Thursday, July 30, 2009

Truth's enduring inconvenience

A while back, Al Gore was associated with a movie - "An Inconvenient Truth" - I have no wish to endorse this movie without qualification, as it contains elements I can dispute. But the title itself contains something I think is essential. Truth inevitably represents an inconvenience to many, although truth has this property of tending eventually to emerge from the lies and smokescreens designed to suppress that truth.

In my own life, I discovered early I was a lousy liar. First of all, my emotions are like a neon sign on my forehead - hard to disguise. Anyone with any skills at recognizing nonverbal signals can see through any falsehoods I might try to spout. Second, trying to keep straight all the stories I might have told individuals in the past is well beyond my capability. The easiest thing, I concluded decades ago, is to speak the truth as I see it at any given moment. I reserve the right to change my mind, but when I say something, I mean it and it's the truth as I see it at the time. By this means, I don't have to worry about keeping track of what I might have said to someone, while at the same time saying something else to someone else. It's just too hard to manage the complex web of lies that results.

Further, my life as a scientist is predicated on honesty. I can't, in good conscience, withhold the truth as I see it and I'm duty bound to reveal all aspects of my professional work. No secrets, nothing held back, and no intentional falsehoods. I can be wrong and honest errors are tolerable, but need to be corrected when discovered.

Thus, I have a great deal of my professional and personal life invested in truth. And truth, it seems, has a long-recognized tendency to emerge from any attempts to cover it up, or prevent its revelation. It may take a long time, or it may be obvious right away, of course.

A fascinating recent example is the absurd notion that President Obama is somehow not a proper American citizen by birth, and so actually is ineligible to hold the office of the President. This political smear campaign resonates with those who hold different political views from those of the President, but it clearly and obviously has no factual basis. Innuendo and falsehood are not sufficient to overcome the truth. Despite this absence of any evidence to the contrary, some of the Obama-haters persist in this delusional belief. Why? Because the truth is inconvenient - it conflicts with their cherished notion that Obama is somehow an illegitimate President. They seize upon this ludicrous idea because it's convenient - not because it has any truth to it.

I personally have my own issues with the Obama presidency as it's played out so far. He's far from perfect in my eyes, and - like every other politician I've ever seen - I disagree with many of his decisions. But to dispute his citizenship in the face of the overwhelming evidence is a sign of an intense disrespect for the truth. If the truth is inconvenient, it's possible to ignore it, but only at the price of revealing your prejudices and willingness to sacrifice that truth for the sake of some cherished notion. That is profoundly contrary to my scientific profession, and should be of concern to every thinking, caring person. Disagree with the President freely, but to cling to this nonsense is simply evidence that you have what I see as a dangerous disregard for truth.

The main challenge to conspiracies that involve lies and distortions is the inconvenience of truth. History shows that the seemingly impenetrable "Communist conspiracy" proved vulnerable to the truth, even in a police state - the Russian Soviet regime. Truth continues to be an inconvenience to the remaining Communist regimes: North Korea, Viet Nam, Cuba, China. Their attempts to suppress truth are doomed to failure. Just as the attempts of the Islamic police states - such as Iran - to suppress the truth are ultimately doomed.

But the same can be said for similar conspiracies here in the United States - for example, the so-called C-Street Family. I'm pleased to say that the basic freedoms written into the US Constitution (including the Bill of Rights) have made it difficult for such conspiracies to be successful. So far, anyway. But the survival of those freedoms and the dominance of the truth is also vulnerable. As the G.W. Bush administration demonstrated so clearly, there's a side of our society that's more than willing to sacrifice our freedoms in the name of "security". Our Constitutional rights can be discarded when they prove inconvenient to a particular political agenda. Our own history makes that pretty clear - for instance, the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. We're only safe from this sort of police state mentality so long as our economy remains successful. If we descend into economic chaos for any of a number of reasons, we're just as vulnerable to a demagogue who would lead us into submission to a police state (be it right- or left-wing in origin), as the Germans were in the 1930s (and the Russians in 1917).

Truth ultimately triumphed against the lies of the Russian Communists and the German/Japanese Fascists, but only after the bloodbath of WWII and the costly proxy wars of the Cold War. Lest we be too comfortable in our security blanket of the Constitution (including the Bill of Rights), freedom is only possible when the citizens have an unswerving commitment to truth. The truth may inevitably be revealed after a time, but the cost in the interim can be prohibitive.