Raimond Gaita

The 2017 Wednesday Lecture series is called ‘The Intelligentsia in The Age of Trump’.

As usual, there will be six lectures. The phrase ‘The Age of Trump’, reiterated in the titles of most of the lectures will strike some people as mere hyperbole which, if taken seriously would undermine sober inquiry into the conditions of Donald Trump’s rise to power. Others believe that he took the degradation of political conduct and discourse to a new level, one that could barely have been imagined, was not predicted and now that it has happened, still leaves them incredulous. Even now, more than two years since he announced he would run for president and nine months since he was elected, many people still rub their eyes when they see him on television or read his tweets.

Who makes up the intelligentsia? For the purposes of this lecture, it is people who are, in different ways, responsible for the integrity of political discourse – journalists, writers, academics, lawyers, school teachers, and, of course, politicians. Many people seem to believe that because politicians have so comprehensively trashed any conception of the integrity or the dignity of politics, it is quixotic to add them to that list. Indeed, the phrase ‘the dignity of politics’ strikes many as an oxymoron, as does ‘morality and politics’. Over many years The Wednesday Lecture series has argued that we have reason to be disillusioned with politics but no justification to be cynical. The series this year will be no different. Indeed, I will argue in my lecture, ‘Truth and Truthfulness in Politics’, that even in politics, truth is a need of the soul.

Responsibility for the integrity of public and political discourse comes in different forms. Take academics as an example. I do not believe that they have, merely by virtue of being, academics, a responsibility to enter public discussion, not even if they are political theorists or philosophers or lawyers. But they all have a responsibility to protect the integrity of their disciplines and to ensure that the institutions – typically universities - that are home to those disciplines enable them to do it.  In the practice of their disciplines – in their personal example - they must reveal to their students why truth and truthfulness matter, and nourish the conditions under which it remains visible to them. That means that they must educate their students in the virtues of character in whose absence nothing counts as a serious concern for truth. It also means that their institutions must ensure that they don’t have to be heroes to do it.

Similar things, could be said about lawyers, journalists, politicians and writers. The distinguished speakers in this series will speak to those forms of responsibility – responsibility in the sense of what we must answer for in the past and the obligations we must honour to the future. Tim Lynch will speak on the universities, Guy Rundle on the social and political structures that enable populism, Helen Razer on the press (and more), Sundhya Pahuja on international law and Katerina Gaita on the morality and politics of climate change activism.

Responding to the title of my lecture a friend said, provocatively, that we do not need lectures on epistemology to understand Trump’s rise to power. We need to understand the economic forces behind him, he explained. To that I answer, yes and no. More importantly, I have assembled a list of speakers I hope will incline those who attend the series, to answer, yes and no. We do, of course, need to understand the economic and other for social forces that have taken us to this extraordinary moment in the history of post-war democratic politics. We need also the insights of social psychology and, of course, history. But in a time when it is commonplace to speak of post-truth, post-fact and post reason, we need to understand what concepts of reason and truth come to in politics. We need to understand what kind of discourse nourishes democratic practice and what degrades it.

Just as we must try to understand what we believe and why we believe it by locating our beliefs in in the context of social, political and psychological forces, so we must understand those forces by reference to the role our beliefs have played in shaping them. This a complex inquiry, but in the end, we must determine not only what we believe and how we came to believe it, but also what we should believe. The mere fact that there is now so much talk of fake news, post truth, post fact and so on, make makes it clear that we are unsure about what kind of ‘should’ that is – unsure about what legitimates belief and therefore what, in a democracy, distinguishes legitimate forms of persuasion from their many imposters

Raimond Gaita has curated the Wednesday Lectures for seventeen years. The series has generated four books: Why the War Was Wrong; Gaza: Morality Law and Politics; Muslims and Multiculturalism and Who’s Afraid of International Law.