Since the dramatic election of 2016, pundits on both sides of the political aisle have rallied around the idea of Truth. Democrats and their sympathizers “speak Truth to Power” so frequently that it has become a popular hashtag on Twitter. Republicans and their supporters, on the other hand, consider themselves the inheritors of an unbroken tradition elevating “absolute truth” against a pernicious relativism responsible for justifications of abortion, transgenderism, and a host of other moral controversies. All this talk of Truth and Facts has this “modernist living in a postmodern world” (to borrow a phrase I heard from a Catholic bishop) positively giddy.
In the spirit of celebrating Truth, and the modernist assumption that the human mind is capable of discovering it, I want to share some quotations that I recently came across. Both address, in one way or another, the ever-confusing 20th century “-isms”: structuralism, post-structuralism, and postmodernism. These philosophies undergird the “post-truth” world that surrounds us. Nothing can be known with certainty, nothing is universally true, and even the best of human intentions are polluted by oppressive social structures.
From Jerome K. Williams & Christopher Olaf Blum, True Reformers: Saints of the Catholic Reformation, 2017.
“We live in the first age of history that has not only doubted the efficacy of the Divine Physician’s cure, but has denied the existence of the disease. Previous societies had no difficulty understanding that they were seriously ill, afflicted with grave moral guilt. When a remedy for their disease was proposed, the issue was to determine whether it was a good or bad remedy—whether or not it improved the condition of the patient. All that has now changed. Modern [meaning “current” or “contemporary”] societies are dominated by the determination to do away with the idea of Original Sin. There is nothing wrong with us—so we endlessly repeat to ourselves—at least nothing we cannot handle on our own. If there is a problem to be solved, it is not within us; it is rather to be found outside of us, in how the world is structured. So we conveniently sidestep the need for personal moral reformation. If only we can find a way to fix the system, those who live within it will be fine. In the grip of this state of denial, we dislike going to the Divine Doctor, not so much because we doubt his skill, as because he gives us a diagnosis we are unwilling to accept. An age that denies the existence of the disease will find it hard to deal accurately with its symptoms.”
In our efforts to identify and expose the implicit oppression hiding within the language, literature, and social customs of the past and present, we have embraced a mentality that rejects even the idea of a permanent, discoverable Truth. Everything is relative—true only in its particular context and understood only in relation to other relative things. A children’s Sunday School class might recognize that this constitutes “building a house upon the sand,” but for those wary of religious phrases here is a different metaphor: we are Rose at the end of Titanic, just without the door—freely floating among other floating things, telling ourselves that we won’t drown.
I had these ideas in my head when I began reading James T. Kloppenberg’s article about liberalism, republicanism, and Christianity during the Revolutionary period. Most Americans are unaware of just how committed the founding generation was to Virtue. They firmly believed that moral truths existed, that the human mind was capable of discovering them, and that a nation unmoored from such a conception of Virtue was doomed to failure. Kloppenberg quoted a line from Maximilien Robespierre, the villain of the French Revolution. The man responsible for the Reign of Terror that claimed the lives of some 50,000 French people said:
“Man is good, as he comes from the hands of nature…if he is corrupt, the responsibility lies with vicious social institutions.”
There is no doubt that Robespierre had a point. Reformers throughout history have used a corollary to this idea to justify their efforts: reforming social institutions will bring people closer to the happiness and justice which we all seek. But there is also no denying that his statement attempts to justify the ever-so-human tendency to fix “the system” rather than ourselves. American people, and the American nation, would be perfectly fine if only we would get rid of racism, sexism, homophobia, and the ideological origins of these bigotries (which can, of course, be found in anything that smacks of tradition, dogma, or faith). Our collective consumerism, gluttony, and greed have nothing do with it. What was the Revolution for, if not for my freedom to hoard my money, or your freedom to live in a state of perpetual adolescence, or someone else’s freedom to have sex with a new partner every night? In the words of Randy from South Park, “Hey! I thought this was America!!”
In the end, I think all this talk about Truth over the past couple of years is a very good thing. The outrage over Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” at least gets us all one step closer to acknowledging that some statements are undeniably true while others are undeniably false. May our current efforts to repair American culture and social institutions start with “the man in the mirror” and “cleaning your own room;” in Sunday School vernacular, “remove the beam from your own eye” before focusing on other problems. Maybe then we will avoid the pitfalls of Robespierre, Hitler, Mao, and every other tyrant who rejected the idea of universal moral truths and ended up believing that evil actions could build a better world.