Seeking the Truth in a Post-Truth Age

By Alan W. Dowd
, 1.8.19

Truth. It’s a loaded word. From early in life, we learn that there are moments of truth—and that we must face the truth. The truth can be ugly, hidden or hard. It’s no surprise, then, that the truth sometimes hurts. But whether it’s hard or hurtful or hidden, the truth always comes out—and always matters.

We seldom stop to think about it in this context, but the mission of America’s Intelligence Community, at its core, is to search for and discern the truth. However, don’t take my word for it. On the south wall of the entrance area to the CIA’s headquarters, visitors are greeted by these timeless words of truth: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” In fact, these words serve as the agency’s motto.

The words, of course, are Christ’s; they come from the Gospel of John. People of faith believe that finding the truth—and confessing what is true—can bring freedom. For the CIA’s founders, the passage would serve to underscore the importance of searching for truth in the service of free government. Indeed, the CIA is committed to “producing objective all-source analysis” to defend America. That word “objective” is an important one, which we will return to in a moment.

In a similar vein, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats has explained that his charge is “to seek the truth and speak the truth” so that the American people might live in peace. “We speak truth to power,” the ODNI declares in its mission and vision statement.

The Intelligence Community faces two obstacles in carrying out its truth-seeking mission. The first is obvious: Our enemies conceal the truth and flat-out lie. And many of them lack institutions—and even the values—that promote truth, pursue truth, exalt truth and expose falsehood. This is why the craft of intelligence exists.

The second obstacle facing the Intelligence Community as it strives to seek and speak the truth is arguably more pernicious and surely more surprising: In an age devoid of overarching truths, an age awash in postmodern relativism, an age characterized by truth in quotation marks, it’s increasingly difficult for the Intelligence Community to convey the truths it discovers to the American people and their elected representatives. After all, postmodernism has engaged in a relentless assault on objective truth—scientific truth, philosophical truth, moral truth. As a consequence, pop culture tells us the only wrong behavior is judging something to be wrong. In our civic life, as historian John Lewis Gaddis suggests, our eagerness “to question all values” has undermined “our faith in and our determination to defend certain values.” And academia, oblivious to the irony, teaches young minds there is no absolute truth except one—the absolute which declares there are no absolutes.

This is highly corrosive for our society. As an adjunct professor, I teach history to college students, and many students struggle to answer questions about right and wrong, good and evil, questions that point us toward overarching truths: Was the Soviet Empire evil? Was the collapse of the Soviet Union good for humanity? Was there a difference between Churchill’s Britain and Hitler’s Germany, between the Soviet Union and the United States, between jihadists who intentionally target and kill innocents and U.S. troops who target mass-murderers and mistakenly kill innocents? Marinated in our postmodern culture, many students sadly hedge and squirm when challenged to answer such questions.

It pays to recall that ours is a nation founded on “self-evident” “truths”—objective, absolute truths we all once agreed upon. But these have been replaced by subjective, individual versions of truth that are different for each person—and that, by definition, cannot all be true.

This second obstacle facing the Intelligence Community represents an enormous challenge. After all, sharing the truth—whether we label it a moral imperative, a historical or scientific fact, or an intelligence finding—with someone who doesn’t know the truth but accepts that it’s out there, somewhere, is far easier than trying to convince someone that the truth exists at all. And that’s where the Intelligence Community—and those who recognize that there are still absolutes in this world—find themselves today.

Related, even those of us who accept that there’s such a thing as objective truth increasingly disagree on where to find it. The common ground that once represented truth to the American people—the Ten Commandments, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the morning paper and evening news—have been supplanted by situational ethics, selfie narcissism and echo-chamber social media. Our enemies know this and are exploiting this to great effect (see here, here, here and here). And that’s how the erosion of truth impacts the security of America: If we cannot agree on what is true and where to find the truth—even on whether there is such a thing as truth—how can we develop, build support for, and carry out policies that defend our nation and deter our enemies?

This post-truth world may seem new, but perhaps it’s not. After all, it was a twisting of truth that unraveled the harmony God intended for creation. The assault on truth began with a seemingly harmless question: “Did God really say…” That was enough to corrode and erode the truth. From there, the ancient struggle between truth and falsehood devolved into a struggle over whether there’s such a thing as truth—a struggle that actually predates postmodernism’s assault on absolute truths.

Two-thousand years ago, it pays to recall, Pontius Pilate dismissively asked, “What is truth?” He posed the question—the same question today’s post-truth, postmodern America asks—to someone who made an audacious claim about truth: “I am the way and the truth and the life,” Jesus said. (Make no mistake: Neither this essay nor the inscription on the CIA’s walls seeks to connect the work of America’s Intelligence Community with the Word of God; rather, the purpose here is to highlight the importance of truth—seeking it, speaking it, accepting it and recognizing its existence—in a free society.) What’s interesting and telling about Pilate’s exchange with Jesus is that there’s no evidence Jesus persuaded Pilate of anything.

There’s a lesson in that for those who strive to seek and speak the truth today: Keep seeking it and speaking it—even when it seems no one’s listening, even when people shrug at it, even when it’s not popular—and trust that some in our post-truth world might be persuaded by it, guided by it and encouraged by it.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose and authors the Project Fortress blog. Follow him on Twitter @alanwdowd.