Truth on Her Knees

What Happens When Lies and Conspiracy Theories Get the Upper Hand?

Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands afar off; for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter. So truth fails, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey” (Isaiah 59:14–15).

The prophet Isaiah spoke these words more than 2,700 years ago to a society on the edge of terrible collapse, yet it’s an accurate description of our day. Truth fails, collapsed in the street. Have you noticed her condition? Because of her critical state, justice and equity are shut out and good people suffer abuse for defending her.

Another perceptive observer of moral decline, Roger Babson, was an engineer, economist, entrepreneur and statistician, the founder of a college near Boston, and a 1940 US presidential candidate. Babson predicted the 1929 stock market crash several times before it happened. Many other business leaders scoffed at the idea, saying the economy was sound, nothing to worry about. A few years earlier he had also foretold the short, sharp depression of 1920, noting that a nation’s ability to prosper was based on a simple majority of its people practicing honesty and integrity. He wrote, “While fifty-one per cent of the people have their eyes on the goal of integrity, our investments are secure; but with fifty-one per cent of them headed in the wrong direction, our investments are valueless.”

Almost exactly a century later, most nations are suffering threat of financial downturn, triggered by the COVID pandemic. But the virus has exposed other contributing causes to our discontent as well: racism, intolerance, authoritarianism, greed, corruption and lies at the highest levels. Is there a connection between these diverse ills and what 51 percent or more are thinking and doing on the wrong side of the ledger? How did we get here?

Has truth really fallen in the street? Other translations say, “Truth stumbles in the public square.” When public discourse—whether political, journalistic or one-on-one—is filled with deceit and false claims, then truth has become half-truth or worse, and injustice prevails. Social media, once praised for their openness, have become channels for deliberate deception.

In recent years many people have begun meandering across the plains of post-truth, accepting norms that never would have been tolerated before that. There’s your truth and there’s my truth. And now some have arrived at the much more dangerous sea of conspiracy theories. Not satisfied with “alternative facts,” they’ve taken up residence in alternative universes. The number of people fascinated by what is presented as anonymous insider knowledge from sources such as QAnon is growing steadily, both in America and abroad.

For historians and far-right extremism experts,” writes New York Times Berlin bureau chief Katrin Bennhold, “QAnon is both a very new and a very old phenomenon. Made in modern America, it has powerful echoes of the European anti-Semitism of centuries past, which was at the root of the worst violence the continent has known.”

« L’attrait émotionnel d’une théorie du complot tient dans sa simplicité. Elle écarte, dans ses explications, les phénomènes complexes et justifie les hasards et les accidents, elle offre à celui qui y adhère la satisfaction d’avoir un accès privilégié et unique à la vérité. » 

Anne Applebaum, Twilight of Democracy

Those who suggest that such conspiracies are at work beneath the surface—influencing nations and peoples—breed anger, hatred and intolerance, pitting party against party, group against group, person against person.

When truth fails and falls in our streets, and violence, lies and corruption get the upper hand, then injustice and inequity will rule for lack of right action.

Writing to the America of his day, Babson also said: “The first fundamental of prosperity is integrity. Without it there is no civilization, there is no peace, there is no security, there is no safety.”

This expression of truth is reminiscent of the wisdom of the same Hebrew prophet whose prescription for his people was to return to the values of their God, to rediscover the moral order that would guarantee integrity in leaders and people. And what the prophet and the economist had to say is equally applicable to all nations today. Can there be any doubt that now is the time for all of us to help truth to her feet?