Michael Grimm’s Climate Change About-Face And The Truth About Truth

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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Like many parents of aspiring college students, I spent part of spring break on a college tour with my son. Our travels took us to Ohio where we visited Oberlin College. While taking the customary campus tour led by an enthusiastic student, we passed by Bosworth Hall on which these words are inscribed:  “But of all things truth beareth away the victory.”

Visitors to the New York Public Library in New York City might have noticed that similar words grace the front of that magnificent edifice, different only in the substitution of “above” for “of.” Or rather, it is probably on Bosworth Hall that there has been a substitution. The phrase as inscribed on the New York Public Library appears in the Bible (I Esdras 3:12) and is also attributed to Plato. If only it were true that truth brings victory.

I was reminded yesterday how little truth has to do with victory. Almost every day, emails arrive from Organizing for Action. These people know something about achieving victory – at least in politics. This particular message was from Ivan Frishberg who is the Climate Change Campaign Manager at Organizing for Action. He had “great news in the fight against climate change.” Representative Michael Grimm of New York’s 11th congressional district has announced that he is no longer a climate change denier.

Notwithstanding that Representative Grimm has since been indicted for fraud, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he changed his position on climate change as a result of careful consideration of the scientific evidence. But that is not what Mr. Frishberg and the Organizing for Action folks assume. Rather they take the view that Grimm was counting votes – that his change of position is the result of political pressure from his constituents.

According to Frishberg, more than 130 members of congress “still live in denial.” Organizing for Action intends “to make sure that climate change deniers feel the pressure from their constituents.” Not surprisingly, a financial contribution from me is critical to the effort. Political pressure, not scientific evidence, will change the minds of politicians on a question of fact.

So truth has nothing to do with victory. Organizing for Action, just like their opposition on the political right, has it exactly right. Political pressure and the money required to bring political pressure — not truth — determines who wins.

Well, duh (as my teenage children might say). Everybody knows that. Even with PolitiFact and constitutionally suspect prohibitions on telling falsehoods in political campaigns, it is absurd to think that truth leads to victory in politics. Both sides are entitled to their own truths. Repeat them over and over again and they will be almost impossible to counter. And if you get caught with your pants on fire, as the president did after promising that people could keep their insurance under Obamacare, you just insist that you did not mean what you said.

When was the last time you heard an American politician, or even a government bureaucrat, say ‘sorry, I was wrong.’ It rarely happens, and that’s because truth does not beareth away the victory. All too often, and sadly so, truth-telling is the surest path to political defeat.

Worse yet, truth telling seems to matter less and less in other aspects of our lives – even on college campuses where ideology too often takes precedence over academic rigor and truth gives way to the avoidance of hurt feelings. Faculty teaching in the very building on which it is declared that “truth beareth away victory” are reportedly advised by their superiors to caution students about upcoming assignments and class discussions that might offend. Indeed, the very concept of truth is questioned across several academic disciplines by teachers for whom every student is entitled to his or her own truths.

Nonetheless, it was refreshing to see those ancient words emblazoned on the front of Boswoth Hall at Oberlin College. Perhaps my son and those of his generation will come to understand that, although truth does not necessarily or inevitably beareth away victory, they can aspire to make it so.