What is the Truth?
January 21, 2018
John 18:38
There has not been nearly enough done with this passage of scripture. It is an exchange between loveless power (Pilate) and powerless love (Jesus). This whole account in John is a highly stylized literary interpretation of a conversation that is highly imaginative. But it strikes me as just an exchange that the Messiah might have with a cynical career politician in Rome.
“As yes… The Truth…. What exactly is the Truth?” There are so many players, each with their own interest and vantage point… How do we distinguish their little truths from the Truth with a capital T. We’ve all had these moments at mid-life, usually in the midst of a failed negotiations when all it seems you have around you are competing ego needs. Someone makes a snide remark, possibly one of the lawyers in the room that makes you wonder for a moment if maybe this is all there is, just a bunch of petty egos that need to be assuaged.
I’ve been thinking about this, along with the rest of the country, ever since Kelly Ann Conway (Trump strategist) and Sean Spicer (Trump Press Secretary) introduce the term ‘alternative facts’ into the political discussion. And Mr. Trump himself should probably be credited with introducing the concept of ‘fake news’ into our political syntax.
These are articles that are critical of Mr. Trump, articles that he would simply rather dismiss than refute them. He is simply intellectually lazy, quite unlike the propaganda of communism or fascism. But he is so intellectually lazy that I’m not sure he even realizes that he threatens the values we fought World War 2 to protect the “Free Society”. It was one of the main moral lessons that we took away from the War.
In 1960, Israeli intelligence officers located Adolf Eichmann living in Argentina in relative anonymity and they arrested him and charged him with crimes against humanity. Eichmann joined the Nazi party in 1932. Early in his career, he was responsible for herding Jews into ghettos. He worked his way up the hierarchy and eventually worked directly for Richard Heydrich, coordinating the trains that took Jews to the extermination camps in the east. Eichmann attended the infamous Wannsee Conference in 1942 and recorded the official notes. At that conference, in the suburbs of Berlin, the Nazi’s coordinated various different branches of government to develop what would be called the “final solution” to the Jewish problem.
Over the next couple of years, it is estimated that between 5.5 and 6 million Jews were exterminated in Nazi concentration camps. The enormity and scope of that crime kept unfolding for many years after the end of the war. Eichmann’s arrest generated international press coverage as he was tried in Jerusalem.
Hannah Arendt covered his trial for the New Yorker, chapter after maddening chapter. When the trial began, most of the world presumed that they would get something of a spectacle. Here is the guy that managed the trains of the greatest genocide in human history. What sort of monster must he be? What sort of sadistic embodiment of evil incarnate? What sort of ideological hate would drive a man like Eichmann to continue his running the trains even after it was obvious that the Germans would lose the war shortly?
Eichmann turned out to be very different from what we presumed he would be. He was maddening because he was in turn ingratiating and then diffident and aloof, so his interrogators learned to ask him specific questions to get him talking.
And Eichmann liked to talk about how well he ran his department. They were remarkably efficient and well organized. The interrogators often had lots of incriminating evidence, all the details of the train system and a trove of orders that were given. Eichmann remembered incredible details and was quite happy to provide a clearer picture of the incredible number of daunting challenges that his group faced, trying to keep this vast system running at near full capacity in the midst of a war.
In fact, one of the genuinely odd parts of his testimony was that he regularly groused about the way that he was treated. He had quite a list in his head of his notable accomplishments and he would tick through it every so often, of things he did for the SS, for the Nazi party, that he wished they had recognized more than he felt they acknowledged. Sometimes he would stop and lament out loud that he hadn’t been promoted higher, faster than he was. The interrogators would find themselves staring at each other in incredulity.
He might as well have been the manager of a pro sports team to listen to him describe his role. He could be quite affable and bore no particular animus towards the interrogators. He claimed he bore no particular animus towards the Jewish people and even made vague claims that he got along well with the Jews that he knew, even as it was clear that he had lived with precious little interaction with Jews.
The interrogators would press him with questions like, “Your train to Auschwitz from Berlin. It always left Berlin full but returned from Aushwtiz empty?”
“Yes” he would say, “it returned empty.”
“Did you ever wonder why it was always empty?”
“No, it was not my place to ask. We were coordinating logistics and we did that as efficiently as possible.”
“Didn’t it strike you as inefficient not to carry cargo back on the return run?”
“I don’t understand your question” he would say. And, suddenly, he would become taciturn, diffident, and refuse to answer further questions. They were asking him to critically assess his wider role in the system. And his answer, in effect, was “I was following orders”.
It reminded me of an ominous story that was told about the early development of the Nazi party. Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, was at a big meeting of his officers and Hitler was there. Himmler stepped up to the microphone, in front of all of his subordinates, saluted Hitler and said, “Meine ehre heisst Treue”… It means “my honor consists of my uncritical obedience”.
That set the tone or the ethos of the inside of the Nazi party, a kind of intentional subordination of the self to your superiors. It is a strange moral argument but you could see the effect that it had as Eichmann continually got right up to the point of moral reflection and froze as though he was no longer capable of moral reflection. Indeed, “uncritical obedience”, “Blind obedience” is really a sort of pathetic way of avoiding responsibility for your own actions. Long after the war… this turned out to be the critical point. How do you create a “Mass Movement” of inhumanity so that no one feels personally responsible and collectively we give ourselves a wide permission to engage in a collective inhumanity we would never allow ourselves personally to achieve?
As the trial dragged on people kept waiting for Eichmann to own up to his role in the holocaust. But again and again, he would depict himself as having been dutiful in his doing his job, wishing he had risen higher in the ranks. But when he was pressed on the policy of ‘the final solution’ that he was tasked with carrying out, all he could do was claim that he was simply following orders. And he was a damn good follower at that, as his testimony made clear.
The evidence against him was overwhelming, the verdict of the court never in doubt. The judged pronounced him guilty and sentenced him to be hanged. They asked him if he had any final words to say.
Eichmann started off on this rambling speech in German that illustrated his two points in different ways. And then he started stringing together these quotes in German which no one understood except other Germans who had lived through the Nazi era in Germany. The Nazi’s were very big on propaganda. They bought ads in magazines. They posted billboards all around the country with slogans like ‘Our homeland has a cancer’ referring to the Jews or “Work makes you free” the slogan that was written over the entrance to Auschwitz.
It was an astonishing display of thoughtlessness, as Hannah Arendt noted. She wrote that in finally being asked to come to grips with his life and his role in the Nazi death machine, he was incapable of zooming out and seeing the bigger picture. Instead, he started to babble the propaganda slogans of the Nazi era, as though to re-create in his mind the world where his actions actually made sense.
He was trying to re-invoke the world in which his actions made sense by conjuring up phrases of billboard propaganda as though it could magically re-create that world through an incantation. Watching this sad display, Hannah Arendt, who herself escaped the death camps, wrote the arresting conclusion to her book. She said Eichmann embodied the ‘word and thought defying banality of evil.’
The European countries, led by the United States, came to see propaganda as the glue that allowed faceless bureaucrats to evade reflection and responsibility for a collective system that produced inhumane social consequences of a scale never seen in human history.
We had the chilling example of the far right Nazi’s that exterminated 5.5 million Jews or more. And two examples on the far left, the forced collectivization in Stalinist Russia that killed 20 million and created the gulag. And Mao’s ‘cultural revolution’ that left 25 million people to starve to death.
We in the West, committed ourselves to the values of the ‘free society’ with an independent press that provided a pluralistic pursuit of small truths in the accuracy of reporting a story rather than reflect the ideological interpretation of the ‘vanguard of the proletariat’ vested in party leaders.
We in the west, question and doubt. Totalitarian societies conform and kowtow. We are empirical and test. Totalitarian societies are ideological and impose their vision upon reality.
We in the west committed ourselves to the ‘free society’ or the ‘open society’, a marketplace of competing ideas, informed by a data driven scientific quest for understanding.
And in this way, we believed that we were on the path towards genuine Truth. As a student of World War 2- I wrote my dissertation on this subject- it is distressing to hear President Trump’s cant on ‘fake news’.
He is not dangerous in the least, like a fascist or a communist. They had a world view they believed in so much, they were willing to sacrifice millions of their own people to make it come true. President Trump has very few core beliefs.
He is just intellectually lazy. Rather than ‘review the literature’ as my Professors used to ask us to do, he just wants to assert his opinions as true- whether it is the size of his inaugural crowds, supposed illegal voters in the last election, or a conspiracy in the FBI. He asserts without evidence as though he has some special insight that eludes the experts in the field. When he makes these scurrilous assertions without any actual proof, I don’t think he realizes just how much he sounds more like a mid-level commissar in the Soviet era than he sounds like an American General in World War 2.
They are not a threat to the Republic but the media smear that suggests that news outlets are simply driven by partisan political views that so distort their approach to the news that they are effectively propaganda in their content is not only dangerous, it calls into question the very basis of our civil society.
And they are dangerous because the President continually speaks in exaggeration, in hyperbole, so that even his allies can’t tell when he means to be accurate and when he is speaking figuratively.
One of his spokesman just recently said “It doesn’t matter if what he says is literally true; you know what he means.” It is a line you might well have heard in Germany or Italy in the 30’s from two young people responding to a speaker at a fascist rally.
Is our rhetoric really all just code language? Do we want to live in a world where people believe that nothing really matters and that it is all just code?
What is Truth? Asks the cynical Pilates of every age.
When I finished my dissertation, I was full of emotion about the greatest generation. Quite in spite of themselves and with real humility, they really were the children of light standing against the children of darkness. They gave us a great gift of the ‘free society’ that I was prepared to honor with dramatic resolve should our freedoms be threatened again by the dark specter of tyranny.
We have nothing like that at the moment. We are simply being led by a lazy, ignorant President. The threat to our social life is still real, but you would be forgiven for thinking that it is so benign you don’t need to worry about it. This too shall pass and perhaps it will.
But, I think about Churchill, Roosevelt, General Eisenhower. I have a photo that I pull out at moments of the graves at Normandy that helps me take in the great psychic cost of their sacrifice, and it beckons the same rhetorical question that Private Ryan asked at the end of the movie, “Tell me that I’ve been good enough.” Tell me that we’ve been good enough as a society to honor these men and women, these examples of moral grit and moral courage. Tell me we are good enough.

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