I don’t typically talk about politics on this blog, and my comments today focus not on the ideology of the individuals involved but on their claims about truth.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) apparently feels that he is entitled to reinvent the past to meet the needs of the present. Ryan has for many years been a proud acolyte of the Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand. He once threw a party in Washington to celebrate her birth, and he told reporters that “I give out [Rand’s] ‘Atlas Shrugged’ as Christmas presents, and I make all my interns read it. Well… I try to make my interns read it.” In fact, he once said that “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.”
But now Ryan claims that there is a liberal conspiracy to misrepresent him as someone who likes the work of Ayn Rand. Now that Ryan is a potential contender for a vice presidential slot, he has revised his longtime beliefs: “I reject her philosophy…. It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview.” He called his past advocacy of Rand an “urban legend,” implying that his own well-documented activities did not exist.
This reminded me instantly of the way ancient astronaut theorists attempt to erase the past in service of whatever their most recent claim happens to be. The best example of this is David Childress, who, like Ryan, once accused me of attempting to smear him for beliefs he had himself previously stated he held. Childress once had a “deeply held” worldview that was antithetical to the ancient astronaut theory, or so he claimed, until Ancient Aliens offered him screen time and travel expenses. Suddenly, his “deeply held” worldview had been completely reinvented.
It is this mindset—that the past is mere politics, to be molded and re-created according to the needs of the present—that led to Childress repudiating his own beliefs (which repudiates still earlier beliefs) and then claiming no inconsistency at all. But the evidence is right there in print, like Childress’ discussion of the coffin lid of the Mayan ruler Pacal, said by Erich von Daniken to represent an image of a man in a rocket ship:
I’ve documented many more of Childress’s “revised” claims here.
The point is that I don’t want to live in a world where truth is only whatever somebody says it is today, with no accountability and no consequences. Every time something as stupid as whether David Childress does or does not believe in aliens slips through the media filter, it contributes to a degraded public discourse where politicians can feel free to say anything and assume that as soon as the words fall from their lips they cease to have any meaning. This kind of dismissal of truth has terrible consequences both for personal integrity and public policy.
It’s fine to change one’s mind in the face of new evidence—in fact, it’s a virtue, and one I've practiced myself—but smearing others for noticing the change and claiming that truth is an attack erodes faith in the very concept of truth. Without facts, without truth, what’s left?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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