What Has Happened to Truth?

If we hadn’t gotten inured to the relentless outpouring of “crazy” ideas from the extreme right, we would be forced to wonder what is going on – and what it means.

By “crazy” I mean the birthers or those who see a fascist (or communist) take-over of the Federal Reserve Bank, or attempts to indoctrinate school children.  In America, we have always had conspiracy theories and exaggerated suspicions of political or economic plots.  Richard Hofstadter wrote “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” 45 years ago, but he was referring largely to fringe groups.  Now, however, these paranoid ideas are mainstream, retailed on Fox news and plastered over the internet, as Thomas Frank pointed out last week on The Wall Street Journal website (See “From John Birchers to Birthers.”)

Hofstadter was careful to point out that he used the term “paranoid” descriptively, as an analogy, not as an actual diagnosis.  But I think the pathological implications of the diagnosis are relevant.  Paranoia starts with virulent hatred towards others, who are seen to be thoroughly deserving of contempt.  The intensity of the hatred spills over, and the blurred object is seen as hating and attacking in return.  Hatred entirely fills the space.  That’s what makes it seem so out of touch with reality, so crazy.

It seems clear to me that those who spew invective and baseless accusations display the classic outlines of paranoia.  They are suffused with hate, and they feel persecuted.  But that is not all there is to this new proliferation of paranoia.  Something is changing in our culture, something that makes these pathological processes acceptable, even normal.

Today, intensity and conviction have acquired their own legitimacy.  In the dark 30’s of the last century, as Europe was strangling in the grip of fascism, William Butler Yeats wrote “The Second Coming,” his apocalyptic vision of the end of civilization, ending with these powerful lines:

The best lack all conviction

While the worst are full of passionate intensity.

But now, after several more catastrophes have afflicted us, unimaginable to Yeats, passionate intensity has become a kind of defense, a source of stability, a means of survival.  We are forced to respect it, admire it even, as an antidote to the helplessness that threatens us face to face with our world.  Certainly, that makes it harder to see that it is, also, a form of madness.

This is all the more true as traditional authorities have been so thoroughly compromised.  Politicians sell their services for campaign donations, regulators routinely approve questionable practices, priests abuse their trust, insurers scheme to deny coverage, brokers sell their clients dubious investments, and so on and on.

In this climate, truth itself has become questionable.  If it hasn’t been sold to the highest bidder, it is simply more and more difficult to find – or to believe in.

So, if we can’t have truth, at least we can have conviction