Among the many, many foot-in-mouth soundbites that will go down in American history as originating from a member of the Trump Administration — if anyone with a shred of independence is permitted to write the history of the Trump Administration, anyway — will be Rudy Giuliani’s combative assertion on NBC’s Meet the Press that “truth isn’t truth.”
If a man who makes a statement such as this can be allowed to proceed, and succeed, in his position as the President of the United State’s right-hand man for a significant period, I would not consider someone hysterical for speculating that we have entered an era that could best be described as beyond Orwellian.
In making the statement “truth isn’t truth,” Giuliani wasn’t trying to reframe or reprogram our understanding of a concept, such as when Orwell’s fascist Ministry of Truth declares that “War is Peace” and “Ignorance Is Strength.”
Rather, Giuliani was making a blanket denial that an important word can mean anything at all, as if he had responded to the various serious accusations against Trump and his Administration by saying “fraud isn’t fraud” or “collusion isn’t collusion.”
It Gets Worse…
The faux pas emerged during a discussion of whether President Trump, in a private Oval Office conversation with then-FBI Director James Comey, pressured Comey to drop his investigation of disgraced Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn. While the White House emphatically denied that the President said anything about dropping the investigation, the FBI Director wrote down the President’s words in a memo to the file immediately after the meeting.
Comes next Giuliani, the President’s lawyer, publicly suggesting that the discussion boils down to a he-said-she-said argument where truth cannot exist — it’s beyond human reach and knowledge, negated in the collision between the FBI Director’s and the President’s opposing recollections.
Giuliani’s interpretation is dangerous because it proposes that a private interaction between two people occurs in some kind of weird unreal space without any objective reality.
Though sundry literary theorists, postmodernists, over-educated and under-paid graduate students and the like could easily, and perhaps even eloquently, rally to Giuliani’s “truth isn’t truth” banner, the practical application of such theoretical brain-bending is basically nil.
I prefer — and I hope you would also prefer — to instead cling to the common-sense notion that the President said some specific words in the Oval Office to James Comey. Trump’s mouth moved, the air vibrated in a certain way, and the words came out. There was objectively a truth about what happened, and if a video camera or a recording device had been running then we’d likely know for sure what was said.
In fact, the notion that “truth isn’t truth” is only credible if you think it’s possible a proverbial tree can fall silently in the forest when nobody’s around to hear it.
To argue thus would be to lean uselessly on semantics, ignoring the general intended meaning of the word “sound” and assuming that, to exist, a sound requires the ears of human beings. It would also mean denying the existence of various acoustic laws that allow one to predict the occurrence of sound and the availability of objective measuring tools, such as recording devices, to confirm the prediction.
The tree-falling-in-a-forest koan might have seemed revelatory in the days before portable recording equipment. But today it’s just useless. In the final analysis, denying that objective truth can exist in certain straight-forward cases such as this one means that you are positing the existence of a reality that is so unstable you might as well not get out of bed in the morning — since, after all, your bed is probably a race car, and “getting up” might actually mean “lying down.”
What I believe is so insidious and damaging to the national psyche about Giuliani’s counter-attack — and it’s not a brilliant counter-attack, it’s actually a ridiculous one that is elevated to a level of seriousness by virtue of the fact that he’s the President of the United States’s personal lawyer — is that it goes beyond the furtherance of the notion that a truth about what happened during the President’s interaction with the FBI Director cannot exist, but more importantly for the defense of the President, that cultural norms and basic logic for evaluating the situation cannot and should not be used.
What do I mean by this?
I mean that the interaction between the two men didn’t happen in a vacuum. It happened in a series of overlapping contexts — democratic governance among the broadest of them — and that our ability as individuals and a nation to process the encounter in the Oval Office will impact, for better or worse, the shape of our society in future years.
This Isn’t Hyperbole
Consider the existence of Comey’s memo recording his interaction with the President.
What should people do at work when they’re backed into a corner and want to protect themselves?
They should document what happened in writing.
So if we’re supporting the cultural and professional norm that documentation is a good thing, then the fact that the FBI Director wrote his conversation with the President down as a memo to the file while the White House could produce nothing to support its version of events gives credence to the FBI Director’s description of what happened. However, if we dismiss this aspect of the context because “truth isn’t truth,” we also subtly reject the belief that documentation of events can have any purpose or meaning.
We can also consider the credibility of the individuals having the discussion. One is a career law enforcement officer whose testimony is generally considered admissible in court; the other is a businessman with a documented history of lying, cheating, and other reprehensible actions.
If we support the cultural and legal norm that the testimony of a law enforcement officer is a serious and weighty thing, then we must, by virtue of the FBI Director’s career and position, understand that his public rebuke of the President is both extraordinary and credible. Yet if we listen to good ol’ Truth-Isn’t-Truth, we also may as well question the foundation of our criminal justice system (which, I note, is something a lit theory student is very likely to want to do).
Favoring Trump over Comey — or at the very least rejecting Comey’s version of events — also defies basic logic.
If Comey were lying, if he were trying to fabricate a scene that proved obstruction was taking place, he most probably would have used more concrete language in his memo to the file, putting down that Trump said something like “If you don’t shut down your investigation of Flynn, I’m going to fire you” as opposed to the much more awkward statement he actually recorded: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.”
And when Trump, in a bizarre Twitter message, evoked the Nixon Watergate scandal by suggesting there were tapes of the interaction — a suggestion he later denied — why did Comey respond with “Lordy, I hope there are tapes”? Would this be the response of someone who was suddenly in danger of being exposed as a fabricator of evidence? No. It’s the response of someone who is truthful and is desperate for validation.
There are certainly other contextual details surrounding this incident that one might examine to really understand the gravity of what’s at stake for our society.
But Giuliani, the slippery relativist, hopes you instead adopt the perspective that — if you are not comfortable siding with the President — at the very least you should understand that no judgement regarding what actually happened in the Oval Office is possible.
This is bullsh*t with a cherry on top.
Judgment is not only possible… it’s necessary if we hope to preserve the norms that keep our society from falling apart at the seams.