The Magazine

We Hold These Lies

A Protestant sociologist argues that America has embraced a culture of untruth

Jun 12, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 37 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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Time for Truth

Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype, & Spin

by Os Guinness

Baker, 128 pp., $ 12.99

It will be a long time before a dispassionate historian can assess just what happened to both the American presidency and the American people during the Clinton administration. It is not simply that this particular president lied quite brazenly while in office; after all, presidents have lied before.

Nor is it simply that Americans were willing to put up with a rogue as their president because they associated him with a heady rush of the stock market. The most devastating feature of the Clinton presidency may be far more serious and longer-lasting: The American people appear to have been inoculated by Clinton's charm, agreeableness, and intelligence against any serious aversion to lying.

That, in part, is the thesis of Time for Truth: Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype, & Spin, a pithy, powerful study by the sociologist Os Guinness. The book is not actually about Clinton, though he features in it as an important illustration of the larger points Guinness seeks to make.

Guinness was initially something of an admirer of Clinton in the early years of the administration, taking part in the portentous "Where are we headed?" discussions for sympathetic clergy, motivational speakers, and academics at the White House and Camp David. What most disturbs Guinness about Clinton is that, in Guinness's view, Clinton was "not just the corruptest, but the most corrupting president in American history."

The Clinton-Lewin-sky scandal, in Guinness's view, was "not just the sad story of a brilliant but deeply flawed political leader, but the full flowering of a generation of trends in American society." It represents "the postmodern crisis of truth in presidential form: America's 'Nietzschean moment' in the Oval Office; the year America learned to live with the lie."

It is the pervasive culture fostered either by deliberate dishonesty or by evasions and shadings of truth that Guinness faces head-on. But the objection he brings to them is not just aesthetic. For Guinness, a society without truth is a society that will quickly forfeit freedom itself.

Truth "is not only essential to freedom; it is freedom, and the only way to a free life lies in becoming a person of truth and learning to live in truth." "The true, the good, and the free have to be linked together. . . . Truth without freedom is a manacle, but freedom without truth is a mirage."

By quoting formidable intellectual opponents of communism such as Vaclav Havel, Guinness makes clear that some political lies are plainly more lasting and dangerous than others. "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," even from our highest law enforcement officer, is not in the same league as "communism is democracy," especially when the slogan is backed by all the power of a police state.

But Guinness argues that some aspects of modern lying in Western culture -- "the 'culture cartel' of post-modern academia, advertising, entertainment, and youth culture," for example -- are more seductive and enduring than those of Communist society.

What Guinness targets is the casual acceptance by much of contemporary American society of the idea that it is legitimate to create an entirely fictional self-image and pass it off as truth.

The villain in this book is Friedrich Nietzsche, whom Guinness credits with having set in motion the wholesale assault upon truth that has particularly plagued the twentieth century. Nietzsche's "perspectivism" ("there are many kinds of eyes, and consequently, there are many kinds of 'truths,' and consequently there is no truth") works perfectly for the inventions of Rigoberta Menchu, the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize laureate who piled bogus fact upon bogus fact in her screed in favor of revolutionary violence.

"Whether her book is true or not," Guinness quotes a Wellesley professor as saying, "I don't care. We should teach our students about the brutality of the Guatemalan military and the U.S. financing of it." But, of course, as postmodernists themselves often assert, if there is no truth, then nothing is left but a struggle for power. Though Guinness doesn't elaborate the point, the century's grossest brutalities have been committed by political regimes that believe this.

For Guinness, though, it is not just postmodernism as such that is the problem; it is what he calls "a profound crisis of cultural authority in the West -- a crisis of beliefs, traditions, and ideals that have been decisive for Western civilization to this point." If this crisis is not resolved, Guinness warns, then freedom itself will be imperiled. "Far from being a naive and reactionary position, truth is one of the simplest, most precious gifts without which we would not be able to handle reality or negotiate life."

Though born in China of British missionary parents and educated in England, Guinness has been passionately concerned about the direction of American politics and culture since his first visit in 1968, when he met Mario Savio and other New Left luminaries.

That visit led to one of the first thoroughgoing critiques of the 1960s counterculture, The Dust of Death. Though an Evangelical Christian, Guinness has often been fiercely critical of the Christian Right, and in the late 1980s he foresaw more clearly than most how the emerging American culture wars might prove in the end more threatening to people of faith than to secularists.

He sought to defuse the battle in advance with the "Williamsburg Charter" in 1988, a document intended to spell out exactly how the Constitution made provision for vigorous secular-religious debate without destroying a fundamental civic consensus on church-state separation.

Guinness today is the intellectual force behind the Trinity Forum, a Virginia-based think tank that engages business, political and government leadership in the United States and abroad in forums to discuss key historical and contemporary issues of character, freedom, and faith.

"One of my passionate desires," says Guinness, "is that the leadership of America will begin to appreciate the place of faith in the Western heritage, as the single strongest animating force in Western civilization."

Guinness obviously believes that Christian faith, expressed intelligently and renewed and invigorated by America's social and cultural leaders, offers the most effective way out of the postmodernist cul-de-sac into which our culture seems currently headed. But if the book were longer than its terse 128 pages, he might have spelled out more expansively why a contempt for the notion of truth is disastrous for everyone.

Without respect for truth, it will be impossible to sustain justice or freedom. Time for Truth is probably the best single restatement of the need for truth in contemporary America.

David Aikman is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.