August 7, 2009

In Defense of Truth

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:59 pm

Here we go again.

Conservatives have been ignoring reality so long they wouldn’t recognize it if they were stuck in an elevator with it. Not all of them. There are still plenty of conservative Republicans with integrity, but they seem to be fighting a losing battle.

It started with Clinton Derangement Syndrome in the 90’s when conservatives believed Bill Clinton was a drug-runner and Hillary Clinton murdered Vince Foster. It continued during the 2000 election, but really came of age with the run-up to the Iraq War and the swiftboating of John Kerry. It continued with the Obama is a Muslim, a socialist and a fascist memes. But now it’s getting really bizarre: Obama wants to kill off seniors, the healthcare bills in Congress will outlaw private insurance, and Obama is a Nazi born in Kenya. This disconnect with reality has been getting worse and worse and is at risk, I believe, of imperiling our democracy.

I happen to like truth, or as the ancient Greeks would say, Truth. Many things in life cannot be boiled down to a binary true/false dichotomy, but many things can. We can find the truth for ourselves — we can read about the healthcare bills coming out of committee, we can look at Obama’s birth certificate, we can visit non-partisan fact-checking websites like Truth is good, and we should pursue it aggressively and embrace it wherever we find it.

Democracy relies to a large extent on an understanding of reality shared by the electorate. We can’t debate whether a public option is a good thing or a bad thing until we understand that it won’t outlaw private insurance. We can’t discuss the benefits of healthcare reform with people that believe it’s a plot to kill our seniors. Without an agreement on what is objectively true and what is not, we can’t talk with each other, as the August congressional town halls are demonstrating. The tea-baggers at these town halls are denying reality, and trying to drag the rest of us into their fevered hallucinations. They are shouting down objectively true statements as though if only they shout loud enough, their reality will become true. If only they clap hard enough, Tinkerbell will live and the union be saved.

Truth matters. It matters a lot. And a large swath of our citizenry has abandoned truth. While the left has departed from reality often enough in its history, today conservative untruth is far more widespread. My fear is that this departure from reality will lead to violence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pacifist German Lutheran theologian, participated in the plot that almost succeeded in assassinating Hitler. He did so because after long consideration and prayer, he believed he was called to do so. When so many people are claiming that Obama is just like Hitler, how many will decide that assassinating Obama is their calling? It’s terrifying.

Blame can be placed various places. Conservative talk radio, Fox News and Coulterian demagogues. A mainstream media that is afraid to inform us on what is really true and what is not, instead covering the debate while remaining agnostic on each side’s claims. A conservative movement that has been ruthlessly enforcing uniformity of thought.

But I think there’s a deeper cause. I think the problem is us. For a democracy to succeed, voters need to work to be informed, to educate themselves on the issues and to resist settling on the emotionally satisfying yet factually challenged opinion. We need to test our ideologies against reality, and modify or abandon them accordingly. We need to read and listen and think. We need to be adults.

Change is hard and our country has been undergoing cultural and demographic change at what seems to be an accelerating pace. But the viability of our democracy relies on our ability to understand the reality we find ourselves in and to vote and act accordingly. We need to return to a shared sense of what is true, a reality we can all agree on, while we disagree on how to respond to it.

We will get the government we deserve. Or perhaps a better way to say it is that we will get the government we earn through the effort we expend to seek truth. And we desperately need to earn a better democracy than what we’ve been experiencing in these town halls.

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