Do You Want to Know a Secret? (when the individual ‘trumps’ society).
At the beginning of his lectures on Pragmatism, William James states, rather coquettishly, that the one thing we are truly interested in with regard to another fellow human is his view of the universe; in a word, her philosophy. The outlook of institutions is, when placed beside this, a trifling matter. This is so because everyone supposedly knows where such edifices stand. Not only does their physical location attest to this position, but also do its policies, its indictments, its edicts, and its collective actions. Similarly, our cultural products and creations. A book may be read, one might say, but not so much a person. And hence the enduring interest in what the other person actually thinks about things, ideally everything. Now this does assume that the other does in fact think at all, or at least a little, from time to time. And not only does she exercise her human intellect which is our shared and universal birthright, but that they do so specifically regarding matters cosmic and profound. If it is up to the philosopher to question after the meaning of life in general, surely it is yet up to each of us to examine one’s own life for any possible or potential purpose.
But in 1907, when James first published these legendary lectures, there was no internet, a space in which private and public are blurred to the point of being indistinguishable, there were not technologies that could, in a matter of a scant few hours, obliterate all life on earth, and there was not in existence a pressing populist sense that only the few both knew the truth, were hiding it from the rest of us, and more than either of these, were conspiring to use it for nefarious ends. Around the same time as ‘Pragmatism’, however, the very first contemporary contempt of the intellect and of that wider truth would appear in print, the so-called ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, a Czarist political tract, the contents of which were entirely fraudulent, meant to stir up Anti-Semitism in Russia, and so James’ popular lecture series at once became all the more relevant to any thinking person.
Its relevance has not waned over the decades. When it was discovered that former president Trump had been storing a multitude of classified documents at his resort, there was an atmosphere of conspiracy in the rarified air of high office. The deeper question is of course, ‘why do such documents even exist in a democracy?’ but one searches in vain for anyone asking after this and speaking of its implications. Instead, we have a political falderal that seeks to hobble a rival’s bid of re-election, nothing more. If many fans see Trump as the fullest expression of their own angst and discontent regarding politics in particular but also authority in general, in projecting in this manner, they have perhaps unwittingly given an individual a larger-than-life persona; in another word, they have made the one into the many.
Storing what are already institutional secrets secretly, the one has presumed to speak for the many, to safeguard their interests, to vouchsafe their collective trust. But at the same time, we may duly and reasonably inquire, are any of the contents of these myriad if secular missals truly so breathtakingly revelatory that it really matters where they are stored, and by extension, who among us happens to see them? I, for one, seriously doubt both counts. Simmel, writing at the same time as James, famously characterizes the secret as a manner in which to seal a bond between two people. It is a different thing, at least in practice, to use secrets to make intimate the trust between institutions and persons. More realistically, such a device enforces a bond that we might otherwise not ourselves have chosen. I find it almost laughably unlikely that Trump himself actually sat around and read any of these documents, filling to the brim banker’s boxes piled high in bathrooms and home theatres and the like. Aside from sheer boredom, many of these kinds of texts would be written in a highly technical manner, for ‘State secrets’ emanate from a wide variety of specialized bureaus, each with their own attendant bureaucracies in place. One would quickly tire of skimming through them, and their oh-so-important contents, presumably saving some and damning others, at least in the eyes of unelected public servants, would begin to go in one proverbial ear and out the other.
If one protests at this juncture that all of this is beside the point, I would agree, but only if the point in question centers around the very idea of the secret in the first place. In all serious social contexts secrecy is inadmissible. It has no place in the marriage conversation, it sabotages friendship and love alike, it undermines the social contract, it sullies one’s spiritual beliefs and within such promotes the illusion of solipsism. We are quite aware that the secret should be left to childhood intrigues, where bonds which may be sealed will nonetheless be temporary and contain nothing so inflammatory that empires shall fall and Man alike. Why else would we imagine a Godhead from which one can keep no secrets at all?
Since our ideal relationship, the one sensed as most noble and honorable the both, is one of perfect transparency – the origin of this idea in Western mythological narrative may be found in the character of the language by which the Gods themselves communicated to one another; Hermes, their messenger, spoke the Logos in such a way that no interpretation was ever required, something we humans manifestly cannot achieve – why then deliberately further depart from this condition in our merely human affairs? Trump is neither hermetic nor a hermeneut. He possesses no arcane alchemy nor does he engage in exegesis. Neither sorcerer nor philosopher, the former president is thus condemned to be a warehouse manager, not even an archivist. Beyond any of this, surely in our digital age all of these secret contents can be found any number of other places, in virtual form. Even the idea of carrying and hoarding actual paper documents seems outlandishly backdated. If there is any scandal to Trump’s actions, it is the sense that he is implying that as an individual, he may himself take on the public trust and make it private.
But our modern State, as an institution born of, and borne on, that selfsame public trust, has, in its human minions, already committed to doing just that. Trump is a mere extension of the logic of governance and the provenience of government. And the philosophy underlying both is a narrow expression of Pragmatism. Neither idealist nor empiricist – the very use of secrecy departs from our ‘ideal’ social relations, as we have just seen, as well as obscuring a clear or ‘empirical’ view of the facts at hand, if any – a politicized pragmatism bends its sails to what the few imagine the many are feeling. If Pragmatism itself is taken to mean what C.S. Pierce, who introduced the term in 1878, meant by it; that, in a word, only our conduct matters; that the outcomes, the facts, the realities of our ideas count and the origins of such figure much less so, then we can only indict ourselves for being far too generous in our trust of the State itself.
For the present reality we, in our shared but flawed apprenticeship of sorcery and the relative absence of any interpretive analysis of which that would elevate us beyond being mere inept pupils, have conjured, is one of faux secrets embedded in a true culture of secrecy. The latter constitutes a far more serious threat to general human freedom as well as to our imaginations – distracted and decoyed as they can be by amorphous conspiracy ‘theories’ – and to our intellects than ever does the former. Hitler was elected, Trump was elected, Putin was elected, and so on. If you want to know the secret of our political discontents, look no further than our juvenile tendency to fetishize possession and thus our desire to be the one who possesses. Trump boasted of having secrets, not keeping them. For him, and for ourselves, the secret is simply another commodity, replete with the marque of mysterious status.
Speaking of alchemical conspiracies, the most interesting thing about the supposed ‘interviews’ of extraterrestrials to be found on the internet is their classification as secrets. There is one recorded as ‘Department of Naval Intelligence 47’; that is, a full forty-seven levels above ‘top’ secret’! We may take this more as a mark of the childhood game of secrecy, of cliques, and of the sealing of bonds amongst juvenile bands of brothers and sisters both. To any mature mind, such things are foolish at best. Pragmatically, however, they create both a sense of expectation and alienation in the outsider, a sense of propriety and entitlement amongst insiders. If the apparent content of such top of the tops secrets wasn’t itself so vacuous and irrelevant, there would be yet more serious social problems afoot. Even so, the decoy effect of such actions of our latter-day ‘Elders of Zion’ is such that it ironically, but perhaps quite purposively, makes the most glaring inequities and indeed iniquities of our contemporary social relations both at home and abroad less ideal and empirical at the same time. That which should never be secret is made more difficult to know due to the fetish of secrecy. Insofar as any of us participate in this pragmatically defined outcome, we should all be, and quite publicly so, behind bars.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over 55 books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over twenty years.