Our Founders’ Messy Truths

As we pass the 243rd year since our nation’s founding, there are signs of decline. One of the most pernicious symbols of our nation’s fall from grace is our inability to confront the truth when it conflicts with our politics. But even more damningly, we seem to even believe our own lies.

In his last letter, after a long illness and on the precipice of death, Thomas Jefferson wrote of the pursuit of truth: “All eyes are opened, or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”

For Jefferson, the light of science proved the truth of mankind’s inherent freedom. He embraced what at the time was a fashionable trend in Enlightenment philosophy and empiricism. It assumed that enlightened societies could be produced when democratic governments ruled with the consent of the governed — and critically, the populations of those societies had unfettered access to the truth. It is fundamentally such objectivity and pursuit of truth that the Founding Fathers enshrined in freedom of the press within the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, popularly known as the Bill of Rights. These rights were instituted by James Madison based on the experience the colonists had endured in Virginia, Jefferson’s home state.

It was evident that without enough information — enough truth, that is — it was impossible, even for a free people under a democratic government, to intelligently exercise their freedoms. And without the enlightened exercise of democracy, the people might find themselves effectively re-enslaved.

It turns out Jefferson and the founders were wrong — well, not so much wrong as naively hopeful. In today’s America, we do not necessarily rely upon objective truth in the process of making political decisions. The notion that people would act in accordance with the truth when faced with the facts has proven to be false. Instead, our political process has devolved to the point where even “facts” have become the creatures of subjectivity. In order to construct convenient truths, one must erect “alternative facts.”

There are a host of critical issues affecting our nation’s progress. They range from immigration to climate change to health care to international relations to trade. These issues are not only complex in themselves but inextricably intertwined with each other.

They are intertwined because of the limits of our resources. Prioritizing one of these issues necessarily entails giving short shrift to another. The question as to whether we should uphold the promises of prior administrations — on treaties or amnesty for undocumented immigrants — poses challenges to the priorities of our current administration. There is a fundamental democratic question to be asked: Should our government yield to the consent of the governed, or should it endure the strictures of prior governments?

In international affairs, these values come into more contentious conflict. The Obama administration and the EU negotiated a deal with Iran with regard to its development of nuclear war capabilities. In keeping with long-standing American policy on nonproliferation, as well as American obligations with regard to allies in the Middle East, we drew a line in the sand on Iran’s obtaining nuclear weapons. This policy had been both advocated and upheld by successive U.S. governments as far back as President Jimmy Carter.

When the Obama administration made a fragile peace with Iran, including concessions to Iran on sanctions and release of previously held funds, it was assumed that this would stay Iran’s nuclear ambitions and usher in an era of peace and prosperity in the Middle East.

It may have achieved the former, but it failed to achieve the latter. Iran continued to meddle politically and militarily in the affairs of our allies — in Turkey, in Lebanon in Syria and in Israel. With sanctions removed, it was able to do so far more effectively. The current administration eventually abrogated the treaty with Iran even though Iran remained technically in compliance with its obligations.

The media presented the decision to exit the treaty as the current administration’s revenge against the previous administration and against Iran. It was not based on truth, media pundits argued, but based on “alternative facts.” What was not highlighted in the media was how Iran could both comply in letter with its obligations under the treaty while violating its spirit in practice.

It turns out that, unlike Jefferson had written, truth is often more than the sum of facts. Truth carries the weight of prior history. It must account for context, pretext and subtext. Truth, it turns out, is not as easily distilled from science as our founders might have believed. A “fact” can mask a lie. And the truth can be messy. Everyone in our political landscape has fallen prey to the simplistic seduction that facts equal truth — our partisan majorities, the disfavored parties, the media and our elected officials. However, ignoring the surrounding realities ultimately betrays the diligent search for truth bequeathed to us by our forefathers.