Belief in truth is a bigger deal than you might at first imagine. If a truth exists, that puts me in a position, both in respect to knowledge and ethics, under that truth. I am its subject and it is not mine. I do not determine which ordinal direction the sun will rise from; I do not tell math how to work. This, however, is not limiting. It is, in fact freeing. When I know what side of the road our culture has agreed to drive on, I am free from an inordinate amount of head-on collisions. When I and the cashier agree on how addition and subtraction work, we can exchange goods for money and come up with the right amount of change.
But this formula, being subject to truth = freedom, is not just for math and physics. It is true for the more human realms of personal interaction, religion, and justice. If I am subject to a law such as, “do not murder”, then you are subject to the same law, meaning that by extension the State is subject to the same law. If a State is wise and just it will be subject to laws just as citizens are. If it is not, it will see itself as the creator of laws to which citizens are subject, but it is not.
The difference is the difference between liberty and tyranny.
Continuing my reflections on Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, I come to some of her reflections on how totalitarian states handle truth and falsehood. If a State is to subject its people to its power, it needs to act as a totalizing narrative. The totalitarian determines what is true and what is false, and individuals will be expected to take appropriate cues from the State. Truth becomes a tool for the totalitarian and ceases to be an individual’s connection to reality.
In a passage that could have been written in response to Howard Zinn’s unfortunately popular book on American history, or the New York Time’s flawed 1619 Project, Arendt writes that totalitarians work to make the traditional exercise of history a joke, turning it into a field of study that misses the point of what is really going on behind the scenes in the “secret influences” that only the properly trained can explain.
To this aversion of the intellectual elite for official historiography, to its conviction that history, which was a forgery anyway, might as well be the playground of crackpots, must be added the terrible, demoralizing fascination in the possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition.
Arendt writes that history, as a matter of reported fact, gets in the way of the programs of totalitarians. As a result, it is common for them to treat the study of history as invalid and replace historical fact with their politics, which turn out to be “gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods”. If they are lies and falsehoods, how can we get people to believe them? Through “power and cleverness…pressure and infinite repetition”.
Arendt wrote in the age of printed propaganda, and an era in which the Soviet Union erased history by literally airbrushing pictures, burning documents, and assassinating political opposition. Now we live in an age of the 24/7 news cycle multiplied numerous times by the number of sources of news and the headline-tailoring algorithms of social media. Pressure and infinite repetition barely even describes how modern totalitarian propaganda is able to get their word out on a constant basis. U.S. Representative Adam Schiff lies about having documents proving President Trump colluded with the Russians, does not produce the evidence, we discover later that the evidence never existed, yet a significant percentage of the population believes the lie. Infinite repetition. Power.
When the New York Time’s 1619 Project was taken to the historical and economic woodsheds over and over, the response what that it wasn’t intended to be a piece of history, but an act of journalism. That is a totalitarian way of saying the interpretive grid of the 1619 Project is more important than the facts.
Arendt makes the point that in totalitarian regimes, the only safe thing to say is what was put out by the leader and his official news machine the evening before. She writes:
The fact that the most perfect education in Marxism and Leninsism was no guide whatsoever for political behavior – that, on the contrary, one could follow the party line only if one repeated each morning what Stalin had announced the night before – naturally resulted in the same state of mind, the same concentrated obedience, undivided by an attempt to understand what one was doing, that Himmler’s ingenious watchword for his SS-men expressed: ‘My honor is my loyalty.’” (emphasis mine)
Do you want to know how to avoid being canceled on social media? Do you want to know how to pass your company’s mandatory diversity training? It is a moving target, so you need to keep up with the latest proclamations on critical topics by all the right people. The proclomations have nothing to do with truth, history, or science. They have everything to do with power and infinite repetition.
What the Church can Do
Many critics of the church have argued it is an organization for unthinking people who are ready to be carried by the hand into well-meaning and feel-good falsehoods. Religious authority is final, after all, so there can be no room to think among the faithful.
Just the opposite turns out to be the case. Christianity (and Judaism before it) built the social structures for science and philosophy, building the world’s first system of Universities. Until the 1700’s nearly every university in the West was first and foremost a Christian seminary. Christian teaching is a dynamic interaction between believing that there is truth to the answers we seek, there is a baseline of settled and vetted truth in the Christian faith, and the ability to ask genuine questions.
As Arendt saw, that is not the case when truth is taken from the public square and replaced with the politics of tyrants and leftist politicians. Power and infinite repetition take the place of inquiry and charitable interaction.
The church should remain rooted in the truths passed down to us by those who thought about them and wrestled with them. The church should be a good place for people to ask genuine questions, but then also be ready to find actual answers.