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The Politics of Truth

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Message Manfred Weidhorn
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The topic du jour has lately been "fake news." Liberals and sane conservatives decry it; some on the far right revel in it. The trouble is that fake news is as old as the hills. The new technologies and social networks merely accelerate its dissemination and intensify its impact. And the polarization of the political process, since the days of the bomb throwing Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, as well as of liberal Borking, stimulates further ventures in that direction.

But consider the age and range of that phenomenon. To a non believer, the Bible (i.e., the "gospel"="good news") is fake news. On the other hand, to a devout Christian, who believes that salvation is available only through Jesus, all the other religions are fictitious revelations that will lead their followers straight to hell. Likewise, the political parties, cherry picking their "facts" while pretending that they have "The Answer," are lying or delusional.

To label something as fake news, furthermore, is to imply that one has hold of the truth. But that is not as simple a matter as it seems. An ancient Greek philosopher--was it the Sophist Gorgias?--in effect said: "No truth exists; and if it did exist, we would not know how to find it; and if we found it, we would not be able to communicate to anyone else." Such an approach, if taken seriously, would lead one to conclude that all news is fake and that anyone sure of himself on any important question is a downright fool. Alas, most people are noisily too sure of themselves.

An interesting sign of the degradation of access to the truth is the clash of two statements, one ancient and the other modern. Jesus said, "You shall know the truth, and it shall make you free." That means that there is a truth, that it is findable, and that it is consequential. Such optimism is dashed by Yeats's "The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity," meaning modern man is unable to find the truth, and those who believe or claim that they have done so--like, say, Lenin or Hitler--are either liars or delusional.

Here is a mind experiment--indeed one based on the gospel. "The chief priests offered the soldiers a substantial bribe and told them to say, 'His disciples came by night and stole the body while we were asleep.'" So they took the money and did as they were told. This story became widely known and is current in Jewish circles to this day." The result is that there are two versions of what happened to Jesus's corpse, the Christian one being that it flew to heaven (with a stop off in hell), and the other one that the Jewish officials were denying that resurrection by offering a fake natural story. If one is a believing Christian there is no choice, but if one is an innocent bystander with a blank mental slate on this question, how is one to know which version to believe; which is the fake news? According to David Hume's litmus test for tales of miracles, Which is more plausible, that the natural laws were briefly suspended or that a human being originated or passed on a lie? The answer is obvious.

Or take the Protocols of the Elder of Zion; they purport to be the plans of conspiratorial Jews to take over the world. Almost all students of history know them to be a forgery. But how can that hypothetical innocent bystander, with no skin in the game, know whether that document is part of an anti-Semitic conspiracy or whether the claim of forgery is being pushed by conspiratorial Jews? A treasury of similar puzzles on important questions confronts anyone trying to separate the truth from fake news.

The reverse of spreading or believing fake news, indeed its accomplice, is refusing to accept fully vetted facts. Thus the NRA and its many followers insist that bearing arms keeps the crime rate down because a good guy with a gun is the best deterrent to a bad guy with a gun. But wait! Note how all the other advanced countries have serious gun control AND a far lower number of deaths by gun violence than the nation in which guns are supposed to make you safe. In the entire world, the U. S. is the most lax about control and has unmatched level of guns deaths.

Or, here is another paradox about facing or evading the truth. The religious right--the people who combine an emphasis on public religious values with laissez faire capitalism--face a severe challenge. The Scandinavian countries, notably Denmark, are advanced welfare states with heavy taxes. They are also by far the most irreligious nations on the globe and in history. Yet various surveys of happiness (or of mature democracies) place them at or near the top of the list. (Incidentally, the Bible Belt in America, that hotbed of the religious right, also has the highest rates of divorce, of gun ownership and killing, of executions.) The only answers that religious conservatives can give is that low taxes are more important than happiness and that, in any case, happiness is not everything--thereby proving that they are not only wrong but also masochists.

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For 51 years Professor of English at Yeshiva University. Author of 13 books and over a hundred essays.
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