The co-dependence of truth and power

Posted: Nov 15, 2001 12:00 AM
In Afghanistan, the Taliban is fleeing. In New York, airplanes are mysteriously crashing. At Georgetown University on Nov. 7, former President Clinton made an important contribution to the larger ongoing war of ideas.

We have to engage Muslims, he said, in this important national debate. I might add, with polls showing that 61 percent of Muslims in Great Britain say U.S. efforts to capture or kill Osama bin Laden are not justified, and that fully 40 percent believe his war against the United States is justifiable -- along with numerous emerging anecdotes about American Muslims angry at the war on terrorism -- that that need is certainly pressing.

For many people, including Clinton, the dividing line -- what makes Islam problematic to assimilate into the cultural life of Western nations -- is truth itself. Those who possess the truth, he fears or believes, are free to kill even innocents in its defense, to impose the truth on disbelievers, if necessary with box cutters. As he put it so eloquently:

"This battle fundamentally is about what you think of the nature of truth, the value of life, and the content of community. You're at a university which basically believes that no one ever has the whole truth, ever, because you're human. It's part of being a human being. It's part of the limitation imposed on us by God. We are incapable of ever having the whole truth. They believe they got it. Because we don't believe you can have the whole truth, we think everybody counts and life is a journey."

Why do we believe in religious liberty, in democracy and in human rights? Here is one argument: The reason we believe in these procedural values is that we know that we do not have the truth. Our ignorance is the only guard against intolerance and violence. Once we know moral truth, we become moral monsters. I have heard this profoundly pessimistic argument (masquerading as idealism) all my adult life. "Who are you to say?" has been the standard '70s refrain to anyone who wanted to make a moral argument about the superiority of one way of living, or behaving, to any other.

President Clinton describes what he finds problematic about many versions of Islam:

"They believe that because they have the truth, you either share their truths or you don't. If you're not a Muslim, you're an infidel. If you are and you don't agree with them, you're a heretic, and you're a legitimate target."

But I have never found any human being capable of living up to the demands of this argument. For the truth is that this idea does not lead where its advocates claim. If there is no accessible moral truth, then all that remains is power. If we can't really know truth, then I may impose my morality on as many people as I can. Nietzsche glimpsed this awful truth a century ago: If God is dead, then all that is left is human beings with (or without) a will to power.

In the same speech in which President Clinton declared that our common democratic life is rooted in epistemological uncertainty, he urged a moral obligation to help poor people around the world, the evils of intolerance, and the need to repent for moral crimes, from the Crusades to the suppression of human dignity of Native Americans (i.e., Indians, or Siberian-Americans).

All of contemporary liberalism is a call (often, in my opinion, misguided or distorted) to recognize the great moral truth that all human beings have equal dignity.

So can we be honest, at least, and give up the claim that this great war we are in is between those who believe in absolute moral truth and those who do not? Because otherwise, those who can kill 5,000 civilians with box cutters may.