Among historians, there's a raging Great Debate about the question of Truth.
Inspired by the writings of French intellectuals like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, many left-wing devotees of postmodern theory have argued in recent years that truth is an unobtainable, and largely meaningless, goal.
There is no verifiable historic truth, they contend. "History" and "facts" are mere constructs of human political, economic, or religious beliefs. The ruling white-skinned patrimony creates myths that fit its view of the world and justify its barbarous behavior. Society exists in a kind of consensual mass hallucination.
("Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real?")
Startlingly, in American politics it's the by-gosh, just-folks Republican Party that has taken the postmodern theory of the French elites to heart and pushed it to its soulless, cynical limits. We're seeing that in the McCain campaign's current disregard for "truth."
In the last few weeks, various news organizations and academic "truth squads" have targeted many of McCain's pronouncements as bald-faced lies. The candidate and his advisers have shrugged, and McCain and his commercials have blithely continued to repeat the falsehoods. He is betting that the voters are too cynical to care.
American politicians are not dummies. From the days when George Washington threw a dollar across the Potomac and Honest Abe split rails, campaigns have tried to mold truth into a "narrative" that advances their interests. They know that the voters—expecting some fibbing and exaggeration and liking a good story—will give them a bit of rein.
But the current Republican offensive against truth is something new. In 30 years of covering American politics, I can think of no more chilling moment than the Sunday morning, shortly before President Bush's re-election in 2004, when I read a story in the New York Times in which one of the president's political adviser's dismissed "the reality-based community" that sought to find solutions in "discernible reality."
"That's not the way the world really works anymore," the aide said. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
I thought of that quotation when I read in this morning's paper how Vice President Dick Cheney lied to congressional leaders of his own party in 2002, when they privately showed qualms about invading Iraq.
According to former House Republican leader Dick Armey, a Texas conservative who had doubts about the wisdom of an invasion, Cheney told him that Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program was on the brink of perfecting portable nuclear devices, which Hussein would surely share with his close personal allies in al Qaeda.
Both assurances were, of course, completely false.
"Did Dick Cheney . . . purposely tell me things he knew to be untrue? I seriously feel that may be the case," Armey told writer Barton Gellman. "Had I known or believed then what I believe now, I would have publicly opposed [the war] resolution right to the bitter end, and I believe I might have stopped it from happening."
Ahhh, Mr. Armey. Welcome to the "reality-based community."
A dean of American historians, Gordon S. Wood, considers the fate of "truth" in his provocative new book of essays, The Purpose of the Past.
"The blurring of fact and fiction is part of the intellectual climate of our postmodern time, dominated as it is by winds of epistemological skepticism and Nietzschean denials of the possibility of objectivity that are sweeping through every humanistic discipline, sometimes with cyclonic ferocity," Wood writes.
And so the great commoner, Sarah Palin, can install a $35,000 tanning bed in her home, yet be Just Like Me. And Alaska supplies 20 percent of America's energy. And challenging the Republican stewardship of the economy is insulting America's workers. And Barack Obama, who plans to cut taxes for middle-class families, will actually raise them.
It is, perhaps, no accident that Republican operatives derisively call Obama "the One." What is their "empire" to "history's actors" but a low-tech Matrix?
("We've had our eye on you for some time now, Mr. Anderson.")
And, when you think about it, they are right. The Matrix—written and filmed with foresight in 1999—is not a bad metaphor for this election year. Its creators, the Wachowski brothers, were obviously influenced by postmodern theory and the implications of constructed truths.
("I know you're out there...I know that you're afraid...You're afraid of change.")
If Obama is the One, then I guess McCain is Agent Smith.
But what about the rest of us—we saps out here in the reality-based community?
("I don't know the future. I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it's going to begin.... I'm going to show these people what you don't want them to see. I'm going to show them a world...without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible.")
In 50 days, will we take the red pill, or the blue one?