By Amir Azarvan –Assistant Professor of Political Science, Georgia Gwinnett College – [email protected]
From the sinking of the RMS Lusitania to the apparently staged chemical attack in Douma, humanity has witnessed a plethora of false – or, at minimum, highly dubious – pretexts for war. Although I do not at all wish to imply that events like these do not predate the twentieth century, I suggest that it is not an inconsequential fact that earlier episodes are relatively sparse or absent from most published litanies of false pretexts. This fact could be explained, of course, by certain changes that resulted in greater awareness of our governments’ nefarious deeds, such as increases in government transparency and journalistic freedom, which attended the democratic waves that unfurled throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Reasonable as this account may be, there is another explanation, which centers on how we have come to approach the question of truth.
The Nihilist Revolution
We are the heirs of an intellectual patrimony that has effectively downplayed the importance of upholding the truth or denied its reality altogether. Nihilism – or the notion, popularized by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), that there is no absolute truth – is still accepted among many postmodernists. Not only is this particular idea pernicious, but it is also self-contradictory. After all, as countless others before me have explained, the proposition that there is no absolute truth, but only relative truth, is itself a statement of absolute truth. To put it another way, it is logically absurd to say, “It is absolutely true that that there’s nothing absolutely true.”
Nihilism only makes sense when we redefine truth as anything that comports with the desires of a person or community (e.g., “If I want to be a cat, then it is true that I am a cat.” “If our society approves of mutilating a five-year old girl’s genitalia, then this practice is correct, and for outsiders to insist otherwise is to engage in cultural imperialism.”). This may strike the reader as a likely gross misrepresentation of what nihilists truly believe, or at least claim to believe. This might have been my impression, as well, had I not debated a former colleague (a self-described sophist) who questioned the reality of objective mathematical principles and scoffed at the notion of logical rules. What I found most disturbing about our conversation was that she was forced to admit – despite her feminist convictions – that her nihilist philosophy allows for no standard by which we can say that it is always wrong to rape a woman.
Herein lies one of the chief dangers of nihilism: it offers us no moral criterion by which we may universally condemn rape, military aggression, genocide, or any other social evil. No right is secure in the nihilist’s universe. The very concept of “human rights” is stripped of all substantive meaning, even if it retains its emotional appeal; to make a human rights claim is to do nothing more than say, “I really, really want this right!”
Of course, it is doubtful that anyone genuinely believes that there is no absolute truth. (By what moral criterion would a nihilist complain if a waitress shortchanged him, explaining that her computation accorded with “her mathematical truth”?) What we are really faced with – the problem that I have chosen to highlight in this essay – are people who question the existence of a transcendent, personal being who, in the traditional Christian view, is identified with the truth and cares about whether we are truthful.
If you believe that truth is an impersonal abstraction, then you are less likely to sense fear or shame in violating it. No, I do not mean to suggest that all nihilists are liars. But while it is obvious that many tell the truth, it is so in spite of their professed nihilist beliefs, not because of them. They follow, perhaps subconsciously, the promptings of their conscience, which urges them to act contrary to their supposed denial of absolute truth. Nonetheless, it stands to reason that nihilists are, overall, more likely to lie or distort the truth. By contrast, those for whom truth is a person – a humble, meek, and compassionate person whom we crucify with our lies – will hesitate before telling a falsehood, or at the very least feel compunction and repent when they do.
With respect to the current state of U.S.-Iran relations, such compunction has yet to be expressed by anyone in the Trump administration. Earlier this month, President Trump ordered the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds force. As predicted, Iran retaliated, justifying its missile strike on the al-Asad airbase as an act of self-defense permitted under Article 51 of the UN Charter. As many as thirty-four U.S. troops reportedly sustained traumatic brain injury due to the retaliatory strike. Whether the killing of Soleimani – who was renowned for his role in fighting ISIS, and whose death has been described as a victory for the terrorist organization – was worth this outcome and the risk of a full-blown war with Iran arguably depends on whether there were, as was initially claimed, “imminent threats to American lives.” As it turns out, that there never was “hard evidence” of such threats, as it was eventually acknowledged.
We hardly batted an eye to this deception. It is as if we have been desensitized to lying and other morally outrageous behavior, and have thus entered into a post-scandal era in which few things shock us, at least to the point of motivating us to demand accountability.
A Possible Objection to My Thesis
How could the pervasiveness of lying in the political realm be attributed to nihilism when most of our leaders are self-professing Christians? My response to this admittedly reasonable objection is to offer the reminder that “not everyone who says to [Christ], ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of [his] Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). How, then, does the true Christian do the will of the Father? To put it in the simplest terms, it is by loving God and neighbor. In practice, this is accomplished when we abide by such rules as these: “‘Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another’” (Lev. 19:11). It is telling, therefore, that Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo – a former deacon and Sunday school teacher, ironically enough – confessed to having done the exact opposite during his time as CIA director: “We lied. We cheated. We stole,” he acknowledged without a shred of contrition. (Even more distressing, perhaps, was the applause that the statement elicited from the audience.) If the attainment of status or power requires appealing to the mainly Christian masses, then no consistent nihilist seeking it will have moral qualms about feigning faith.
I do confess, however, that I may be guilty of overlooking another factor: Protestant theology. (This is a factor worthy of serious consideration given that America remains a predominantly Protestant country and that nearly all of our presidents – including our current one, however much his dubious church membership status and refusal to ask for God’s forgiveness call his insincerity into question – have been Protestant.) Perhaps Pompeo and others are not nihilists masquerading as Christians. It may very well be the case that they are sincere believers, although of a particular, Evangelical sort who happen to think that their apocalyptic ends justify their deceptive means.
Another plausible theory – one that does not appear to have received much attention – concerns the teaching that salvation is a once-and-for-all event. This doctrine – which, to be fair, not all Protestants accept – can inadvertently lead otherwise sincere believers to lie and sin in other ways. Being, as he imagines himself to be, irrevocably saved, the believer may go on sinning, motivated by a sense of eschatological impunity. As a consequence, no real transformation ever takes place in his moral life. Accused, as I may be, of misrepresenting Protestant teaching, the relevant point is that many live as if this form of antinomianism were true, as suggested by the evident compulsion many Protestants feel to quell this “misunderstanding” online.
Ultimately, there is no way to determine what is truly in the heart of any individual person. In any event, I do not claim that my thesis explains the tendency of every dishonest political official to lie. I limit myself to the contention that, as religious disbelief continues to grow, lying will become more commonplace.
Lying as a Cultural Artifact
Having been shaped by our nihilistic culture, we seem to take for granted that our leaders will lie to us, and think it naïve to expect more virtuous leadership. We are accustomed to viewing their dishonesty as nothing more than a symptom of fallen human nature, whereas I suggest that it is also a cultural artifact. To lie is to make “an untrue statement”. But if truth really is a myth, then lying is, as well. (Accordingly, what you might call a “lie” is nothing more than a statement that you find personally inconvenient; a statement that contradicts “your” truth.) That we fail to recognize that the latter naturally follows from the former is a mystery. By demoting truth – that is, by turning away from God – we unwittingly work to preserve a culture in which deceit thrives.