There was a time in America, not so long ago, when speaking the truth was admirable and knowing the truth essential. Children were raised to tell the truth, with truth as the moral of every story. Liars suffered all manner of shame, even an enlarged nose. As legend had it, America’s Founding Father, George Washington, as a boy, took responsibility for a fallen cherry tree rather than lie.
How’s that for a revealing origin’s story.
Over the ensuing 250 years, Americans knew to be on guard for cynical and sleazy embellishers and spin doctors. Liars, of course, have always been among us. But like free speech, the grandeur of truth evolved as a national ethos.
Not so much anymore. Lying is not quite the character flaw it once was. And knowing the truth has lost its moral urgency.
It wasn’t that Americans suddenly couldn’t “handle the truth!” –that nifty bit of dialogue from the play and movie, A Few Good Men. The story involved a military court martial concerning a Code Red, an “off-the-book” form of discipline that resulted in the death of a weak solider.
Human beings can actually process (“handle”) truth quite well. It’s the lies that seem to always present the most problems. What happens when we can’t tell the difference?
We are facing an altogether different kind of Code Red these days. Truth itself is under siege. The attack comes mostly from domestic enemies who profit from mass confusion, have learned how to weaponize words and distort their meanings, know how to manipulate social cues (especially on social media), and threaten those who care about veracity.
The Woke Left, and the strangling police state they have imposed on the rest of us (the only form of police, by the way, they will happily fund), along with mainstream media, Big Tech behemoths, and the faculty lounges of woke universities—with capitulating corporations added for good measure—is waging guerilla warfare on truth. They have remade truth as more personal than universal, more malleable than objective. This is truth, au couture, specialized even if unverified. One’s own truth can be automatically adopted as facts on demand.
The days when unbearable truths were more endurable than not knowing the truth at all are gone. The moral universe once demanded that truths be acknowledged, confirmed, and memorialized. It required a general consensus around agreed-upon truths. Truths were knowable and necessary, tantamount to a human right. We were entitled to them—whether we can “handle” them or not.
This was especially the case with lies, which were looked upon as poison. The Ancient Greeks learned this lesson from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, where the moral foundations of a city, along with its actual columns and pillars, would rot and crumble under the weight of a hidden truth and its corresponding lie. The King of Thebes realized that a truth must be uncovered, even if it led to his downfall. No matter—it’s what a righteous leader must do.
When Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s landmark book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, was first published in Germany in 1996, there were reports of thousands of younger Germans reading the book, and then clamoring to hear him speak during his book tour. Why the overwhelming interest? After all, German students had been learning about the Holocaust for decades.
What made this book so special is that it focused not on the guilt of Nazis, but the complicity and criminal behavior of ordinary Germans. Young Germans finally wanted to know the truth about their grandparents and parents. They had been reassured that none of their family members were card-carrying Nazis. (At some point, in Germany and France, it seemed as though no one’s father ever met a Nazi or linked arms with Vichy, respectively.) Goldhagen’s book was the first to make the case that even ordinary Germans—those without formal Nazi affiliations—had also committed atrocities. Many older Germans wanted Goldhagen out of their country and his book burned. Millions of younger Germans wouldn’t let him go.
That’s how important truth ultimately is to a society. There is great fortitude in the human spirit not to succumb to amnesia and forgetting. Truthful revelations lift old burdens and impose new obligations. Accepting truths is a sign of humanity. Indeed, without the closure and reckoning of truths, all claims to civilization are false, the land is lost, and other nations will, or at least should, turn away. (See Turkey and its falsifications over its Armenian genocide.)
Today, however, it is not unreasonable to ask: What is Truth? Are there actual truths we must know, that can be known, that we should care about knowing? Not colliding opinions where the last one standing has his or her truth validated—even if it is an outright lie. Just the simple truth, simply put, scrappily asserting itself amid so many lies.
Hardly likely when the entire concept of truth has been corrupted. We have lost confidence in our capacity to recognize one. Time and again, we have shown misplaced trust in the arbiters of truth. What has remained is a deep cynicism over whether anyone has something truthful to say.
For instance, our governmental leaders, the media’s analysts and columnists, academics, and scientists, have all been slippery about the truth—dodgier than perhaps ever before. Should the coronavirus be called the Wuhan Virus? Do we still need to wear masks? Is there an actual “crisis” on our southern border, or is the surge, predicted to surpass 2 million by the end of the year, just an ordinary reimaging of Ellis Island, with huddled masses now replaced by migrants wading through the Rio Grande? Was Hunter Biden a legitimate businessman in China and Ukraine, or was he, and his father, trading on his family name in one of those quid pro quo arrangements—ironically, the very thing that was the subject of President Donald Trump’s first Senate impeachment trial.
Speaking of Trump, was the Mueller Report a gigantic waste of taxpayers’ dollars, or did President Trump actually bless Russia’s meddling in our presidential election? In another story, it now appears, based on a report from the Department of Interior, that protestors in Lafayette Square on June 1, 2021 were not forcibly removed so that President Trump could have a photo-op holding a Bible outside of a church. Yet that’s the story everyone heard. Correcting the record seems to be a low priority.
The “Big Lie” itself is not true—on either side of the political spectrum. President Trump didn’t win in a landslide; an election victory wasn’t stolen. Nonetheless, there was much about the election that was questionable—both under the Constitution and common sense. Election rules were modified by courts and state election officials, and not by state legislatures, as provided for under the Constitution. Voting regulations were inconsistent, statewide—also problematic under the Constitution. There were many observed irregularities and statistical discrepancies. Many ballots with defects must have been counted. In a different year, they would have been disqualified. Of the hundreds of election workers, in sworn affidavits, alleged to have witnessed some malfeasance, do we believe all were lying?
“Systemic” or “structural racism” is another talking point that benefits from the appearance of truth but just isn’t true—no matter how many times it gets repeated. Yes, prejudicial attitudes still persist in the United States. The redlining of Black neighborhoods has surely suppressed the value of Black-owned real estate and, for others, denied the chance of ownership. We haven’t properly acknowledged the overall impact of slavery and Jim Crow on generations of African Americans. And perhaps a meaningful gesture toward reparations is long overdue.
But there is nothing “systematic” about lingering racism. The system is not responsible for it. The Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, not to mention federal and state laws ending racial discrimination in public accommodations, housing, hiring and placement in schools, were all promulgated precisely to end systemic racism.
The media has only made things worse, contributing to the “fake news” phenomenon rather than distancing itself from it. In 2016, Eastern European websites concocted fake headlines to generate traffic and advertising revenue on social media. The real press found common cause, realizing that anything with Trump in the title would sell news. The more outlandish or exaggerated the story the better, especially since he was already hopelessly despised. Eventually Trump himself latched onto the phrase and turned “fake news” into a MAGA mascot.
And he wasn’t entirely wrong in doing so.
Unflattering reportage on the president was fair game, of course. But he was also calling attention to slanted news coverage, stories not properly sourced—rushing to judgment with the worst possible spin. Red state voters took notice, which caused the audience share at Fox News and Newsmax TV to jump, while CNN, which Trump targeted as ground zero for fake news, lost nearly 70% of its viewers in the key demographic. One doesn’t have to behave as un-presidential as Donald Trump to see when reporters have taken sides against the present occupant of the Oval Office. Just ask George W. Bush.
What has become obvious in this new era of truth decay is that the press is more interested in shaping stories than telling truths. News stories are now simply “narratives,” in which readers and viewers are directed what to think. Best practices now include moralizing. The distinction between news and editorial is now forever blurred.
In the aftermath of the recent war in Gaza between longtime combatants Hamas and Israel, 450 journalists who work for major media outlets signed a letter stating that they will no longer provide balanced, impartial reporting when it comes to their coverage of Israel, which they deem to be an apartheid state that commits crimes against humanity. From now on, that’s the only story they are planning to tell.
Who knew they had a choice?
Israel is not an apartheid state. The ruling coalition includes an Islamist political party. Arab Israelis serve on the Supreme Court. An Ethiopian Israeli was crowned Miss Israel. Jews and Arabs eat in the same restaurants and ride the same public transit. Moreover, no country that has faced tens of thousands of rockets over the past 15 years, aimed at their civilian population, can fairly be accused of crimes against humanity while retaliating in self-defense. The war crime that is surely being committed is Hamas using their own children as human shields.
Yet, there are now 450 journalists from such august houses of journalism as the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, who have made it known that Israel’s side of the story will not be included in their coverage. The defense of Israel’s homeland is no truth they wish to tell, and therefore, is no truth at all.
Newspaper slogans such as “All the news that’s fit to print” and “Democracy Dies in Darkness” are now laughable—catchy but disingenuous given what’s deemed newsworthy in the New York Times and Washington Post, respectively. How is “fitness” determined, and why are so many stories consigned to “darkness”? Is the flavor of President Joe Biden’s ice cream fetishes more fit to print than the apparent ethics violations of his son?
How did we get here? When did “truth” become a presumptive lie?
The legal system didn’t help. Cynicism over how justice is dispensed has been compounded by the realization that, under the law, facts and truth are different things. In a courtroom, the jury is the fact-finder. They determine the facts of the case while the judge applies the law. It is not the jury’s job, however, to investigate whether any of those facts, once found, are actually true. They are not permitted to consider anything other than what was presented in court—the evidence at trial. Lawyers can transform an unconvincing, unrebutted piece of evidence into a finding of fact. Jury deliberations are confined to those courtroom antics alone. Whether facts bear any relationship to what actually happened outside the courtroom is a different matter altogether.
When someone declares, “There’s no justice,” they’re also saying, “Truth doesn’t matter under the law.” And they would be correct.
The #MeToo movement has introduced an altogether new twist on whether truths can be proven. It’s all in the slogan: “Believe Survivors.” If that’s what they insist juries hear, or internally believe, at the outset, then what good is the presumption of innocence? Believing victims without hesitation means that the accused can’t be telling the truth. Why then have a trial at all? Simply dispense with the Confrontation Clause of the 6th Amendment altogether.
Truth under the law can’t amount to very much if there is no consequence to lying. Committing perjury under oath, “swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God,” makes for a nice dramatic moment, but witnesses lie on the stand all the time—without any consequence. Perjury is the least prosecuted crime in America. Prosecutors neither have time for it, nor care very much about it.
The tragic twist is that liars may accidentally end up as truth-tellers in a system that doesn’t care either way. A society that was once known for dumbing down is now doubling down by simply turning the truth off.
We shouldn’t have expected better. Not with universities overrun with theories of deconstruction and post-structuralism, where truth is regarded as untrustworthy and reality itself, and the language that describes it, is not to be believed. Post- and anti-colonialism cares little for truth, elided by the fixed worldview of unequal power structures. A new brand of imperialism somehow survived the abolishment of colonies and continues to impose its will, under the banner of White Supremacy, over people of color.
But where are these powerful white supremacists? Do they run Fortune 500 companies? Are they the mayors of Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles? Why then would they allow for white poverty? “White privilege” doesn’t seem to exist in Appalachia where poverty is abundant. Moreover, the reemergence of colonialist attitudes and impediments to minority success hasn’t seemed to hold back Asian-, Indian- and Jewish-Americans, or, for that matter, Black achievement.
How did Barack Obama get elected president of a white supremacist nation, doing so with the support of a majority of white voters? And for two terms!
The Frankfurt School of rehashed Marxism, with its sexy cultural and literary bent, hasn’t helped uphold the truth. The distortions of capitalism means that nothing ever said by someone wearing a suit should ever be believed. But isn’t it possible to drive a nice car and be truthful? Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, so hip among the radical hippies of the 1960s, may have, ironically, served as the playbook for African-American law professors who concocted Critical Race Theory. The target now, however, is no longer “class,” but “whiteness”—with sides drawn according to identity.
Critical race theorists, and their intersectional bedfellows, have no time or tolerance for truth. They’re too busy admonishing the politically incorrect. Similarly, the cause for human rights has been shattered by the subjectivity of moral relativism. Human rights abuses are re-characterized as cultural norms. The beheading of women and torching of homosexuals is not barbarism. It’s simply the idiosyncratic ways of a different culture. Who are we to tell them what to do?
How can truth possibly survive such asphyxiations? Everyone has become a self-appointed expert—on everything. No one possesses the absolute truth, because everyone has their own—the story they cling to, the identity that shaped it, the “narrative” that belongs, privately, to them alone—even if the story is no more truthful than a fairytale. Worse still, that story can never be corrected or misappropriated by others. It’s true because the teller says so. Nothing need be verified.
The once playfully pagan holiday of Halloween is now, in this harsh atmosphere of identity politics, nakedly racist. Dressing up as someone else for the night? Assuming the identity of another? The audacity of such revelers. A costume can’t be used to unmask what may already be false.
No point letting the truths of others interfere with the only truth that matters.