In a context of confusion and flashy journalism, rigour becomes a precious value.
When the devil lies, Jesus said, he speaks his native language. As fallen human beings, it is our native language too. Lying is universal.
Last week, the cover of TIME magazine asked ‘Is Truth Dead?’ in large red letters against a black background, a direct copy of the famous ‘Is God Dead’ cover of April 8, 1966.
I can remember as a teenager first seeing this cover outside a bookshop while cycling to school. It was the first TIME cover ever without a picture. The two covers, over 50 years apart, are of course intrinsically interwoven. One follows the other.
Last week’s cover introduced an interview with the White House incumbent after the FBI director had testified that there was no evidence for the president’s claims that his predecessor had wiretapped him. The cover article explored how the 45th president had brought to the Oval Office an entirely different set of assumptions about the proper behavior of a public official. As a businessman, he had written in praise of strategic falsehood, or ‘truthful hyperbole’, as he preferred to call it. The truth may be real, but falsehood often worked better.
Lying in the White House is not new, of course. Back in the Reagan era, someone quipped: “George Washington couldn’t tell a lie. Richard Nixon couldn’t tell the truth. And the present occupant of the White House can’t tell the difference.” And how can we forget the impeachment trial of the president described by a fellow Democrat as ‘an unusually good liar’ and who will forever be associated with the name of Monica Lewinsky?
In fact, lying is as old as the first temptation of Adam and Eve. When the devil lies, Jesus said, he speaks his native language. As fallen human beings, it is our native language too. Lying is universal. We have all killed truth in some measure.
Last year however seems to have been a watershed. The choice of ‘post-truth’ by the Oxford dictionary as its international word of the year reflected a 20-fold increase of the term in 2016 ‘in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States’. The term described a situation ‘in which objective facts are less influential than appeals to emotion’.
Brexiters exaggerated the cost of EU membership to average Britons by roughly double, for example. The ensuing argument over the correct amount served to focus resentment that citizens were paying anything at all. The Big Lie about the EU fees which could otherwise be reverted to the National Health Service, writ large across a big red bus, was reminiscent of Hitler’s Big Lie tactic that a big falsehood repeated over and over is more effective than a small one.
Foreboding our post-modern, post-truth era, Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels argued that ‘we do not talk to say something but to obtain a certain effect’. We always expected this sort of talk from Nazis and Communists. That it has become mainstream in our Western ‘liberal’ democracies should be very sobering.
Which makes the latest TIME cover very timely. Morality has been turned upside down. When lying becomes accepted instead of condemned, it becomes required. If it is the way to win, you are not doing your job when you refuse to lie. Living-the-lie replaces living-in-truth.
Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright-dissident who became president, rebelled against the establishment by calling for people everywhere to live for truth and not to live the lie in his 1978 essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’. This ‘shout that caused an avalanche’ led eventually to the overthrow of communism in his country. His presidential motto, Truth Prevails, came from the 15th century Czech reformer Jan Hus who, while imprisoned in Constance awaiting his trial for heresy, wrote his famous Rule of Seven: ‘Therefore, faithful Christians, seek the truth, hear the truth, learn the truth, love the truth, speak the truth, adhere to the truth, defend it to the death, for truth will free you.’
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, another Soviet-era dissident who saw through the falsehood of living-the-lie, declared in his Nobel Prize speech: ‘One word of truth outweighs the entire world.’
Os Guinness quotes both these prophetic voices in his book, Time for Truth (Baker, 2000), about the grave consequences the death of objective truth has for Western civilisation and freedom. Truth matters supremely, he writes.
Truth is far from dead, he maintains; it is alive and well and, in an important sense, undeniable. If truth is truth, then differences make a difference, not just between truth and lies, but between intimacy and alienation, harmony and conflict, reliability and fraud, trust and suspicion, freedom and tyranny–and between life and death.
In the end without truth there is no freedom. Truth is freedom. The only way to a free life lies in becoming a person of truth and learning to live in truth. ‘The truth consists not of knowing the truth,’ wrote Søren Kierkegaard, ‘but in being the truth.’