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Raging relativists

Campaign 2012 | Rejection of truth oddly leads to angry charges that political opponents are "liars"

Issue: "Reassessing the genome," Oct. 6, 2012

On any of these sunny autumnal election-season days, take a stroll down Google Lane and see what you find if you type in "Romney lies." Links and websites will hurl themselves at you with gleeful abandon: "Romney's welfare lies"; "The 5 biggest lies in Romney's acceptance speech"; "Obama to media: Romney's whole campaign is based on lies." What's your taste in Mendacious Mitt stories? You can choose from the wonky: "Romney tells 530 lies in 30 minutes." Or the chatty: "Mitt Romney Sure Does Lie a Lot, Doesn't He?" Or the righteously indignant: "MITT'S MENDACIOUS PANDEMIC LIES!" Or the whimsical: "Romney lies about his first name." Or, for one-stop, 24-hour lie-shopping, try crooksandliars.com or romneytheliar.blogspot.com.

Anyway, I get the picture. Whatever Mitt Romney says, it's a lie.

To be fair, calling your opponent a liar is a time-honored political tactic. The Google entries under "Obama lies" are almost eight times that of "Romney lies"—partly due to the fact that Obama has held the country's highest office while Romney has not. But the accusations this time around seem almost frantic as the army of "fact-checkers" on both sides gear up for the final stretch. It's overkill; tit follows tat so rapidly we lose track of who's accusing whom and what they said in that speech that was fact-checked by this website and counter-fact-checked by the other.

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Much of this is purely cynical: One side lies, so they assume the other side lies, or they'll accuse the other side of lying to draw attention from their own lies. But cynicism doesn't explain all of it. Maybe everything looks like a lie when you've lost sight of the truth.

Last month, Daniel Foster, a political writer for National Review, reported on a focus group session conducted by Frank Luntz. Luntz is best known for his "intensity dials" that record moment-by-moment individual responses to political language. On this occasion, Luntz spent two hours quizzing his subjects, "swing voters" all, on their social concerns. The session was eye-opening to Foster: "It's not that they're divided on any given issue, with half taking one side and half the other. Rather, everybody seemed to agree with everybody else about everything—and to disagree with them, too. Transitory coalitions formed and dissolved in what seemed a matter of milliseconds, like exotic particles in a supercollider. … Working majorities seemingly assented to some premise, only to split a thousand ways on the most straightforward logical conclusion from said premise."

In other words, three generations of relativistic education have had their effect. Truth and lies collide and shave the rough edges off each other and learn to coexist. But at the same time, "Liar!" is the most common accusation one party flings against the other—also the angriest. Why is this?

One reason might be that when we suppress our deepest needs, they'll express themselves, in some form, elsewhere. When the traditional family falls apart, we try to label any cohabitating group a "family." When religion loses its authority, we think we are free: "Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us!" (Psalm 2:2), but our rebellion only makes us voluntary slaves of our pet sins or ideologies. We declare truth to be relative, and search desperately for some form of truth to cling to. We've put ourselves in a bind: We can't live with it, but find we can't live without it.

In this election cycle, I believe one side has truth on its side more than another, though both are guilty of selecting, shading, and stretching it. But truth begins in the individual heart (Psalm 51:6), and so does deception (Jeremiah 17:9). Sooner or later, reality will meet us in the same place, for "Reality," writes science-fiction author Philip Dick, "is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."

The Bible puts it this way: "Let God be true, and every man a liar." I'll cling to that.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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