“… truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long; a man’s son
may, but at the length truth will out.” ~ Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
For those who deny torture’s efficacy, torture them until they confess torture works. That will do for a brief paraphrase of Duns Scotus, who applied a similar thought to a different problem of philosophy. Our philosophical problem concerns the origins and weight of true and false beliefs. Factors of power, loyalty, control and fear may exert much stronger influence over our beliefs than we care to acknowledge, because our beliefs over time become socially and politically mediated.
Such is the nature of truth now, one wonders whether it has any foundation besides the weight of numbers. Many would like to democratize wealth by spreading it. Tax the rich to distribute their goods to people who have less. We would even like to democratize accomplishments. Again speaking distributively, no person left behind means no person gets ahead. So why should we pause if we discover that truth itself evolves toward beliefs that carry more weight because they boast more adherents? Conversely, why should we wonder if falsehood, as we perceive it, surrounds less popular beliefs?
Suppose Shakespeare is correct, that “murder cannot be hid long… at the length truth will out.” Does it emerge like a baby from the womb, by natural processes that involve pain, labor, and risk of death? Or is truth’s emergence like the sunrise, another natural process that requires no work on our part? Truth eventually comes to light – in our world it happens every twenty-four hours. I’m going to say that truth requires a lot of work, that we have to find it, fashion it, improve it until shines forth, until it’s useful for us, until it guides us to the good.
Aside from its qualities as myth of good versus evil, the Harry Potter series rests on a compelling theme of truth. Harry, Ron, and Hermione unravel numerous mysteries in each segment, and the whole set of seven tales gradually reveals the truth about Harry himself. A youngster at a midnight bookstore event for Deathly Hallows said as we passed in the aisle, eyes alight, “Do you think Harry is the seventh horcrux?” I hadn’t thought of it. Children want the truth to come out, too. They want the truth to win. You could even say the desire for truth is an instinct, that we thirst for it.
We have more information than we can handle, yet we are acting like a people in the desert with no water. Can dishonesty – or acquiescence to it – permeate our ways of thinking so thoroughly that we don’t even know how thirsty we are? It’s possible to be miserable and not know why. I look around me, I read, listen, evaluate and discuss. Some words and thoughts are more valuable than others. Most disturbingly, I perceive propaganda all around me. Is that a healthy environment? We care about the air we breathe and the water we drink. Why don’t we care about the thoughts we think?
Right now I think we associate thought pollution with 1984 and other totalitarian dystopias. That is, the propagandists in those worlds manage to convince people that if they do not believe government’s version of events, their thoughts and opinions absorb insidious lies, half truths, conspiracy theories, and other beliefs of dubious origin. To protect yourself from a murky world where you can’t tell what’s what, you have to reach out for some source of authoritative belief. You have to find some kind of a rock in the shifting sands and turbulent winds.
- Cover of an early edition of 1984
What sources of true belief do we come to know as children? Our parents, our friends, our family’s political party, our church if our family is religious, our public schools, and of course the government, which reaches us through our schools. As we become older, the government begins to take a greater part in thought formation, as other influences recede. That has been the case especially since the 1930s, when government began to grow so rapidly in power and influence.
Government becomes the rock, then. The architecture in Washington, DC intentionally evokes that notion. We don’t hold sessions of the Supreme Court in a sylvan glen, with evanescent light and fluttery breezes. We don’t look for beauty here. We hold those sessions in a building that will never fall: it has Roman columns, it’s built of stone, and decisions made inside its wall are intended to last as long as the building. That is the rock of the republic.
Yet the Court’s decision to appoint George W. Bush president in 2000 showed that institution in an ugly light, violating the Constitution it pretends to uphold. You can easily find similar examples in Congress and the executive branch. I select the Court as an example only because the contrast between the insititution’s pose and its actual behavior appears so obvious and wrenching. When the Supreme Court violates the law, no one is safe. No harbor of legitimate authority protects you.
The propagandists in 1984 played a good game. A totalitarian government draws people toward its own lies by convincing them it is the most reliable source of truth. Everything else out there is based on class interests, conspiracies, malevolent forces out to screw the little guy. Government is the only neutral source of information and protection against these forces. If you want to protect yourself against dishonesty and false consciousness, come to government. We will tell you the truth.
How do you tell a propagandist? He’s the gentleman with a microphone who wears a Joseph Goebbels mask and a swastika on his armband. Alright, I made that up to illustrate a point. Propagandists do not deal openly with evidence. When they do, it’s partial and well culled. The evidence supports unfalsifiable claims. A propagandist deals with emotions – such as resentment, envy, fear, and aggression. A propagandist has fairly clear ends in mind, and works backward from them to words and arguments tailored to achieve them. A propagandist doesn’t care about the truth.
Fortunately, the truth cares about propagandists. The truth wants propagandists revealed for what they are: charlatans, purveyors of impulses that destroy rather than build, weavers of lies that make you lose your focus and ensnare you in false certainty. If you don’t hold fast to the truth, that is what will happen. If you soak up certainties that seem always to augment existing power, or that advocate violence or other forms of hate, you have to question whether you have followed a path of delusion. Mass psychosis is not a myth.
What is a propagandist then but a power seeker who treats truth with contempt? How do you know propaganda when you see it? A propagandist says whatever serves his ends. Determine the propagandist’s ends, and you know the general outlines of his argument. When you reason backward from conclusions, your destination is predictable. When you reason forward from evidence, your destination is much less so. Propagandists are predictable, because for them evidence is immaterial. So is logic, for that matter.
Let me use two more examples to illustrate why truth becomes vulnerable in an environment where power relationships govern thought and behavior. The first comes from ancient Greece, the second from ancient Rome.
Law professor and ethicist James Boyd White wrote a book some time ago called When Words Lose Their Meaning. He illustrates his title with Athenians’ speech to the Melians in Thucydides’ History of the Pelopponesian War. The Athenians use the vocabulary of pure power in their speech, to force the Melians to submit. When the Melians appeal to justice, the Athenians respond that justice has no part to play in this confrontation: “Might makes right.” Truth for the Athenians carries no weight as a democratic virtue, nor as a foundation for just treatment. It is merely irrelevant in a confrontation where military power counts as the only instrument of persuasion. The Athenians’ ruthless words had no connection to the democratic ideals the Athenians used to represent.
Another well known example comes from the end of a famous trial in Jerusalem, two millennia past. Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king. Jesus replies that Pilate speaks correctly, and that he has come into the world to testify to the truth: “Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” In perhaps Pilate’s most memorable speech from the trial, he answers, “What is truth?”
- Pilate asks the crowd if they will release Jesus
With this plea, Pilate resigns himself to the box he finds himself in. He speaks not as a weary existentialist, a cynic, or a skeptic. He speaks simply as a governor with limited power who cannot, in that situation, oppose the power of the local religious leaders arrayed against him. He makes one more attempt, speaking before the crowd, to release Jesus. The crowd won’t have it. “Crucify him!”
To return to Scotus’s initial thought about torture, control matters in human relationships. Control gives you ability to coerce results. When you exercise that kind of control, as a torturer does over a prisoner, you can decide on a conclusion in advance, then do what it takes to elicit it. Most forms of control – most power relationships – don’t involve explicit cruelty. Unspoken threats and unwritten rules commonly underwrite the relationships. Truth bends to accommodate the subtle fields of force that exist within balances of power and authority.
The main point for conclusion is that we ought to be confident that the truth about Kennedy’s assassination, the 9/11 attacks, and other misdeeds will come out eventually. In fact, we have enough evidence now to know that Johnson’s version of Kennedy’s death did not even approximate the truth. Someday we will know as well that the 9/11 Commission did not approximate the truth in its supposedly comprehensive report on the attacks. More doubtful is whether we will know the truth soon enough that we can save ourselves.
The truth will out, but fifty years is a long time. Power holders don’t need to look that far into the future, and therefore don’t care overmuch what people think of them after they are gone. Moreover, they can lie to themselves about their place in history as easily as they can lie to others. Meanwhile, we live with the consequences of dishonesty right now. The present with its current troubles doesn’t care that much about history’s judgment either.
Most worrisome, dishonesty introduces changes in our political relationships that we cannot wring out down the line. We might hope the truth can cleanse our power relationships, but we know revelation does not mean salvation by any means. That is another lesson of the Kennedy assassination. Researchers worked for years to reveal what actually happened on November 22, 1963, but the Warren report’s effects persist fifty years on. A monstrous lie has monstrous effects. The same lesson applies to 9/11. That day and all that followed plead with us for honesty, openness, and justice. A monstrous lie, revealed or hidden, has monstrous effects. Monstrous effects last.