Crisis of Truth: Why Fake News Isn't News in a Post-Truth World

 The following are my prepared remarks for the 2017 Center for Cultural Leadership Symposium on the "Crisis of Responsibility." 

One day in college freshman English I was paired with a young lady for a class exercise. We had each written a short paper on any subject we chose, and we were to exchange papers for mutual critique. One of us would stand and deliver our paper to the class, and the other would then respond.

I have no recollection at all what I wrote, but I have never forgotten her topic. An amateur mishmash of Nietzsche, Derrida, and Foucault (impressively not stolen from Wikipedia, since it hadn’t been invented), this young lady explained to the class—using well-crafted English—that language has no fixed meaning. She enthusiastically proposed that all propositions were nothing more than pure propaganda, political power plays all the way down. Truth claims, she claimed, are lies and mere tools designed to oppress and marginalize others.

At last the time arrived for my required public response, and I uttered only a single sentence: “Nobody who really believes that language is meaningless would bother writing a paper about it.” The teacher and class roared with laughter and the poor young lady blushed. The year was 1995.

It was easy to not take her seriously. And yet. I wonder if that radical young lady—no doubt now a tenure-track faculty member of a gender-studies department at some university—is having the last laugh.

Another faded memory from those days half a lifetime ago: My philosophy professor inviting me into his office one day and praising my critical thinking and writing abilities. “But,” he said quietly, “You should really try to avoid the ‘T’ word.” T-Word?

He meant “Truth.”

Looking back it seems I lived through times I did not fully comprehend. We were all well-aware of postmodernism, of course. Quintessential postmodernist Andy Warhol said that in the future everyone would enjoy fifteen minutes of fame. I don’t think he thought this would be true of postmodernism itself. We were in the midst of its own “fifteen minutes,” a relatively brief moment of time when western culture had a bout of nausea and vomited forth ravings fittingly indistinguishable from Nietzsche’s “Madman.” In the 1990s, it seemed every single book published by Christian outfits was about the dangerous relativism and nihilism of postmodernism or, alternatively, all the exciting and wonderful possibilities of postmodernism. And then:

It was all gone.

In principle, it ended at precisely 8:46 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. At that moment a large airplane filled with people and jet fuel was purposely crashed, followed shortly by more. They crashed not only into high-rise buildings; they also crashed into the pretentious fantasy world where the “T-word” is considered profanity. It seems impossible to overstate the power of this jolt, not just sociopolitically and economically, but intellectually and morally. Nietzsche had dreamed of moving “beyond good and evil,” but even the likes of atheist gadfly Christopher Hitchens suddenly saw this as, well, the madness it is. And he was not alone. What few people realize is that after September 11th, 2001 philosophy departments all across the western world widely rejected postmodernism. It lay smoldering in lower Manhattan.

All those books published by Christian publishing houses? Just the other day I weeded through my book collection and put at least a dozen of them in the Goodwill pile. I will never have use for them.

Then again, viruses are not so easy to eradicate. Postmodernism in its essence is ideological Ebola, a disease whose purpose is to literally deconstruct—liquefy—the fiber and tissue of healthy organs. Viruses move around and adapt. The “true believer” postmodernists lived on in or were shuffled to their numerous “studies” departments—themselves residual artifacts of a breakdown of a unified field of knowledge—and there they remained undeterred.

Viruses also bide their time. On the public intellectual front postmodernism went into a kind of dormancy. These were the years of tedious essays on “Post-postmodernism” and various attempts to create some new philosophy from the ashes of the World Trade Center. Some normalcy returned, creating an illusion that wholesale assault on the very idea of truth is a thing of the past. A brief fit. A mere spasm.

How naive.

Surveying the scene in 2017, it seems clear to me that the virus had, in fact, infected all of the vital organs of our body politic and however much it had been marginalized and pressed to the crackpot fringes of our society, all indications are that, like Queen Jadis of Narnia, the witch is back. Or, if you prefer—and pardon the French—substitute a word that rhymes with “witch.”

Isaiah 59:14-15:

“So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.”

We could spend a great deal of time exploring all the ways that truth is stumbling in our streets as the virus of intellectual and moral relativism has metastasized in our every cultural institution: media, entertainment, academia, the courts, and politics. It scarcely needs pointing out that our culture has no broad, shared notion of truth. We are far from the times when everyone could affirm something as “self-evident,” as our nation’s founders did in the Declaration of Independence.

This helps to explain why the all-important thing has become “winning.” Once we have deconstructed the idea of truth as objective and transcendent—something to which we are bound whether we like it or not—and replaced it with identity politics and its liberation/oppression nexus, it should surprise no one that all we are left with is “truths”—as in, “your” truth and “my” truth and “our” truth and “their” truth. And all these “truths” are inevitably locked in a pitched battle to see who “wins.” My fellow student’s laughable words were actually a deadly serious prophecy of what everyone would one day (apparently) believe: all truth claims are propaganda— political power plays all the way down, instruments of manipulation to achieve a self-serving end.

And people really do seem to believe this, even when they vocally deny it. Recently CNN aired an advertisement that goes like this:

“This is an apple.

Some people might try to tell you that it’s a banana.

They might scream, ‘Banana, banana, banana,’ over and over and over again.

They might put ‘banana’ in all caps.

You might even start to believe that this is a banana.

But it’s not.

This is an apple.”

It’s a strong and true appeal, to be sure. Alas, it comes from a media outlet that routinely claims that men can have babies and shames anyone who says otherwise. Set in that context, it is difficult to see this as anything but propaganda—a convenient and cynical effort to persuade viewers to believe them, to trust them, that they might thereby exert power and influence over the masses when it comes to more controversial beliefs like their novel ideas about the birds and the bees. Well-intentioned or not, even their truth claims about the nature of truth claims is completely cynical.

Speaking of cynicism, CNNs biggest critic, The President of the United States, also certainly gives the impression of caring about truth. He routinely chastises that very network for broadcasting “fake” news. This, too, might be a strong appeal, were it not for the fact that plenty of what he deems “fake” isn’t fake at all. And, really, are we to believe that the man who believes the National Enquirer “actually [has] a very good record of being right,” and is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize is really concerned about fake news? Seriously? This is feigned concern that is entirely and transparently instrumental to his own political ends.

“All truth claims are political power plays,” she said. Those words haunt me because it appears everyone now believes it, or at least acts like they believe it even in the act of saying they don’t believe it.

In a post-Truth world, all news is fake news.

But I don’t want to talk about the media, even if that is where Pilate’s perennial question, “What is Truth?” crops up most often. I don’t want to talk about the academy, even as hordes of fascist students invent their own truths and violently protest anyone who dares to disagree. I don’t want to talk about the law, even as we have a robed potentate, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who believes and (sadly) rules that “at the heart of liberty” is the right to invent one’s own truth. I don’t want to talk about the entertainment world, where rank hypocrisy is on full display as they are busy tarring and feathering people for actually practicing the alleged truths they’ve long preached—the serpent swallowing its own tail. I don’t want to talk about politics, which—well, let’s be honest: they’ve never been on particularly good terms with honesty and truth.

If only there was something else to talk about! Some other institution, some other group of people, somebody, anywhere who puts a premium on the truth. Oh, I forgot: there is a group of people whose charter it is to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, but in my defense they’re pretty easy to forget these days.

If we do turn our attention to them, it turns out they’re all just as interested in “winning” as the rest of the culture. Many are the court prophets—er, Christian leaders who will morally rationalize absolutely anything, it seems. I mean, what’s a little statutory rape when there’s a Senate seat to protect? I mean, after all, Joseph of Nazareth married a teenager, and, heck, some 14-year olds are pretty hot. I truly wish I was making up this nauseating stuff.

It’s easy to cherry-pick and beat up on the likes of Falwell, Graham, Dobson, Jeffress, and others. Maybe they aren’t really representative of Christians in general. I’m sorry to rain on the parade, but actually the Public Religion Research Institute just rained on the parade. In 2011 they polled America with this question: “Can an elected official who commits an immoral act in their private life still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life?” Now, I must say that I’m not a fan of that question. It needs to be a “should so-and-so be entrusted with public duties,” rather than a “can they?” question. Be that as it may, Americans across the board said, “No,” but evangelicals were the most adamant. 61 percent said, “No!”

When asked the same question six years later 72 percent—seventy-two percent—of evangelical Christians answered, “Yes.”

That certainly sounds like they all changed their minds in a fairly brief period of time. But here is the thing we must—we must—grasp: they didn’t change at all. What changed was that suddenly answering “Yes” to that question was to their perceived political advantage. How clarifying. Ideological Ebola had already liquefied the moral fiber of God’s people, right along with everyone else; it just took an opportune moment to manifest itself. That old chestnut, “American Christianity is 3,000 miles wide and an inch deep” has turned out to be true. I don’t know why that has shocked me, but it has.

In the 2016 election cycle I published my final appeal at The Resurgent. It was entitled, “Freedom or Integrity: Evangelicals, Choose One.” I argued that Hillary Clinton was a direct threat to our freedom. And I argued that Donald Trump was a direct threat to our integrity. I warned that under Clinton, we might be muzzled. But under Trump, we might be free to broadcast from the rooftops, but everyone would ignore us. Rightly ignore us. All of our moral capital will have been squandered. I take no pleasure in being right, but recent events have convinced me more than ever that I was right.

And that means the most pressing “crisis of truth” is not “out there,” among “them.” It is our crisis. This is our problem. Being the light of the world and salt of the earth is our job. Remember: those verses I read from Isaiah were not judgments against pagan nations; they were judgments against God’s people.

Now, I went to great pains in the fall of 2016 to assure people that given the situation I respected them if they decided to vote for Donald Trump. But I took equal pains to remind people that this vote, this choice, was not remotely a mandate to lie—that is, to lionize, cheerlead, rationalize, defend, and walk in lock-step with so lacking a leader. To do so is to embrace the very postmodernist deconstruction we ostensibly oppose; it is to prioritize “winning” over integrity and truth. And I can hear my old classmate’s last laugh: “All truth claims really are just political power plays, all the way down.”

In summary, then: the “crisis of truth” cuts through every institution and every tribe, and we Christians are no exception. This is no “us” versus “them.” Intellectual and moral relativism may have seemed dormant these last fifteen years, but it has been rotting and destroying the fiber and tissue of our society all along.

What must we do? Let me sketch a few things.

1. Repent. Judgment begins with the house of God, and the message of Isaiah is every bit as relevant today as it was then: “Return to me, and I will return to you.”

2. We must stop thinking in purely horizontal terms. Cultural conflict is not a “zero-sum” game. That is precisely what the postmodern denial of transcendence wants you to do. It wants you to live as though God is not acting in the here-and-now. But we must think vertically. When we leave God out of the equation, as though he is not with us, blessing us, ruling us, leading us, that is when we embrace the pragmatism of adopting the enemy’s standards and tactics. That is the root of “whataboutism.” "But they do it; they aren’t going to stop doing it; we must do it, too." This is why the Israelites of Isaiah’s day were tempted to succumb to realpolitik and make allegiances with Egypt rather than trust the power and promises of God. Because, hey, the world’s ways seem to work! The faithless, unspoken assumption is that God’s ways don’t work.

3. Engage the world with integrity. Play by God’s rules. Speak the truth in love, even when it is unpopular, and make the world muzzle you. Stop simply going with the flow of what’s popular in your particular tribe.

4. Cultivate moral fiber in yourself, your home, your church, and in your community. Strengthen the immune system of our civil society—we do not live by bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

5. Deeply absorb this truth, which is perhaps the most obvious thing in the Bible and also the easiest to forget: faithfulness and integrity is infinitely more valuable than winning.

6. Be hopeful. Hopeful people are joyful and winsome people. We have good reason to be hopeful: Intellectual and moral relativism are not true. They are lifeless and barren. They cannot and will not bear fruit.

Our Lord Jesus Christ is not just “the way.” He is also “the truth,” and allegiance to him bears the fruit of eternal life.

Brian Mattson