How quaint this admonition from Dr. Johnson seems today: “Accustom your children constantly to this,” Johnson told Boswell; “if a thing happened at one window, and they, when relating it, say that it happened at another, do not let it pass, but instantly check them; you do not know where deviation from truth will end.”
Where is Dr. Johnson when we need him? How well could we profit from his scruples when it comes to the question of truth. For we live at a time when truth is everywhere under attack. I am not talking about anything arcane or polysyllabic: just plain, factual truth, as in “The battle of Agincourt took place in October 1415” or (more generally) “the documents support my claim and do not support his” or “the police station has been torched; this is not a peaceful protest but a riot.”
It is perhaps easy enough to discount some of the more florid examples of the assault on truth. I daresay that few sensible people take seriously the claims of Holocaust deniers. What is significant, however, is the way in which such extreme doctrines tend to be dismissed. Increasingly, they are repudiated not as pernicious falsehoods—the response that Dr. Johnson would have insisted upon—but as more or less unfortunate “perspectives” or “points of view,” the gospel being that everyone is “entitled” to his own such hobbyhorse, no matter how flagrantly at odds with the truth it might be. Never mind that such an attitude not only disparages truth but also erodes the legitimacy of serious opinion.
There are no doubt many reasons for this development. One important reason is the degree to which Western intellectual elites—in the media, the world of culture, and above all in the academy—have reneged on their commitment to truth. This abdication has a long and complex heritage. And it comes in many forms and degrees of finality, from various modes of trial separation to, in extreme cases, irrevocable divorce.
As always in the world of ideas, what matters is not so much the existence but the influence and prevalence of such commitments. In the present case, the cavalier attitude toward truth has reached epidemic proportions. It has, indeed, become part of the intellectual furniture of our age, presupposed rather than argued for.
One depressing sign of this situation is the absolute horror with which the idea of “objective truth” is regarded in chic academic circles today—and, increasingly, in the decidedly nonacademic circles of elite cultural opinion. Another sign is the widespread tendency to downgrade facts to matters of opinion—a tendency that follows naturally from the rejection of objective truth.
This shows itself in the amazingly prevalent assumption that truth is “relative,” i.e., that the truth of what is said depends crucially upon the interests, prejudices, even the sex or ethnic origin of the speaker rather than—well, than the truth or falsity of what the speaker says.
The basic idea is that truth somehow is invented rather than discovered. Typical of this position is the feminist complaint about “male-centered” or “white-centered” epistemologies that make false claims to universality (another word that inspires panic) or objectivity.
The British historian Simon Schama provided a more genteel expression of this attitude toward truth in the afterword to his best-selling harlequinade, Dead Certainties. “The claims for historical knowledge,” Schama assured his readers, “must always be fatally circumscribed”—fatally circumscribed, mind you—“by the character and prejudices of its narrator.” In other words, the limitations of the historian make the achievement of historical truth impossible.
How many college-educated people today would dare to dissent from this assertion? Schama was at pains to deny that his was a “naïvely relativist position”; yet at bottom, his claim is little more than a chummy periphrasis for Nietzsche’s famous declaration of nihilism: “There are no facts, only interpretations.”
It is unfortunate that we lack a squadron of Dr. Johnsons: they might remedy the situation considerably by applying a series of refutations like that delivered against Bishop Berkeley’s idealist philosophy. Except in the case of Michel Foucault, who might have grown overly fond of Johnson’s method of refutation, the results would almost certainly be salutary.
Nihilism in the Academy
Not surprisingly, the flight from truth has had especially devastating consequences in the academy. Among other things, it has undermined the integrity of many academic disciplines—has, in fact, done much to undermine the very idea of an academic “discipline,” that is to say, a field of study with a generally agreed upon subject matter and shared tools of inquiry.
The dizzy proliferation of “studies” programs is an important sign of this decay. Women’s studies, LGBTQ+ studies, African-American studies, Chicano studies, peace studies, textual studies: the metastasis of these and other such pseudo-subjects in the academy betokens not the extension but the breakdown of academic disciplines.
It is worth stressing that such programs, though advertised as “cross-disciplinary,” in reality are anti-disciplinary; they require not the mastery of multiple disciplines but the abandonment of disciplinary rigor for the sake of fostering a prescribed ideology.
The paradigm of all such efforts is “cultural studies,” an alarmingly popular intellectual solvent that is characterized not by its subject—which can be anything at all—but by its attitude. The two mandatory ingredients for cultural studies are 1) political animus and 2) hostility to factual truth. “Content” is entirely discretionary.
To date, the assault on truth in the academy seems to have been most damaging to the study of literature—partly because departures from factual truth are not always so readily detectable when the subject is literature, partly because departments of literature were among the first to capitulate to such trendy and destructive fads as deconstruction, structuralism, and cultural studies in all their unlovely allotropes.
But few if any subjects have escaped unscathed. Philosophy, law, art history, psychology, anthropology, sociology: all have been playing an aggressive game of catch-up with literature departments in this regard. Even history, whose raison d’être, one might have thought, was a commitment to factual truth, has suffered. So, too, the natural sciences: the theory and philosophy of science—if not yet the actual practice of science—have increasingly become hostage to sundry forms of epistemological incontinence, as the logic and substance of science is deliberately confused with the sociology of science.
According to some observers, such ideas have even begun making headway in schools of business management and accounting—though regrettably not, it seems, among those accountants employed by the Internal Revenue Service. I remember a splendid chap called Nicholas Fox, who lectures in English medical schools, who in his book Postmodernism, Sociology and Health assured readers that such terms as “patient” and “illness” are “sociological fictions” that can be cleared up by “elements of feminist theory and Derridean concepts of différance and intertextuality.”
Malodorous Fumes Escape the Academy
But if the progress of this assault on truth has been most conspicuous in the university, its colonization of more workaday precincts of society has been startling. This is something that Attorney General William Barr underscored in an interview with Townhall Friday. “They’re basically a collection of liars,” he said, summing up the behavior of “most of the mainstream media.”
They’re a collection of liars and they know exactly what they’re doing. A perfect example of that [was] the riots. Right on the street, it was clear as day what was going on, anyone observing it, reporters observing it, it could not have escaped their attention that this was orchestrated violence by a hardened group of street fighting radicals and they kept on excluding from their coverage all the video of this and reporting otherwise and they were doing that for partisan reasons, and they were lying to the American people. It wasn’t until they were caught red-handed after essentially weeks of this lie that they even started feeling less timid.
Does anyone doubt this? If you were to ask representatives of the Fourth Estate point-blank about Barr’s claim, they would sputter, roll their eyes, and tell you that the attorney general is the despicable tool of Donald Trump, a man too low to warrant the epithet “despicable.”
But would they deny the charge? Tricky, because at least since the New York Times admitted (or do I mean “bragged”) that it had given up even trying to cover Donald Trump fairly it has been an open secret that the media does not cover the news—i.e., things that happen—it reinforces The Narrative, the storyline that this week’s wardens of wokeness tacitly agree upon.
The Times’ admission that it had given up on telling the truth came in 2016. Since then, the declivity has been both rapid and steep.
The Times is a poster child for this development, but it is merely a representative poster child. We’ve heard the word “pandemic” a lot recently as people scurry about trying to discover ways of exploiting our latest Chinese import. Something that is politically and morally more toxic than the coronavirus is the pandemic of mendacity in the media. I suspect many—maybe most—people understand this, which is why public distrust of the media is skyrocketing.
Barr is right that “the national mainstream media . . . has dropped any pretense of professional objectivity and are political actors, highly partisan who try to shape what they’re reporting to achieve a political purpose and support a political narrative that has nothing to do with the truth.” Not only that, “[t]hey’re very mendacious about it,” a development that is “very destructive to our Republic,” partly because the partisanship and mendacity are so one-sided, partly because it is so “monolithic.”
Escape from Mendacity
If you are able to distance yourself from the realities being described—or, rather, misdescribed—the procedure can seem comical.
I think back, for example, to May when an MSNBC reporter stood in front of a burning police station and assured his viewers that the “protests” were “not generally speaking unruly,” or—a more recent case—when a CNN reporter described the mayhem in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as a “fiery but mostly peaceful protest.” This prompted a spate of parodies, including one that substituted an image of the burning Hindenburg behind the hapless reporter (“Hindenburg completes fiery but mostly successful journey”).
But in fact, there is nothing at all comical about the implosion of the American media. Their derelictions, as the attorney general observed, constitute a threat to the Republic. I’m told that only a tiny percentage of the voting public gets its news primarily from the mainstream media. That is consoling.
Less heartening is the reflection that the mainstream media nevertheless exerts a disproportionate influence on the climate of elite opinion. Their “fiery but mostly peaceful” yarns have done serious damage to the horizon of shared assumptions that makes our public life together inhabitable. These liars—to employ the attorney general’s apposite term—squeal like stuck pigs when the president refers to these scribes and broadcasters as purveyors of “fake news.”
But the president is right about that, just as he is right to call them “enemies of the people.” Their irresponsibility has been toxic since the days of Richard Nixon. It went on steroids with the election of Donald Trump.
Now, in the midst of riots in Democratic-run cities across the country, as we head into the final stretch of what is perhaps the most consequential presidential election since 1860, they have joined the forces of dissolution and anarchy.
I am delighted that someone of the stature and authority of Bill Barr has called them out with Johnsonian frankness. I hope it will prove to be a tonic preliminary to some sort of reckoning.