Saturday, October 13, 2007

Truth Matters

Many of us grew up thinking that truthfulness was the highest of human virtues. Dishonesty was seen as a contemptible character trait and the liar was among the worst sort of people. To tell a lie as a child, especially to one's parents, was the source of considerable guilt. Without honesty and integrity, we believed, none of the other virtues could flourish, trust would diminish, character would become obsolete and society would unravel.

Unfortunately, this is pretty much what has happened. It's no longer the case that truth holds an exalted place in the catalogue of virtues. For many, especially among secular progressives, truth has been stripped of its status as an objective good in itself, and reduced to a pragmatic function, a tool to be employed in the service of promoting higher goods. Truth, in our post-modern world, is now seen as whatever works to advance whatever goal or project to which one aspires.

The change has had seriously deleterious, even tragic, consequences in our personal and corporate life. It has also had a terribly corrosive effect on our political life. Politicians, for some of whom power is the highest good because without it none of the lesser goods are possible, can lie about themselves and other people, and the lie, like base metal transmuted to gold, is transformed into something "true" and virtuous by the fact that it helps the liar succeed in acquiring the power, influence, and success he needs to promote his agenda.

Politicians all along the ideological spectrum lie, of course, but conservatives still generally believe that lying is a moral wrong. Liberals, particularly secular liberals, are less likely to feel bound by traditional moral assumptions, and thus more likely to distort and misrepresent the truth than are conservatives. Thus our recent politics is befouled by unseemly allegations which are at best irresponsible and at worst exceedingly harmful:

1. George Bush is labelled a liar for telling us there were WMD in Iraq when there apparently weren't. This charge was itself false because it was clear to anyone who looked at the matter that the intelligence services of the whole world thought Saddam had WMD. So did most Democratic senators. Bush may have been mistaken, but a mistake is not a lie.

2. Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh have had their reputations smeared by allegations of racism (O'Reilly) and insulting the troops (Limbaugh). Their accusers, including senators on the floor of the Senate, allege them to have said things the transcripts and witnesses affirm they clearly did not say. Nevertheless, the accusers have not relented or withdrawn their charges.

3. Senator Clinton insinuates that General Petraeus is dishonorable because his testimony doesn't conform to what she and others in the Senate expected to hear., without offering a shred of evidence, accuses the General of betraying his country in a full page New York Times ad which the Times originally gave them at a fraction of the going rate for ad space. Neither MoveOn or the Times has apologized.

4. Opponents of SCHIP are accused of not caring about the poor or the elderly because they do not wish to see health care be taken over by the government. Bush is accused of heartlessly cutting the program when in fact he wants to expand it but not as much as its proponents want.

5. False or misleading statistics are used to color the debate on everything from racial discrimination to the number of homeless, the severity of the threat of HIV, the prevalence of rape on college campus, the number of uninsured people in the U.S., and much else.

Lies and deception are an acid eating away at the fabric of our society. When our politicians lie to us and we lie to each other it dissolves trust and spawns suspicion. A society which has lost the ability to trust its leaders and to trust each other is a society doomed to disintegrate. John Adams wrote that our form of government was designed for a moral people and cannot survive under any other.

Progressives don't disagree with Adams, necessarily, but many of them simply don't think that lying about people or promoting falsehoods is really immoral as long as the cause is in their eyes just. Since the most just cause for them is the promotion of the liberal agenda, whatever works to advance that agenda is by definition good, even if they know, or should know, that it's not true.