Liz Cheney’s Agony
When I was an undergraduate in the late 1960s, I underwent a kind of transformative experience during a classroom debate with another student that I believed I was clearly winning when the philosophy professor corrected me. He reminded me that when engaged in a philosophical debate, as opposed to the 9th grade Debating Challenge, the point is not simply to vanquish one’s opponent but to find the truth. In order to do the former one may use any means fair or foul to destroy the opponent. For the latter one must do the exact opposite and represent one’s opponent’s position in the strongest terms possible. One represents the opponent’s position as charitably as possible, and only then attempts to refute that stronger position.
The professor reminded me that there is a difference between an argument in the sense of what the ancient Greeks called an “eristic,” a “fight with words,” and a rational argument in the very different sense that is oriented solely towards discovering the truth. The ancient Greeks saw eristic as an “agon” (the root is the same as that of the English word “agony”). But an agon is simply a contest to see who is stronger in some respect, that is, to pick a winner, e.g., the heavyweight champ. But that has nothing per se to do with finding the truth.
In his dialogue titled “Euthydemus” Plato holds an eristic agon, the standard practice of the ancient Greek Sophists, up to ridicule. The Sophists were, roughly, a band of pseudo-philosophers, “mouths for hire” that used deceptive techniques to win arguments and make money, not to find the truth. Plato was, in this dialogue and others, attempting for the first time in human history to create the sort of refined conceptual apparatus needed to distinguish between a mere eristic contest (agon) and a rational argument governed by the sort of rules designed to lead to the truth.
What struck me in the professor’s rebuke of my argument that day was that, in a sense, I was already in possession of this distinction. I had read the relevant chapters in my logic texts and passed all the relevant class tests. What that professor helped me to see is that even if one already has this distinction in this theoretical sense, and even if one pays lip service to it in public debates, it is very easy to lose sight of it in a real-world argument with someone else, especially when one’s emotions get engaged or when one has some other agenda. This is why in his other more famous dialogue titled “Gorgias”, Plato makes his character Socrates argue that it is better to lose an argument than to win it because when one “wins” an argument one’s views remain the same but when one loses an argument one learns something new.
In fact, the ability to make this distinction between mere “eristic” and genuine rational argument and apply it consistently in social life is essential to the development of a civilization, that is, a civil society whose public discussions are self-consciously motivated by the search for truth, not merely for punishing one’s enemies. Making this distinction clearly is one of the great services that Plato and Aristotle did for Western civilization. That does not, however, mean that most people either in Plato’s and Aristotle’s world or our own actually grasp this distinction or apply it in social life where winning, sometimes at all costs, is the only thing that matters.
Liz Cheney, who sits on the Jan. 6th Committee, has made her political agenda clear from the beginning. Although an “investigation” is supposed to be a search for the truth, Liz Cheney made agonizingly clear many times that she didn’t need to wait for the results of the investigation. From the beginning her stated aim was “make sure that Trump never gets near the White House again.” Permanent Washington also made their aim clear. The Jan. 6th Committee “investigation” was for her, and many others, mere political theatre to achieve a predetermined political agenda.
Had Cheney been interested in the truth, she might have insisted that the committee seat the appropriate number and type of Republicans to cross-examine the prosecutorial witnesses. She did not do so. At every turn she interpreted any testimony in the worst way possible for Trump, e.g., she has recently stated that Trump “commanded” a “heavily armed mob” to try to stop the counting of electoral votes. She and her Jan. 6th Committee have, however, given no evidence whatsoever that Trump “commanded” an armed mob to use violence to stop the counting of electoral votes. Her very strong statement requires that she prove both causality and intent. However, the committee has only demonstrated a degree (even that not clear) of correlation between Trump’s remarks and the riot, namely, that Trump made some remarks and some people went to the Capitol and rioted. The committee has not proved that Trump’s remarks caused the mob to riot at the Capitol or that Trump intended that his remarks cause the mob to riot at the Capitol. Demonstrating causality or intent is never easy in social situations: “Since intent is a mental state. it is one of the most difficult things to prove.” It is certainly not easy given the very murky events surrounding Jan. 6th, events that the committee in their “Star Chamber” has conspired to keep murky. For Liz Cheney, however, everything about Jan. 6th is as clear to her as her seething hatred of Donald Trump.
Such intransigence is neither normal nor healthy. Bill O’Reilly thinks that her hatred of Trump stems from the fact that Trump savaged her father’s performance as vice-president. This does seem the most likely explanation. Many of us, no matter how many philosophical texts we have studied, would quickly lose our tempers when someone comes after our fathers, especially when they are as abrasive as Trump can be. It is precisely for that reason however that Liz Cheney is not suited to sit in judgment of Donald Trump. The American people will be the losers when such a committee becomes the instrument of someone’s personal revenge.
If Liz Cheney had stated her criticisms of Trump in more measured terms, that he had made some inflammatory statements, that he was unwise to claim the election was stolen, that he took too long to do anything to stop the mob violence, etc., many of us would have at least listened to her case. Unfortunately, she has instead made grossly exaggerated accusations that she represents as established fact but which have simply not been demonstrated. In brief, Liz Cheney appears to be unhinged. Instead of demonstrating that there is something wrong with Donald Trump she has unwittingly demonstrated that there is something wrong with Liz Cheney.