The Lackluster Search for Truth

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We are formed by the world as it is when we are young. My father, for example, was molded by the Great Depression. Although he was a witty, optimistic man, a cold wind blew sometimes from the back of his biography — the knowledge that the world could collapse. Even as he prospered later, the '30s of his boyhood whistled thinly through his mind. The bleak years gave him an ambience of expectation about life and its dangers.

What about Americans coming of age right now? How are they being formed by the sunny affluence (and undercurrent jitters) of the fin de Clinton? Is the election of 2000 teaching them anything?

If so, is it a good lesson or a bad one? Are they learning about the virtues of due process and patience? Or about the fertile possibilities of manipulative lawyering?

The same questions might be asked about the entire Clinton experience, of course — applying those questions to both Clinton and the Clinton haters. I have had a dozen college students in recent months tell me that "Clinton has been a great president." Do they mean "great" as a historical verdict, in the way they would say that Lincoln was a great president? Or "great" as in "that was a great movie." Both, actually. They do not quite see the difference between Lincoln and a great movie.

In any case, they believe that for almost half of their lives, Clinton has caused the sun to rise and the chickens to lay and the Velcro to stick and the markets to prosper. If you demur by even a twitch (the matter of impeachment, or a pharmaceuticals factory missiled in Khartoum to distract the media from the spectacle of the President receiving oral sex from a very young intern in the Oval Office), they wrinkle their noses and look away, perplexed by the difficulty of knowing what the meaning of is is.

So with this election. All of a sudden Florida is a kingdom of hallucinations, an elaborate legal speculation on what the voter's intention was — the world's greatest power prize hanging on a punch-out confetti of chads and the interpretation of dimples. Now you see it (the presidency), now you don't. Magicians with law degrees pull votes out of hats, or double-bottomed suitcases. Ballots flutter in and out of the process like butterflies.

When the political process enters the courtroom, the truth becomes malleable, corruptible, ultimately unknowable. This is American politics in a state of deconstruction — a form of postmodernist cardsharking.

I don't think I would want to have this election turn out to be a formative event of my moral-political life. Perhaps, after all, the problem is not that the election is so bizarrely close, or so messy; or even that either way it is decided, the result will seem, to exactly half of the American people, to have been an act of theft. No, the greater problem is that whichever of these two men ends in the White House, we are going to get a mediocre president. He will have a high hill to climb to persuade us otherwise.

What's worrisome about the lessons being taught to the young is that so many of their shared political and cultural memories have been acquired in the media circuses of the last decade — Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill, Oklahoma City, Columbine, O. J. Simpson, Clinton-Lewinsky, Diana's death, John Kennedy Jr.'s death, Elian Gonzalez and now, the post-election of 2000.

What has this menu of sensational morality plays taught to our children about the world?

I have seen part of the residue and I don't like it much: An indifference to the truth. There is a disinclination to try to discover what the meaning of is is. The culture (an unholy alliance of sensationalism, litigiousness and political correctness) encourages a disturbing belief in the undiscoverability — even the irrelevance — of truth. Of much more importance than truth are... feelings! If you doubt me, think of O. J. Simpson playing golf in Florida (and even commenting on the current legal process over the weekend). Think of the crime in the O.J. case. Think of the role of a policeman's use of the n-word in getting Simpson off. Think of the combat between truth and feelings. And tell me which of them won.