[This essay is a companion to the previous “Dark Gods” piece. It originally appeared at Eternity Road on January 23, 2006. — FWP]
I often come to the end of a typical Eternity Road essay thinking that there’s more to say on the subject, but that I’ve already tried my audience’s patience to the limit. Probably a lot of opinion writers feel the same. We’re well stuffed with words, every one of which screams for release, and the opportunities to vent them are seldom as copious as we’d like.
You’re probably a bit bemused by the above, since the essay to which the title refers was a 5500-word monstrosity that took most of your day to digest. How much more could anyone have to say after a tirade of such length?
Judge for yourself.
As you’re aware, I have “sidelines” in a number of fields. One of those is strategic and tactical planning. Few persons take up that study, for any number of reasons. Yet its relevance to current conditions can hardly be doubted. Indeed, it’s wider than most persons would suspect.
Probably the most important breakthrough in military science this past century was the Germans’ strategic / tactical revolution, which they put to its fullest use in World War I. Prior to the Bismarck / Von Schlieffen era of the German General Staff, it was customary to hurl one’s main force directly at the main force of the enemy, in a simple trial of strength against strength. If there was a theory behind this practice, it would be that victory requires the defeat of the enemy’s main force; therefore, to direct one’s attention to anything else is counterproductive.
What this line of thought neglected to consider is that an armed force is a complex vector quantity. It has many components, and at any given time is aimed in a particular direction.
German strategic thinkers who arrived at this insight sculpted strike plans that emphasized pitting strength against weakness. First, they reasoned, one must penetrate the enemy force; second, one must locate the essential supports for that force which are easiest to destroy or disperse; finally, one can “mop up” the nominally stronger elements from behind, as they will be unable to maintain themselves after their arteries have been severed. This gave rise to the Schlieffen Plan, which very nearly won World War I in its first six weeks, and to infiltration tactics by which the German Army held off the combined British, French, and American Armies for more than four years.
Among today’s military thinkers, this progression is an “of course” matter. That makes it easy to underestimate the impact it had when introduced on the fields of Belgium and France in 1916. It also underplays the significance such strategy can have in political and ideological combat.
In the ideological clashes of today, the attention of the greater mass of Americans is focused on secondary matters. Arguments over national defense, tax rates, social policy directions, regulatory structures, and so forth continue to rage, but with less prospect of being satisfactorily settled than ever before…because a critical pinion for all argument of any sort has been undermined near to collapse.
The pinion of which I speak is the concept of objective truth.
It’s hard for most people to grasp that objective truth is a conception, rather than something self-evident. Yet furious philosophical battles have been fought over it. The negative side has never conceded defeat. They’ve advanced reason after reason to doubt the existence of objective reality. As each one is destroyed, they shift to another. In a sense, their proposition is its own strongest weapon, for they respond rather frequently to even the most obvious points by saying, “No, that’s your truth” — an implicit claim that it’s the not the observation but the observer’s willingness to accept it that really matters.
John Q. Public has heard little of this, of course; it’s mostly fought in the ivory towers, and in the publications that cater to professional intellectuals. All the same, it matters to him more than he’s able to appreciate.
Truth is an evaluation: a judgment that some proposition corresponds to objective reality sufficiently for men to rely upon it. The weakening of the concept of truth cuts an opening through which baldly counterfactual propositions can be thrust into serious discourse. Smith might say that proposition X is disprovable, or that it contradicts common observations of the world; Jones counters that X suits him fine, for he has dismissed the disprovers as “partisan” and prefers his own observations to those of Smith. Unless the two agree on standards for relevant evidence, pertinent reasoning, and common verification — in other words, standards for what can be accepted as sufficiently true — their argument over X will never end.
An interest group that has “put its back against the wall” as regards its central interest, and is unwilling to concede the battle regardless of the evidence and logic raised against its claims, will obfuscate, attack the motives of its opponents, and attempt to misdirect their attention with irrelevancies. When all of these have failed, its last-ditch defense is to attack the concept of truth. Once that has been undermined, the group can’t be defeated. It can stay on the ideological battlefield indefinitely, preserving the possibility of victory through attrition or fatigue among its opponents.
An argument that cannot be settled, but which has engaged substantial passions, is an impediment to moving on to other issues. This is a peripheral but significant consideration in the threats to the concept of truth. By sustaining a battle that would have been over long ago had assertions of truth or falsity been taken seriously, a group may prevent other matters of equal or greater importance from being addressed. A typical contemporary case is that over corruption-by-lobbyist in Congress.
Let it be said at once that there is no defense for a public official who accepts a lobbyist’s quid in exchange for a malfeasance quo. Such men belong in prison, not in Congress; once isolated and their guilt proved, that’s the only acceptable destination for them. But Arthur Herzog has noted that political corruption is a constant force over most of American history, made possible by human nature and the existence of opportunities to sell power at a profit; therefore, the only reasonable expectation is that, absent some extraordinary measure to wipe out all such opportunities, corrupt legislators successfully rooted out will be replaced by…other corrupt legislators.
In other words, if we continue to do what we’ve always done, we’ll continue to get what we’ve always gotten: political venality and systemic deceit. If we create anti-corruption superstructures to keep watch on the other operations of government, we’ll merely cause the corruption-minded to change targets: they will seek positions within those new bureaucracies.
Certain political forces want that argument to be kept out of play. They prefer to thunder about corruption, to urge ever more energetic pursuit of the corrupt, and ever more stringent laws “against” it. If we go by their deeds, their primary interest is in the creation of ever more laws and the prosecution of ever more corrupt individuals. But luxuriant law is the source of corruption: every new law creates new opportunities for politicians to sell their influence to willing buyers. Only a condition of public austerity, in which government is small and the laws are few and easily understood, is capable of resisting men of weak conscience.
The very forces that rail most stridently against corruption are also those most ardent for the indefinite multiplication of the laws and the unlimited expansion of the State. Therefore, they reject Herzog’s self-evident truth and assert that, despite all the evidence of history, officials can be found on whom the incentives to venality presented by a multi-trillion-dollar government with millions of laws and regulations will not operate. To save the Omnipotent State, angels will govern us.
The rejection of the concept of truth is evident in many venues. Here are a few that come easily to mind.
When I asked another feminist to debate me on abortion she said that she didn’t discuss such personal topics publicly. But then I read her biography. After talking about losing her virginity (including details about how she cleaned the blood off the couch afterwards) she dedicated countless pages to the issue of abortion and how a “lack of choice” adversely affects young women. After reading on, I realized why she didn’t tell me the truth. She revealed that she was a postmodernist who didn’t like to use the word “truth.”
The next time I got into an argument with a feminist – over whether a female student who lied about a rape to get out of a test should be expelled – I understood the postmodern feminist position better. Feminists just can’t help but lie because there really is no such thing as the truth.
Since so many feminists cannot tell the truth – because it doesn’t even really exist – I simply cannot take them seriously.
I would quibble with Professor Adams only in one particular: I would say that his unnamed feminist debating partner, and her “sisters” among gender-war feminists, don’t disbelieve in truth; rather, they seek to undermine the concept in service to their agenda. Once their agenda had been achieved, they’d want it treated as true beyond all question.
Of course Oprah took the side of veracity-challenged author James Frey, author of “A Million Little Pieces. She is in the feelings business, and you don’t succeed in her line of work by favoring facts over deeply felt but untrue stories. The tears that she and her staffers shed while reading Frey’s largely concocted tale of crime and addiction made the book important to her. When Frey appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live, Oprah made things worse by phoning in to say, “the underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me.” Apparently this meant that she was so moved by the book that she doesn’t care that it contains many untruths. Resonance makes lying defensible….
Certainly our culture is awash in lies-politicians, professors, reporters, columnists, scientists, etc., so much so that numbness has set in. ” Emotional truth” seems to take advantage of this numbness over a culture saturated in lies. If you can’t believe the literal truth any more, why not trust your own emotional response to stories?
Press coverage of hurricane Katrina was loaded with stories and claims that turned out to be wildly untrue. But the emotions stirred by TV’s often fanciful coverage were powerful and the most emotional of the media stars-Brian Williams and Anderson Cooper-strongly advanced their careers. If emotional impact keeps advancing at the price of truth, we will all be in trouble.
3: A few years ago, Guatemalan “author” Rigoberta Menchu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, largely on the strength of her “autobiography” I, Rigoberta Menchu. That fanciful volume told a harrowing story, in which its protagonist was apparently subjected to every sort of hazard and privation, and subsequently involved herself with “social reform” groups that had Communist backing. Of course, Menchu laid the blame for the strife and want in her life, and by extension the lives of thousands upon thousands of other Latin American peasants, on capitalism and American imperialism.
There was one problem with the book: a not-particularly-strenuous investigation proved that every single factual assertion in it was a lie. (A concise summary of the facts of Menchu’s life can be read here.) This was apparently not enough to invalidate Menchu’s “autobiography” as a valid claim to the Nobel Prize, even in the eyes of investigator David Stoll, who unearthed her fabrications. By his lights, and apparently by those of the Nobel Committee, the Menchu story was an “authentic” chronicle of Central American peasant life even if all its factual details were false-to-fact.
4: Few subjects have excited as much acrimony as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). This deadly disease, whose fatality rate is approximately 100%, has given rise to some of the most venomous political rhetoric of our time. Most of that rhetoric has focused on AIDS’s link to male homosexual sodomy.
The facts are incontrovertible: nearly 80% of AIDS sufferers are male homosexuals. Most of the rest are users of intravenous drugs. This is because the transmission of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) requires blood contact: it must enter the bloodstream of the victim to be infected within a few seconds of its emission by its host. Moreover, a substantial “charge” of the virus is required. As HIV is powerfully concentrated in semen, semen-to-blood contact is an ideal way for it to spread. Such contact is most commonly a consequence of anal intercourse.
America’s homosexual lobby would have none of it. Sensing that AIDS would receive little political attention if it were regarded as a “gay disease,” homosexual advocacy groups bent enormous efforts to convincing the general public that “we are all at risk of AIDS.” They denounced anyone who differed with their assertions as a hater of homosexuals who would look with favor upon their extinction. Special-interest dynamics, with the backing of the nationwide Old Media, helped them to carry the day: AIDS research receives a large multiple of the funding that goes to several other deadly diseases, even though those other diseases kill many more Americans each year. The truth of the matter — that AIDS is a disease whose victims nearly all collaborate in its acquisition by their behavior — was not allowed to interfere.
5: Islamic advocacy groups, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, have maintained a constant barrage upon the media, ceaselessly repeating that:
- Islam does not condone terrorism;
- There is not and can never be a valid identification of any act of terrorism with Islam;
- They owe no one a response for terrorist actions committed by Muslims under an Islamic rationale;
- Violence against “enemies of Islam” isn’t terrorism anyway;
- Islam is under heavy attack by various forces, principally the U.S. and “the Jews,” and is entitled to defend itself by any means necessary;
- American actions to overthrow Saddam Hussein and Afghanistan’s Taliban constitute making war on Islam, regardless of all other considerations.
For a variety of reasons, a number of non-Islamic groups have decided to echo these fallacious, mutually contradictory claims, more or less unmodified. Most such groups are far less concerned with Islam than with doing damage to the United States and the current executive administration. None of the proponents have attempted to substantiate any of their calumnies; they merely shout them at the top of their lungs, at every opportunity.
Many have asked how counterfactual claims such as the above could be accepted by anyone with access to the facts. Unfortunately, there’s only a single answer: one can only accept them by first dismissing the importance of truth. But if truth has no importance, does it exist at all? More to the point: if truth exists and is determinable, doesn’t it trump all other considerations by its very nature?
It takes only a moment’s consideration to realize that the existence of truth — not as a personal preference, but as an accurate perception of an objective reality — is incompatible with the use of falsehoods in any sort of contest. The macroscopic universe is governed by strict rules of cause and effect. If the context is sufficiently well known, and the appropriate causes are introduced in the appropriate way, their effects can be foretold. But all of this is predicated on the availability of reliable, observer-independent knowledge: truth.
So for those fighting to advance faulty causes in the face of counter-evidence sufficient to invalidate them, truth simply has to go.
I should mention here that I hold to an unusual thesis: unprovable, but compelling all the same. I believe that if a man concedes even one assertion as an absolute fact independent of all opinion, it will ultimately force him to concede the absolute and objective character of all of existence. (I have discovered a truly remarkable proof of this thesis, but, unfortunately, the pixels at this site are too small to contain it.) If this is true, then the hostility toward the entire concept of objective truth of those who must deny some truths to make room for their positions stands explained.
Innumerable other adventures in thought can be begun from this point, but they’re best saved for future essays.
Those still fighting the good fight for American ideals of individual liberty, individual responsibility, limited government, objective standards of justice, and so on are largely unequipped to cope with adversaries that reject the very idea of truth. This is a species of projection: Smith, being rational and decent, cannot believe that Jones really means it when he dismisses the notion of truth. Surely he’s speaking metaphorically, though how a metaphor could survive severed from any truth that might give it relevance is open to question. The suggestion that Jones cannot be reasoned with is simply too radical to be contemplated; it must be laid aside until all other possibilities have been exhausted, which somehow never occurs. Even when the stakes couldn’t possibly be higher, and Jones’s disaffiliation from all concepts of objective truth couldn’t possibly be clearer, Smith will tend to give him the benefit of the doubt.
During the Cold War, many a commentator exhorted us to look for “common ground” with the Soviets. Soviet socialism, they claimed, was on a far better footing than the ideologues of free-market economics were willing to admit. Soviet subjects, they averred, were far better off than the lurid tales of endless queues, secret police, and gulags represented; possibly even better off than Americans in some respects. The Soviet military, in any event, was far too formidable a force for us to risk unsettleing the rulers of that state. Surely, these voices of moderation and tolerance said repeatedly, there’s a way we can manage to “do business,” such that we can coexist without either side having to surrender its peculiar political and economic structures. Far fewer were the voices that cried that totalitarians, who claim the right to wield absolute and unconditional authority over others, who invade and subjugate neighboring countries merely to secure their resources and the Soviet Union’s borders, simply cannot be trusted. Those voices were ignored for several decades, despite the steadily mounting evidence for their contentions, until the coming of Ronald Reagan and the end of detente diplomacy.
Even in the aftermath of Reagan’s stunning defeat of the Soviet Union, those who claimed we had to learn to get along with the Communists never abandoned their position. Instead, they switched to an alternate set of “underlying causes.” Despite nearly two decades’ accumulated evidence that the Reaganite strategy really was what undid the Soviet state, socialism’s apologists still refuse to accept it. But having lost the argument on the merits of objective fact, all they can do is denigrate the facts themselves. To preserve their overall position, the truth of the matter must be obscured. When they confront an adequately well informed person who can present those objective facts, their usual response is to shout him down, or denounce him as a closed-minded partisan.
Yet it remains the most common reaction among decent men to assume that such behavior is merely a regrettable spike, a sign of frustration over the failure of a “noble experiment.” Surely it has no other significance. The possibility that the shouter / slanderer might have determined to win at any cost, regardless of what violence must be done to objective truth and honorable discourse among men, is seldom contemplated.
There’s a whole education in that phenomenon alone.
Persons interested in a fuller treatment of this subject should read The Flight From Truth, by Jean-Francois Revel, one of Europe’s most forthright and clearest-headed polemicists.