FRIDAY, JUNE 10, 2022
The instincts of our own tribe: The January 6 committee has launched. More such presentations will follow.
To what extent will this committee's efforts affect the way the events in question are viewed by the public? That, of course, remains to be seen, and it won't necessarily be easy to measure.
All across our blue tribe's dial, Liz Cheney's presentation last night has been widely praised. Bennie Thompson's presentation has largely been ignored.
Before we're done, we'll offer a weary provisional complaint about one of Chairman Thompson's early remarks. But first, consider an instructive portion of Cheney's presentation involving former attorney general William Barr.
At several points, Cheney played videotape of Barr's deposition before the committee. Vast amounts of human history are captured in these remarks:
CHENEY (6/9/22): Attorney General Barr also told President Trump that his allegations about Dominion voting machines were groundless:
BARR (videotape): I saw absolutely zero basis for the allegations, but they were made in such a sensational way that they obviously were influencing a lot of people, members of the public, that there was this systemic corruption in the system and that their votes didn’t count, and that these machines, controlled by somebody else, were actually determining it, which was complete nonsense. And it was being laid out there. And I told him that it was crazy stuff and they were wasting their time on that and that it was doing great, great disservice to the country.
CHENEY: But President Trump persisted, repeating the false Dominion allegations in public at least a dozen more times even after his Attorney General told him they were “complete nonsense.”
Barr told Trump that his allegations were, in fact, "complete nonsense." Despite such counsel, Trump persisted with his "sensational" claims.
We're struck by the larger portrait lodged in Barr's remarks.
According to Barr, there was "absolutely zero basis" for Trump's bogus allegations. Unfortunately, those unfounded claims were being made "in a sensational way" by a major national leader.
Result? Although the allegations were "complete nonsense"—"crazy stuff"— the allegations "obviously were influencing a lot of people, members of the public."
Because of Trump's unfounded claims, those citizens came to believe "that there was this systemic corruption in the system and that their votes didn’t count." So it went as a crazy public figure persuaded—misinformed, misled—many millions of regular people.
We regular people are always subject to a possible lack of discernment. Years ago, Plato described a similar situation in his own Athens, during the classical age.
Athens was caught in a very difficult time. Scapegoats were being sought, and scapegoats were being found.
Regular people were swept away by the public excitement. In the Seventh Letter, Plato described what happened.
In his portrait, Plato described some of the fundamentals of human public discourse:
PLATO: The existing constitution, which was subject to widespread criticism, was overthrown...and a Committee of Thirty given supreme power. As it happened, some of them were friends and relations of mine, and they at once invited me to join them, as if it were the natural thing for me to do.
My feelings were what were to be expected in a young man: I thought they were going to reform society and rule justly, and so I watched their proceedings with deep interest. I found that they soon made the earlier regime look like a golden age. Among other things they tried to incriminate my old friend Socrates, whom I should not hesitate to call the most upright man then living, by sending him, with others, to arrest a fellow-citizen, and bring him forcibly to execution; Socrates refused, and risked everything rather than make himself a party to their wickedness. When I saw all this, and other things as bad, I was disgusted and withdrew from the wickedness of the times.
Athens' democracy was soon restored, but Socrates was brought to trial on “a monstrous charge.” The execution of Socrates finished off the young Plato as well.
“The more closely I studied the politicians and the laws and customs of the day, and the older I grew, the more difficult it seemed to me to govern rightly,” he would later recall. “Nothing could be done without trustworthy friends and supporters; and these were difficult to come by in an age which had abandoned its traditional moral code but found it impossibly hard to create a new one.”
In the period as described by Plato, regular people were swept up in a wave of unfounded blame and accusation. Plato himself made an early misjudgment concerning the intentions of his friends and relations.
His friends and relations were soon driving an era of false accusation. The accusations were even directed at Socrates, "the most upright man then living."
In Plato's view, regular people showed poor discernment as this nightmare grew. "When I saw all this, and other things as bad," he wrote, "I was disgusted and withdrew from the wickedness of the times."
We thought of Plato's ancient account as we watched Barr's videotaped statement. In our view, Barr was describing a situation in which a major public figure has swept millions of people away in a raft of crazy misstatements.
In our view, that public figure seems to be (severely) mentally ill, or perhaps severely impaired in the cognitive realm. Plainly, he didn't and doesn't seem that way to the tens of millions of people who support him and believe the various things he says.
Is it possible that Donald J. Trump really is (severely) mentally ill? The giants of our upper-end press corps have steadfastly refused to ask medical experts to discuss this rather obvious question.
Instead, they join hands in their dueling cable covens and recite their dueling tribal narratives. You could see them engaged in this practice all last night, and on into this morning.
Regarding Thompson's opening statement, we'll only tell you this:
Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi) is a good, decent person. Also, he's a deeply experienced public servant.
That said, people who are good and decent won't always have perfect judgment. We were amazed when Chairman Thompson opened the hearing like this:
THOMPSON (6/9/22): I am Bennie Thompson, chairman of the January 6th, 2021 Committee. I was born, raised and still live in Bolton, Mississippi, a town with a population of 521, which is midway between Jackson and Vicksburg, Mississippi, and the Mississippi River.
I am from a part of the country where people justified the actions of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and lynching. I’m reminded of that dark history as I hear voices today try and justify the actions of the insurrectionists on January 6th, 2021.
Over the next few weeks, hopefully you will get to know the other members, my colleagues up here, and me. We represent a diversity of communities from all over the United States—rural areas and cities, east coast, west coast, and the heartland.
Chairman Thompson says he hears voices today. For ourselves, we heard TV sets clicking off across the nation as he began last evening's presentation with that look into the past.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep. Our own tribe's political instincts are sometimes remarkably poor.
People are praising Cheney today, Thompson not so much. In closing, we'll ask this about that:
Bennie Thompson is good and decent. Were we just imagining things when we heard TV sets clicking off?
More to come: Our own blue tribe's long-standing and more recent instincts