Much has been made this election season over which candidate is telling the truth. Or presenting “the” facts. I am not sure of the relevance of truth, but I do believe uncertainty is critical in a democracy such as ours. Certainty cuts off dialog, limits conversation and is anathema to developing imaginative solutions to societal issues.
My favorite book of the past 20 years begins with, “About 200 years ago, the idea that truth was made rather than found began to take hold of the imagination of Europe.” I highly recommend Richard Rorty’s “Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.” His observation about truth being made rather than found crystallized for me a way of thinking about myself and my place in society at large.
I consider myself, philosophically, a pragmatist. Pragmatism was an early 20th century American philosophy that can, perhaps, be best summarized by “whatever works, is likely true.” As reality changes, so too, “whatever works.” Truth varies. Truth is changeable. No one possesses the ultimate truth. We should avoid seeking anything metaphysical, the truth of an idea is in its observable results.
Rorty was a pragmatist. He wrote, “Modern, literate, secular societies depend on the existence of reasonably concrete, optimistic and plausible scenarios, as opposed to scenarios about redemption beyond the grave.” Too much of our national conversation today is overly concerned with matters of faith and truth. I’d rather our conversation be a discussion of developing workable ideas to alleviate the suffering and humiliation of our fellow citizens.
Poverty, for example, confronts us all daily. Regardless of whether we are impoverished ourselves, it is hard to ignore the exit ramp veteran — hand out, dirty and demoralized. Or, the ubiquitous near-toothless vagrant from public housing interviewed on TV about the recent mayhem besetting his neighborhood. Poverty is a factor of the human condition. Deuteronomy 15:11 says, “There will always be poor people in the lands.” That observation is as accurate today as it was when written thousands of years ago. But because poverty and despair are part and parcel of the human condition does not absolve our nation — you and I, America collectively — from pursuing solutions.
We once, too many decades ago, had a “War on Poverty.” Many argue it failed. It didn’t accomplish its goals. Poverty persisted. It was too expensive. The results were ambiguous. Besides, the Bible says, “There will always be poor people.” As if that is an argument for doing less.
There are so many clichés that do not really reflect the reality of being impoverished in America. “The poor need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Or, “Being broke is a temporary situation. Being poor is a state of mind.” Or, “Our life of poverty is as necessary as the work itself. Only in heaven will we see how much we owe to the poor for helping us to love God better because of them.” What a crock. All of it.
The measure of a culture is how well it takes care of its least capable citizens (its children in particular). Because we once waged war on poverty — yet the poor remain — does not mean we do not pursue pragmatic approaches to alleviating the suffering in America. There are no certain remedies. But we must be relentless in our attempts.
To be truly human is to be humane. Make that truth, you.
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