“What is truth?” Truth and Power in the Trump Era

Fresno Bee, March 31, 2024

Truth and power have always been at odds. When Jesus claimed that he came into the world to testify to the truth, Pontius Pilate scoffed, “What is truth?” The powerful do what they want, indifferent to the truth. The meek end up suffering.

The Donald Trump melodrama provides a more recent example. Trump is skilled at twisting the narrative and making people wonder what is really true. While he was in court for his porn-star-hush-money trial, Trump shared a post that compared his tribulations to those of Jesus. But is it true that Trump is being persecuted like Jesus was?

Well, “What is truth?” Was the 2020 election a fraud? Was Jan. 6 an insurrection? Did Trump pay off a porn star? Did he really rape E. Jean Carroll? Leaving those sordid affairs aside, what is Trump really worth?

Trump seems to have made billions as his social media company went public. The company is not profitable, but the stock price jumped. Pundits are describing it as a meme stock, whose value is divorced from reality.

At the same time, Trump has been convicted of fraud in New York and fined more than $450 million. Despite his wealth, he claimed he was unable to post a bond while the decision is being appealed. The court reduced the amount to $175 million dollars just as Trump was making those newfound billions. Is he rich enough to pay the fine or not? Is his company really worth all of those billions? What is the truth?

These are unimaginable sums for normal, honest people. The story of Trump’s financial ups and down exposes the rotten core of modern capitalism and political life. This is a “let them eat cake” economy in which wealthy fraudsters get rich while homeless people sleep on city streets.

The name of Trump’s social media application, “Truth Social” discloses part of the problem. Truth is not social. Truth is solid and substantial. It is based in the world of facts. More importantly, truth requires honesty and sincerity.

Fraud, lying, and deception undermine truth. But when there is so much nonsense circulating, it becomes difficult to distinguish truth from falsehood. Quacks and charlatans take advantage of this situation. Many of us don’t seem to care. Or perhaps we have been subject to so much misinformation, disinformation and noise that we just throw up our hands, asking, “What is truth?”

A number of us seem eager to jump on the latest bandwagon, indifferent to the truth. We all do this from time to time. If a stock is trending higher, we buy it. If a celebrity endorses something, we use it. When everyone is mocking someone or sharing a stupid meme, we add to the pile. Instead of keeping our eye on truth and virtue, we are distracted by the shiny bells and whistles of the latest craze.

But the bandwagon has no substance. The opinions and beliefs that percolate through social media are merely gossip and gas. Things do not magically become true because people keep repeating them.

In an economy of bubbles and bunkum, we don’t know what anything is really worth. The rise and fall of meme stocks and celebrities as much about herd mentality as it is about any concrete value. And the “truths” that bounce around on social media are produced by “influencers” instead of experts.

The antidote for this is obvious. We need better critical thinking. We also need faith that in the long run the truth will triumph.

This takes us back to Jesus and his interaction with Pilate. It is there that Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” This is a reminder that there is another, better world in which truth and virtue matter. The kingdoms of this world float on hot air. Wisdom and truth have deeper roots.

It is instructive to note that Jesus did not argue with Pilate. The powerful are not interested in genuine arguments about truth. They pander to the mob, do what they want, and then wash their hands. This means that in the short run, untruth may succeed. But one of the hopeful messages of Easter is that in the long run the truth will prevail.

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Want a happier new year? Seek truth, goodness, and beauty

Fresno Bee, December 31, 2023

In the new year, we should seek truth, pursue goodness, and surround ourselves with beauty. Truth, beauty, and goodness are linked. To live well and have a happy new year, we should resolve to ask ourselves three questions. Is it true? Is it good? And is it beautiful?

New year’s wishes and resolutions are often less enlightened. That’s because we are often confused about happiness. Perhaps we think that happiness is something that happens to us—like winning the lottery. Or we confuse power and influence with happiness.

But happiness has little to do with external goods. It is not an object. Nor is it given to us by someone else. Happiness is a by-product of the daily struggle to live well.

Ancient wisdom teaches that fame and fortune are fleeting. The same is true of health, and even life itself. The external goods we desire and pursue are beyond our control. Businesses go bankrupt. Diseases, storms, and accidents afflict us. Social life involves conflicts and disputes. And politics is chaotic and often ugly.

Some external goods are necessary. Money is useful. It helps to live in a safe home and neighborhood. But the key to happiness is not acquiring wealth or living in a mansion behind a guarded gate. It is also useful to have a good reputation. But fame is less important than the glory-seekers think. A healthy body is important. But physical health is less valuable than health of the soul.

Truth, goodness, and beauty are more substantial and enduring than fame and fortune. True statements are not subject to the opinions of the masses. Logic, mathematics, and science remain stable, while the opinions of the world swirl about. And despite propaganda and fake news, the truth is there, waiting to be known.

The same kind of stability is found in a good person. Liars and cheats are unpredictable. Braggarts and loud-mouths rage and fume. And crooks have crooked souls. But good people are trustworthy and reliable. Their integrity makes them steady and resolute.

A good soul is also beautiful. Beauty is harmony and proportion. In music, beauty is heard in the balance of a chord and the pattern of rhythm. A good life is marked by this kind of patterned concord.

The Confucian tradition explained harmony and goodness on analogy with music—and with cooking. A delicious meal involves the right balance of spicy and sweet, flavors and textures. So too with music, and with life. The parts of life must be measured and coordinated with wisdom and restraint. When life give you lemons, you should make lemonade. And when things fall out of rhythm, you need to get back on the beat.

Some traditions suggest that the transcendent goods of truth, goodness, and beauty put us in touch with the divine. Plato said virtuous human beings became godlike. Plato imagined the gods as true, good, and beautiful. The essence of the divine is a kind of eternal stability and glowing beauty. To live well, we should try to live in a way that imitates that ideal of perfection.  

Of course, perfection is not available for mere mortals. Happiness is not always easy to obtain. We are fallible beings in a broken world. Human life is an ongoing process of overcoming challenges. Great art comes from struggle. The same is true of scientific achievement and business success.

Understanding the value of struggle can provide us with inspiration and hope. This world contains much that is ugly, dishonest, and evil. The wickedness of the world can make us resentful. It can lead to despair. It can even seduce us into giving up on the task of living well.

In a corrupt world, it is easy to become corrupt and complicit. It is more difficult to struggle on, and to remain steadfast against the seductions of the world. The gods do not struggle to be good, beautiful, or true. But human beings must work at it. The struggle to live well is part of the project of being human. That’s why as the new year dawns, we make resolutions. We need to continually renew our commitment to being better, more truthful, and to living a more beautiful life.

The Power of Truth

As the doctors and scientists struggle to contain the coronavirus, there has been confusion and disinformation coming out of the White House. And still the partisanship and polarization regarding truth continues.

They say this is a post-truth era.  But the truth is that human beings have never really been fond of truth.  When was the “truth era,” exactly?  During the “good” old days of racism, sexism, and colonialism?  And what about the long history of religious superstition and scientific ignorance?  Truth has usually been in short supply.

Given the long history of untruth, it is not really surprising that the Washington Post reports that President Trump has made over 16,000 false or misleading statements since taking office three years ago.  He is not the first liar to live in the White House, only the greatest.  The President, of course, claims that the Post is fake news.

But so what?  We’ve got other things to worry about.  For many of us, life is good.  We’ve got smartphones and Youtube, Instagram and all-star games.  The consumer society is pleasant.  We even get a perverse thrill watching the outrage flow from Washington.

Or at least we did, before the coronavirus. Maybe we are ready to return to truth, to a view that is informed by science instead of partisan spin.

But let’s face it, when it comes to truth, we mostly don’t care.  If you put together a wish list of the things you want in life, would truth make the list?  My guess is that for most people, truth would not make the list.  We are mostly content to live with white lies, unproven superstitions, and unfounded ideologies.  Very few feel compelled to challenge powerful lies or the lies of the powerful.

It is not that truth is somehow weaker than falsehood.  Rather, the issue is that truth and falsehood are usually less important to us than other things.  Mostly we want love, friendship, money, and peace of mind.  A few idealistic people want justice or universal harmony. 

But even the idealists will accept a few lies on their way to utopia.  Many people are simply not motivated by the love of truth.  And others subordinate the love of truth to their love of other things.

I have been thinking about truth, while re-reading Vaclav Havel’s essay “The Power of the Powerless,” which is about dissent under totalitarianism.  Havel was a Czech dissident.  He was imprisoned for his views.  But he went on to become the President of post-Soviet Czechoslovakia. 

Havel advocates for living within the truth.  But he explains how easy it is to live within a lie.  While his focus is on Soviet-bloc totalitarianism, he offers a prescient warning about the combination of totalitarianism and consumerism.  Over forty years ago, in 1978, he called out “the omnipresent dictatorship of consumption” fueled by advertising and a “flood of information.” 

He also understood that most people simply play along with the prevailing ideology.  Under old-school totalitarian regimes, the dissidents were jailed, tortured, and worse.  But Havel points out that mostly, people play along because everyone else is playing along.  We find a sense of belonging and purpose in joining with others under an ideological umbrella. 

Havel explains, ideology as “a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use.” 

This explains much about the power of partisanship and the failure of truth to capture our attention.  We sense that life is out of balance.  But rather than confronting our dis-ease directly, we retreat to a familiar ideology and find comfort within it.  Truth is irrelevant when what we seek is security and a sense of belonging. 

But Havel also gives us hope.  At some point, people simply stop playing along.  They stop repeating the party line.  Someone points out that the emperor has no clothes on.  And soon those who played along look like fools.  Living within a lie only works if the lie is universally accepted. 

The voices and symbolic gestures of the dissidents draw attention to the lies.  Those dissidents will be punished, attacked, and suppressed.  But in the long run, Havel’s own story reminds us that there is hope that the dissident can disrupt the system with the power of truth.  And the present crisis reminds us that truth is often a matter of life and death.

Gandhi, Judgment, and Truth

Fresno Bee, February 14, 2020

One local effort to dig deeper deserves our attention. The “Interfaith Scholar Weekend” (ISW) is an ongoing attempt to think critically about religion. This effort began in 1998. It has grown into an annual crosstown collaboration of religious and educational organizations.

The subject this year is Mahatma Gandhi. From February 21-23, the ISW will host Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, a professor from the University of Illinois. Professor Gandhi will speak at events at Fresno City College, Fresno State, Temple Beth Israel, and Wesley United Methodist Church (the Fresno State Ethics Center is a co-sponsor).

Jim Grant, the ISW chair and director of social justice ministry for the Diocese of Fresno, explained that the Central Valley has a robust and growing interfaith community. He shared stories with me of a number of examples of how people from different local religious communities have worked together to defuse religious tension, injustice, and hate.

The impetus for this year’s visiting scholar is the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Gandhi is revered as a “mahatma”—a great soul or saint. Gandhi helped to liberate India. He developed strategies of active nonviolence that were employed in the American Civil Rights movement.

But Gandhi has his critics. Some say he did not speak out forcefully enough about racism and India’s caste system. Others blame him for not preventing the partition of India and ensuing violence among Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims.

In light of this, it is worth noting that local Sikhs and Muslims are among those sponsoring the visit of Gandhi’s grandson. The point of this event is to think critically. What we might learn is that no one is perfect.

Gandhi’s grandson makes this point in his recent book, “Why Gandhi Still Matters,” where he describes his grandfather as a “fallible” man. But he points out that the Mahatma is held to a higher standard. Gandhi is blamed for not overcoming the challenges of his own time and for “not solving all of the problems of our age.” But his grandson reminds us that no one can solve all of our problems. Perfection is too high of a standard.

This message is important, I think, for efforts to develop tolerance. We often give our own preferred saint the benefit of the doubt, while leaping to condemn the heroes of the other side. This is a truism of the history of religious conflict.

It is also a feature of our fractious political life. Some applaud Pelosi. Others cheer on Trump. Some love Rush Limbaugh. Others hate him. Each side vilifies the other.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant once said that nothing straight can be built from the crooked timber of humanity. Gandhi might agree. With regard to religion, the Mahatma said, “I hold that all religions are true but imperfect inasmuch as they are presented through human agency and bear the impress of the imperfections and frailties of the human being.” In simpler terms he explained, “All religions are true; all religions have some error in them.”

The problem, of course, is that we are quick to see the errors in other people’s religions while remaining blind to faults in our own. The solution is to look more carefully, dig more deeply, and think more critically. Gandhi gives us another clue. He said, “I claim no perfection for myself. But I do claim to be a passionate seeker after truth, which is but another name for God.”

We are all flawed. If Gandhi wasn’t perfect, then neither are we. But like him, we can seek truth by trying to learn more, think better, and judge less.

IF YOU GO

The Fresno Interfaith Scholar Weekend will be held Feb. 21-23. The opening event is a free lecture, “Truth in an Age of Untruth,” and it starts at 7:30 p.m. in the Old Administration Building at Fresno City College, 1101 E. University Ave. For the full schedule and to learn more about the featured speaker and activities, go to http://interfaithscholar.org/.

Luther’s Reformation: Conscience, Truth, and Modernity

A thriving democracy stems from understanding the power of protest

Fresno Bee, October 20, 2017

These are contentious times. We argue about athletes and flags, racism and sexism. We dispute climate change, economic policy, sex and gender, reproductive rights, and immigration. And of course we disagree about religion.

This is what it is like to live in a thriving secular democracy. The modern world is founded upon the value of individual conscience. We are encouraged to question religious and political authority. We understand the power of protest.

One important milestone in the evolution of the modern spirit occurred 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517. That is when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Church. This legendary act is the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

FOLLOWING LUTHER, WE MODERNS TEND TO BELIEVE THAT TRUTH AND CONSCIENCE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN ALLEGIANCE TO INSTITUTIONAL AUTHORITY.

Luther’s protest was based on his Christian faith. But he also asserted a fundamental claim about truth and individual conscience. In the prologue to his Theses, Luther declared his love of truth. He published his Theses in an effort to bring truth to light.

Following Luther, we moderns tend to believe that truth and conscience are more important than allegiance to institutional authority. We believe that protests and questions can help to reform corrupt structures of power.

Truth has often been manipulated by the powerful. Today dishonest leaders deal in fake news, while feathering their own nests. In Luther’s day, crooked clerics enriched themselves by peddling indulgences—a scam through which rich people bought their way out of purgatory.

The antidote for corruption is honesty and decency. Luther suggested that without a commitment to truth and morality, authorities and institutions leave themselves open to ridicule, slander and doubt.

It is obvious that leadership requires respect for the truth and a commitment to virtue. But we also need bold protestors who have the audacity to speak truth to power. We need intrepid gadflies like Socrates and Luther who sting the powerful with probing questions.

When Luther testified at the Imperial Diet of Worms, in 1521, he asked for an open and honest debate about his interpretation of Christianity. If he was wrong, he asked to be shown his error. He declared, “I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” His speech concluded with the legendary words, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.”

Luther’s request for reasonable dialogue and his declaration of conscience are central features of modernity. We believe that progress is made when free persons debate the truth. But corrupt authorities are not interested in dialogue. They value conformity. And they occasionally resort to violence to enforce orthodoxy.

MODERN FREEDOM IS A REMARKABLE AND RARE ACHIEVEMENT OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT.

To say “here I stand” is to affirm that individuals can discover wisdom without institutional intermediaries. This invites attacks from those who prefer us to sit down and shut up. But progress occurs when we refuse to be silent and stand up for truth.

I’ve been talking about Luther with a group of scholars and clergy who will participate in a discussion of the legacy of the Reformation. One of my collaborators on this project is the Rev. David Norris, a Catholic priest who works at the Saint Paul Catholic Newman Center.

Father Norris sees similarities between Luther’s time and our own. He says, “Calls for reform soon became disrespectful argumentation, power plays and name calling, mutual condemnations and politicization of issues.” In Luther’s time as in our own, he explains, there is “an unfortunate disregard of factual information, as well as a decline in civil discourse.”

Despite these similarities, I think that things are better today. Our secular system respects freedom of conscience. We have established a wall of separation between church and state. And instead of repressing dissenters, we admire those who have the courage to say, “here I stand.”

The modern secular world developed out of long centuries of violence and intolerance. Heretics were burned. Wars were fought. Genocide was invented along with totalitarianism.

Modern freedom is a remarkable and rare achievement of the human spirit. Political and religious authorities continue to want conformity and obedience. But modern democratic people continue to question authority.

Truth is a fragile flower. But it is persistent and perennial. And it flourishes when bold individuals speak their minds and take a stand.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article180023061.html