“Truth is something outside yourself, something to be discovered, and not something you can make up as you go along.”—George Orwell, 1944.“There are no facts.”—Michael Foucault, 1968
The two quotes above illustrate both the wide divergence of views of truth that have come to prevail and the drift in the conception of truth from the respect for objective truth that undergirded everything from religion to science to the postmodern view that there is no truth other than claims made by the powerful to justify their power. The American Enterprise magazine devoted an entire issue in 1999 to the examination of the destruction of truth in Western society and the impact on our culture, politics, and governance. It is not a pretty picture. You know the recent history of the celebrated fabrications, such as the Tawana Brawley “rape”, the Rigoberta Menchu book on Guatemala, the falsified journalism of The Boston Globe’s Mike Barnicle and The New Republic’s Stephen Glass, not to mention the stream of dissembling and prevarication from the Clinton White House. The amazing and disheartening thing about these cases, and many others, is the absence of outrage and the fact that in many instances, the person who exposed the lie bore the brunt of the criticism. As Christopher Hitchens has noted, “there is a tendency in our postmodern discourse to inquire first about whose truth and which power stands to gain, and only then to take an interest in things like verification. Lying and perjury and neat evasions and sordid double talk are not just excused but praised and justified by many elites.” In the culture wars of the past thirty years, truth has been a casualty, not only particular truths, but allegiance to the very ideal of truth as an indispensable component of a just and moral life. Noted philosopher Richard Rorty approvingly describes American pragmatism as our “refusal to believe in the existence of truth in the sense of something with authority over human beings.” How did we get here?
Recently, I read Time for Truth, by Os Guinness, a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum. He targets the casual acceptance by much of contemporary American society of the idea that it is legitimate to create an entirely fictional self-image and pass it off as the truth. He blames philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche for setting in motion “perspectivism” (there are many kinds of truth, therefore there is no truth) as a wholesale assault on truth. And, as postmodernists argue, if there is no truth, then nothing is left but a struggle for power. It doesn’t take long to figure out that most of the past century’s brutalities were perpetrated by regimes that believed this. Guinness further identifies “a profound crisis of cultural authority in the West, of beliefs, traditions, and ideals.”
Unfortunately, much of this crisis has been aided and abetted by our elite institutions of higher education, particularly in the humanities, where truth is not always explored or celebrated, but is criticized or “deconstructed”. Fortunately, however, although too many Americans find it necessary to debate whether or not character and fidelity to truth in our political leaders really matters, pure moral relativism and disregard for truth has not yet spread widely and deeply. Let us hope it doesn’t spread much further, for without respect for objective truth in our institutions and opinion leadership, it will be impossible to sustain justice or freedom.