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From Pilate to the Colleges: “What is Truth?”

The line came at the end of that classic movie, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” (1962). An editor was mulling over the difference between the legend of that shooting and the deflating truth of the matter. And he said, “Print the legend.” It would be a far more interesting story than the truth, and for some people, then, it might have been better than the truth.

What brings this all back is a set of stories and happenings, coming quickly on one another. Each one is a bit odd, but when they’re taken together, they reveal something running beneath the surface of the dramatic changes we’ve had to absorb now in what used to be called “our culture.”

One event is the release of a movie called “Truth.” This movie returns to the scandal that unseated Dan Rather at CBS: his willingness to pass off, without much care, certain forged documents claiming that George W. Bush had used special connections to arrange a place for himself in the Texas Air National Guard. The move was designed to deliver a blow to the reelection of Bush in 2004. Apart from the forged papers, the story itself was false.

But now, with the movie, and the sympathetic treatment of Rather, there is an attempt to insinuate that the story was true, without showing that it was true. In other words, liberals in the media are willing to concoct the legend that students and other liberals in the future will come to regard as true. CBS itself, defending its firing of Rather, put out a statement and remarked, “it’s astounding how little truth there is in ‘Truth.’”

And then there was Hillary Clinton in the Benghazi hearings. When confronted by Congressman Jim Jordan, she said, “that is your narrative, Congressman.” His “narrative”? This was Academic-speak, springing from the 1980s: there is no real “truth,” only different “narratives,” told in different ways, and whether they had the ring of truth would depend on the feelings or “values” of the one who heard them.

Not a woman; not a black woman

And yet, it was not Jordan’s narrative at work, but hers. It was she, after all, who told her daughter in an e-mail, that the attack on the American Embassy had not been triggered by a video hostile to Islam, that it had been carried out by an organization, rather like Al-Qaeda, with weaponry prepared well in advance. And to the Prime Minister of Egypt she said: “We know the attack in Libya had nothing to do with the film.” But to the parents of men who died in Benghazi she was willing to repeat the line favored by the White House: that the violence must have sprung from the video, for we all know that President Obama had Al-Qaeda “on the run.”

As everyone knows, Hillary Clinton came out of those eleven hours before the Committee much enhanced. She was unflappable as she bore through the thickets of contradictions and the exposure of her untruths. Only the Wall Street Journal noted that her accounts “imploded.” For the rest of the media her performance was to be graded while being utterly detached from any test of the truth of what she had said on the matters of the gravest import.

Just a short while ago a young woman of prominence in Seattle was widely derided for regarding herself as “black” when there were no black people among her forebears. And yet, in one college after another in this land, the acceptance of the “transgendered” has become a matter of orthodoxy. That a man should think he’s Napoleon, or that he’s a woman, may be no surprise, for humans may imagine a wide range of implausible things. But that the claim should be credited, without challenge, as a truth, offers yet another turn in the erosion of our colleges. For the evidence on the sexual definition of the person, from the organs to the hormones, offers the most sober check on the flight of imagination.

The redoubtable Paul McHugh, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, finally put an end to sex-change operations when he was in authority at the medical school. He put an end, that is, to surgeries that were ordered to fit the fantasies of people who were more in need of clinical help than of surgeries to amputate their testes. The willingness to do these surgeries had sprung, as he said, from the view that “sexual identity was a matter of cultural conditioning rather than something fundamental to the human condition.”

But the record and results over time strikingly belied that theory. Boys “reengineered” as girls “behaved spontaneously like boys” in the games they played – they preferred “rough and tumble games but not dolls and ‘playing house.’” And later on, as McHugh reported, most of those who learned that they were “genetic males” wanted to “reconstitute their lives,” even it meant surgeries and the replacement of hormones to restore them to what they were.

The question lingering for me now is how so many accomplished people serving as trustees for our colleges, are willing to see their colleges constituted on terms that offer the showiest, most brazen indifference to the signal truth of this matter. Have these men and women now settled in comfortably with the understanding that, whatever colleges represent now in our culture, the respect for truth is no longer one of their defining features?

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Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.