Germany, to which those who have visited the historic nation will attest, is one of the world’s most beautiful places. From the northern city of Hamburg, bustling with ship traffic, to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin; from the historic city of Dresden, once blackened by bombs but today home to many of the nation’s cultural treasures, to the ever-popular Munich, site of the Oktoberfest; from the beautiful Rhine River, dotted with castles at every bend, to the mystical Black Forest and Alps to the south: Germany is a prosperous nation at peace some 70 years after the horrors of World War Two.
The country’s landscape, though like many nations today reeling under urban sprawl and industrialization, remains largely agricultural. In thousands of tiny villages across the nation, in churchyards and churches themselves, countless sombre monuments bear witness to a generation of young men who, lured by the poisonous siren of Adolph Hitler, died to defend his twisted version of the truth. Once I looked at the backside of a belt buckle from a Nazi uniform, and there, engraved in brass, I read: “Gott geht mit uns”: God is with us. Every fanatic professes that God is his co-pilot.
Human history is replete with accounts of men falling prey to charlatans and movements professing “the truth.” Whether Hitler in Germany, Stalin in Russia, or Mao in China, to name just a few, man, the gullible creation that he is, is forever being hoodwinked by ideological carpet baggers selling “the truth.”
Americans are no different. We have often followed simplistic populist messages, some on the left but most on the right, that profess the truth. Whether Father Coughlin and Huey Long (“The Kingfish”) in the 1930s or Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, America has witnessed its fair share of “truth” mongers. Since the onset of the “Conservative Revolution” under Nixon in 1968 and Reagan in 1980, we’ve heard that America could regain its previous glory if we only followed simple (or better said, simplistic) “truths” which the right wing claims are apparent to all but the blind. It is obvious, they say, that “liberals,” most journalists, and intellectuals are not bonafide Americans. It is evident, they proclaim, that unemployed people are lazy: give them a shovel and “put them to work.” It is apparent, they crow, that people who protest against U.S. military presence in countless nations, not to mention its cultural omnipresence in American society generally, are “un-American.” Their simple solution: just raise the flag in front of a little white church and “morning in America” will dawn upon us once more.
The latest of these populist movements is the Tea Party mutation, the festered product of three decades of lowest-common-dominator politics. As in any form of reductionist fanaticism, they proclaim to have a corner on truth. If only the government would wither away or be reduced to the size of a thumbtack, Americans would be happy, free and wealthy. If only President Obama, all Democrats and a good number of Republican congressmen would be run out of Washington, America would be free of Communists, Marxists, Socialists, liberals, gays, pacifists, environmentalists and other un-American sorts. If only people were allowed to carry weapons in bars and schools, we’d be safe from crime. If only America would embrace the “Moral Majority,” we’d be “saved from our sins.” If only we would eliminate “big government” social programs, such as segments of social security, veterans benefits, health care and other pillars of the “Socialist” agenda, people would be better off and happier. All of this we could easily accomplish, they say, by “strictly interpreting the Constitution”—whatever that means.
Take heed honest Democrats and Republicans. History shows that the pied pipers of simplistic populism lead nations to ruin. Those who claim to “know the truth” lead us to disappointment and disillusionment, division and violence. The crux of their promises, sweet nectar to the frustrated and work-weary masses yearning for quick fixes to complicated issues, cannot, thankfully, be implemented if the populist demagogues are elected. And if they are elected, we will have much more to fear than the simplistic paroles they ran on.
Pontius Pilate himself mused in the New Testament before the crucifixion of Jesus, “What is the truth?” The truth about the truth is that no one knows what the truth is. Beware of any movement that claims it does.