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.

This same psychological type gradually came to occupy every desk of every well-appointed think tank office tower in Washington and Crystal City. They are the ones who, after the fall of the Soviet Union, drew up the plans to decimate half a dozen countries across the Middle East and Central Asia, after already having done so in East Asia and Central America from the 1960s to the 1980s. It was they who peppered their dinner speeches with such bon mots as “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” Nothing provides a more vigorous basis for action and control than fear, and so the technocrats gladly set about creating those threats that elicit the ever-so-useful fear. 

One could go on. Speaking in general terms, the impact of the assassination has been this: it helped foster an American culture which, if not literally terrified of thinking, at the very least avoids thought as much as humanly possible. It is safer to stick to the pre-approved script. 

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. It is no longer sufficient to critique lying in moral terms alone. Only a philosophical and theological critique can have any hope of adequacy to the challenge presented by technocracy, our new global (anti) civilization. 

Once technological knowing becomes pervasive, “reality” can no longer act as a limit or discipline on the telling of lies. Between the assassination of Kennedy and today, mid-2021, there have been many instances of the technocratic creation of all-encompassing new “realities” accomplished through the use of what were formerly termed “lies.” Certainly, Russiagate comes to mind. As does the Timber Sycamore operation in Syria. As does that famous suicide in a New York prison, in August 2019, of someone also apparently tied to intelligence circles. There is neither time nor space to elaborate on all such examples here, and in any event, it would be pointless to do so, except, perhaps, in a new iteration of Samizdat

The Roman Empire persisted for centuries without any noteworthy devotion to truth. Such, at any rate, was Simone Weil’s assessment. Ancient Rome demonstrated the efficacy of the combination of absolute power, on the one hand, and the maintenance of a reputation for greatness, on the other. This method of human domination depended on ample self-praise supplemented by a pervasive system of propaganda. That same propaganda was made all the more convincing because of the awe invoked by the overwhelming use of force deployed against anyone who resisted it. In her Reflections sur les origins de l’Hitlerisme, Weil found in ancient Rome the original inspiration for that power which, at the very time of her writing, was terrorizing France and most of the rest of the European continent. 

Ancient Rome was first of all a voluntarist order, even if not, at least in the sense of that term we have explored above, a technological one. To be sure, its views of nature and of science differed greatly from those of ancient Greece. What concerned Rome first of all, according to Weil, was its prestige. “All these cruelties [Rome’s treatment of Carthage, among other massacres] constituted the means of elevating its prestige. The central principle of Roman politics … was to maintain its own prestige to the greatest extent possible, and at no matter what price.” Later in the essay, she adds “nothing is more essential to a politics based on prestige than propaganda.” 

I often wonder whether, were Simone Weil writing today, she would have seen in the United States the worthy successor of ancient Rome. There are intimations sprinkled about her writings that she may well have been inclined in this direction. In “A Propos de la question coloniale,” she writes:  

We are well aware that there is a grave danger of Europe’s being Americanized after the War, and we know what we should lose if that were to happen. What we should lose would be that part of ourselves which is akin to the East. … it seems that Europe periodically requires genuine contacts with the East in order to remain spiritually alive … the Americanization of Europe would lead to the Americanization of the whole world. 

Weil worries that America’s domination after the war will mean that “humanity as a whole will lose its past.” 

What Weil feared has very nearly already happened. To be sure, whether it is America or somewhere else that acts as the engine of technocratic order is, in the end, of small importance. So long as any great power—the United States, China, Russia, Germany, and so on—embraces technocracy, this sets in motion a feedback mechanism that makes it almost impossible for any other nation to make a civilized choice. Russia today clearly fears that rejecting the technological approach will make it fair game for outside predators, and its growing alliance with China is hardly conducive to a movement away from technocracy. And yet, of all the great powers, only Russia has the historical wherewithal to move decisively in another direction. 

There was a time, which appears to have drawn to a close mid-way through the Trump administration, during which advisors to the Kremlin counseled the embrace of Russia’s Byzantine Christianity-influenced tradition of a rationality grounded in metaphysics. It was urged that such a traditionalism would set an attractive example, both within Russia and without, and would have the further advantage of connecting Russian politics with something that many ordinary Russians could respect and feel affection for. (The problem of reconciling politics—particularly a politics that embraces truth—and the necessity that a public feel genuine affection for its own country and past, has come to the fore in many countries; in the United States, it is at the very heart of a national crisis.) Meanwhile, the upshot of those efforts by the Kremlin advisors remains, at best, quite ambiguous. Politicians are pragmatists. What does not bring results is generally rejected, and overtures to the outside world based on “tradition” have brought Russia nothing at all. 

Is it possible to end on a note of hope? I cannot speak for China. For that matter, neither can I speak for England, Germany, nor France. Be that as it may, what I have seen of modern-day Russia suffices to sustain a hope that, were the United States or any other great power to unexpectedly initiate a break with the technocratic project, to instead embrace the tradition of rationality which considers the truth sacred—that even now there is a good chance it would be met by reciprocity from Russia, and, where necessary, by forgiveness. 

We need, of course, to set aside romantic notions about Russians. Some are materialists. Some are technologists. Some are cheaters. Like every other people, Russians have a great many faults. Still, there remains in Russia a sizable contingent of people who have not yet forgotten their thousand-year-old tradition, and who occasionally whisper, with feeling, the phrase: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Such people, known as Christians, still have at least some solid ground to stand on in Russia. Can we say the same in the West? 

Paul R. Grenier is the president and founder of the Simone Weil Center for Political Philosophy. 

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