Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

 

Is The Left Afraid Of Eternal Mystery?

Itís always a pleasure for a left-wing writer to piss off the Left. It means the writer is not just preaching to the choir. It means there is real debate out here on the Left wing -- a diversity keeps us vital, that keeps us from falling into mind-deadening conformity.

I piss off the Left all too rarely. But I managed last week, when I wrote that 9/11 is an eternal mystery. We will never know the truth about it for sure. What a barrage of e-criticism I got, from readers who are sure it was Bush who masterminded the attack, or Cheney, or the CIA, or the Carlyle group, or all of the above and maybe others.

More moderate critics admitted that we donít know the truth yet. But they insisted we should keep searching, because there is a truth to be found, and itís far more likely to point to W. than Osama. I had no idea the conspiracy theory was so popular among Commondreams readers.

That does not mean my critics are wrong to demand the truth. As a professor, I am committed to the search for truth. Bravo to everyone brave enough to follow that search wherever it may lead.

The problem about 9/11 (and the JFK assassination) is that the search for factual truth leads people in so many different directions. Some may actually find the truth. But beyond each individualís quest for truth, American society as a whole will never believe it has "the truth" about 9/11 (or JFK) because we will never agree on a single truth. The nation will never embrace a single shared story about our most formative events. Therefore, our collective national life will always be built on uncertainty and eternal mystery.

That should not be so hard for the Left to accept and even enthusiastically embrace. We like to think that we are completely open to new and diverse ideas. Thatís why we fight the Right, isnít it Ė because they are so close-minded, so conformist, so afraid of difference. And behind that fear of diversity lies the conservativesí deeper fear: that there may be no absolute truth, no certainty as a bedrock foundation for the meaning of life.

Why, then, this insistence on the Left that we know for sure the truth about 9/11? Why this unwillingness to accept uncertainty and ambiguity? Are we, too, afraid to live our lives with no firm foundation of absolute truth? Do we, too, crave the certainty of knowing what is absolutely right and good?

People usually get their feeling of certainty by identifying other people as absolutely wrong and evil. The "us versus them" mentality is the key to whatever chance Bush has of winning this election. It made perfect sense when Cheney said that a vote for Kerry is a vote for terrorists. In the simple-minded world of Bush and Cheney, there is only good against evil. Everyone who is not with us is against us.

But isnít that how most Lefties are viewing this election -- good against evil? Despite all we know about Kerryís centrist pro-corporate record, many progressives actively support him simply because Bush seems so totally evil. (The last time I pissed off the Left was when I suggested that maybe we should not view Bush and Company as absolute evil. Commondreams readers didnít like that one either.)

Before we rush to certainty about good, evil, and 9/11, letís slow down and think. If you want to make a revolution, simplistic certainties of good versus evil can be very helpful in the short run. In the long run, though, after the revolution you may very well "meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

Because the boss is not just an evil person. The boss is the product of a community that says "We have all the truth here on our side. Thatís what makes our side so good. All thatís left for them, over on the other side, is lies and evil." Our own certainty puts us at risk of mindless conformity. Then itís much easier for a few powerful people to get more control than is healthy for them, or us.

As I wrote last week, our air of certainty "betrays the true spirit of the Ď60s revolution. It would be far better for all of us to acknowledge that we will never know the ultimate truth about 9/11, or the Kennedy assassination, or anything else for that matter. We can still hold strong moral views and act for what we believe is right." Indeed, we should hold strong views and act on them. We must. And we should and must search endlessly for what we believe is true. How else will we know what we believe is right?

But we can do all that and still keep our minds open. That is the essence of Gandhiís vision of nonviolence. You take a stand for what you believe is right and true, and you refuse to move no matter what they do to you. But you donít try to force them to take the same stand. Because you know that everyone is groping toward absolute truth and no one will ever get there for sure. Thatís why, even if they try to kill you, you still keep watching and listening for new truth.

No matter who brought down the Twin Towers, Gandhiís way is still the best way to oppose George W. and all he stands for.


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