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Neutered Truth

by Berry Friesen (May 5, 2016)

For many years, I’ve believed truth is powerful, so powerful it will uproot entrenched evil.

It’s an assumption others share.

Think of all the effort to reveal the deceitfulness of the Bush-Cheney rationale for invading Iraq. Or the painstaking research to demonstrate the laws of physics refute official explanations of what happened within those three World Trade Center towers on 9/11.  Or to cite a current example, that Da’esh is not a threat to the empire, but one of its favorite tools.

Yet what these vivid examples of truth-telling taught us is that telling the truth isn’t nearly as effective as we had imagined. The power of truth is socially mediated, which means it can be neutered and rendered powerless.

Think of Ed Snowden.  He put his life and liberty at risk to reveal how our government collects and stores everything we do digitally. It’s all there to be used against us when the need arises.

“Preying on the modern necessity to stay connected,” writes Snowden, “governments can reduce our dignity to something like that of tagged animals, the primary difference being that we paid for the tags and they are in our pockets.”

Three years after Snowden’s whistle-blowing, little has changed. The truth he revealed has been neutered.

Or consider the article published by The Guardian this week exposing the fact that military contractors funded by the British government generate propaganda on behalf of “moderate” rebels and pass it off to the world as “news” about the war in Syria. When we follow news from Syria, mainly what we see and hear are the products of this propaganda operation.

This publicly-funded “information warfare” initiative began in 2013 after Parliament refused to authorize war against Syria.

“Contractors hired by the Foreign Office but overseen by the Ministry of Defence produce videos, photos, military reports, radio broadcasts, print products and social media posts branded with the logos of fighting groups, and effectively run a press office for opposition fighters,” reports The Guardian.

It goes on to describe a similar effort aimed at the domestic audience in the United Kingdom. "In both the foreign and domestic campaigns, the government’s role is often concealed. Messages are put out under the banner of apparently independent groups – community organisations in the UK, and armed groups in Syria.” reports the US government is also deeply involved in funding anti-Assad propaganda via fully controlled news outlets, human rights organizations, social media accounts and citizen-journalist operations.  The distribution of fake videos and pictures is standard fare.

 Again, exposing this truth does not change anything.  Mainstream media continue to uncritically report what these propaganda outlets say, the drumbeat for more war in Syria goes on, the people of Syria suffer and die.

What is the social process that explains this?  More than ever, we have the capacity to get to the bottom of things and find out the truth.  But when we get there, we find truth has lost its power to require accountability and change.

How did this happen?  Perhaps it’s the continuous state of war we live in.  People have always known governments act illegally and unethically during wartime.

Perhaps it’s that people no longer perceive deceitfulness to be offensive.  Honesty is so rare we no longer expect it, dissembling and pretense so common we no longer find them upsetting.

Or perhaps we have lost touch with a crucial bit of knowledge—wisdom, really—that the truth isn’t merely a personal accessory, but an absolute necessity if society is to have a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable tomorrow.

This is important to ponder.  Meanwhile, the empire carries on its terrible war in Syria, confident domestic audiences will not object.  It carries on its massive domestic surveillance operations, confident people will not put up a fuss.

More whistle-blowers will not change this.  Nor will more heroic journalism and bold exposes.  What is needed is a cultural renewal, a return to a worldview in which truth again becomes electric.

More than any other, the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah plumbed the depths of this.  He wrote:  “This is a nation that did not obey the voice of YHWH, their god, and did not accept discipline; truth has perished; it is cut off from their lips” (7:28). “They have taught their tongues to speak lies” (9:5).  “They were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush” (6:15).

For Second Testament writers, it was very simple:  “Do not lie to one another” (Col. 3:9); “let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors” (Eph. 4:25).

How do we get back to that?