It is not often when I’m reading a tome of analytic philosophy that I am stopped in my tracks by a passage that reads like a penetrating diagnosis of what’s wrong with contemporary America. But that happened recently, and I have not been able to get the passage out of my head. The passage appears in Alvin Plantinga’s 500+ page volume Warranted Christian Belief in a chapter where he is discussing how sin distorts our ability to see the truth.
Prior to the passage that arrested my attention, he noted that it is a matter of common sense that we are naturally disposed to accept the idea that there is such a thing as truth. Moreover, the notion of truth assumes a certain sort of relation between our beliefs and the way the world actually is. The truth accurately depicts a world of objective reality.
Unfortunately, however, some environments can be so toxic that our notion of truth can be smothered and squelched to such an extent that we end up with no concept of truth at all. Plantinga went on to give a concrete example of this phenomenon, and this is the passage that left me pondering for days.
“It is said that one of the most serious results of the long Communist tyranny in eastern Europe was just such a suppression of the idea of truth. The truth was officially perverted so often and so cynically (for example, the official organ of the Communist party devoted to the dissemination of propaganda was ironically named Pravda, i.e., truth) that people came to lose the very idea of truth. They were lied to at every level in utterly shameless and blatant ways; they knew they were being lied to, knew that those who lied to them knew they were lying and that those to whom they lied knew they were being lied to, and so on; the result was that the whole idea of truth tended to evaporate. One said whatever would be of advantage; the question of whether it was true no longer arose” (Oxford University Press, 2000, p 216).
Anyone who has even remotely been paying attention for the past few years can hardly fail to note the similarity between Plantinga’s description of Communist tyranny in eastern Europe and a similar pattern of indifference to truth in contemporary America.
For instance, after the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, members of the Administration, including the President, repeatedly stated that the attack was a spontaneous demonstration in protest of a video that was deemed offensive. But they knew better all along, as evidence that emerged later made clear. Another example: as evidence emerged that the IRS was targeting conservative groups, the President, when asked about the matter, looked his interviewer straight in the face and emphatically insisted that there was not even a “smidgen” of corruption in the IRS. Neither incident generated much attention from the press or public outrage.
But “exhibit A” of the cavalier attitude toward truth is the President’s oft repeated promise when campaigning for Obamacare that if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. If you like your current insurance, you can keep your insurance. Again, there is good reason to believe he knew better, even as he reiterated that promise over and again. Moreover, it is highly doubtful that the bill would have passed if he not misrepresented the truth as he did. Indeed, in each of these cases, the administration said “whatever would be of advantage” to promote their agenda.
Such disregard for the truth also reflects, at another level, a disdain for the persons who are lied to. This was demonstrated very recently in the tapes that have come to light of Jonathan Gruber, an MIT professor and one of the alleged “architects” of Obamacare. In these tapes, Gruber all but boasts of the necessity of misleading people about the actual content of the bill for the sake of getting it passed, and expresses a thinly veiled (if veiled at all) contempt for those who were taken in by the whole process. Here are his words from one of the videos.
“This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO did not score the mandate as taxes. If CBO scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies. So it was written to do that. In terms of risk-rated subsidies, if you get a law which said healthy people are gonna pay in — you made explicit that healthy people were gonna pay in and sick people get money — it would not have passed.… lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically — you know, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever — but basically that was really, really critical to getting the thing to pass.”
Here is what I find amazing, and deeply troubling. Relatively speaking, few even know who Gruber is, and even fewer care. After all, this is just one more instance in a growing litany of well executed deceptions that achieved their purpose. And relatively few think this is even newsworthy, let alone worth getting worked up about.
And this is why the passage from Plantinga is so chilling. Is our culture so desensitized to lying that we have lost any sense of truth, let alone a passion for its reality and the importance of holding people to it?
Of course, the whole concept of truth has been undergoing a steady deflation for centuries now. In pre-modern thought, Truth is a matter of awesome significance because it ultimately resides in God, an omniscient being of impeccable character, and our world was created by the One who is the Way, The truth and the Life. The modern period downgraded this majestic conception of truth to the measure and capacity of human reason, but still retained a deep conviction about the reality of truth and its vital importance. Somewhat ironically, this downgrade prepared the way for the postmodern mindset that is typically suspicious of both pre-modern and modern notions of truth, and tends to see claims to objective truth as disguised power plays masking personal agendas. One of the most notorious of these postmodern deflationary definitions of truth is that of philosopher Richard Rorty, who has famously said that “truth is what our peers will let us get away with saying.”
In view of this, we can hardly place the blame for the contemporary indifference to truth on the Obama administration. His administration is hardly the first to lie, and it will not be the last. But perhaps it is fair to say that seldom, if ever, has an administration so artfully and successfully lived by the dictum that “truth is what we can get away with saying.” And perhaps never in the history of the American public has there been so little concern about lying or so little passion to insist upon the truth and hold our leaders accountable to it.
To be sure, the recent election registered a strong rejection of Obama’s agenda and the direction he has been leading our nation. It is clear the voters are concerned about the economy, lawless immigration, the threat of Isis and ebola, and they disapprove of how these issues have been handled. But what remains far from clear is how much a concern for truth was reflected in the election. What was clearly registered was dissatisfaction with a stagnant economy and concern for America’s decline as an economic and military power. But again, that is far from registering a deep conviction that our government leaders must keep integrity with the truth.
So I am left wondering: have we become so skeptical about truth and its importance that we now think lying is simply the norm? Have we lost any sense that there really is a moral high ground to be taken, and that it requires fidelity to the truth? Is there really no principled ground resolutely to refuse to let people get away with saying whatever they want in order to press their advantage? Is that what we think is really going on every time someone makes a truth claim, and therefore we cannot muster much outrage over lying? Is the outrage over the cover up of Watergate that brought Nixon down in the seventies perhaps the last vestige of a national ethos that deeply believes in the reality of truth and its absolutely essential role in civic life?
This brings me back to what is perhaps the most disconcerting line in the passage from Plantinga. He says that the eastern Europeans for whom the truth was suppressed under Communism “knew they were being lied to, knew that those who lied to them knew they were lying” and so on. Notice: the very notion of lying is parasitic upon the notion of truth. Only if we have a robust sense of truth and its profound importance can we recognize a lie as a lie, and recognize it as the violation that it is.
The really disturbing possibility here is that we no longer have the moral clarity to recognize that we are being lied to and why that matters. And that is why we do not care.