Robert Mueller
Robert Mueller. White House photo

Democrats are approaching Robert Mueller’s hearings with a dangerous amount of naiveté.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler assumes that once Mueller puts before the American public the contents of his report, then the audience will understand what’s at stake and act accordingly: “We have to … let Mueller present those facts to the American people, and then see where we go from there, because the administration must be held accountable.”

Adam Schiff, Democratic Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, has the same view: “it is our hope that we can inform the American people of the full facts,” and then, everyone will understand how the Russians interfered with the election, how Trump welcomed that interference and then lied about it, etc.

Democrats assume that once people are presented with the unadorned facts, the conclusion that Trump must be impeached will follow as surely as night follows day. Facts are undeniable, and what you see is what you get.

But that is not how this works. As Thomas Kuhn showed in his landmark book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), even science is not the objective investigation of nature we assume. Instead, scientists see what their belief systems allow them to see, and they will discount anything that contradicts their beliefs.

In other words, we don’t judge on the basis of concrete facts. Instead, we judge on the basis of how our perceptions fit with the paradigms we use to understand reality. We accept what confirms what we already know to be true; we reject what doesn’t.

Peter C. Herman

Galileo discovered this fundamental truth when he invited a skeptic to look through his telescope. To prove that the moon has craters and Jupiter has moons, Galileo assumed that all you have to do is put your eye next to the lens, and look — the evidence would be obvious and incontrovertible. But in April 1610, Galileo ran into trouble. He stopped at Bologna to show off his telescope to Giovanni Magini, a renowned astronomer, rival, and proponent of the Ptolemaic universe (the belief that the sun revolves around the earth, and everything above the earth is perfect). Look! Galileo said. Just look and you will see! So Magini did.

It didn’t work. While Magini accepted that “on Earth [the telescope] works miracles; in the heavens it deceives.” Magini had nothing at stake in accepting that the telescope allowed one to see objects far distant. But Galileo’s telescope proved that everything Magini believed about the structure of the universe was wrong.  So he refused to accept “the full facts.” What looked like moons around Jupiter were not moons; instead, the instrument must be defective, and he accused Galileo of hawking “a fable.” Fake news, in other words. You can imagine the Galileo’s frustration.

Shakespeare explored the same issue a few years earlier in Othello (written around 1601-03). Shakespeare’s hero, like Galileo, like Schiff, like Nadler, is a great believer in facts, and he too assumes that what you see is what you get. He believes in objective truth. Faced with Iago’s insinuations that Desdemona has cheated on him, Othello refuses to live a life of suspicions. Instead, “I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove.” And by “prove,” Othello means seeing for himself.

Othello doesn’t realize until it’s too late that what you see is not what you get, that instead, Iago has created a “pageant / To keep [him] in false gaze.”  Shakespeare’s tragedy shows that Othello’s perceptions are skewed by his absorbing the racism surrounding him. Like the Venetians, Othello cannot believe that a white woman would choose him above all others. As he says, “Haply, for I am black.”

So, he sees what one part of him he wants to see, that Desdemona is unfaithful to him.  In fact, that’s what he demands. When Othello tells Iago, “Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore,” he’s both demanding that Iago objectively prove his accusations because he doesn’t want to believe them, and begging Iago to do the same, because he does. Reality isn’t objective, but manipulatable and dependent on what you want to see, and Othello, perverse as this may sound, really wants to believe his love a whore, because that would confirm his sense of reality.

There’s nothing Desdemona can say or do that will convince Othello of her innocence, just as there’s nothing Democrats can do to sway Republican support for Trump.

So, assuming as Nadler and Schiff do, that Mueller’s recitation of the facts will change minds is unfortunately a serious mistake.  Mueller’s repeating for the cameras the various ways that Trump tried to obstruct justice will no more result in Trump’s supporters declaring, “I have seen the light!” than Magini looking through the telescope ended with him admitting that Jupiter had moons, or Desdemona convincing Othello that she is innocent. Republicans are far too invested in the paradigm of Trumpian virtue assailed by Democratic perfidy to be swayed by Mueller’s facts.

Kuhn explained scientific revolutions by observing that change occurs slowly and incrementally until there is finally absolutely no choice in the matter and the paradigm shifts. Unfortunately, the same is true of American politics. We may have to go through the equivalent of the end of Othello (i.e., utter disaster) before change happens.

Peter C. Herman is a professor of English Literature at San Diego State University. He works on Shakespeare, Milton, and the literature of terrorism. He is the editor of the recent book Critical Concepts: Terrorism and Literature.

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