Technology and Truth: Reflections on Russia, America, and Live Not By Lies

Technology and Truth: Reflections on Russia, America, and Live Not By Lies

Now that the world as a whole, or at any rate all of the great powers, are embracing technocracy, the problem of lying in politics, along with the meaning of “truth” and “reality,” must be reevaluated.

If what we know about the world is not conditioned or limited by what things are, in their very nature, then what is to prevent us from replacing what used to be called nature with what we ourselves make? What is to discourage us from assuming that “what most fundamentally actually exists” is what we ourselves make? From the perspective of the technological way of knowing, as the Canadian philosopher George Grant emphasized, the processes of “knowing” and “making” begin to merge. Under technocracy, the technological mindset reaches an apogee: now the very meaning of truth changes and so does the notion of lie. Truth is what we make. What used to be known as a lie may be seen simply as a step within the process of that making. 

Technological knowing leaves us with only two ways of being in the world: conflict or control. It is no longer possible to simply “let be” what is not fully under our control. Just as truth elicits no reverence, neither do “things,” whatever they may be—trees, nations, rocks, human faces. As Grant put it, anything we might owe, in the sense of a duty or a necessary obligation to another being, “is always provisional upon what we desire to create.” In other words, what is “owed” to anything is always first of all subject to our own will. Technocratic will is autonomous and “free” specifically in the sense of being unimpeded by any antecedent order, telos, or obligation. 

Kantian-style rationalism would, of course, counter that the boundary lines, the limiting principles, are, after all, set here by the a priori autonomy and dignity of every subject, or person. What is the source of that dignity, however? It is that we are creatures capable of designing our own law. But for law so understood, is anything required other than consistency? In its vulgarized, modern form, Immanuel Kant’s grandeur of thought produces the so-called “rules-based order” on which the United States lays its claim to the legitimacy of its vision of international order. Such an “order” dispenses with law, and in several senses. As I have argued elsewhere, an order grounded in law requires precisely the permanence and availability of truth—at minimum a capacity for reliably determining what is non-true. 

It is precisely this capacity that no longer obtains under technocratic order. If reality and truth can be created, manufactured, then waterboarding can serve as a sufficiently reliable means of legal discovery. Waterboarding, as a means of interrogating America’s prisoners, became popular well before any appearance of the “woke” Left in American life. 

This leads us to a noteworthy omission in Dreher’s account of what it means to “not live by lies.” The instrumentalization of reason is indeed a widespread practice among those whom Dreher refers to as the aforementioned Social Justice Warriors. The use, or rather, abuse of reason was not an original invention of the sjws, however. It has long been a characteristic feature of liberal modernity as such. At the same time, in the actual historical development of voluntarist technologism, it was the U.S. national security state that honed this approach by making just such an instrumentalization of reason the most vital tool in its arsenal. The result has been those “information wars” that have replaced what used to be called “news.” Indeed, no longer the province of a single agency, such information wars are now waged on a whole of government and even whole of political bloc basis. 

So why blame Black Lives Matter? If the “majesty of the law”—represented by the state itself, even if the state, without acknowledging it, has corrupted the very meaning of law—models to the rest of society a voluntarist imposition of its will, why be surprised when citizens of such a governing order enterprisingly imitate what the state itself has already blessed? If law models voluntarism as the (now technologically understood) ideal form of modern “reason,” why be surprised when “reason” among the citizenry is equally corrupted? 

This is by no means to take the side of the “woke.” Their moralistic defense of ever-new categories of the oppressed is in any case self-undermining. On the one hand, Dreher accurately describes their revolutionary cynicism about “truth,” their rejection of “reason.” On the other hand, the revolutionaries may sometimes even be correct in seeing through the deceptions of a power cloaked in an ersatz “reason”—Foucault, after all, was not entirely wrong. The problem is this: even those real goods that the sjws may occasionally defend become ultimately defenseless as soon as their own logic is embraced. As D.C. Schindler put it

Human dignity rests on the fact that, when the social order breaks down, in the face of oppression and the blind force of power, one can always take a stand on truth. But if the ultimate ground of truth is itself suspended … then there is no place to stand. 

ARENDT, WELL known for her studies of totalitarianism, is less often seen as someone concerned about the transformation of the United States into an analogous ideological system. Although she may not have used the term “technocracy,” Arendt was very concerned about a trend within American high politics that was abandoning its concern for reality, and therefore abandoning a commitment to the factual order that exists independently of our will. In, for example, Arendt’s commentary on the Pentagon Papers, she notes that high officials in the executive branch were routinely substituting for the factual world, a world that they simply manufactured, a world based on appearances. 

Arendt alluded to similar concerns when she wrote, in her earlier essay “Truth and Politics,” that: 

...finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, if the modern political lies are so big that they require a complete rearrangement of the whole factual texture – the making of another reality, as it were, into which they will fit without seam, crack or fissure, exactly as the facts fitted into their own original context – what prevents these new stories, images, and non-facts from becoming an adequate substitute for reality and factuality? 

Are there sufficient grounds for a supposition that already here, Arendt was thinking not only of the infamous regimes of the 1930s in Germany and the USSR, but also of the United States as it was already in her time evolving? At the time of her writing this essay, in 1967, two major lies had already become institutionalized in the United States, albeit the one would prove more successful than the other. One relates to the Vietnam War. The many lies that made that war possible were finally made public when Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Arendt devoted considerable attention to that report, and to the Executive Branch’s unhealthy obsession with “image making.” On the other hand, the lies surrounding the assassinations of the 1960s had not, at that time, yet been made fully public, and indeed they still have not.  

Regarding the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Arendt, in her final interview, in October 1973, noted: 

I think the true turning point in this whole business was indeed the assassination of the president. No matter how you explain it and no matter what you know or don’t know about it, it was quite clear that now, really for the first time in a very long time in American history, a direct crime had interfered with the political process. And this somehow has changed the political process. 

Her statement “this has somehow changed the political process” is noteworthy. It refers to the birth of the systematic use of the reality-changing “lie” in American politics, the use of a technology capable of assuring the successful creation of a new reality that can, as Arendt put it, substitute for “reality and factuality.” In this same interview, when asked what motivates the executive branch’s “arrogance of power,” she replied: “It is really the will to dominate, for heaven’s sake. And up to now it has not succeeded, because I still sit with you at this table and talk pretty freely … somehow, I am not afraid.” 

In the wake of the assassination—I should say the assassinations, because the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King were of course all part of the same series—the spiritual and intellectual atmosphere of the United States underwent a sea-change. The classically educated humanist, long a rarity, simply disappeared from American politics. “Sex, drugs and rock-and-roll”; mysticism; J.R.R. Tolkien—though of widely varying value in themselves, served equally to distract many others from contact with the truly political. Those still drawn to politics could only be one of two types. One was the Ronald Reagan-style “idealist” who embraced a fantasy version of America and of the world more generally. The other was the self-styled realist, the technocrat. Arendt, in her reflections on the Pentagon Papers, described these technocrats and “problem solvers” as intelligent men who “to a rather frightening degree” were above sentimentality. They systematically lied not because they lacked all integrity, but simply “because this gave them a framework within which they could work.” The complete alienation of action from genuine understanding indeed creates the ideal framework for endless work.