Trust is a critically important feature of successful relationships and of flourishing societies. Enduring trust builds on honestly and truth. I have just finished reading Jonathan Rauch’s exposition of these truths in The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth and his enlightening exploration of how to find and defend truth in today’s challenging environment.
How can we determine what is true and what is not? Rauch’s book explores this question. In sorting out fact from fiction we must recognize the personal and social biases through which we evaluate claims and the factors that motivate them. The task is made even more difficult by the fact that there are some who deliberately propagate falsehoods for their own purposes. Whatever else might motivate them, political and other leaders act to gain or retain their power. They often have an incentive to misrepresent facts, i.e., to lie. Former President Trump and his Big Lie (and his many, many other lies) is by no means the only President to have lied to the American public. Many other Presidents have also lied.
Ken Burn’s documentary, The Vietnam War, is a brilliant expose of such lies and yesterday I watched for the first time the 2010 Goldsmith and Ehrlich directed documentary The Most Dangerous Man in American: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon almost give Trump a run for his money as liars, though I think that they thought they were lying for the benefit of our country along with their reelection (which by no means excuses it).
Our constitution provides limited, enumerated powers to our government and checks and balances of the powers between its branches and its citizens. But the power of free speech and a free press to expose lies is an indispensable check on the lies of public officials. Our republic has been defended from foreign attacks by many brave solders. But we should also be grateful for the self-sacrifices of a few brave whistleblowers for exposing government lies and thus defending our republic and the individual liberty in which we have flourished.
Wednesday, I watched Daniel Ellsberg receive the Committee for the Republic’s Defender of Liberty award. We are still meeting virtually, but the event was a fascinating discussion of the Vietnam war decision making. The discussion included the Pentagon Papers movie directors, Goldsmith and Ehrlich; the official head of the Pentagon project that wrote the Pentagon Papers history of the war, Morton Halperin; the New York Times reporter who wrote the first article on the Papers given to him by Ellsberg; and Ellsberg himself who went on at great length. It was a riveting two-hour discussion. You can watch it here: https://youtu.be/l7L3DOhakNU
I hope that we can present this award to Edward Snowden in the future.
Holding our government officials accountable for speaking the truth and for abiding by the law are critically important in preserving (or restoring) trust and in determining “the truth.” Each one of us contribute to (or detract from) those goals. But I am in awe at the personal sacrifices of Ellsberg and Snowden in the service of truth, which so badly needs defending. If there is hope of saving our fractured and disbelieving Republic, it will be because of the bravery of such people and the embrace by the rest of us of the wisdom expressed by writers like Rauch. It requires our individual commitment to truth and the institutions and norms that facilitate and incentivize finding it (filtering falsehood from truth). It requires an effective Constitution of Knowledge.