Tuesday, May 23, 2006

SpeakTruthiness to Power

Our culture is falling apart. Culture, as someone put it, is "what you know everyone else knows". It's difficult to think of my ideas as naturally correct and obvious to all when many of those around me think that truth is relative (unless one is speaking it to power).

Looking back, I think it all started when we faked going to the moon. Silly, isn't it? The Moon, as if it's a place we could actually go, and not a nightly mass hallucination orchestrated by radio broadcasts and fluoridated water. When will you people wake up?

Is anyone alive now who remembers the moon before radio? Of course not, because contrary to popular misinformation, radio was invented by the Chinese in 1121 AD, and brought to Europe by Marco Polo.

Actually, the moon-landing-as-hoax inanity is just a short rest stop on the long journey from enlightenment to truthyism.

The Enlightenment, for those six people reading this far who aren't history weenies, was a period following the Protestant Reformation, from around 1600 to 1800, especially the 18th century, culminating in the American and French Revolutions. Enlightenment thinkers reached back across the centuries to classical Graeco-Roman philosophy, combining it with dominant Christian faith, to propound ideas such as natural law, scientific independence from theology, and the guillotine for anyone who wore a white wig.

Since the Enlightenment, or perhaps even before radio, we Westerners have generally interpreted physical events in the world -- an apple falling from a tree, mold growing on bread, a volcano making an island where there was once only ocean -- in terms of a growing knowledge of physical science. We generally saw in humankind's interaction with itself and the world the hand of either a Divine watchmaker or a Grandmaster, either observing or guiding our affairs for His own amusement. Some, of course, saw merely a watch or chessboard, with no attendant Creator or Player. But to whatever degree we viewed the world through eyes of Faith or eyes of Realism, we regarded it basic and unassailable that when the apple fell, it fell. Why it fell depended on your version of "why".

Emotions, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder, as any married man will promptly attest. That inherent relativism does not apply to trees falling in forests, refrigerator lights, or the actual state of being in the world; trees fall whether we are there or not, the refrigerator light does go out, and truth is truth, regardless of anyone's opinion of it.

When my children were old enough to understand, I explained it to them this way, so that the pernicious evil that is relative truth would not find fertile ground: "Do you see that building over there? Suppose it became abandoned, and fell into disrepair, and was torn down, its foundation removed, and grass planted where it used to be. Every last trace of it gone, and no record was kept of it. In a thousand years, would anyone believe that building had been there? Probably not. But their belief doesn't change the fact that the building was there."

The truth is not determined by its beauty or popularity, nor is falsehood proved by repugnance or unpopularity.

Existentialism, and its incident concept that all truth is relative, have found a new friend, or perhaps spawned an offspring lately. Criminologists have long known that witnesses to a crime will see the same events in sometimes wildly different ways, depending on their vantage point, mood, and psychological makeup. That observed phenomenon, and the wisdom of requiring "two or three witnesses" to establish the fact of guilt, have spawned a general belief in the social sciences that truth, along with beauty and emotion, is whatever we believe it to be.

As Francis Bacon (one of those Enlightenment guys) noted, relative truth is not a new concept. "What is Truth?", smirked Pilate, rinsing the blood from his hands. Like a used car with a new coat of wax, it seems unwilling to stay among its equals in the junkyard of ideas.

The willingness or eagerness to ignore Occam's Razor and distrust the obvious leads directly to reading into public affairs a variety of conspiracy theories. It leads not only to doubting the accepted explanation why an apple falls, but doubting that the apple fell at all.

Seen through this lens, it is completely unsurprising that the American Left, who generally accept the notion of relative truth, have difficulty adjusting to world events as they unfold. It also leads to some predictable and disheartening results. Among the items of scantily clad lunacy to which processing relative truth leads are:

  • Ronald Reagan made a secret pact with Iranian fundamentalists to make Jimmy Carter look bad
  • Bill Clinton was impeached solely because Republicans were "trying to overturn the election"
  • Al Gore would be president today if only Katherine Harris hadn't stolen the election in Florida
  • John Kerry would be president today if only Diebold hadn't stolen the election in Ohio
  • Osama bin Laden is a CIA operative who orchestrated 9/11 to justify the PATRIOT Act
  • Osama bin Laden was not involved in 9/11, but the CIA is framing him to empower President Bush
  • Dan Rather's paltry attempt to impugn President Bush with forged documents
That list (some of which are from a 2004 article by Oliver North) barely scratches the surface.

I'm not sure if Stephen Colbert realized what an apt term his "truthiness" would turn out to be. It describes so well the activity of those who view truth as relative, since by their standards there is no Truth, there are only viewpoints and ideas that are "truthy". But this clamoring, stumbling, pressured speech of "truth" to the powerful presumes otherwise. Why the urgency? Why the fervor? After all, how can you be sure the apple fell, or that it was even an apple?

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