Do you remember eighth grade geometry, and the subject of axioms? An axiom is “a statement or proposition that is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true”. An example in math would be: “if x and y are real numbers, then the sum of x+y is also a real number”. There’s no need to prove it because it’s self evident. Axioms are important because mathematicians and philosophers build structures on their foundations.
Get the axiom wrong and the whole structure will ultimately be unsustainable. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “if you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction”. This gets practical in our moment because there are claims floating around in our social/political world and they’re being accepted as axiomatic.
“The lyin’ media”
“My inauguration crowd was bigger”
“I won the popular vote”
“I was wiretapped by the previous president”
I’m not writing here as democrat (I’m independent and voted both sides in the last election) and I’m not writing about health care, or the philosophy that lower taxes will be good for the economy. Both the conservative and progressive voices are vital in shaping our democracy; their ideas need collision with each other in order to arrive at next steps in moving a country forward – at least that was the intent of the framers. Further, the conservative world won the election and has both the right and responsibility to govern. All of us are on the bus, so we’d all do well to press for success.
It’s the very desire for democracy to succeed, whoever is in power, that causes me to write today. Whatever your party loyalties, know that a very dangerous foundation is being laid when a country is asked to believe things as if they were axiomatic, simply because they’re spoken by people with authority. While not technically axioms, we’re being asked to believe more and more things, “sans evidence”.
My plea is that you not go there, that we not go there as a nation, that we not allow our leaders to take us there.
Promises gone awry are one thing. (“If you like your current health care plan you can keep it”). They’re named. Apologies are made. We learn. Hopefully we move on.
This is a different time; a different leader. As David Brooks writes: “Everything about Trump that appalls 65% of America strengthens him with the other 35%”. This is an axiom problem. It stems from a readiness to believe things, simply because they’re declared by someone, in spite of the fact that, not only are they not self-evident, but all available evidence points in a different direction.
And so we come to the importance of character. Nobody is perfect, of course, and we know our previous presidents well enough to know that feet of clay have been in the Oval Office from the beginning. Still, the accumulation of spectacular declarations lacking any evidence is new territory. The credibility gap that is nothing more than fodder for late night comedians presently, will become the soil of national crisis when we’re asked to enter a sacrificial war because our leader makes an axiomatic declaration demanding it and, no surprise, most of the notion won’t buy it.
When I teach German students, I’m happy to report that they don’t take what I say at face value. They ask hard questions. They challenge my statements. They ask for evidence. I was taken aback by this years ago, when I first began teaching in Europe. When I asked why they’re “so skeptical” they told me it had to do with their history, that they’d learned the dangers of following blindly, and so built healthy skepticism into their education of youth.
“Following blindly” is becoming a habit these days and that shouldn’t surprise us, though it should alarm us. It’s in our nature to believe what we want to believe, rather than allow ourselves to be shaped by revelation that would be disruptive to our held views. Can I suggest that, rather than elevating any human leader, or source, to the status of infallible – all of us commit to thinking both critically, and open mindedly – to engaging with those holding differing views both civilly and honestly – and that we do it all with the goal of building on a foundation of finding truth rather than defending fallacious axioms.
So here we are, with truth claims being offered and the expectation declared that we believe them axiomatically, simply because authorities have spoken.
Well Mr. President, and speakers of both house and senate, and minority leaders of those same chambers, if there’s any good news in your deplorable, unabashedly partisan behaviors of late its this: your lies have become unbelievable, even to yourselves and the people of your own parties. Your truth claims are, I can only pray, creating a vast sea of skeptics who will no longer take what’s said at face value. And in the wake of your collective integrity failure, my hope and prayer is that the next round of elections won’t be the circus this previous round was. Instead, perhaps, people will once again look for people with integrity and elect them, weighing character above everything else.
…because one thing is certain throughout the history of the world: as goes the king, so goes the nation.