Martin Kramer makes a great point in an essay adapted from remarks he made at Columbia University this spring:
Edward Said, who was a professor at this university, always used to say that the role of the intellectual is to “speak truth to power.” I could never understand what that addition of “to power” meant. It placed an obvious reservation on the truth-speaking obligation of intellectuals: they should tell the truth, but this truth-speaking should be selective. The powerful deserve the truth, and the powerless … well, what do they get? For Said, the powerful meant the United States, Israel, the West, Arab governments. But the truth is indivisible, and to withhold it from those who have less power, such as the Palestinians, is not only a disservice to them, it places them in jeopardy.
He’s right: “to power” makes truth selective, and therefore no longer truth. One should speak truth always, even when it is in service of power. The difference is between moral relativism in the service of a cause and being a moral human being, period.
Too bad he brought this up, though. I kinda liked the phrase.