The Continued Inversion of “Truth to Power”

Truth is among the most basic principles upon which modern governance rests and is indicative of a vigilant and engaged citizenry. It is thus of no small consequence that truth is held in limited regard by those who are designated to represent the public to itself—journalists, academics , and political leaders. Under the British crown the two primary impediments to press freedom—the means by which claims to truth may be circulated and thus scrutinized—were state control of printing through charter and the persistent threat of seditious libel charges.

Alongside prior restraint, if the state charged the printer with libel the severity of the offense was commensurate with how true the claims against the state actually were. This is because leaders especially feared how true reportage and critique of their policies and actions typically intensified suspicion of their rule. Not until 1734, when New York printer John Peter Zenger was acquitted of libel charges after publishing factual claims against New York’s governor, was the basis for truth as a defense realized in America.

Increasingly over the past several decades truth has become the greatest perceived impediment to those in power.  In terms of the most crucial issues and events of the day truth’s occasion is routinely avoided or subverted through a sophisticated propaganda system that tends to normalize triviality and falsity while in the process overlooking or denigrating honest investigation and the truths it seeks to reveal. This has prompted Project Censored Co-director Peter Phillips to call the overall condition a “truth emergency”.

In theory the press speaks truth to power freely, thereby keeping a check on political elites. Hence in journalism schools the news media are often referenced as the de facto “fourth estate” of government. Yet today mainstream media and political leaders alike wield the power to render truth to the sidelines—framing truth seekers as irrational and perhaps even mentally impaired for pointing out confirmed facts on phenomena that have not received the government censor’s stamp of approval.

Thus the cherished confirmation of truth and consequent challenge to political force via the right to publicity has been stood on its head in many areas of the public sphere. Indeed, there are often severe consequences awaiting the would-be guardians of public intellect and memory–journalists and academics–for questioning the government-sanctioned interpretation of circumstances surrounding especially significant events.

Examples today are especially abundant, yet the circumstances surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy stand out as phenomena left largely unexamined by conventional journalism and scholarship, with its continued interrogation is even condemned by one of the world’s most influential public intellectuals.

Thus one of the most momentous occurrences in twentieth century history has been left to a handful of public officials, private citizen-researchers, and a Hollywood film director, all of whom over the years found themselves speaking truth to the overwhelming power of professional thinkers and their tacit acceptance of the government-sanctioned rendering of history.

One of the starkest example of the powerful strictures on truth is the potent taboo among academics and journalists alike toward consideration of government awareness of (or involvement in) the events of September 11th, 2001. Ironically, in professions fashioning themselves as principal actors in the exchange of knowledge and truth, being called a “truther” is a profound dishonor, perhaps even cause for expulsion from these fields.

Through tacit or explicit acceptance of the official government conspiracy theory of 9/11–that the attacks were carried out by Osama bin Laden and his coterie–the recognized interrogators and guardians of truth have become a principle source of its debasement. Again, an array of citizen investigators and publicists has arisen to speak truth to the kept powers of professional journalism and academe, only to be derided and caricatured as irrational.

A final example is the most illustrative yet also perhaps the most difficult and uncomfortable for many to recognize or understand. President Barack Obama’s uncertain familial and professional origins are an object of inquiry where formidable political power and the politics of race are indiscreetly wielded to subdue the emergence of potential truths. Journalists Wayne Madsen, Webster Tarpley, and Jerome Corsi have tread dangerous and unpopular paths in researching Mr. Obama’s personal history. In May 2011 when Madsen dug up compelling information on Ann Dunham’s possible ties with US intelligence he actually feared for his life and temporarily left the country.

Again, the penalty for speaking truth to power is considerable, and those questioning Obama’s origins, despite having sufficient reason to warrant suspicion and demand documents such as records confirming the president’s background and fitness for rule, are derogated by mainstream and progressive-left news media alike as “birthers”, and with this label routinely dismissed out-of-hand.

Zenger’s jury acquittal was an important demonstration of how truth and reason can challenge monarchical political control. Along these lines the basis of a free press to surveil and scrutinize power in the court of pubic opinion was to varying degrees established in modern societies and governance. The near-reversal of this dynamic and its sudden acceleration in the post-9/11 era through journalism and academe’s general abdication of critical analysis toward the most important affairs of the day has likewise exacerbated the decay of civic life, the loss of civil liberties and an unparalleled expansion of dangerous imperial conquest abroad.

© James F. Tracy 2012 Some Rights Reserved.

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