democracy does have that possibility of a do over.
and it means you do not have to live with whatever has just happened or been decided. and maybe, if you are an optimist -- and i suppose in the end i am -- you think that people get it wrong a lot, but sometimes they get it right. and if you keep trying, there is still always the chance that we know more, we make better decisions. i don't believe that history always bends toward things getting better all the time, but we can measure certain kinds of real progress over the centuries in some major ways. the very fact that we have the liberty to sit here and have this conversation right now is itself a product of history. so, that is a long-winded way of saying i think it is too simple to simply imagine the people know and they get it right all the time. but we might still imagine that
the people can keep working on it, and that is better than any other vision of how to get at the truth than i think i can come up with. >> it is interesting. when cokie roberts was here, she supported the electoral college. what is your take on that? sophia: it is a very interesting question. i am not an expert on the electoral college. there are probably some people in this room who know certainly more about it than i do. it is in some ways these days not as undemocratic as simply the existence of the senate, because the senate was imagined for a world in which the population of states would not be so vastly unequal as it is today. i suppose the electoral college
seems to me a little bit of a leftover. it might help in some years democrats, some years republicans, but we are talking about a structure more. it has its limitations. i don't think it is the most dangerous or worrisome part of our political system, and there might be some good reasons for it. populist politics are not always the best. there are some advantages to parties, too. there are trade-offs, at least. but i would say that some of the holdovers of our 18th-century political imaginary seem somewhat past their prime in terms of the way that populations are distributed today, who gets to vote, and a variety of other questions. i could imagine very radical changes, not that they would happen, but compulsory voting, mass voting without state affiliation. maybe we can consider what happens when you do not have a winner take all scenarios.
there are interesting possibilities. not many of them are politically viable, but it does not mean that what we have is the perfect model for the moment. >> i wonder if you have a theory or conjecture at least about why the elites are so clueless about what is going on, on the other site? -- on the others. -- on the other side. the two most obvious examples are brexit, which seemed to take all of europe by surprise, and our 2016 election, when there was a vast popular resentment that nobody on the coasts knew about. i suspect that has happened before in history. sophia: the cliche answer is something about the kind of bubble effect, that the more sources of information that we have, the more overwhelmed we are. i am, at least. every time i turn on my phone, i don't know what to look at first.
the more we in a sense go to what we already know and trust and talk to the people we already know and trust, and that is true probably across that partisan divide, probably equally so, we aren't in the same educational institutions. we are not living in the same places, in many cases. west virginia is interesting as it is very different demographics than philadelphia, where i live, and may provide a much better sense of what america is really like. at least, america that is not the east coast urban america. but we live in relatively isolated ways, and i think it is part of the problem of why we see the world so differently, why we trust so little across those divides. media leaks got it all wrong.
even journalists at 8:00 on the night of the last presidential election were still insisting that it was absolutely impossible that hillary clinton wasn't going to win. they read the material wrong. i don't think that means that people were lying when they took polls. i think they didn't understand what was happening. that is why i want to tell this story in such a way as to say that there are kind of two sides to this. one might be this populist resurgence that many people, myself included, worried about what this means for lots of different reasons. but i don't think that should let off the hook people like me, university professors, or cities, from the fact that they also have an obligation to try to hear and change our political institutions so that we are not living in such isolated ways.
not just in this media sense of internet bubbles, but even more in terms of how institutions, our cultural life, our everyday interactions with people, too. >> i am wondering, as historians like yourself have looked back on populist movements, is it possible to gauge how frequently the leaders, spokespeople for those movements, have been what i might call true believers in what they are saying as compared to more or less cynically trying to message in a way to manipulate the people that they are trying to move around? and what difference does that make in terms of outcomes? sophia: that is a really interesting question, because often the spokespeople for populism are not themselves a part of the sociological group
that you might call, the demographic group that they are speaking for, whether it's boris johnson or somebody like that, or perhaps president trump would be a good example. he is not a man from a rural place. he is not a person from ordinary income. he does not in any way exemplify the ordinary person, yet he set himself up as an exalted version of a spokesperson for the ordinary person. does he believe it or is he purely cynical? i will leave you that to decide. but that is a pattern in populism that is often adopted as a rhetoric or a framework by people for whom it is instrumental. it does not mean that the people who espouse it do not believe it, many of them, but the person who comes to incarnate it best is often themselves actually a member of the elite.
in many ways, donald trump could be described as coming as much from that elite as not, and not just on financial grounds but geography, education -- he is a graduate of an ivy league university. there are other -- yes and no. it is a mixture. but that is not uncommon that populist leaders all over the world from argentina onwards have been examples often of elites who talk the language of non-elites, and use it as a political tool. either because they have come to believe it, or because it is purely cynically adopted. that is an interesting question, for sure. >> my question is, as cynical as it is going to sound -- [laughter] sophia: ok, i am prepared. >> how do we keep calling ourselves a democracy when we
have so, so few people who vote in our area here? very low turnout. sophia: yes. that is a very important question, of course. occasionssay on a few what we call democracy, because what we call democracy is not in any sense a pure democracy. it might be in theory, it is a representative democracy, but the practice of it is riddled with all kinds of inequalities. and one of the features of that is not that many people are disenfranchised, but there are people who have the vote and don't exercise it. about half the people eligible to vote, depending on what kind of election and where, don't actually exercise their right to vote. so, can we be a democracy? in a sense, i think you answer your own question.
in any pure form, no. some places in the world have taken up compulsory voting. australia, for instance. that is an interesting case. you can vote none of the above, but you must show up and vote. it would transform american political life. whether we would then come to wiser decisions, i don't know. not necessarily, because many nonvoters are also what we call low information voters who may not follow politics at all and don't have much to say that would necessarily be valuable. on the other hand, it means that many people are not being represented or heard. even in our votes, some people might argue that because of the role of money in politics, all votes are not essentially equal either, that there are many -- the most commonly cited example is gun safety measures, that something that 90% of population in polls will support,
background checks or certain gun safety measures. it is not radical kinds of gun legislation, but certain small improvements in safety questions. and the great question is, why given those pulling numbers is polling numbers isumbers there so little legislative action on that front? is that because people don't vote? is that because the institutions we have are not actually that democratic? is it because of the role of money or outside influence place in politics? it is probably all of those things. it does make one wonder what constitutes democracy in this world. >> great lecture, thank you. my simplistic view of democracy is by the people, for the people. yet, we see this trend by the politicians for the corporations.
i wonder what you think the role of capitalism has in that trend? sophia: yes. this is a complicated story, and you are absolutely right. i did not say that much about the role of money or capitalism broadly, although i tried to suggest a little bit that part of the story of the growth of bureaucracy and experts is linked also to the development of capitalism, not simply to things internal to politics. of course, it is vital. politics has never been separate from economics, and it is impossible to imagine how it really fundamentally could be. however, there are ways to make business interests more or less important in political life. there are certain goods that can be distributed widely that we can or cannot go through markets to get. there are different kinds of
health care, market-based and not. i think it is a truism in politics today, and most people will say -- interesting, i think it was in "the times" this week. both the right and the left feel the corruption scheme plays well. which is to say, special interests of some kind, business interests of some kind are polluting politics. what they mean by that turns out to be quite different. but that is the theme of the moment. it is not justice or equality or something like that, it is about getting rid of corruption, appeals on both the left and the right for different reasons. interestingly, the thing that used to be absolutely sacrosanct that you could not say in politics was anything that sounded anticapitalist. that is an interesting development as politics to the right have moved further to the right, politics on the left have moved further to the left, and there is a space today in people who are interested in what europeans would call social democracy.
it is not capitalist. it is not socialism at all, it is capitalism tempered by some socialist programs. welfare benefits, public health, provisions, schooling at the university level. that is on the table, which is interesting. people used to say the two parties were so close there is no debate in political life. i don't think that is really true right now. [laughter] >> i have had the good fortune to read your book already, and i want to say -- [coughing] excuse me. it is not only brilliantly lucid and you think like a philosopher and that is not less than a historian, but you are both. it is an intellectual thriller. but i want to ask you about the scariest observation i found in it. i want to hear your take. you say in talking about hannah arndt's essays and pieces
online, which you do in a couple -- on lying, which you do in a couple places, you said that what she couldn't see was the number of people -- i think you were speaking of the president -- who know there are lies, and still, it doesn't matter. do you remember that? i mean, i'm sure you remember it. [laughter] i mean, i hope i said it as you wrote it. sophia: that is absolutely right. she wrote in an interesting moment. but on lying is from the late 1960's, early 1970's, the height of the vietnam era. she is really interested in this phenomenon of who tells the truth. the pentagon papers, for instance, why there seems to be so much lying in public life. she has really insightful things to say. i found her endlessly interesting to read on these
questions. she is difficult. she does not get at them in a straightforward way, they are oblique, but there are interesting insights. the one thing that never comes up is what if the people discover they are being lied to and they don't care? and i really wrestled with that as perhaps something of a novel development. that has something to do with this post-truth idea, too, not that there is simply more lying in politics, it is this idea that a lot of people don't care, that some people might say, i know -- i will pick my example again. you might say, i know that the president altered the weather map with a sharpie, but so what? it is kind of funny to do that. that is a hypothetical person. i don't know if somebody said that exactly. but one could imagine somebody who said, why is that a problem? you might think superficially, it is not that big of a deal.
so what? unless you think that it stands for something larger, which is what i was hinting at, that it stands for a willingness to bend reality to fit political needs. and if people don't care about that, it seems to me rather serious. and i don't think that she had in front of her an example of that. i don't think she contemplated that because she didn't know of an example in which people said -- she was writing about nixon eventually, too -- he lied, but so what? and one question for us, i think, is precisely that. and that is where i really don't have great solutions, because my solutions depend in some ways on inculcating values where these do matter. if people still say, so what, that is a harder problem to address. it may be why so many of these
investigations seem to often fall flat these days because you have to care that the results in a courtroom will determine truth or dishonesty. and will respond accordingly. if a shrug is the end result -- right, and it's interesting that you saw that as particularly worrisome. but as you bring it up, and i have not thought of it that way, but i think you are right. that may be more alarming than simply the existence of a lot of unverified information. so, thank you. >> last questions? >> just wondering on that same page what you think about the increase in pundits and people from both sides. there are two sides of this spectrum. and actually, i am thinking of c-span.
the notion seems to be that we take people from this side of the aisle and that side of the aisle, and their truths are equally valid and supportable and defensible. i wonder what you think that has to do with this notion that the truth doesn't really exist because i have mine and you have yours, and it gets validated every day depending on who i am listening to. sophia: thank you for asking that. that is a really great question and so far as that has become the dominant mode of our politics. two people scream at each other and there are often two different points of view. i think there is some confusion in this idea of balance between opinion and knowledge. let's take, for example, climate science. if 98% of scientists believe that something is happening to our world, increasing temperatures, climate change of
various kinds, that is not really up for grabs as a point of view. i think you would have to say the overwhelming scientific consensus, with a few outliers, is largely that the planet is warming through human activity. you don't really debate that. you could have a very good debate about what should we do about it? there, i would be very interested to hear two people on the right and left and any position who might have different solutions. maybe one market-based, maybe one has a technological solution, maybe another is imagining new kinds of legislation. that would be a case in which hearing multiple points of view would be valuable. but the idea that something that has basically become scientific truth -- all scientific truth is subject to revision, nothing is set in stone, but let's say the best guess we have at the moment is this is what is happening. that seems to be a place in
which offering two sides is misplaced. it suggests that everything is up for grabs. so, i would make that kind of distinction, and i think we made too little and assume everything is opinion. [applause] sophia: thank you. thank you for the questions, too. >> i am going to exert executive privilege and ask one last question. [laughter] which is to say, as you are asking these questions and following the talk and reading the book, what was in my head is the humanities. i wonder in this moment on college campuses across the country and across the world where humanities are not popular on multiple levels, if you could speak to the role of the humanities in helping move us
toward a space where maybe we are better equipped and young people are better equipped to deal with this? sophia: i will briefly because i am sure everyone is getting tired. of course i am biased on this. a historyking professor, a historian, how do you feel about the humanities? i will definitely not say useless. but more seriously, i think the humanities are where you learn how to think. [cell phone ringing] sophia: does that mean i won something? [laughter] sophia: it is important for people to be educated to understand data. we need the stem disciplines. but you don't have a way to analyze that material, to put it in any human perspective, to imagine how it could be used, how it could be misused, how it was used in the past, without something on how human societies have felt and ought and talked
-- have felt and thought and talked in the past, around the world, in the present. from k to 12 and college, education is only impartial whether it is in nursing or dentistry or data science or technology without some graft, even a piece of it, in 18th century novels, or study anthropology and consider african cultures, or something that allows you to get outside of the present and imagine other formulations of the world and how things get thought about and used. history lets us get out of our present a little bit. we also get out of the present and we start to see things differently when we are not always in our own world. i think that is a great gift that sometimes gets wasted on students if they don't come to it.
but sometimes you see students have a revelation where they imagine, i thought families always looked like mine. what if a family looked like something else? i wonder how that ever worked out. and that is a wonderful moment. and that really only happens through the study -- and it does not matter which one -- of the humanities, i believe. [applause] >> buy the book. [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2019] [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org] >> this columbus day weekend on american history tv, tonight at 10:00 p.m. on railamerica, the whole world is watching, about
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discuss the impact of the first woman on the u.s. supreme court, sandra day o'connor. >> but if you read between the lines, sandra is saying if you want to improve the status of women in the nursing professions, the best way to do it is to get men to want to do the job because the pay inevitably will go up. [laughter] explore the past of our nation every weekend on c-span three. next a day long conference on the humanitarian efforts during the two world wards. in about 40 minutes all 40 speakers answer questions, but first we hear from how elliott