Saturday, September 24, 2005

"Truth to power": deconstructing a phrase

It's a popular phrase on the left, used here by Dan Rather, of all people (courtesy Roger Simon): "speaking truth to power."

The expression, which has been around for quite a while, is brilliantly parsimonious. In just four simple words (really only three, since one of them is "to"), it succinctly encapsulates the left's view--both of itself, and of the way the world works.

First, there's "truth." One of the hallmarks of much leftist thought is the idea of their own moral (not just doctrinal or analytic) superiority. The left's definition of "truth" often seems to be that it consists of whatever they believe to be true. Ergo, whenever they "speak" (word three), it's "truth" by definition; they certainly don't need no steenking facts cluttering up their truth (as in the pesky Memogate).

Next, there's "power." The left is all about power differentials. Third-world countries or those perceived as powerless are always right (i.e. "truthful"); powerful countries are always wrong. It's not, of course, just about international relations and countries, it's also about people and economics: poor people=good (powerless), rich people=bad (powerful).

Want to know the origins of the phrase? I did; it turns out it has to do with Quakers and pacifism, (see this), a subject I plan to tackle some time in the not-too-distant future.

If Rather sees himself and CBS as an example of "truth," particularly after Memogate, I'm not exactly sure what falsehood would be. The MSM and CBS are certainly also examples of power, too; hasn't Rather ever heard of the expression "The pen is mightier than the sword?" (I know, I know; CBS doesn't use pens much any more--or typewriters either, for that matter, unfortunately for CBS. But the expression is metaphorical anyway).

[ADDENDUM: In an attempt to head off possible misunderstanding, I will add that I am not talking about liberals here, I'm talking about the left. And I'm not saying Dan Rather is an example of the left; that's why I was a bit surprised to read that he'd used the phrase.]

50 Comments:

At 10:56 AM, September 24, 2005, Anonymous colagirl said...

Third-world countries or those perceived as powerless are always right (i.e. "truthful"); powerful countries are always wrong.

Pretty accurate, I must say. Also, if a third-world, "powerless" country is doing something that *appears* to be wrong, it's really not their fault; somehow it is the fault of the "powerful" countries instead.

 
At 11:25 AM, September 24, 2005, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...

Since Rather used the phrase, maybe that's a clue.

 
At 11:52 AM, September 24, 2005, Anonymous notherbob2 said...

“I am not talking about liberals here, I'm talking about the left.” Liberals are the sweet little old lady who is knowingly providing free room and board to the child molester. She can say “Oh, he is a little eccentric.” all she wants to, but the harm to America from the left is aided and abetted by almost all liberals and therefore they IMHO need to be tarred by the same brush. Perhaps you mean to make a small intellectual distinction. I will admit that it exists, but for most purposes it is irrelevant.

 
At 11:57 AM, September 24, 2005, Anonymous Tatterdemalian said...

They're not speaking truth to power. Stephen Vincent spoke truth to power.

All they're doing is speaking nonsense to indifference.

 
At 2:33 PM, September 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right and Wrong are no longer based upon what one DOES, but instead Right and Wrong are based upon what GROUP one belongs to.

 
At 3:30 PM, September 24, 2005, Anonymous Marty H said...

Hi Neo-

I've enjoyed reading your blog for a while, but this is my first post.

Every has their irrational pet peeves, and this saying is one of mine.

The phrase reminds me of something that a story teller would say to kindergartners. I can hear her voice now, as she looks very wide eyed at each kid in the room and says very slowly and deliberately, "He was Speaking Truth to Power," with emphasis on the key words of the phrase. In this fairy tale, the rest is denouement because "Speaking Truth to Power" is the greatest good possible.

My irrational reaction occurs because this saying is so wrong on so many levels at the same time.

First, the grammatical construction is clumsy, at least to me. Both Truth and Power are nouns, but you usually tell the truth, not speak it. So "Speak Truth" just seems wrong.

Second, this construct makes "Truth" and "Power" objective entities. But if you ask most users of this phrase if objective Truth exists, they would say no. Thus, there is no Truth (or even no truth with a little t) that can be spoken.

If there is no objective Truth, there certainly is no objective Power. Power is neutral; it can used for evil, or good. Fallible humans wield power.

Furthermore, the belief of this statement is that Truth has the same effect on Power as Kryptonite has on Superman. The mere act of Speaking Truth to Power causes Power to...???

The saying reminds me of video of gulls going after penguin chicks. The gulls walk right into the colony, grab the chicks by the neck, and kill and eat them while the adult penguins (who are bigger than the gulls) stand by. The penguins may "Speak Truth to Power" by squawking at the gulls, but their chicks are killed anyway.

Enough of the rant-like I said, this statement is inane on so many levels it's impossible to dissect fully.

Neo, congrats on posting for year. I've enjoyed hearing your voice.

Marty H

 
At 5:25 PM, September 24, 2005, Blogger an unrepentant kulak said...

Marty H. touched on a key oddity of this phrase that strikes me as well: How the notion of "truth" that can be spoken can possibly manage to coexist in the minds of a postmodern-influenced left, that so frequently disavows any belief in absolute "truth", remains a mystery to me.

 
At 5:33 PM, September 24, 2005, Blogger David said...

One interesting thing about this phrase is: those who use it rarely stop to consider how much power *they* have. They may be tenured professors, university presidents, wealthy movie stars...but somehow, "power" is always something *others* have.

It's easy to imagine a "progressive" in a power position behaving oppressively to an individual with much less power..say, a university president firing an adjunct professor because of his political views..and justifying the action as "speaking truth to power."

 
At 5:55 PM, September 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The only reason that Rather uses this cliche is that he can't back up "TRUTH" to facts only to power of weakness of agenda. It really sad.

 
At 8:31 PM, September 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The concept, if not the exact phrase, has its roots in the Jewish Tanak (the Christian Old Testament), more specifically the books of the prophets of Israel. Interesting that neither you nor your commentators mention the metaphor-- an aversion to magical thinking, perhaps? ;-)

The prophets of Israel had a unique role in the society of the time-- all of them, at various times, heard G-d speaking directly to them, commanding them to go to the King of Israel with an important message. That message, with variations, was the same-- that Israel had ceased worshipping the one true G-d, and was to be punished for her sins. If the King, and the nation, did not repent and turn away from sin, they would suffer severe consequences. "Speaking truth to power", in a phrase.

And how could one tell whether a prophet, and his message, was "the real thing"? Simple-- the ancient Hebrews believed that merely by "speaking" the words of accusation and condemnation out loud with the formulaic "Thus saith the Lord", a prophet, speaking directly for G-d as he was, set into motion divine forces of destruction against the offending nation. So fulfillment of the prophecy was proof of the authenticity of the prophet. And one final thing-- if the King could catch and kill the prophet before he "spoke" his "magical" words of doom, disaster might be averted. So it was genuinely dangerous to "speak" truth-- Divine Truth-- to power if you were a prophet. It could get you killed to open your mouth.

Hence the Biblical metaphor of "speaking truth to power", which carries with it a claim both to prophetic (G-d-given)insights-- and prophetic powers (literally the power to speak directly for G-d) bestowed by the divinity. I wasn't aware that the left has sought to capture that expression for itself, but it's further evidence of their ego-driven grandiosity. They may be hearing voices, but I doubt that it's G-d who is speaking to them in this context! ;-)

 
At 9:15 PM, September 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey all you apologists for the Bush administration, Democracy Now interviewed Hugo Chavez last week.

If you want to understand what speaking truth to power means, try watching it: Democracy Now

 
At 11:24 PM, September 24, 2005, Anonymous tatterdemalian said...

It means screaming accusations with no proof given?

Call it what you like, he's still speaking nonsense. And not to power, only to indifference.

 
At 12:09 AM, September 25, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hugo Chavez? You mean the little dictator who passed laws that ban *insulting* him? Really: anti-insult laws. Please, do a little research on the state of free speech & press in Venezuela. (Or... you're being ironic, right? It's so hard to tell these days...)

 
At 4:39 AM, September 25, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How did it happen that lefty thought has been reduced to those things that fit on a bumper sticker?

 
At 8:41 AM, September 25, 2005, Anonymous Ric Locke said...

"David" remarked,

One interesting thing about this phrase is: those who use it rarely stop to consider how much power *they* have.

Ah, but they do! In fact, that's mostly the point.

I forget who it was who first used the concept of the "Fourth Estate", but it's been incorporated into the self-identification of journalists, and "Speak Truth to Power" is just the latest extension of the idea. If they are entitled to "Speak.. to Power" in the first place, it must be that they themselves are powerful. In the second place, if the important part of their lives is speaking to Power, the rest of us are SOL -- they're too busy exercising their power to actually, you know, report on things.

Which is pretty much the way things work nowadays, eh?

 
At 8:57 AM, September 25, 2005, Anonymous markus said...

That's great the you want to target the "subject" of Quakerism in the near future.. I hope it has the same degree of respect for other peoples religious beliefs that you expect to see when you read something by a non-Jews critiquing Jewish beliefs.

 
At 9:16 AM, September 25, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Didn't the Bush administration put a journalist in jail because she didn't reveal her source? Didn't a US tank fire at the hotel housing journalists in Baghdad, killing a Spanish cameraman? Didn't the Bush administration shut down Al Jazeera in Iraq? Is Fox News not a mouthpiece for the Bush administration? Are there not more men in America with breasts, per capita, than any other country in the world?

You've got a serious, SERIOUS media problem in your country (not to mention a high proportion of well-titted men), so stop calling the kettle black, pot boy, and check out the interview.

Chavez directly addresses issues of power and truth and radical change. He's leading an anti-capitalist revolution in the south of the hemisphere, and you can either filter that even through the sublimely ridiculous mainstream media in your country, or you can take advantage of some journalism with an attention span.

Once again, the interview:

Democracy Now interview with Hugo Chavez, part 1

Democracy Now interview with Hugo Chavez, part 2

 
At 10:16 AM, September 25, 2005, Blogger AmericanWoman said...

The Bush Adminstration did not put a journalist in jail. The judge on the case did. There is no law protecting journalists from testifying in court or not revealing their sources.

Ironically, the case was brought to possibly make the Bush Adminstration look bad in the Plame case.

Can't have it both ways!

 
At 10:26 AM, September 25, 2005, Anonymous m.g. said...

10:16 a.m. anonymous:

Chavez directly addresses issues of power and truth and radical change. He's leading an anti-capitalist revolution...

Are you for real?

 
At 11:05 AM, September 25, 2005, Anonymous hg wells said...

I was in an online discussion of the Iraq War and one character kept baiting me with one or two line posts which had little content and were mostly personal zingers.

After a while I called him on it and he explained to everyone that he was "speaking truth to power" and that he was a Quaker pacifist.

I was an anti-war leftist for a long time. I am dumbfounded by the level of discourse I find from that side now. Apparently neither facts nor civility are necessary when one has the "truth" and is speaking it.

 
At 11:05 AM, September 25, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chavez describes American-style individualism and capitalism as an unsustainable model.

And, yeah: I'm not making it up; Venezuala is leading a socialist movement in the south; I'm not the least surprised it's a revelation to you.

 
At 11:09 AM, September 25, 2005, Blogger PSGInfinity said...

"Didn't a Spanish journalist stupidly remain in a city being invaded, and unluckily get caught in the crossfire?"

Yep, that's better

 
At 11:26 AM, September 25, 2005, Blogger PSGInfinity said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 11:31 AM, September 25, 2005, Blogger PSGInfinity said...

To anonymous @22:15, 10:16, & 12:05: I'm renaming you 'power', so that I might speak truth to power...

Communism, and it's brothers, socialism and fascism are the most destructive ideology in human history. Social- Fascio- Communists have slaughtered some 120 Million in the last hundred years alone in their mad quest to remake humanity in their twisted image.

Proof of this takes books, not posts, so don't feign ignorance on that point, 'power'. But a good place for YOU to start reading is The Gulag Archipelago, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

As for Chavez, we're deliberately ignoring him. He has unwittingly set up a laboratory of Socio - Communism, and we'll laugh our heads off as he turns a developing country into a basket case.

"How do you tell a communist? Well, it's someone who reads Marx and Lenin. And how do you tell an anti-Communist? It's someone who understands Marx and Lenin."
-- Ronald Reagan, speaking truth to power.

 
At 11:35 AM, September 25, 2005, Blogger PSGInfinity said...

The American model of individualism, capitalism, and voluntary charity has been working just fine for 398 years (Jamestown was settled in 1607, and dating from any other point is sophistry). Chavez is the latest sharpie to think he's got it all figured out. We'll consign him to history, like all the others...

 
At 11:37 AM, September 25, 2005, Blogger PSGInfinity said...

There's no point in questioning authority if you're not willing to listen to the answers.

 
At 11:38 AM, September 25, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Venezuala is a democracy.

 
At 11:50 AM, September 25, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The context of the thread is deconstructing the phrase "truth to power" and I've supplied an example from the left where the phrase has merit. Take it or leave it, don't care, don't have time to care, taking off now.

 
At 12:22 PM, September 25, 2005, Anonymous Bemused said...

One of the hallmarks of much leftist thought is the idea of their own moral (not just doctrinal or analytic) superiority.

Oh no, only the left play that game!?!?

Who you kidding? I read posts on blogs left and right, and the notion of moral superiority seeps through them all.

Come on, get real.

 
At 12:37 PM, September 25, 2005, Anonymous Larry said...

The phrase is a catchphrase on the left partly just because it encapsulates the left's romantic and mythic self-image in just four words that scan well. It doesn't have -- and doesn't need to have -- any relationship to actual "truth", since, as we can see, it can be applied even to a thug like Chavez. The handy thing about it, in fact, is that it's just a quick way to beg the question (in the classic sense), i.e., to simply assume that anything the latest lefty martyr is speaking is automatically "truth". The Chavez example illustrates just how cheap the phrase has become (though I'm sure somebody somewhere has already desribed Bin Laden, e.g., as "speaking truth to power").

 
At 1:13 PM, September 25, 2005, Anonymous M.Vitruvius said...

First, there's "truth." One of the hallmarks of much leftist thought is the idea of their own moral (not just doctrinal or analytic) superiority. The left's definition of "truth" often seems to be that it consists of whatever they believe to be true. Ergo, whenever they "speak" (word three), it's "truth" by definition; they certainly don't need no steenking facts cluttering up their truth (as in the pesky Memogate).

Wait, wait, wait.

While I do agree with that assessment, by and large, I have a serious question: In what way does this differ from "rightist thought"?

 
At 1:57 PM, September 25, 2005, Anonymous hg wells said...

I'm sure both sides are in violation, but I have to say, speaking as an ex-leftist, ex-anti-war person with six feet of Chomsky et al. books on my shelves, that I do have the impression these days that the left is more often thinking in slogans and operating from the assumption that the moral and intellectual high ground is theirs.

Like neo-neocon I have had the experience of being attacked and ostracized by former friends and associates because my politics changed, no matter how gracefully or rationally I explained it.

Personally I consider the war in Iraq a complex issue on which informed people of good conscience may disagree. However, I have yet to discuss this with an anti-war person who will make a similar concession. They are right and I am wrong, and the only question seems to be how abusive they feel they are entitled to be on that account.

 
At 2:14 PM, September 25, 2005, Anonymous hg wells said...

If anyone knows of a left-wing blog or blogs, where these matters are discussed as thoughtfully as here, please post the links.

I would be interested to read them.

 
At 3:11 PM, September 25, 2005, Anonymous mamapajamas said...

Anon II: "I'm not the least surprised it's a revelation to you."

The revelation to us is that there are still people in the world who dumb enough to believe that communism can actually work. This would be people who are NOT "speaking truth to power" but willfully ignoring history, "speaking ignorance to the ignorant".

 
At 3:24 PM, September 25, 2005, Anonymous mizpants said...

Reading Neo's post I thought immediately of Michael Walzer's piece "Can There Be a Decent Left?" Walzer has some sharp insights into the moral confusion of many leftists' reactions to 911 and what that revealed about the intellectual bankruptcy of the present-day left. The piece appeared in DISSENT in 2002. Walzer is a man of the left himself, a philosopher and a "just war" theorist.He supported the action in
Afghanistan, but has subsequently withdrawn his support from the Iraq war -- disappointingly and perhaps inconsistently, I think. I'm too much of a technical idiot to provide the link, but it's easily accessible on Google.

 
At 4:20 PM, September 25, 2005, Anonymous Tatterdemalian said...

See, the problem, as our anonymous and non-anonymous leftist posters are demonstrating, is that the whole "truth to power" phrase is actually an intensely self-absorbed and narcissistic delusion. What they won't publicly state is the reason why they think they are immune to assassination themselves, because people would laugh if they realized that the whole "truth to power" routine is just a way they can pretend they have leet ninja super powers to fight off the unending army of CIA super-assassins, while never actually having to prove the existence of either their super-powers or the CIA assassins targetting them. They only reveal that information to naive groupies who swallow their initial lies whole, much like Scientologists only reveal the whole Xenu/Thetian thing to people once they are in so deep that they won't get up and say "That's the stupidest load of horseshit I've ever heard!"

 
At 6:39 PM, September 25, 2005, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Of course there are those on the right who think that they have a moral superiority to those on the left. But as a person who has looked at this issue from "both sides now" (apologies to Joni Mitchell), I have to say it's an attitude I encounter far more often from the left--so often, in fact, that I would say it is almost a basic part of leftist thought. I find that arguments from the right tend more often to be grounded in facts. You may agree or disagree with the conclusions, of course, but the facts are more likely to be there--in particular, knowledge of history.

I have posted about this before quite a few times at greater length. If you care to read my views on the subject, see this, this, this, and this, to list just a few.

 
At 7:06 PM, September 25, 2005, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Oh, and markus:

It's interesting that you changed my word "tackle" to your word "target." Whatever on earth would make you think I was going to target Quakers when I wrote that I would tackle the subject of Quakers and pacifism? In fact, just to give you a preview, I was fascinated to learn from my research that the Quaker attitude towards pacifism is far more complex and multifaceted than most people think.

And yes, I definitely have some strong criticisms of absolute pacifism (although I have some sympathy with it, too). Would that consist of "targeting" Quakers? Can one not disagree with a particular practice of a religion without being accused of intolerance? See this for more of my views on that subject.

 
At 8:26 PM, September 25, 2005, Blogger DANEgerus said...

Neo-con is just a code word for 'Jew', intended as a slur, that allows the 'realitybasedcommunity' to pretend they aren't anti-Semitic.

Certainly a catch-phrase like 'Truth-to-Power' is just another Orwellian misrepresentation, of which the Left is so fond, and demonstrates exactly why Orwell warned us of the Left's slippery slope to authoritarianism lubricated with their own hubris.

Simply reverse the words... 'Lies for Powerless' and you expose much more of what they actually intend.

You can indulge the Left by suggesting they are 'idealistic' and vicious hate is 'excess'...

But the continued advocacy of the well documented failures of Communism/Socialism/Fascism expose them as self delusional to the point of being a danger to themselves, and most importantly, to others.

 
At 9:46 PM, September 25, 2005, Blogger USMale said...

You note the self-serving dichotomy built into this irritating phrase: power can't possibly have any truth and the "truth"-speakers are speaking..."truth". It would be much better to say, "expressing my opinion to someone I don't like so that I can feel righteous".

 
At 10:52 PM, September 25, 2005, Blogger M. Simon said...

I speak to electrons, sometimes in mass quantities. Does that mean I speak truth to power?

OTOH perhaps we can get Dan to go to Teheran to speak truth to power. I hear they like killing and jailing reporters.

 
At 12:15 AM, September 26, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Like Hitler said, slogans are powerful. Truth to power is such a slogan. Catholicism had made GREAT use of slogans.

So has Islamicfascism, Allahu Akbar.

Slogans are power, never underestimate the power of slogans.

They're like a quick velocity, quick firing, propaganda weapon. Not powerful, but has a lot of ammo and rate of fire.

And if you say it enough, Speaking Truth to Power, you can self-hypnotize yourself the same way you can do with I will wake up fresh, ready, and alert for the God given challenges of tomorrow before you sleep.

Try it, if you don't believe me.

 
At 12:32 AM, September 26, 2005, Anonymous hg wells said...

Well -- although I find "speaking truth to power" a self-serving and vacuous conceit when people like Dan Rather use it, there are times when it does fit, such as Joan of Arc, Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Archbishop Romero. There are times when people speak with nothing more than the moral authority they embody towards a large-scale injustice or evil, and in this manner they enrich the world. Today we have another such human being in Burma: Aung San Suu Kyi. Often these extraordinary individuals pay the ultimate price.

So I can't write this phrase off entirely, but it is a very tall order to live up to--certainly Cindy Sheehan has failed this test--and the problem the Left faces these days is that it seems to mistake any "mouthing off to authority" as "speaking truth to power."

 
At 7:10 AM, September 26, 2005, Blogger Michael B said...

"Who you kidding? I read posts on blogs left and right, and the notion of moral superiority seeps through them all." bemused

And sweeping equivocations are but one form of sweeping, nonsensical generalizations; they can also reflect a feel-good, "moral superiority" obtained at cheapjack prices. The applied ability to be self-critical - in a healthy, probative and cogent sense - is a large part of what separates the presumptive, highly fevered ideologue from one who understands what a hard-won tolerance is and who engages in sincere and productive forms of exchanges and debate.

 
At 8:10 AM, September 26, 2005, Anonymous Jay said...

neo neocon-

Maybe you could draw some parallels between "truth to power" phrasiology with Nietzche's "will to power" ideology.

 
At 1:39 PM, September 26, 2005, Blogger Daniel in Brookline said...

Good stuff, NNC.

I wrote a bit about this on my blog, a few days ago. I'm afraid I wasn't quite as polite as you were.

respectfully,
Daniel in Brookline

 
At 5:53 PM, September 26, 2005, Anonymous Marty H said...

The powerful react not to truth, but to power.

Three of the four people HG cited not only "Spoke" Truth to Power, but Met Power with Power. Joan of Arc was a warrior, leading armies in battle. MLK's moral authority comes not as much from his speeches as his actions-going to jail, organizing marches, and making it impossible for America to turn a blind eye to the plight of blacks in the South. Gandhi, similarly, organized peaceful protests, and hunger strikes. Romero is perhaps a true case of "Speaking Truth to Power" because the powerful saw him as a threat and so he was killed before he could organize a movement similar to King's or Gandhi's.

Churchill "Spoke Truth to Power" (the British government) until he was blue in the face prior to WWII. He was a lot more effective once he became Power.

One case where I would agree that Truth Spoke to Power was the fall of the Berlin Wall. The people of East Germany announced to the world unequivocally, and in dramatic fashion, that Communism had failed.

Marty

 
At 7:53 PM, September 26, 2005, Anonymous hg wells said...

Joan of Arc was not born with armies, nor Gandhi, MLK, Romero, nor Suu Kyi with followers.

To be sure, Joan of Arc, Gandhi, MLK Romero, and Suu Kyi did more than just speak, but they started out as individuals with nothing remarkable going for them other than the sheer conviction of their word. That was how they attracted their followers.

I would also draw particular attention to Joan of Arc's performance in the court that sentenced her to death. It was stacked with the best legal and eccleasiastical minds the prosecution could find to match wits with a teenage girl, who was alone and slept in chains at night. Joan stood her ground so magnificently that they had to remove the proceedings from public view. I find that aspect of her story as astonishing her leading the armies of France to victory against the English and Burgundians.

Joan of Arc spoke truth to power.

 
At 8:04 PM, September 26, 2005, Anonymous hg wells said...

I can't resist leaving a pointer to
Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words.

The book is simply translated excerpts from the court transcripts of her trial and it is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read.

How could a teenage girl stand up and speak like that? Her armies were gone and the French King had deserted her.

 
At 4:35 PM, September 27, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Joan of Arc got betrayed by the French... while not particularly rare back then, was still peculiar because of the nation.

 

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