HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

October 15, 2007
From Liberty Street

Veracity and Public Policy

John Turner


It's always the case that devotion to the truth will make you into an extremist. Much as you may like the tone and feel of moderation, and the sense it conveys of eminent comfort, you'll frequently have to give it up if you want to be a truth-teller. We've all heard that the truth will set you free, which may, indeed, be the case. But nobody can say credibly that will afford you a reputation for good sense, or win you a large number of friends, or make you generally popular.

Consider, for example, the following ten truthful statements that came off the top of my head -- so to speak

  • Although on ceremonial occasions most Americans will express loyalty to freedom, democratic discourse, and evenhanded justice, the great majority of them are like sheep, and when confronted with violations of those qualities will do nothing to protect them.

  • Over the past half-century, the foreign policy of the United States has been devoted more to increasing the wealth of its very richest citizens than it has been to the well-being of the world population, and has shown itself ready to use murderous force to protect the privileges of the economic elite.

  • The principal influence in determining the outcome of national political campaigns in America since 1968 has been racial bigotry.

  • The level of consumption in the United States and the consequent spread of pollution has done far more harm to the people of the world than all the terrorist attacks launched over the past century.

  • A majority of American corporate executives would be willing to peddle poisonous products if the sale were profitable and if they thought they could make the sale without incurring legal prosecution.

  • Nationalism in the United States is so intense that a majority of citizens do not view the lives of people outside our borders as even approaching the worth of their own lives, and this comparative view of human worth is based strictly on national identity and not on virtue, or intelligence, or on any other human attribute.

  • The American system of schooling, from kindergarten through graduate school, is based primarily on a definition of education as the ability to make money.

  • Osama bin Laden is one of the most intensely admired men in the world and most Americans can't understand why because they have made no effort to imagine the thoughts of other people.

  • The main reason the United States does not have an effective, efficient medical system and that Americans do not get a fair return on the money they spend for health care is greed. The deficiency has almost nothing to do with freedom of choice or desire for speed in obtaining needed procedures.

  • The continued use of the death penalty in the United States arises from a propensity for violence and killing among the general population and not from any reasoned theory of effective law enforcement.

Now, reflect that none of these is particularly startling. They would all be affirmed easily by a majority of the literate people in the world. But nonetheless, within the confines of American political-social discourse, they would all be considered extreme. No politician could make any of these statements directly and have a chance of winning a national election.

Just think what would happen if you went on the O'Reilly Factor and proposed any of them. You would be denounced as a total fanatic.

I'm not arguing that it's only in America that truth leads to charges of extremism. I suspect that in almost any country you could collect a similar list of statements and be denounced as being out of your mind for your efforts. But America is my country, and so, in it, at least, I would like to see the truth move closer to acceptance, because until that happens it will be very difficult for us to alleviate our problems.

Obviously, such a transition can't take place easily. But, perhaps, if we would begin to acknowledge that many truths can't get a public hearing among us, it would help us take halting steps towards an awareness of some specific truths that up till now have been almost unthinkable.

We can hope, at least.


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