Wednesday, September 28, 2011

#271 / Post Truth Politics

I recently read a political column that used that phrase: post truth politics.

It is worth thinking about how "politics" and the "truth" relate. The "truth," I have come to believe, is always problematic. And that is particularly the case in the realm of "politics," where we create the truth by human actions, based on choice. In politics, there can be no given "truth." In the world we create, and in which we most immediately live, we determine what the truth will be. It is, above all, a "political" world.

Of course, there is another world, as well: the world of Nature. That is a world we have not created, and upon which we ultimately depend. In the world of Nature, there are real "truths," and real "laws." But the truths of the world of Nature are problematic, too - at least as we encounter and discover them.

To my mind, the researches of the Six Blind Men have convincingly demonstrated that our perceptions and analyses of the objective world are always finding only partial aspects of a greater whole. We need to be cautious about proclaiming that we have found, or know, the "truth," since we have probably only seized upon the "tail," or "ear" of the imponderable. We never can grasp the "thing itself," or at least it's doubtful that we can, if we consider that "truth" refers to something that is independent of our perceptions. Whether or not we can ever know the objective truth of the "thing itself," is actually a major debate in the history of philosophy. I think we can't.

It is worth remembering that there is a third realm (besides the world of Nature and the "political" world that we create): the realm of religion. In the realm of religion, claims to know the "truth" are prominent. As those familiar with our American way of doing politics will recall, it is a fundamental principle of our political life that there should be an absolute division between "church and state." In other words, claims to know the "truth," as revealed by religion, have no place in politics, as we practice it. Our politics has never been about the "truth."

That said, there is something profoundly diseased and dysfunctional about our current politics. But in my view, the problem comes not from a failure to honor the "truth," as the article I cited suggests, but from a failure to acknowledge and experience that we are a "community" within the world we make together through the politics we practice.

We are not just a collection of individuals, fighting against each other, singly or in groups and parties, for advantage and power. We are, in a profound way, inextricably part of one larger community, and every one of us has a stake in the common enterprise, the debate and conflict that leads us to the political choices and decisions that create "truth" in the human world.

To his credit, President Obama has set himself the task of trying to recall the American people, across all the divisions within our society, including those of race and wealth, to remember that we all have a common stake in the political process. He should be honored, not savaged (by this friends or anyone else), for his efforts to recall us all to the "better angels of our nature," and to bind up the divisions that seem so real.

Abraham Lincoln was the last President who really tried himself upon this task. President Obama is trying, too, in a nation that is almost as full of vitriolic hatred and division as the nation that fought (but did survive) a vicious Civil War.

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