Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Cactus Ed on Truth and Power

Edward Abbey (1927-1989) has been called the Thoreau of the American Southwest. He was a novelist, an essayist, an environmental activist, and an all-round ornery and horny hombre. I especially like his essays, of which I own three volumes worth. His journal, Confessions of a Barbarian, also graces my library. Here is an excerpt from "A Writer's Credo" (in One Life at a Time, Please (New York: Henry Holt, 1988), p. 165):

Truth, truth, what is truth? The word drops easily from the mouth but what does it mean? I venture to assert that truth for one thing is the enemy of Power, as Power is the enemy of truth. The writer, like the ancient Hebraic prophets, must dare to speak truth to Power and the powerful, face to face if need be.

One reason I cite this is because one hears a lot of talk from the Left these days about 'speaking truth to power,' as if the Left has the truth, and those in power don't. Now I hesitate to put Abbey on the Left since he is hard to classify; but if you put a gun to my head I would say that this life-long member of the NRA is some kind of anarcho-populist. In any case, he falls into the same trap that many lefties do. That is, he thinks that truth and power exclude each other.

Surely this is false. (i) Power can have truth on its side, just as (ii) truth can confer power on those who know truth.

Ad (i). Some parents are good parents. They have mental and physical power over their children, but they exercise it wisely: they know the truth about the world and about their children, and they deploy their power in accordance with this knowledge. The power of these parents is legitimate: it is grounded in the truth about what is and what ought to be. I would also say that the present government of the USA combines truth and power, very imperfectly of course, but to a high degree. If you doubt this, consider the 9/11 hearings that are presently underway, and all such truth-seeking hearings. They are themselves expressions of government power. The U.S. government has mechanisms whereby it seeks the truth about its own uses of power thereby limiting its own exercise of power.

Ad (ii). So power can have truth on its side. Truth can also have power on its side. If I have knowledge, then I have contact with truth. But knowledge is power (Francis Bacon), in the sense that to have knowledge of X is to have a sort of power over it. It follows that truth that is known confers power on those who know it.

In sum, it is false to think of truth and power as if they exclude each other. Cactus Ed is wrong. Like John Gardner, he monkeyed with philosophy, but he is no philosopher, but a mere literary writer.

Truth and power is a fascinating topic. Nietzsche, for example, with his doctrine of perspectivism denies all reality to truth, and reduces everything to self-empowering, self-willing power. (Die Welt ist der Wille zur Macht und nichts anders!) Simone Weil, on the other hand, retains truth but renders it utterly impotent by divorcing it from the world.