July 9, 2010

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Shouldn’t we hold truth to be self-evident?

Cynthia DewesApparently, truth in our present culture is a relative thing, which explains why people feel free to stretch it, embellish it, and otherwise tinker with it. The idea is, if the truth is uncomfortable, let’s change it to suit ourselves and deny its immutability.

Thus, we have partisans of Indiana Congressman Mark Souder pooh-poohing his recent confession of marital infidelity as “it’s merely a little sexual affair, after all.”

But, wait. Isn’t that the exact same defense made for then-President Bill Clinton by his fans during the Monica Lewinsky scandal? Is one man’s “little sexual sin” more sinful than the other’s just because they are from opposing political factions?

The truth is both are indefensible because marital infidelity is indefensible. Any sin is possible to be repented of and forgiven, but it is still basically indefensible.

Sometimes, “creative truth” is used to justify other behavior that we consider immoral. Take torture. Water-boarding and other vicious methods of eliciting information from suspects are defended as necessary. Proponents say the protection of the many is more important than the protection of one person who may be responsible for their deaths. The end justifies the means.

And therein lies the chief opponent of truth, namely the attractive notion that we can do good by doing evil. The catch is, life’s problems have become so complex that knowing what is good is often clouded not only by human selfishness, but also by human empathy and kindness.

For instance, abortion rights advocates often point to the injustice of rape victims carrying a rapist’s child to term or abused wives being forced to produce more and more “unwanted” children. The motives are good, but the solution is not.

Then we have that popularly despised distortion of truth which occurs in politics and government. Our country is certainly not immune to it, but the best example I have read about it appears in the excellent memoir, A Mountain of Crumbs, written by Elena Gorokhova. She is a Russian émigré now married to an American and living in New Jersey.

Gorokhova devotes an entire chapter of the book to the concept which is the theme of her memoir: “vranyo” or “the pretending.” From pre-school through university, her awareness grew of the systematic deception in her society.

At first, it was just the knowledge that she and the other kids must eat every bit of their rancid buttered bread because it was good for their health and, even more importantly, good for the health of the collective.

Later, the pretending involved heroes of the Revolution, like Pushkin and Turgenev whose writings were lauded as examples of the people’s struggles to escape class slavery. The fact that both authors lived luxuriously abroad most of the time was suppressed. Movies, books, magazines and other cultural products from the West were censored or not available.

Unlike the individualistic, materialistic West, Soviet Russia was taught to be the best possible place to live, with a “bright future” ahead, all because it was a communistic collective society.

However, glimpses of the West revealed a place of plenty and personal freedom as opposed to the long bread lines, inadequate housing and rigid conditions of life in the USSR.

Actually, we all do a certain amount of pretending: white lies, omissions of certain facts, etc. But, I believe the Founding Fathers had it right when they proclaimed some truths to be self-evident. Because they simply are. We need to keep that in mind in this complicated world.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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