The Clare Spark Blog

April 4, 2010

“What is truth?”

Giotto’s Pontius Pilate

Wander about public space these days and wear dark glasses, for it is very bad out there, and friends can turn out to be bosom enemies. I cannot recall a period during my lifetime (with the exception of the 1960s) when our country was this polarized about the very meaning of words.

In the pivotal chapter of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab addresses the crew in an attempt to gain their allegiance as he pursues the White Whale, leaving commercial considerations aside. At the climax of his peroration, he declares, “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” This is not a statement that has inspired much commentary from the academic establishment that tries to control acceptable [i.e., anti-Ahab] readings of Melville’s masterpiece, but it has inspired me for decades, and made me a renegade. In my reading, Ahab’s ruling idea is ultra-democratic and aligned with the antislavery men and women for whom the immorality of slavery was paramount. It also recapitulates the significance of popular sovereignty as partially established in the American and French Revolutions, and prefigured in the English Civil War of the 1640s. Over a period of centuries, mobs have been turned into citizens*, a process that is nowhere near complete, either in the West or elsewhere.

To continue Captain Ahab’s impudent assertion:  ruling classes, whether they were comprised of English aristocrats or Southern slaveholders who dominated the American government in the antebellum period (while Melville was writing his major fiction), could not keep their secrets from the public with impunity. (See Godwin’s Caleb Williams, a book Melville read before he commenced on his great whale hunt.) These new “levelers” (my sympathetic readers and I) expect the powerful, like all others,  to cough up the truth so that citizens may choose their representatives, not out of coercion or blind charisma, but because concrete policy, enunciated without double-talk,  protects them and helps improve their condition.

I looked for images of Pontius Pilate on the internet, and was not surprised to see a website entitled “What is truth” that asserted the subjectivity and relativity of all knowledge. That is the winning line in our age of multiculturalism, an ideology and a practice that asserts that cultural (read “racial”) differences mean just that: we cannot reach each other over the “racial” or national divide to arrive at an agreement over what is or what is not a fact, as opposed, say, to an opinion based on limited knowledge. That we are all entirely irrational is now the ruling ideology, and if you want a job in academe or wish to ingratiate yourself with the mass media establishment, you had better adhere to that line. Sadly, some persons of my acquaintance who have a background in science, seem to doff their hats to power when they leave their laboratories or classrooms. When challenged, they wash their hands and defer to force. (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2012/06/29/the-neutered-state/.)

*Think about the title of the “greatest”  movie ever, Citizen Kane. I had focused previously on the link to Cain and the Wandering Jew myth, but the word “citizen” is ironic and suggests that the writers had a dim view of the French Revolution, emphasizing the Terror as its essential gesture, rather than the movement away from absolute authority toward popular sovereignty.

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