In a time of multiple crises the sophistry of our leaders is more than dangerous. The narratives their words weave might advance their personal agendas but will leave the world ill-equipped to handle pandemics, wars, social upheaval, and climate disruption.
Sophistry much concerned Plato. In Gorgias he has Socrates compare sophistry to “cosmetics” or “self-adornment”. Condemnation of sophistry is also a common theme throughout Plato’s Phaedrus, Sophist, and Protagoras. Plato associates sophistry with appearance and therefore as being distanced from reality.
The sophist’s aim is to fool his audience into believing what is asserted as being truth. The sophist is an appearance-maker. Plato has the sophist Protagoras confess that it would be madness to admit to one’s injustice or to fail to pretend to possess justice. The recent address to the Asia Pacific Society by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is paradigmatic.
Blinken guided his listeners through a Bidenesque tale of a beneficent and wise ruler who only wants his land to be the richest and strongest nation because of the benefit that would bring to all. In order to fulfil “the hopes of all nations, big and small, from every region;”.
Of course, it’s his job to as Secretary of State to shape international opinion in favour of American interests, and to disarm critics of American power by casting America’s pursuits as fundamentally altruistic. To adorn policies and acts with values. This requires not just the erasure of history but additionally the manufacture of a replacement narrative that transmutes the present.
In Blinken’s narrative the just and sagacious Biden ushers in a happy future where the world conforms with dreams of an American paradise. Through the sophistical art America is painted as the epitome of peace and sovereignty, justice and fairness, and rules and laws.
The Vietnam War and cancerous defoliants, the illegal bombing of Cambodia, the duplicitous war in Iraq, and the abandonment of the Afghans to starvation and oppression are erased cosmetically by the sophistry. The global cost of the initial hoarding of COVID vaccines by America is expunged from the record, as are torture and Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition, and Guantanamo Bay. And the massive arms industry that feeds conflict around the world is avoided.
Without irony Blinken asserts “Racism and hate have no place in a nation built by generations of immigrants to fulfil the promise of opportunity for all”. Apparently slavery, Jim Crow, and anti-miscegenation laws don’t count nor do the expulsion of migrant Chinese or detention of Southern migrants at the border.
Even more dissonant in the post-Trump, post-January 6 world is his statement that “There’s another core source of national strength that we’ll be relying on in this decisive decade: [America’s] democracy”. The Biden Administration believes there is “no better way to enhance [America’s] global standing and influence than to deliver on our domestic renewal”. Did no-one blanch when Blinken said this?
When Blinken ignored current efforts at widespread disenfranchisement and gerrymandering, and the irreconcilable culture wars did no-one notice. “We are not perfect” doesn’t quite cover it! Blinken posits that [America’s] democracy is designed to constantly move towards “more perfect union”. The facts dispute this.
If democracy stands or falls on the trust the voters have in government, Blinken is operating in a parallel universe. Analysis by the Pew Research Centre shows that over the period 1958-2022 trust in government steadily declined and the evidence showcases a decaying political system in which the population no longer believes.
In 1958, early in President Eisenhower’s term, 79 percent of Republicans and 71 percent of Democrats “trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time”. As President Nixon left office that had fallen to 38 percent of Republicans and 26 percent of Democrats.
Only 38 percent of Republicans and 26 percent of Democrats had trust in government at the end of the Clinton Administration. George W. Bush exited the Office with only 22 percent of Republicans and 30 percent of Democrats exhibiting trust in government.
Donald Trump left the presidency with 28 percent of Republicans and 12 percent of Democrats expressing trust in government, and currently under President Biden a dismal 9 percent of Republicans and just 29 percent of Democrats trust government to do the right thing.
Trust in government among white Americans has fallen from 74 percent in 1958 to 16 percent today. Among black Americans over the same period trust has dropped from 62 percent, at a time when racial segregation was legal, to 24 percent today.
The deeper the Pew analysis is interrogated the more it exposes a declining polity that has failed its citizens. Yet, the audience at the Asia Pacific Society did not seem to demur from the Secretary of State’s narrative. It was so far distant from reality, yet seemingly swallowed whole. Perhaps Protagoras was on to something.
Rallying allies, partners, and others around a decrepit, crumbling, and sclerotic democracy with an underperforming government that is rent by an irreconcilable culture wars, bizarre conspiracies, and religious divisions is not likely to be successful. American leaders have to be sophists.
Blinken must know America is anything but the shining place constructed by his words. The sophist, however, seeks agreement and not truth. Surely, though, his audience was aware that internationally America is an ageing hegemon teetering on the precipice of a slow decline, and confronting climate, strategic, and economic crises increasingly beyond its control. Still Blinken’s audience applauded a story that was so unmoored from reality.
The Protagorean strategy, even when laid on so thick, is strangely effective. The real situation in the US is readily knowable. Sadly, political leaders across Europe and North America often just repeat the Bidenesque myth. A gussied up account of America.
Blinken’s address was part of the constant effort to apply a cosmetic coating to the brutally realist pursuit by America of its interests through power. That is ignored by allies and partners at their peril.