Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. Voltaire.
You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. Jesus.
I often remind people who look disdainfully at philosophy and history as “impractical subjects” that ideas have consequences. What begins in academia and the arts eventually overflows the confines of those containers, staining everything else. “Postmodernity” is something I’ve been hearing about for a few decades now, though its roots are much older. At the risk of oversimplifying a bit, I’ll note that a skepticism about knowing anything with certitude is a view that runs deep in postmodern thought. It’s resulted in the deconstruction of literature, the doubting of certain historical narratives, and even the notion of holding science with an open hand, as Newtonian physics gave way to quantum physics and a measure of “mystery” and “uncertainty.”
Postmodernity didn’t arise in a vacuum; it arose because people lie; not even maliciously necessarily. They lie toward a justified end. They lie because they believe the lie created by their cultural lens. They lie because they only know part of the truth. But untruth, whatever the basis, happens. When people lie, and later it becomes evident that they were lying, it creates a cynicism regarding truth. The prevailing narrative about Columbus Day is one example. When I was a child, we celebrated “Columbus’ discovery of America” as three ships sailed from Europe to expand European ‘influence’ among the uncivilized who needed it. Today we tell a different story.…or should.
Politicians regularly tell lies, like these told by Obama:
FEB. 24, 2009.“We import more oil today than ever before.” (Oil imports peaked in 2005.)
MAR. 10, 2009.“Our high school dropout rate has tripled in the past thirty years.” (It had actually declined by a third.)
JUNE 1, 2009.“If you actually took the number of Muslims [sic] Americans, we’d be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world.” (Almost 60 other countries were home to more Muslims.)
Bush was no better, of course, with his “weapons of mass destruction” basis for the invasion of Iraq, along with his VP’s declaration that our inability to find any evidence merely proves how good they are at hiding them!
The seeds of cynicism and doubting that truth is knowable, though, are ripening. The challenge, of course, is that none of us can live forever in the land of agnostic uncertainty. It’s unendurable, because our values need to be rooted in, at the least, what we believe to be reality. So, needing to find a reality in which to believe, we’ve increasingly chosen to simply identify with the view that appeals to us. Then, we stay there, closing our ears to any possibility that our tribe, our view, might need adjusting. “The other side is lying” we say to ourselves, and they likely are, at least a little bit. The lies of the other, however, don’t make your view true!!
When Speaker Pelosi calls a wall “immoral” she neglects to mention that Democrats have supported walls, and fences, and barriers in the past, recently offering a much higher number of dollars to border security which would have included walls. When Democrats say that arrests at the border are at an all time low, they neglect to mention that families seeking asylum are coming to the border in record high numbers, and are crossing, on foot, barriers designed to stop vehicles, not foot traffic.
This flood creates a backlog of asylum seekers that’s now growing even more rapidly due to the fact that none are being processed during a government shutdown.
Why I don’t I hear democrats talking about these things? It’s because they’ve chosen to believe a narrative that is in need of nuanced clarification, at the least. It’s their tribe’s talking points, so they parrot.
The other side’s no better – in fact, is worse – much worse. Trump’s bent toward lying is well documented, beginning with crowd size at his inauguration, and continuing on to his talking points about the reason we need a border wall. In spite of reality, Trump and his team continue to offer “alternative reality” and his followers seem to parrot it, just like the left does with theirs.
The result: “Morality is at stake!” “Security is at stake!” Both sides shout, louder, longer. Both sides dig in. As a result, healthy food, safe flights, small business loans, vital surgeries, mortgage payments, car payments, and a million other things, all conspire to shout that lies “steal, kill, and destroy”, just like Jesus said they would.
I can’t unpack all the cultural trends that have brought us to this new low, but I’ll observe this:
Unless “we the people” recover a longing for truth from those we elect, and demand that truth be told, and hold leaders relentlessly accountable for lying, the future will only be worse. Weaker. More violent. Louder shouting. Poorer. Hungrier. More tribal.
Yes, I know there are politics involved in this particular example, but the peace we’ve made with lying, the peace we’ve made with calling accurate reporting “fake news”, the peace we’ve made with “alternative facts” will sink our ship. Both sides are guilty. The guiltiest party of all though: We the people, who’ve created a culture void of thoughtful discourse, reason, and the spirited pursuit of truth.
NEXT UP: Knowing Truth in a Post Modern World.