When all truth is relative


Birds fly, tortoises crawl and politicians lie, particularly when they feel cornered. That’s the natural order of things. Big deal. I don’t waste too much indignation on it.

But what irks me, and should concern us all, is not the everyday disregard for this or that particular truth but the very assault on the idea that there is such a thing as truth at all.

Last week, John McCain’s campaign resorted to yet another Republican attack on the media, this time the New York Times, for being “150% in the tank” for Barack Obama. McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, was smarting from a story that revealed he had made a sizable amount of money as head of an advocacy group that represented the interests of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And instead of attacking the veracity of the story, the campaign initially attacked the messenger and called into question everything the Times -- and, I’d suggest, by implication the rest of the so-called liberal media -- reported on McCain’s campaign.


The revelations and the barbs continued to fly, with the Times uncovering additional payments from Freddie Mac to Davis’ firm through last month, and the McCain side fulminating mostly about the “partisan paper of record” and claiming that Davis received no remuneration or profit of any kind from his firm since 2006.

I’m no defender of the New York Times. I often find its high-and-mighty tone pretentious and self-serving. But it worries me that Republicans have made it a primary tactic to respond to negative news with immediate media smears and charges of bias.

Conservatives may have a point that the traditional media are slanted to the left, but it is also clear that they aren’t content with simple ideological balance. What they want, as we have seen, is their own biased media, in the form of Fox News and the Washington Times.

The upshot, ironically, is that conservatives -- those who generally embrace the idea of absolutes -- have put the final nail in the coffin of truth.

To be sure, the initial assault on truth began on the intellectual left in the 1960s. In academia, the old-fashioned idea that there were some things that we could all be certain of gave way to the postmodern worldview that held that truth does not really exist in any objective sense, but is instead created by each individual through the prism of his own background and biases. According to this new dictum, reality itself is fragmented and the search for commonly held truths is the province of fools, innocents and fundamentalists.

In this new regime, serious thinkers are, by definition, dogmatic skeptics. College students, as one writer put it, now feel “safer as doubters than as believers, and as perpetual seekers rather than eventual finders.” On today’s college campuses, truth is so 20th century.

As believers in the old-fashioned idea of truth, conservatives generally have found postmodernism distasteful and have vociferously protested its emergence. In her 1995 book, “Telling the Truth,” Lynne Cheney, the vice president’s wife and former head of the National Endowment of the Humanities, railed against intellectual relativism. She blamed academic postmodernism for undermining the very purpose of learning. In this new way of thinking, she wrote, “There’s only your version of events and my version of events and Charles’ version and Harry’s version, and the one that prevails will be that of whoever is most powerful. This seems to fly in the face of the way scholarship has proceeded for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.”


In that same year, Ohio pastor Dennis McCallum published his book, “The Death of Truth.” “Postmodernists,” he wrote, “point out that we already have a cultural and social beginning point that makes objectivity impossible.” But “in the absence of objective truth, there is no final bar of appeal to determine truth and reality.” And, ultimately, without a belief in truth, there can be no belief in God.

And the list doesn’t stop there. In one way or another, the likes of Robert Bork and William J. Bennett have argued that liberal-inspired relativism has served to erode America’s moral clarity.

But if conservatives care so much about the truth, why then do they condone the GOP’s constant haranguing about media bias, with its emphasis on knee-jerk, blanket charges of partisanship rather than on arguing a case?

No doubt because it’s a simpler-to-communicate message; no doubt creating boogeymen is easier and perhaps more effective with voters than arguing evidence and fact. But conservatives in particular should understand that constant discrediting of the media is one of the best ways to further the postmodernist agenda. It erodes the belief that there is something real and solid, and it lends credence to the idea that all truth is relative because it is always filtered through the biases of its messengers.

Although this gambit may pay short-term political dividends, in the long run it only serves to further divide Americans into their ideological enclaves -- with conservatives getting their news from X and liberals from Y. More important, by undermining the very idea of truth, it also undermines the idea that, as a nation, we can collectively and honestly describe and find solutions to the problems we all face.