Truth Be Told – II
by Michael Brenner on 25 Feb 2020 0 Comment

All ideology is a lie. For to make an impression, to win converts, it must simplify the true nature of things. It reduces the complex to the simple, the profound to the fathomable, the contradictory to the reconcilable. It must portray an ideal and make that ideal, or something akin to it, seem reachable. How much of a lie depends on its target audience: how credulous it is, what motifs will move it. It also matters how much the new creed promises. Yet another factor is the degree of deviation from fixed beliefs and practices.


Every proselytizing big idea comes in at least two versions: that aimed at the (relatively) untutored mass, and that aimed at a (relatively) educated elite. There is an Everyman edition and a Limited edition. The Ten Commandments that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai were a mass-market version of admonitions first addressed to erudite readers of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Christian theology grounded in Aristotelian metaphysics coexists with ecstatic Mother Mary cults that have deep roots in pagan superstition. The latter finds counterparts in the Hindu Bhakti tradition, in Sufism, and Jewish Hasidism. Marxism’s intellectual gymnastics engrossed thinkers while it stirred the workers’ feelings of despair and hope and then literally put them on parade. Magical appeals to the heart can accompany rarified philosophical argumentation.


Consequently, at times, truth must be carefully packaged and merchandized:

 “My friend, the truth is always implausible. To make the truth more plausible, it’s absolutely necessary to mix a bit of falsehood with it. People have always done so.”  That approach, of course, carries heavy risks. - Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Demons


The True Believer is also the True Emoter. Commonly observed rituals are at once experienced as real or symbolic. This holds for sacred rites of otherworldly religion, the multiple claims on emotion and mind of confected nationalism, or the inculcation of political devotion through a mix of pageantry and pedantry a la reified Communism. Modes of indoctrination are as various as the levels of refinement in the exegesis of text. One thing is constant. There is always a text, a necessary cynosure of the vital Truth. That high and mighty ultimate Truth is essential to validate the precepts and rites that bind the faithful.


Ecstasy, in itself, a compelling philosophy, in itself, reiterative instruction, in itself, ritual in itself, is not enough unless sacrilized by the transcendent, irrefutable Truth. This holds for transcriptions of the three revelatory religions, and- in modulated form for non-prophetic Hinduism and Buddhism as well. Functionally similar are the writings of Marx /Engels /Lenin /Mao, and - in a looser sense - the United States Constitution plus Declaration of Independence.


Promoting an ideological cause is to offer at most salvation, at least a remedy. Salvation may be of a person’s immortal soul, a nation, a tribe, a sect or any other ascriptive grouping. The remedy is for affliction - exploitation, denial, abuse, persecution, and spiritual disorientation. Affliction may be economic, political or religious in nature. Where the promise is eternal salvation of the self/soul, the doctrine has the convenience of putting off delivering on the promise until some distant future time beyond the ken of mortals.


Delivery occurs is in a supernatural realm that permits no access or return. Confirmation of ideological truth is unknowable. Hence, the unknown benefits faith rather than instill confidence via the surety of assertions based on experience or reason. Where the promise is paradise on earth, the untruth lies in the indefinite postponement of its full realization. Pure Communism never arrived in the Soviet Union before ideology and state both collapsed. In China, it has been silently abandoned, except in nominal terms. and replaced by the creed of self-enrichment sanctified by a return to Mandarin mediated nationalism.


Secular ideology has the harder task than does religion. It, too, can offer a sense of communal belonging, at once social and doctrinal. However, it is hard-pressed to escape current realities. All that those who rule in its name are able to do is to offer interpretations of those shortfalls that divert blame from the flaws of supposed doctrinal truths either to forces beyond its control and influence or to individuals themselves - the Soviet Union’s “wreckers” and “capitalist spies.” Truth or untruth becomes a matter of what you can make of experience. Therein lays a tale that points to the present day.


“The source of evil is the pride in saying I,” Siddharth


Narcissism is a natural threat to truth. It is second only to habitual duplicity, i.e. congenital lying, as the personality trait least compatible with truth telling. For the narcissist, knowing the truth and expressing it is incidental to what rules the narcissist’s thinking. Ensuring that the exterior world does not violate the sacred self is the compulsion. Since the narcissist craves self-gratification above all else, he cannot abide the intrusion of any reality that either questions the utter self-centeredness or impedes the never-ending struggle to make the world conform to its peculiar perspective.


“The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love” - Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov


Yet, in a narcissistic culture, people are drawn to the egoist who has “pulled it off.” Inventing oneself is admirable. Success is conferred by the celebrity thereby acquired. They are interpreted as evidence of virtue and ‘smarts.’  


A queer feature of contemporary American life is the equation of ignorance and freedom. New information is instinctively seen as a threat instead of something carrying possible value to be embraced. For it asks engagement, some mental effort, beyond the anticipated discomfort of having to adjust one’s current inventory of knowledge and the understandings of the world built on it. The sheer novelty itself often is more annoying than enticing. Settled attitudes always have a priority claim on our mental space. That is a near universal trait. What varies are how high is the threshold that the novel must cross to be accepted (even to be considered) and the measures of utility that are applied.


The United States nowadays is a society of false bravery. Its self-image of daring individualism persists even as timid conformity relegates it to the realm of legend. Persons whose inquisitive dedication to the truth challenges convention about public matters are shunned.


Truth, for most people, emerges from the encounter of self with reality. That is not always a direct relationship, though. It is mediated – mediated by authority. The most influential of those authoritative institutions and individuals are religious and political. Traditionally, they often acted in tandem. Religion imprints on us a cognitive map of the universe allied to sentiments. In effect, it is a cognitive/belief/affect map. How deep it extends into the particulars of social life varies. The more institutionalized the religion, the more it sacralizes micro behavior. Hinduism represents one extreme; Unitarian Christianity the other.


The same can be said for political ideologies. The Bolshevik version of Communism provided comprehensive dictation of what the Party determined was truth or falsehood. That’s the essence of totalitarianism. An omnipresent state apparatus enforced the rules to ensure that behavior conformed to dogmatic truth and instruction. In Hindu village society, they were enforced by ruling Brahmin castes who usually combined sacred and de facto temporal authority.


In today’s liberal societies, mediation is less overt or complete. It exists nonetheless – especially in regard to communal affairs. The populace shares fundamental ideas that are incorporated into the collective national mythology – ‘Americanism’ in the United States. Our knowledge and interpretation of individual political matters is shaped by government authorities, by the media, by political parties. On some issues, a pervasive consensus exists – one which may or not correspond to objective truth.


For example: Russia is a mortal threat to the United States. On other issues, division exists; example: abortion. In these latter instances, one segment of the population or both may rely on the authority of an institution cum ideology to which they adhere, e.g. the Catholic Church on abortion; Evangelicals on the Sinfulness of ‘Socialists.’ On yet others, favored media play that role. Millions of educated Americans rely on the editorial pages of The New York Times as mediator on politics and foreign policy.


The implication is that we are not free agents who are able, or even inclined, to distinguish what is true from what is false.


-        One day posterity will remember these strange times, when ordinary common honesty was called courage. - Yevgeny Yevtushenko



User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top