Moral Relativism, Truth, and Social Breakdown

Years ago I took a philosophy class on issues in morality in college. At one point we discussed how many moral truths were universal and how many were dependent on culture. Philosophers have studied this idea and they have come up with lists of moral principles that are universal across societies because they are fundamental to the functioning and cohesiveness of basic social groupings. One of the fundamental principles is the acknowledgment of the value of truth-telling and the condemnation of lying. Society cannot function if people can never make the assumption that most people are telling the truth most of the time about most things. So what happens when groups have an interest in deliberately lying to the public and it is difficult to tell the difference between a truth  and a lie? This is what Western Democracies face when an onslaught of fake news, which may be skillfully produced and disseminated by AI in the near future, overwhelms the modern communication channels.

Advances in the near future, widely reported on, will allow the seamless spoofing of video and audio. In our “post-Truth” society, and with modern propaganda sowing doubt and mistrust, how will it be possible to believe any damaging or otherwise important revelations? Even if there are digital footprints which can reveal meddling, they can be easily dismissed by partisans. In addition, it will allow important people and politicians to deny that they made statements, saying that they are fabrications, when in fact they are true.

Free society will be turned against itself, what will be the remedy to libel and slander that is impossible to prove one way or the other? In order to cut through nonsense and partisanship, focus will have to be kept on issues and policy themselves, something which is currently proving impossible. Debate over policy cannot occur if people are debating over the true nature of reality. Solutions can only exist if people avoid reports about the conversations or videos of leaders or they are dismissed in favor of actions. The other result of this change in our social dynamic, of questioning whether or not anything is real, is nothing less than the absolute dissolution and dismemberment of society. Post-truth society eventually has to face the realization that it will eventually lead to social destruction and chaos if left fundamentally unchecked.

The Elders of Zion, Propaganda, and Emmanuel Macron

In the American and French presidential elections in the past year, hackers suspected to be working for the nation of Russia breached sensitive organizational information about the major political parties involved and leaked that information online to influence the electorates. In the case of the French email leaks there were suspected forgeries that attempted to make the leading, pro-EU candidate, Emanuel Macron to look like a criminal or otherwise dishonest person. What people may not know is that this is an old Russian trick with a new twist provided by the internet. Russia has been producing propaganda using forged documents for over 100 years – the first great example of which is an anti-Semitic document known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion released around 1900 in various publications and formats.
Jews in Europe have long faced discrimination and violence. Jewish populations faced expulsion, violence, and oppression in countries throughout Europe as far back as the Middle Ages. Much of that oppression and violence was fomented by libelous and slanderous lies and nefarious motives being ascribed to the population. Russia, which at times encompassed modern-day Poland, had a large Jewish population, especially in what was referred to as the “Pale of Settlement.” The “Pale” was an area Jews were forced to live by the Russian government.
Russia under the Tsars was not a progressive country. Across Russia the serfs (peasants legally bound to the land in a feudal system) were freed over the course of the 1860’s – many years after the rest of Europe under the “liberal” Tsar Alexander II. Many of these policies were reversed by his successor Alexander III who was a deeply conservative and obdurate ruler. One of Alexander III’s favorite tactics for unifying the disparate people of Russia was to organize anti-Jewish riots, known as pogroms, a tactic approved by his successor, the ill-fated Tsar Nicholas II.
Secret Police
Tsar Alexander II established a secret police to monitor threats to rule of the regime known as the Okhrana in 1866. It was greatly expanded after Tsar Alexander II’s assassination in 1881. From the beginning the Russians used the Okhrana in a ruthless and innovative manner, especially when compared to the spy-craft and law enforcement instruments of other nations. Operatives created and directed organizations, establishing a “controlled opposition” with which the regime could collect and monitor individuals they considered political threats. Part of the operations of the secret police involved producing and disseminating various types of propaganda.
The Protocols
The Protocols purport to be the minutes of a meeting between a group of elite Jewish Rabbis detailing their plots to overthrow the world order and establish Jews as the rulers of every regime and every financial and social institution on Earth.
As a tool of persuasion, The Protocols have a record of success any corporation or political organization would envy. A corrupt and inept government found scapegoating an effective tactic, and no one was smeared with disloyalty, corruption, and conspiracy as effectively as the much-reviled Jewish communities of Russia.
The completed forgery of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was apparently disseminated as early as 1897 privately among members of the French aristocracy and was occasionally published in Russian newspapers in the years after.
Politically and socially active Orthodox Priests (closely allied with the Tsarist regime) published anti-Jewish screeds occasionally, and in 1905, an Orthodox priest named Sergei Nilus published the text in his book. Every new publication precipitated anti-Jewish violence in Russia, and certainly helped to turn attention from the corrupt and incompetent Russian government to “foreign” groups in the midst of the general populace.
A veil hangs between the authors of the document and the investigations of journalists and historians into its origins. Careful and painstaking scholarship has revealed enough about it to confidently say that much of the work was plagiarized and that it was a creation of the Okhrana. Stylistic critiques and information in the previously closed Russian archives points to members of the Okhrana writing and gathering the materials for the work, and then spreading it throughout Russia.
The wild success of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion would prove instructive to future Russian regimes. Matvei Golovinski (the likely author of The Protocols) a propagandist for the Okhrana working in France, worked for the new Bolshevik government after 1917. Continuity between the different organizations of the secret police in Russia, no matter the ideology or the leader of the regime in power, allowed institutional knowledge in disinformation and propaganda to be passed through to the present age. When the Internet opened up the world to the free flow of information Russia understood their opportunity to push conspiracy theories, misinformation, and propaganda onto populations around the world.
Conspiracy theories echo into our time as fears of the “deep state” and “the new world order” proliferates and finds succor in the lofty quarters of state power. In the United States and elsewhere people filled with hate, and crafty actors, such as the Russian state, are expertly spreading paranoia and distrust to persuade the world to serve their purposes.

Even now, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is taken as fact in some corners of the world and is endorsed as truthful by powerful leaders and communicators. Anti-Jewish conspiracy is alive and well and amplified by the Internet. Forgeries, conspiracies, and propaganda are tools wielded effectively by dedicated actors in the Communications Age. The first successful example may be The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The Death of the Classics

On the volumes written on the subject of education in the past 40 years, one strain has focused on the death of the so-called “classical education.” Through antiquity to perhaps 50 years ago, students studied the Classics. These Classics are the works of Ancient Greek and Roman writers, the foundation of Western literature and philosophy. Rapid changes and progressive knowledge have made much of this learning and writing dated and less relevant than they were to people before the Industrial Revolution. But what have we lost as a society and culture by not reading the “Classics”?

Critics of the death of the classical education point to the dearth of analysis and inference-based thinking in modern education – skills championed by reading the great authors of the past. But there are other aspects of the death of the classical education that strike me as relevant, especially as a lover of history. An unbroken chain of references, counterpoint, rebuttal, synthesis, and genesis have been violently severed in recent years.

Understanding our current moral and political debates without the guide of history and the Classics is almost impossible. Lack of imagination, of an understanding of the history of radical change and great thought, is perhaps responsible for some of our political dysfunction in the present moment in the United States. A reverence for the Constitution, but no understanding of how those ideas were formulated, is deleterious to a progressive and effective politics.

Great works of literature that could point to the Iliad and Odyssey as their spiritual and contextual predecessors are rendered foreign and unintelligible by an uncomprehending populace. General narrative structure for novels, plays, movies, and non-fiction works all owe their form to their predecessors. More than that, most great works up until the recent era have spoken and argued with the great thinkers of the classics. Many of those works survived by luck, but also by a kind of intellectual natural selection. Great works were copied and reproduced and emulated because they were recognized as being great works. Unmoored works produced in the recent era by those uneducated in the Classics run the risk of being intellectually inefficient, they may rehash old arguments and reinvent the wheel without producing original works. Historical references to the great moral dilemmas, matters of state, and war are lost and must be learned again without thoughtful guides.

Another, perhaps trivial matter, is what I would term the loss of Churchillian Moments. Someone well-read in Thucydides or Herodotus might recognize the importance of a historical turning point as its happening. Sensing pivotal moments, some leaders of the past knew they would be playing to history and therefore took altruistic, ruthless, and massive efforts to move public opinion or undertake certain actions. Winston Churchill, during the period leading up to World War 2, and during the War, made repeated references to the great victories and achievements of the past. Great Greek and Roman battles were his guide and he reacted with ferocity to any attempt to surrender to Nazi Germany because he understood how Britain would be viewed by history for its stubborn defense. For instance, if a great political challenge, like reacting to climate change, was undertaken in a historical context – that is, as if it were going to be read about like we read about the Fall of the Roman Republic, politicians might well stake everything on finding a solution.

Dynamic education, education that effects the processes by which people learn, understand, and make decisions, is important. But so is the material itself. STEM’s ascendancy does not eliminate learning about history, philosophy, and politics. We should make sure that if we are replacing the Classics that there is an understanding of what we are discarding.