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
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.