America’s Torquemada Complex
For Trump loyalists, the fallout surrounding CNN’s publication of an inaccurate report documenting supposed ties between Russia and Trump associates was vindication of the White House’s assertions that the administration is dogged by unfair media criticism. For Trump detractors, CNN’s acknowledgment of wrongdoing, was evidence that the network does hold itself to some sort of ethical standard, thus undermining charges that it is nothing but “fake news”. To be a member of either group and to attempt to objectively analyze the situation, free from assumptions made about the inherent treachery of the motives of opposing partisans, was to immediately be branded a traitor.
This incident was yet another exercise in confirmation bias; partisanship has risen to be the arbiter of truth. It is through political identity that analytic processes which help contextualize events and provide an understanding of the state of society are developed. One’s group is innately pure in intent, while competing groups are inherently underhanded. Partisanship has become like a brand applied to a criminal, condemning the poor wretch to a life where, on the basis of one action, he will be forever judged and subjected to the approbation of the civilized masses, who are invited to attribute the blackest suspicions of motive and character to the offender.
America’s self-styled political and cultural leaders have a Torquemada complex.
Like the infamous Spanish High Inquisitor, they fancy themselves true defenders of the faith, faith in this instance being a wholly apt descriptor of the fervency which underlies modern political belief. There is a tenor akin to a schism between religious sects in the manner in which partisans defend the Absolute Truth of their beliefs and denounce the heresy of their detractors.
Demagogic show trials wherein partisans vie to prove that theirs is the only True Faith occur daily between journalists and members of the White House Press Office. The Press Secretary, or some underling, is trotted forth to be examined by the scrum of inquisitive reporters. Each has their turn at staking their claim as being the sole entity who comprehends, and can therefore interpret and defend, the True Faith. For reporters, this is embodied in free and open access to information, integral to the hallowed state of democracy, for which journalists are willing to thanklessly toil and martyr themselves. For the White House, this is nothing but an attempt by infidels who serve the demon of Fake News.
This marriage between partisanship and righteousness is alarming for a number of reasons. First, it makes true objectivity impossible; facts become little more than the handmaiden of ideology. Those which support the pre-formed conclusions of partisan belief are elevated; they become indisputable because they prove subjective conclusions, and subjective conclusions become irrefutable absolutes because supporting facts can be brought forth as evidence. However, facts are not the equivalent of truth. Facts, stripped of their contexts obscure larger truths. Equivocation, the process by which politics synthesizes facts to uplift those which favor their cause and discredit those that undermine them, is the death of broader truth.
Second, the Torquemada complex installs one will as the ultimate arbiter of what is genuine. The truth is not accessible to all as a result of widespread partisanship. Rather, it requires someone in a position of power to explain to the unenlightened masses why certain facts are of merit while others are just the disingenuous product of those with opposing viewpoints whose motive is to spread confusion from which they benefit.
Really, this is a power game, which is why it is particularly troubling. It is impossible for any equitable standard of conduct to exist in such a society; de facto discrimination on the basis of political identity is encouraged, as is a barbarous sort of “we have to get them before they get us” morality.
But the relativistic standards which this promotes go beyond social niceties. Under such a system, individuals lose much of their sovereignty. The criticism that social conditions act upon and manufacture individual values, rather than the other way around, is true. Individuals only have autonomy when property rights are respected; the most fundamental form of property is conscience. The mind must be free to explore the world around it, to seek out truth and develop values which are most in line with the reality it perceives. But this cannot happen when officials behave like Torquemada, blindly advancing a truth over which they have monopoly.
Originally published at The Politics of Discretion.