Sometime in late 1966 or early 1967 I walked into the CIA building in Virginia, about eight miles from downtown D. C. (I was then a part-time analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency and was at the CIA to exchange information with one of their analysts.) To my surprise, there on a wall to the left in big letters was a quote from the Gospel of John. It read, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
A former CIA deputy director has stated that those words are “the ethos of the agency—the strongly held belief that is the job of the CIA, as it relates to national security, to discover the truth and share it with the president, no matter what the implications might be for policy.” But here let’s leave aside any consideration of how central truth-telling, as opposed to other goals, has been to the CIA. What I wish to focus on here is how important truth is, how little it is valued in today’s world, and how an implied negative—“falsehood will enslave you”—is also true.
Although I have written on truth before, it now seems more important than ever. The current focus of world attention is the Russian attack on Ukraine and the Ukrainians heroic resistance. Time after time I have heard people ask how can Russians believe the lies Putin is telling them about the Ukrainians.
Justifying his attack on Ukraine, beginning on 24 February, he told the Russian people that “NATO countries are supporting the far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis in Ukraine.” The primary national news source for most Russians, television, is controlled by Putin’s government. The leading Russian Orthodox clergyman, Patriarch Kirill, ignoring the Russian-committed atrocities in Ukraine, parrots Putin’s line. Putin and government officials have labeled the attack on Ukraine not a war, but a “special operation.” One Russian-born scholar now living in the USA has stated, “When I say [to relatives in Russia] that, yes, Ukrainian cities are bombed by Russians, they say, no, nothing like that is happening. It's just those Nazi battalions that are making provocations. They are just pretending that there is something going on. But, really, we [Russian forces] are there to help.”
Hearing these reports in the USA, many people just shake their heads, wondering how Russians can believe such nonsense. But after four years of a Trump presidency, and even now with many Trump true believers still around, how can we be so surprised that people anywhere will believe the most blatant falsehoods?
The statement quoted above by a former CIA deputy director was made just shortly after Trump began his presidency in 2017, but he already observed that Trump “disrespects” the truth every day. Flash ahead four years later, right after Trump left office, and The Washington Post claimed, “By the end of his term, Trump had accumulated 30,573 untruths during his presidency—averaging about 21 erroneous claims a day. What is especially striking is how the tsunami of untruths kept rising the longer he served as president and became increasingly unmoored from the truth.” Perhaps his biggest lie—but surely there are many other contenders—was one he continues to insist on—he was cheated out of being elected to a second term.
Although Trump has helped bring respect for truth to a new low, it has been sinking for many years. Why? Although it’s difficult to say with any certainty, let’s explore some possibilities.
Compared to Trump, look at our first president. Historian Ron Chernow writes of Washington’s “vaunted reputation for honesty,” and states that the cherry tree myth, where a six-year-old Washington allegedly said “I cannot tell a lie, “is the most well-known and longest enduring legend” about him. Flash forward more than a half-century to our most highly rated president, Lincoln, and one of his nicknames was “Honest Abe.”
Yet I am not claiming that in earlier days our citizens had more respect for truth than people from other countries. In his highly-praised two-volume Democracy in America (1835, 1840), the Frenchman Alexis de Toqueville wrote: “I do not doubt that in a few minds and far between, an ardent, inexhaustible love of truth springs up, self-supported, and living in ceaseless fruition without ever attaining the satisfaction which it seeks,” but he did not think it very widespread in America.
If we look at Mark Twain, one of our most renowned writers at the end of the nineteenth century, he had so many things to say about the truth, sometimes contradictory, that it is difficult to know how he really regarded it. A contemporary of Twain’s, the famous philosopher William James, advocated a controversial pragmatic theory of truth, but at least he took it seriously enough to gather together his previous prominent statements on truth and publish them in his book Meaning of Truth.
But around the time of Twain and James an impersonal force was gathering strength that would have profound effect on truth—modern advertising. In his Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (1993), historian William Leach wrote that “from the 1890s on, American corporate business, in league with key institutions, began the transformation of American society into a society preoccupied with consumption, with comfort and bodily well-being, with luxury, spending, and acquisition, with more goods this year than last, more next year than this. American consumer capitalism. . . . was a culture that first appeared as an alternative culture . . . and then unfolded to become the reigning culture in the United States.”
As the consumption of goods and services dramatically increased, so too did advertising. From 1865 to 1900 expenditures for it in the USA increased at least tenfold, and in the new century they continued to skyrocket. Already by 1910 electric outdoor advertisements saturated more than twenty blocks on New York’s Broadway Avenue. As the mass media developed, advertising became an integral part of it, increasing first in newspapers and magazines, then on radio, television, and, at the end of the 20th century, on the Internet.
What the humorist Dave Barry once said about television—“television’s message has always been that the need for truth, wisdom and world peace pales by comparison with the need for a toothpaste that offers whiter teeth and fresher breath”—could be said about advertising generally. Selling an item comes first. Whether we tell the truth about it or engage falsehoods is insignificant. And in the last century and a quarter, advertising has become all pervasive. Just as the perceived needs of dictators in propagandistic states, such as Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany, trumped truth, so too in capitalistic ones did selling stuff tower over truth-telling.
Contributing to the decline of respect for truth was a similar attitude (truth is less important than financial gain) held by some media tycoons beginning with William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), the most influential such person of his time. He “built the nation’s first media conglomerate by extending his newspaper empire horizontally into syndicated feature, photo, and wire services; magazines; newsreels; serial, feature, and animated films; and radio.” By “the 1930s, one in four Americans got their news from Hearst, who owned twenty-eight newspapers in nineteen cities.”
It was not just coincidental that in 1933 a Hearst newspapers writer co-founded “the first political consulting firm in the history of the world,” Campaigns, Inc. It had “one foot in advertising and one foot in journalism,” and its “critics called it the Lie Factory.”
Around the same time Hearst’s empire was flourishing there was at least one individual who valued truth above all else. He was not in a major industrial state however, but in British-controlled India, and that was Gandhi (1869-1948). In his autobiography, completed two decades before his assassination, he wrote that while still in his teens in India “one thing took deep root in me the conviction that morality is the basis of things, and that truth is the substance of all morality. Truth became my sole objective.” Later on he added, “Our creed [in a spiritual community he established in India] was devotion to truth, and our business was the search for and insistence on truth.” His main doctrine, Satyagraha, usually rendered as non-violent resistance, literally means “insistence on truth.”
By the late 1960s, however, as television and TV advertising continued to grow, the seeds developed by Campaigns, Inc. continued sprouting. In her essay “Truth and Politics” (1967), Hannah Arendt wrote that politics may “be at war with truth in all its forms.” And “no one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other.”
She also clearly pointed to the connections between advertising and political falsehoods. “Factual truth, if it happens to oppose a given group’s profit or pleasure, is greeted . . . with greater hostility than ever before.” And political image-makers have “learned more than a few tricks from business practices and Madison Avenue methods” and helped politicians to weave a “web of deceptions.” Not long after Arendt’s essay, a book appeared (Joe McGinniss’s The Selling of the President 1968) whose mere title suggests how much advertising increasingly came to influence political campaigning.
No doubt with the Trump presidency, respect for truth reached a new low. In her The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, former New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani’s wrote of the“monumentally serious consequences of his [Trump’s] assault on truth.” But in Russia, by gradually suppressing free media outlets and increasingly propagating falsehoods for over two decades, Vladimir Putin has also been a major enemy of truth.
But still another spreader of falsehoods—and don’t forget Fox News—has been the Internet. Three years ago in “The Most Alarming Argument in Jill Lepore’s These Truths,” I noted her observation that some Internet-related companies feed people only what they wanted to see and hear, and that social media, “exacerbated the political isolation of ordinary Americans while strengthening polarization on both the left and the right. . . . The ties to timeless truths that held the nation together, faded to ethereal invisibility.” Most recently, former President Obama, in a speech at Stanford U., expressed similar concerns about social media furthering falsehoods.
Those of us on the progressive Left point to the Right as being the chief perpetrators of political falsehoods. And I think we are correct in doing so. From climate-change denial to believing the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, it is those on the Right who are most liable to trample on truth. But as I indicated on this site in “Dogmatists of the Left?” we too can disrespect truth if we place ideology before it.
As a historian I have been fortunate enough to spend my professional life in work that places truth first. In her These Truths: A History of the United States (2019), Jill Lepore writes that “the work of the historian” includes being “the teller of truth.” In 2020, she began a new podcast seeking to answer the question “Who killed truth?” That same year I urged other historians, during that election season, to insist on the primacy of truth-telling.
But now, two years later, several questions remain. First, how does falsehood enslave us? It does so because it shackles us so our hands and minds are not free to work toward solving real problems. If, for example, we deny that we are in the midst of a climate crisis, how can we hope collectively to solve it? Secondly, how can we restore respect for truth?
That is a much more complex question, and in his recent Stanford speech Obama had some suggestions for how social media companies can lessen the falsehoods that spew forth on the Internet. But the bigger problem lies in people’s attitude toward truth.
A dozen years ago I quoted Copthorne Macdonald, founder and editor of The Wisdom Page, who wrote that “values are at the heart of the matter.” He in turn cited a famous neuropsychologist who stated that “human value priorities . . . stand out as the most strategically powerful causal control now shaping world events. More than any other causal system with which science now concerns itself, it is variables in human value systems that will determine the future.”
Most of us give little thought to prioritizing our values. Yet doing so is absolutely necessary if we wish to act wisely. This failure leads to such craziness as surveyed citizens saying that ten other issues are more important than climate change. If we, without much reflection, place making more money, earning fame, being loved, or having our political party win an election before truth-seeking, how can we expect to avoid being shackled by falsehoods?
We might say that what we have here is a failure of our educational system. But as E. F. Schumacher argued a half-century ago, that system helps us very little in determining what our main values should be. No, it is up to each one of us to prioritize truth. Neither our educational system nor our culture is going to do it for us; and if we don’t, falsehoods will continue to enslave and polarize our nation.