“Werner, you LIE,” a gentleman screamed at me, at everyone, at a faculty meeting some years ago. The screamer was someone I had known for years, and our children were friends. But he was a leftist, and I was not, and he didn’t like my opinions on an issue that he construed as political.
I must say that I was startled even though I knew then as I know now that to extremists anyone who disagrees tends to be a “liar.” Professor Noam Chomsky has been pleased to call me a “liar” and a “pathological liar,” both in print and in private correspondence. The accusation that an enemy is a “liar” is also commonplace in Nazi and Communist propaganda. Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf speaks of Jews as liars as if that is no more than to be expected (p. 324 in the Manheim translation). Vladimir Lenin, the founder of Bolshevik Communism in this respect as in so many others, speaks of the “renegade Kautsky” as not only stupid and venal but also, and not least, a liar. (“The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky,” originally published in 1918, is available, for instance, in The Lenin Anthology, ed. by Robt. C. Tucker, 1975).
Seldom are there mistaken opinions in the world of extremism; opinions tend to be either “correct” or outright lies. In the current debates on the Iraq war, the Left has concluded that “Bush Lied, People Died.” Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post has pointed out the factual difficulties with this proposition, but whatever the factual basis or lack thereof, complex political questions, to people who are not extremists, can seldom be reduced to a simple question of truth versus lie.
Before Hitler and Lenin, even before Professor Noam Chomsky, it was Martin Luther who castigated those he hated as “liars;” Chomsky and these others can justly be considered latter-day Lutherans in this respect.
Luther’s 1543 work “On the Jews and their Lies” is described as follows in Wikipedia:
In the treatise, Luther writes that the Jews are a “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.” They are full of the “devil’s feces … which they wallow in like swine,” and the synagogue is an “incorrigible whore and an evil slut …” He argues that their synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes razed, and property and money confiscated. They should be shown no mercy or kindness, afforded no legal protection, and these “poisonous envenomed worms” should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time. He also seems to advocate their murder, writing “[w]e are at fault in not slaying them.”
Most later commentators have pointed to a continuity from Luther’s thought to that of the Nazis and modern anti-Semitism, though there is, of course, a crucial difference: Luther did not not seem to have a concept of “race” in his animosity toward the Jews. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that there are anti-Semitic sites on the internet today that promote Luther’s book and make it available to the public.
But whatever the genealogy of modern anti-Semitism, which is not our concern here, it would seem that Luther — so influential in the development of modern Germanic languages — must be counted as one of the fathers of today’s use of “lie” and “truth” in the arsenal of vituperation.
This Lutheran use of the couplet “truth” and “lie” confounds two usages of the terms, both of which are common, but which are usually kept apart.
1. The most ordinary meaning of “truth — lie” is descriptive. “The dog ate my homework,” assuming he did not, is a lie. “I never did my homework,” assuming that in fact I did not, is the truth. I will call this the secular-rational meaning.
2. The second meaning of the couplet comes to us from sacred scripture. A clear example is in John 14-6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Here “truth” is not so much descriptive as it is an affirmation of faith. Jehovah’s Witnesses, speaking to one another, might ask “how long have you been in the truth ?”. This is their way of asking for the length of adherence to the JW organization. ( Lynn D. Newton has compiled a glossary of Jehovah’s Witness in-speech.) Similarly, “lie” is not a statement that is contrary to fact but is rather an attribute of the devil:
Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father it is your will to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and standeth not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father thereof. (John 8-44)
This second meaning is religious, emotive, non-rational. There is no problem in understanding this usage in a religious context, which is its natural home. But the problem with the Marxists and other extremists is that they do not provide the context in their polemics to signal clearly their non-rational meanings in their use of “truth — lie.” It would seem that these polemicists and propagandists are not themselves aware of the confusion. Their world is made up of virtue and evil, as is that of the sacred scriptures, rather than of truth and untruth in any empirical sense. Such propagandists, even when professors at prestigious universities, seem to simply confound truth with virtue (as they see virtue), untruth with evil (as they construe evil). Their mental life is different from that of people who engage in rational debate.