Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > 11/22: The Day "Truth" Died

Nov 20, 2013

11/22: The Day "Truth" Died

Last week I wrote a column pointing out that evangelical Christians supported a lot of progressive, even radical, political views in nineteenth-century America. Slowly, some evangelicals are starting to return to their left-leaning roots. Get a random cross-section of evangelicals together and you might get quite a lively debate about the economy, the role of government, the environment, and a host of other issues.

But there's one thing they'd all agree on: Whatever political position they hold, evangelicals will always begin explaining their view with the words: "The Bible says." The stamp of biblical authority can be put on any political position, from far left to far right, as U.S. history proves.

Whenever that stamp is pasted on, it gives any political position a sacred aura of absolute certainty. That's the old-fashioned sense of "truth": something that's eternal, universal, unarguable, unshakeable, unchallengeable; "the God's honest truth."  

I wrote that column about evangelicals just as the stream of media words about the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death was swelling higher and higher. The coincidence set me to thinking about how the question of truth and certainty has played out in American political history.

This week we are deluged by reminiscences of JFK and Jackie and, even more, the endless flow of theories about what really happened in Dealey Plaza on that tragic day. Some are sure a single gunman named Oswald killed the president. Some are sure that's a lie. Some aren't sure of anything. And some, like me, think the most important fact about the assassination is precisely that, after fifty years, the debate goes on with no end in sight.

Perhaps documents not yet released will turn up some irrefutable "smoking gun" (at least metaphorically and perhaps literally). For now, though, there's only one thing for sure: Half a century on, we have no societal consensus about what really happened. As a nation, all we have is a shared collective uncertainty.

Though no one knew it at the time, the announcement of JFK's death also announced the beginning of the end of the old-fashioned idea of "truth" -- an absolute certainty that we can all depend on.

A profound sense of uncertainty set in as soon as we heard the news on November 22, 1963. The thought was sometimes articulated and almost universally felt: If the young, vigorous leader out of Camelot could be cut down in the prime of his life, by a shot or shots out of the blue, and bleed to death all over his beautiful young wife, then anything was possible. There was no way to know what to expect next. Call it metaphysical uncertainty.

The generation yet unborn at the time can easily relate to that feeling by recalling the morning of September 11, 2001, another day in living memory that gave America an equal sense of shock and uncertainty, as if the ground had been pulled out from under us.

But the deeper significance of JFK's killing appears by contrasting it with the third such day in living memory (and there have only been three): the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The result of that attack was an immediate end to uncertainty. The debate about whether to intervene in World War II collapsed within hours. There was a sweeping consensus on who was good, who was evil, and what had to be done.

JFK's murder was a whole different story. Metaphysical uncertainty opened the door to moral uncertainty: If there was no consensus on who did it, how could we know for sure who was good and who was evil?

A few years later the same kind of question abounded on many fronts, most notably the battle front. Growing numbers of Americans were coming to the conclusion -- a terribly painful one, for many -- that we were not the good guys in Vietnam. Many were seriously doubting that there were any good guys. A war without good guys against bad guys? That just didn't compute in the American mythological tradition. All that remained was bafflement.

Many Americans found similar uncertainty looking at the question of race. Evangelical Christianity had been merged with politics most recently in the civil rights movement in the South, which never could have succeeded without the powerful force of the black churches behind it.

As the African-American struggle for equality became centered less in the churches of the South and more in the streets and secular meeting halls of the North and West, it no longer felt so comfortable to many of the whites who had cheered the evangelical preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Still, most of those whites understood that African-Americans, and indeed all people of color, had justifiable reasons for anger. On the other hand, justifiable reasons for violence? Again, moral certainty was increasingly hard to come by.

The sense of confusion was fueled by a host of other issues. Gender roles, sexual behavior, poverty, parental authority, education, drugs and alcohol -- just about everything seemed to be an area of contention and endless questions, where once seemingly settled rules had created a secure sense of certainty.

To be sure, that yearning for the good old days of "truth" and settled rules was largely a matter of nostalgia for a mythic past that never quite existed, at least not the way so many people imagined it. But in political arena mythic pasts are just as real as historically accurate pasts -- and often more powerful, as the voters would prove in 1980 when they overwhelming elected Ronald Reagan to the presidency.

Reagan's popularity rested on his call for shrinking government in the domestic sphere and expanding it in the military (especially nuclear) sphere, but most of all on his uncanny ability to provide a reassuring sense of certainty. In a manner more gentle than strident, he made his point clear: There are immutable rules in human life, America stands for those rules, and he would make sure they would never be successfully challenged or even called into question.

(If anyone doubted it, they had only to recall that Reagan first came to political prominence as governor of California, when he ordered a massive police assault on the "dirty hippies" who wanted to seize the University of California's land and turn it into a People's Park.)

Though Reagan was far from an evangelical Christian, he appealed to that community by speaking well of them and, even more, by bringing the stamp of authority,  certainty, and "truth" back into American political life. Plenty of Americans breathed a sigh of relief. The thought that truth no longer meant certainty had been a frightening one.

What Reagan, the evangelicals, and all who shared their yearning for certainty didn't realize is that, all the time, another revolution had been brewing, one born in Paris. Back in 1968, even the most conservative Americans had been thankful that, as chaotic as our nation seemed, it was nothing compared to the streets of Paris (and other French cities), where a radical student-worker coalition manned and womanned the barricades to fight pitched battles against the police.

But the real revolution -- the one that would transform life around the world, including the USA -- was happening in the elite universities of Paris, where Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and their avant garde colleagues were teaching students a whole new way to understand what truth is.

Deconstructionism and post-structuralism abolished the very possibility of certainty. What we call truth became nothing but a momentary arrangement of words whose meanings were constantly slipping and sliding under the pressure of other words, all produced by an ever-shifting array of constellations of power.

Whenever someone declared they had found the truth, there was always another way to look at it. And that other way would probably prevail, sooner or later, because where you stood on any question of truth depended largely on where you sat in the unstable field of power.

It was precisely during the Reagan presidency, while so many Americans were enjoying their newly regained sense of certainty, that these imports from Paris snuck into the universities and transformed American life. Academic humanists, and some social scientists, were finally catching up with what sophisticated physicists had known since Werner Heisenberg's famous pronouncement in 1927: Even in the most rigorous scientific experiment, there is always an element of uncertainty.   

Now we have a whole generation of college-educated Americans who were taught that the old notion of "truth" as certainty is an outdated relic. Perhaps it's no coincidence that this generation is less likely than their elders to identify with any particular religion.

But the more important -- I'd say momentous -- consequence of the rise of uncertainty is in the political realm. There's a mass of experimental evidence linking conservative political views to a desire for firm, dependable structure and an aversion to (or even fear of) ambiguity and uncertainty. Those who hold liberals views typically show just the opposite traits. (Take the quiz here.)

Almost anything can become a symbol of uncertainty. Communism, "terrorist" attacks, legal abortion, gay marriage, and the banning of prayer from schools have all headed the list at one time or another. Now it's "big government." Behind all those issues, and so many more conservative bêtes noires, lies the fundamental disturbing question: Whatever happened to our cherished notion of "truth"?

The answer, so painful to so many Americans -- not just to conservatives, by any means -- is that the old idea of "truth" is vanishing. It's an agonizingly slow process, moving forward in fits and starts. It brings all sorts of pain to many Americans, as those who suffer psychologically respond with political policies that inflict physical suffering on others.

Yet the process is probably irreversible. The old "truth" is gradually being replaced by the idea Gandhi articulated so well: "Absolute truth ... is beyond reach. The truth we see is relative, many-sided, plural. ... There is nothing wrong in every man following truth according to his lights.  Indeed it is his duty to do so. ... In this world, we always have to act as judges for ourselves."

Of course Gandhi recognized the question that immediately springs to mind: If everyone is deciding what's true for themselves, how will we ever get along with each other? How will we ever have any harmony in society? And he was ready with an answer, the only answer I've ever come across that makes sense: Nonviolence.

Compromise on matters that aren't crucial, the Mahatma advised. When moral principle is at stake, stand up for truth as you see it. Yet offer love and compassion to those who see it differently, even as you firmly resist their actions and policies. Never seek to harm them. If harm must come, let it be on you.  

Maybe some day, at the end of this long, painful transition, America will embrace Gandhi's view as its own. Maybe not. While we are waiting, we should resist the dangerous policies promoted by people who are terrified at the prospect of losing absolute "truth."

But we should also understand why they are terrified. We should remember to give them our compassion, as Gandhi urged.

And we should remember that it all began on that November day in 1963 when the president was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, or by Oswald and someone (or someones) else, or someone(s) else and not Oswald at all, or … well, 50 years later the only truth we're left with is that we are, as a nation, still uncertain. 

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