Everyone rightly catalogues Donald Trump’s fibs, distortions, and exaggerations: his assertions about his net worth, his charitable contributions, his initial supposed opposition to the Iraq War, or his “flexible” positions on illegal immigration. After all, he is flamboyant, right-wing in his present incarnation, and supposedly bends the truth either out of crass narcissism or for petty profiteering. So the watchdog media and popular culture have no problem with ridiculing Trump as a fabricator.
But not so with Hillary Clinton, whose untruths far overshadow Trump’s in both import and frequency, but are so often contextualized, excused, and forgotten because of who she is and the purpose her outright lying supposedly serves.
Every new bad idea in America today can ultimately be traced to the university. And it seems to take only about 30 years for academia’s nihilism to filter through the elite institutions and make its way into popular culture. So it is with our present idea of truth as a mere construct.
In the 1980s and 1990s professors in the liberal arts became enamored of the French-speaking postmodern nihilists — among them notably Paul de Man, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan. They refashioned an old philosophical strain of relativism found as far back as the Greek sophists and Plato’s discussion of the noble lie. They were influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s attacks on absolute morality, and their youth was lived during the age of Joseph Goebbels and Pravda. The utter collapse of France in six weeks in May and June 1940 and the later shame that most of the nation either was passive or actively collaborated with the Nazi occupiers rather than proving brave resistance fighters made the idea of empiricism and truth an especially hard pill to swallow for the postwar French postmodernists.
In fact, “truth” for a postmodernist is supposedly what those who control us say it is, largely in efforts to perpetuate their own race, class, and gender privilege. You can see how thoroughly popular culture has picked up this mostly banal relativist observation and transformed it into “the Truth”—and why today we assume that lying is simply a narrative, not a window into one’s character.
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Relativist slogans abound (e.g., “One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter”). “Hands up, don’t shoot” was never uttered by Michael Brown, who was not an innocent “gentle giant” but a strong-armed robber who sought to take a policeman’s gun and then charged at the cop. But since his fictitious last utterances should be true, therefore they are and, presto! became the slogan of Black Lives Matter.
In the opposite fashion, there is to be no such thing as Black Lives Matter protestors calling for frying police or killing cops, since negation of the truth serves a far more noble purpose than would confirmation.
Orwell was onto the game far earlier than the French postmodernists. He rightly saw it as a postwar pathway of the Left to assuming and keeping power: What was written on the barn wall on Monday as an absolute commandment was crossed out and replaced on Tuesday, in the fashion that the Soviet Union used to airbrush out sudden enemies of the people from all past pictorial records. Who knew what the party line would be by Wednesday? What frightened Orwell was not so much lying British industrialists or celebrities, but officers of the state who sought to dismiss the idea of the truth itself and justify the dismissal on ideological grounds.
“People’s Republic” after 1946 usually meant that the Communist country in question was never a republic or ratified by a vote of the people. “Sanctuary cities” today have neither the legal right nor the moral weight to offer exemption from federal immigration law. They do not serve any purpose other than self-interested “nullification” of the law in the fashion of 1850s Confederate states that arbitrarily declared federal statutes null and void in their jurisdictions. We know how that construct ended up.
Gender is now defined not by biology, but by culture or suspect patriarchically constructed norms. “Undocumented migrant” replaces “illegal alien” even as those who crossed illegally into the U.S. never had any documents to begin with, were foreign nationals, and were migrants going into the U.S., not mere directionless travelers.
Both Elizabeth Warren and Ward Churchill are Native Americans because they say they are. To question them on the basis that neither has any proven Indian ancestry is simply to offer a competing narrative, and one driven by racism, not their sort of altruism.
If Rachel Dolezal and Shaun King reconstruct themselves as black Americans, then their “stories” are as legitimate as any others, given their progressive agendas and their antitheses to the white male power structure.
When Hillary falls into her phony black patois to talk down to African-American audiences, in an accidental caricature of a snooty suburbanite trying to seem cool or authentic, she is no more false than she was earlier in her Annie Oakley incarnation of 2008, when she quaffed boilermakers and bowled to appeal to Obama’s despised clingers. All these are mere narrative moments, but disturbing evidence that she cheaply peddles identities for votes.
Barack Obama can make up narratives about under-appreciated Islamic catalysts for the Western Renaissance or Enlightenment in his Cairo Speech because such mythmaking serves a noble cause of stopping “Islamophobia” and thus deserves the artificial currency of “truth.” Obama himself can invent large chunks of his “autobiography” and it is neither a lie nor a fable, given that his principled intent was to enlighten us about the burdens of growing up as the Other.
Lying for a Brian Williams or plagiarism for a Doris Kearns Goodwin or Fareed Zakaria can be passed off as the shoddy work of subordinates, or “misremembering,” or symptomatic of too full a schedule (not egoism, laziness, or efforts at career enhancement), given that all serve the progressive gods.
In 2012 the progressive future of the country hinged on the reelection of Barack Obama, so naturally ensuring that the imploding Middle East was quiet and that al-Qaeda was somnolent demanded a “truth” that an obscure videomaker and Islamophobic bigot had enraged otherwise peace-loving Muslims and incited them to burn down our consulate in Benghazi — an isolated act that had nothing to do with al-Qaeda.
Fables in service to a progressive cause are not lying, as they would be if in league with reactionary forces
If that narrative meant that National Security Adviser Susan Rice had to lie five times on Sunday talk shows, or Hillary Clinton had to deceive the families of the Benghazi dead, or Barack Obama’s Justice Department had to jail Nakoula Basseley Nakoula on a trumped-up old probation charge, then the ends of an Obama reelection more than outweighed the unethical means of achieving it. In each case, “conflicting narratives” or the “fog of war” made the idea of one absolute truth absurd. Who is to say whether $400 million in nocturnal cash transfers to the Iranians for hostages is, or is not, “ransom”?
Almost everything Hillary Clinton has said about her current scandals is a lie: No other secretary of state used a personal server; Colin Powell was certainly not her model for lawbreaking; she really did send and receive classified materials that she at the time knew were classified; she did not have lawyers examine all of her personal e-mails that she destroyed; they were not mostly about Chelsea and yoga; she did not accurately inform authorities of the actual number of her personal e-mails; there was no firewall between the State Department and the Clinton Foundation; rich individuals did meet with the secretary of state in a fashion that they would otherwise not have been able to, had they not donated vast amounts of money. And on and on. Again, all lies, but lies that in postmodern culture are merely competing progressive narratives that translate into the vulgar media as “Who is to say what pay-to-play actually is?”
Did anyone care that progressive Hillary long ago lied about her rigged $1,000 cattle-future investment beating 34 trillion to 1 odds to earn her $100,000, or her supposed foray into a combat zone in Serbia? Clinton’s lies, past and present, are fobbed off as either fantasies of right-wing conspiracists, who hope to derail her progressive agenda, or as psychodramas of a struggling progressive couple trying to do good. Either that, or they are minor problems of communication, or were courageous stances taken to advance the cause of the poor, the dispossessed, and the children.The problem with the Clintons and all postmodern liars goes back to Epimenides’ ancient paradox of the Cretan liar: “All Cretans are liars.” Are we then to believe that the Cretan Epimenides was lying when he insisted that all Cretans (like himself) lie? Were Cretans, then, liars or not? Was Hillary lying when she set up the private server, when she explained away her criminal behavior, or when she insisted she had not lied about her prior lying about lying?
Postmodernist Hillary, however, does believe in absolute truth when it is a matter of checks to the Clinton Foundation not bouncing and aviation fuel being purchased for private jets. Postmodernists do not believe that truth exists for others in the abstract; but for themselves it most certainly does and advantageously so in the concrete.
The danger to democracy is never from the bad liars who patently fabricate for self, but from the sophisticated and progressive good liars who lie that their untruth is truth because it was all made up for us.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.