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Where Does the Truth Come From, and Should You Tell It?

Remember Kwame Turé, formerly Stokely Charmichael? I once sat in the gym at Texas Southern University with several hundred others listening to him tell us, basically, that we knew nothing. He asked at the beginning of his seminar, "Where does truth come from?" Nobody came up with an answer that suited him, so he concluded the meeting after a couple of hours. It was "zen experience," but I think he made one really good point. We don't know much about truth.

In my opinion, though, we approximate truth through our sensual interactions with the real world. Scientists do it with considerable precision, but truth is always an approximation.

Are You Being Truthful?

Generally speaking, it’s important to deserve a reputation for truthfulness. Here’s an interesting ethical quandary for you, though: A man with a gun is going to kill everybody who wants to live. He points the gun at you and asks, “Do you want to live?” What is the truthful answer? If you say “I want to live,” you can expect to die. If you say, “I want to die,” you live.

To solve the dilemma, and actually the way to solve many dilemmas, is to compare the idealist approach with the materialist approach. The idealist surrenders to his/her feelings and calls it “ethics” or “morality” or some such abstraction. To him or her, there’s a “right” and a “wrong” completely divorced from reality. His/her “right” and”wrong,” he/she thinks, exists independent of the material world. He/she would have told Kwame, "Truth comes from the heart."

Actually, idealists are just going by their feelings, because their abstract yardstick, by their own definition, cannot really exist. Idealists have little problem with using words like “always” and “never,” because, in their imaginary world, situations do not matter. “Right” and “wrong” stand alone and independent of all! An idealist would say “I never lie,” or “I always tell the truth” and actually believe it. At least he/she would until the actual gun is actually pointed at them.

The materialist looks at the real-world outcomes of actions. The idealist (if he/she really sticks to it) would answer “Yes, I want to live” and get killed. The materialist, after weighing the possible outcomes, answers “No, I don’t want to live” and survives.

In a way, every boss has a gun pointed at every employee. The boss asks “Do you like your job?” It’s not as drastic, but it’s a lot like “Do you want to live?” The idealist would say you are lying if you said “yes,” except for those rare occasions when somebody actually does like their job independent of getting paid. The materialist could say “Yes, I like my job,” and not lose a wink of sleep over it. Who was truthful?

There’s nothing dishonest about materialism.

Bosses want us to think idealistically. Their entire mythology, promoted in their culture and in their “human relations” departments, is idealistic. Workers naturally choose materialism because they are concerned directly with what will work and what won’t.

Leaving the SWP

After being a member 7 years, I began to grow cynical about the materialism of my close friends in the Socialist Workers Party. I thought they had made the right decision in advocating political work in unions, but I thought they were going about it in an idealistic way. Although they couldn’t produce a single material gain from union work, they went on and on about how great it was. Many of them, college students trained in the arts, couldn’t adjust to the daily grind that the industrial workforce deals with every day.

A lot of them resigned after one or two jobs in industry. The organization was shrinking. I argued that they shouldn’t completely abandon their work among students and communities. Those who could handle industrial work, like me, should stay with it, but we shouldn’t make a fetish of it.

Let me digress a little bit: the Socialist Workers Party, unlike some of the fragmented political organizations, participated in elections, but only in support of their own candidates. In general, they believed that elections under capitalism were fraudulent. They believed, further, that the more liberal candidates actually represented a bigger threat to working people than conservatives did; consequently, they ran their own candidates against the liberals. I’d had a little trouble reconciling their electoral policies with the idea of pulling for the working class, but I’d nevertheless worked hard on SWP elections.

Normally, the Socialist Workers Party worked hard to get on the ballot in big election years. We gathered tens of thousands of signatures to get on the Texas ballot. One year, I even went to California, where the signature requirement was even higher, and we succeeded there. It was very difficult, but we had succeeded in Texas every year in which I participated, until 1980. That year, primarily because we were losing members, we failed to get on the Texas ballot.

In the next pre-convention discussion, when we were allowed and encouraged to argue about everything, I mentioned that failing to get on the ballot was a painful failure. To my disbelief, several members condemned me for having said so! They were so thoroughly imbued with party pride that they thought our failure was a success! Around that time, I began to believe the people who told me I was in a cult!

I think that’s when I seriously began to question whether we were a materialist organization or an idealistic one.

I began to notice that our regular letters from the National Office (N.O.) in New York were treated like tablets from Mt Sinai. Even if they contradicted earlier letters or earlier decisions of our branch, we changed whatever we were doing to follow the instructions exactly. I cynically pretended to be giving a lesson and said, “Idealists believe that truth comes from a perfect world, materialists believe it comes from the real world, but the Socialist Workers Party believes truth comes in an envelope from the N.O.”

It was kind of mean of me, but I meant it. I left the party that had guided most of my thinking and almost all of my actions for 8 ½ years.

Before long, Elaine and I started a loose organization we called “The Resistance Committee.” That led directly into a community newspaper originally called “The Hard Times News” (there was a big economic downturn in 1982) and then “The Dallas Advocate.” I like newspaper work.

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