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Today I read Al Gore’s long essay in Rolling Stone about (what else?) the reality of anthropogenic climate change and the urgent need for action in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and while I agree with the substance of what he’s saying, I was intrigued by this passage:

After World War II, a philosopher studying the impact of organized propaganda on the quality of democratic debate wrote, “The conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power has attacked the very heart of the distinction between true and false.”

The context of this passage is a condemnation of the organizations and individuals who profit from our current lax policy on greenhouse gas emissions and are sowing doubt among the public about the reality of climate change. Gore is clearly using this quote to back up his belief that when powerful institutions use their money and influence to spread misinformation, we the people will find it more difficult to know what is true and what is false. I think this is probably true, but I was curious about this mysterious person he calls “a philosopher.” Could it be one of the gods of 20th century liberal political philosophy like John Rawls or Karl Popper? Maybe the philosopher made this statement as part of a scathing condemnation of relativism. In a previous era, I would have had to comb through a library full of philosophy books or just ask dozens of people who were familiar with philosophy until I found someone who knew where this quote came from. Now, thanks to Google and online texts, I was able to locate and read the source within seconds. It is from “Aphorism 71” of Minima Moralia by the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno. Now I am something of a philosophical novice, but I immediately recognized Adorno as one of the founders of the Frankfurt School and of Critical Theory, someone who would be unlikely to agree on much of anything with Karl Popper, or indeed, with Al Gore. I don’t know very much about Adorno’s philosophy specifically, but I do know that he is one of the main influences of the contemporary philosophers who take delight both in turning questions of truth into questions of power and in attacking the very heart of the distinction between true and false. So, I thought, what if Adorno’s meaning is exactly opposite the meaning that Gore is intending?

Here is Adorno’s “Aphorism 71” in its entirety (translation: © 2005 Dennis Redmond, Gore’s passage highlighted):

Pseudomenos [Greek: liar]. – The magnetic power which ideologies exert over human beings, while they have become entirely threadbare, is to be explained beyond psychology, in the objectively determined decay of logical evidence as such. It has come to the point that lies sound like truth, and truth like lies. Every statement, every news report, every thought is preformed by the centers of the culture-industry. What does not bear the trusted mark of such preformation lacks credibility in advance, all the more so that the institutions of public opinion garnish what they send out with a thousand factual proofs and all the power of conviction which the total apparatus can bring to bear. The truth which would like to do something against this, bears not merely the character of something improbable, but is moreover too poor to break through in direct competition with the highly concentrated apparatus of dissemination. The German extreme sheds light on the entire mechanism. When the Nazis began to torture, they did not merely terrorize people both inside and outside the country, but were at the same time the more secure against exposure, the more savage the atrocities became. Its sheer unbelievability made it easy to disbelieve what, for the sake of peace, no-one wanted to believe, while simultaneously capitulating before it. Those who trembled in fear told themselves that things were much exaggerated: well into the war, the details of the concentration camps were unwelcome in the English press. Every horror in the enlightened world turns necessarily into a horror story [Greuelmärchen]. For the untruth of the truth has a kernel, to which the unconscious eagerly [begierig anspricht] turns. It does not only wish for horror. Rather Fascism is in fact less “ideological,” to the extent it immediately proclaimed the principle of domination, which was elsewhere hidden. Whatever humane principles the democracies marshaled to oppose it, were effortlessly rebutted by pointing out that these do not concern all of humanity, but merely its false image, which Fascism is man enough to divest itself of. So desperate however have human beings become in their culture, that they are ready to cast off the frail signs of a better state of affairs, if only the world does their worse side the favor of confessing how evil it is. The political forces of opposition however are compelled to make use of the lie, if they do not wish to be completely extinguished as completely destructive. The deeper their difference from the existent, which nevertheless grants them shelter from a still worse future, the easier it is for the Fascists to nail them down as untruths. Only the absolute lie still has the freedom to say anything of the truth. The confusion of truth with lies, which makes it nearly impossible to maintain the difference between the two, and which makes holding on to the simplest cognition a labor of Sisyphus, announces the victory of the principle in logical organization, even though its military basis has been crushed. Lies have long legs: they are ahead of their time. The reconfiguration of all questions of truth into those of power, which truth itself cannot evade, if it does not wish to be annihilated by power, does not merely suppress the truth, as in earlier despotisms, but has reached into the innermost core of the disjunction of true and false, whose abolition the hired mercenaries of logic are anyway feverishly working towards. Thus Hitler, who no-one can say if he died or escaped, lives on.

This is pretty hard for me to understand, which is not surprising, given Critical Theory’s well-earned reputation for obscure writing and a Socratic reluctance to clearly state one’s beliefs. Adorno seems to be much less of a relativist than his intellectual heirs, but the “truth” he is defending is probably Marxism, and the “ideologies” he is attacking probably include the liberal political philosophy of Locke, Mill, and Rawls that Al Gore holds so dear. People who have studied Critical Theory more than I have may correct me on this interpretation, but Adorno seems an unlikely source of political inspiration for Gore. I don’t know if it would be quite accurate to call this quote mining, since I don’t fully understand what Adorno is trying to say. But I’m pretty sure that Al Gore doesn’t either.

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