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Aug 28 2016

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On feeling the truth.

A couple of weeks ago I read an article that, should I have taken it literally and all the way, would have pushed me into a depression. The article was political in nature but addressed a larger concern of our mental and cultural state—certainly in this country, maybe in the world. The author attempted to explain the jaw-dropping phenomenon of this year’s elections by positing that we live in a “post-truth world.” Yes. The world in which the concept of truth is the thing of the past.

nietzche on truthHis argument was simple, sad, and based on observation: Look at the reaction of Donald Trump’s followers to the multitude of errors, misstatements, and outright lies coming from their candidate, the author said. It appears that nothing Mr. Trump says, no matter how false, nonsensical, or outrageous, has any impact on his supporters’ devotion. The author’s conclusion was this: Now is the era of the heart to the exclusion of the head, when it no longer matters if what we’re told is factually true; it only matters how it makes us feel.

As I was reading, more than just Donald Trump’s campaign was rushing through my mind, and I realized with horror that the writer had a point. Our disregard for truth, I believe, is less often expressed overtly as ambivalence toward facts and more often as ignorance, incompetence, and indifference. This triad has been a top subject of my habitual diatribe for years, though I had not put it to myself in terms of the role of truth in our culture, and yet the article’s author has hit on something: We are adjusting our educational methods to become more skill-oriented, more entertaining, and less substantive; our young people are increasingly viewing history and geography as nothing but school subjects, entirely disconnected from them as members of the whole, culture-bearing human race; our marketing delivers very little information but a barrage of positive images—we buy, do, and even learn what feels immediately good.

I was reading and revolting against the idea, against the term “post-truth world” coined before my eyes. I remember when Stephen Colbert coined a new term that had soared in popularity: “truthiness.” This was years ago, and it was a joke then, intended to expose the malleable relationship our political machine was having with facts. “Truthiness” is something that sounds like it’s true but doesn’t have to be, something that’s, at best, fluffy around the edges. Colbert was joking to make the same point: we are satisfied by feeling like it’s true when it isn’t, and now “truthiness” is a word in a dictionary, and he’s come up with a new word: “trumpiness.” Unlike truthiness, trumpiness doesn’t have to sound true. It just has to be grammatically a statement that used to refer to facts. We watch Colbert, and we laugh.

But wait, why are Donald Trump’s statements our measurement of the society’s reaction to fact-checking? What about the outrage toward Hillary Clinton’s misstatements in her email server scandal? Millions of people declare their inability to trust her as the reason they won’t vote for her. She is a liar, they say. Is this not a sign that we prioritize truth-telling? Then I remember that many of the same people who berate Clinton for dishonesty are unbothered by Trump. “He didn’t mean that,” they say. Or “What does it matter? He’ll make America great again.”

best stories winMy post today is not really about politics, but political debate brings out and crystallizes our cultural attitudes like nothing else does. I am reminded of Hillary Clinton’s one disastrous appearance on television during the primary season, when she was asked if, should she be elected, she would always be truthful with the American people. She smiled tensely and said something like “I will do my best” or “I will try as much as I can”—she hedged. And a hurricane of opprobrium unleashed upon her head, at that time contrasting her with Bernie Sanders: “She is a liar, you see? She won’t even promise to tell the truth!” Even the benevolent commentators like Stephen Colbert rolled their eyes in exasperation: “What are you doing?! When you are asked if you would always tell the truth to the American people, you say YES! Just say YES, for God’s sake! That’s what you say if you want to be president!” And not one of them stopped to reflect that her answer was the most truthful statement of anybody else’s, the most truthful it could be. Because no one always tells it like it is, especially not someone with the highest intelligence clearance. We know our leaders lie to us, and it’s only the matter of degree, intention, timing, and consequences that decides whether we become angry at them. With her wealth of experience, she knows it better than anyone, and, when asked, she was as honest as she could be. Just then, she told it to the American people like it was.

But we can’t see it. We don’t really want the facts. Some of us want the idealistic, noble but unrealistic feeling of Bernie Sanders’ euphoria. Others want the ruthless and incoherent but self-empowering grandeur of Donald Trump. These are political examples, but isn’t it the same in life? Are we really living in a post-truth world?

This idea of a truth that isn’t rooted in fact but only in the metaphor of the heart is not new, and it has a name: fiction. Such is the world of literature. This is what I do; this is what I write, so of course I find it meaningful. It’s a precious thing in itself. But the whole purpose of a book is that you close it and go out into the world to bring its meaning, its lessons to bear where reality lives. We cannot ignore facts forever, for they will sneak up on us unnoticed and kill us. As much as we might want to, we cannot live in a book. We cannot live in a post-truth world.

off the cliff

 

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3 comments

  1. Name

    The term “post-truth world” assumes that there were “pre-truth” and “now-we-know-truth” worlds. As an exalted friend of mine likes to say: “gaaaaaa.”
    Trump is not a “post-truth” candidate; he is, if you wish, alternatively-truthful. I don’t mean he lies, in fact, he doesn’t, his words are neither true nor false, they have a different function. Like a mother’s lullaby or Zeus’s thunder and lightning.
    The truth is, pun intended, that we always lived, live, and will live in a “multi-truth” world. Depending on circumstances and nature of the “event” we apply very different criteria to determine “truthfulness” of statements and experiences. To name a couple – there is scientific truth; there is, as you pointed out in the story about Hillary, political truth; there is truth of fiction, where facts are by definition not true, but the authenticity of characters makes us grade our reading/watching experience as truthful. There is also another kind of truth. I hope you won’t find my frivolous rephrasing of your statement about fiction offensive: “a truth that isn’t necessarily rooted in fact but in the experience and aspiration of the soul has a name: religion.” The Trump phenomenon, however debilitating and profane, is certainly religious, oxymoron intended. Trump is a “teflon politician” not because he is somehow beyond any judgment, he is judged, but he is judged by the criteria of truth normally applied to religious experiences.
    For reasons beyond the scope of this conversation, a great number of our compatriots feel, justifiably or not, so disenfranchised, so lost, so confused about their present and scared of their future, that they are not interested in electing a leader, they seek a messiah, somebody who would magically deliver them from their perceived perils. Trump took this role and thus placed himself outside of the criteria applied to ordinary candidates. Messiah’s truth is not in the factual accuracy of his statements, not in the feasibility of his proposals, but solely in his ability to deliver the adepts to the desired (even if unclear) destination. While Trump’s followers are cherishing the faith in his mock-divine powers, while he inspires transcendental hope, he is exempt from any fact-based criteria of truth. And his words and statements are purposed not for conveying true ideas and plans, but for instilling true faith and hope in the supporters’ hearts.
    This extreme, “religious” level of political populism is rather common in the world, but I believe it is somewhat new in American politics and thus causes an undue bewilderment. You opine that we cannot live in a post-truth world, but examples are plenty of even modern countries living in alternatively-truthful conditions for many years and decades. Yet, I am convinced that situation in America is not ripe for the descent into such scenario. Trump’s presidency will lead to his personal destruction, following the inevitable destruction of his messianic myth, but will not damage the country beyond a few scars.

    1. River Adams

      This is an interesting and frightening take, especially now that we know the outcome of the election. You come dangerously close to calling Donald Trump the anti-Christ. Or so it seems to me.

  2. Name

    Thank you for your kind words, but interesting my take is not. Actually, I feel that since then such interpretation or its variations became somewhat of a common place. The phenomenon of false, or should we now be saying, fake prophets is a natural side effect of mankind’s intrinsic need for higher power and it is not going away.
    Now, belated by a day, but here is what I can say on the topic of Trump’s place in the pantheon of demons.
    As appalling and nauseating a creature as he is, I would never call the President an anti-Christ. Trump himself, in his habitual self-aggrandizing, may one day aspire to become an anti-Christ, but there are insurmountable semantic barriers to his ascension.
    Firstly, by semantic definition, anti-Christ is an entity opposed or opposing Christ. The name suggests at least a remote similarity of scale. Let’s not mention the whole man vs deity argument and consider the human scale of both men. How can we even start to juxtapose the now bared numbing simplicity of Trump and the vast complexity of Jesus?
    Secondly, by semantic definition, anti-Christ is an entity opposed or opposing Christ. By assigning a well-understood entity to be the opposite of Christ, wouldn’t we therefore presume to understand and define Christ? By placing the anti-Christ mantle on such a primitive and artless evil as Trump, wouldn’t we effectively attempt to diminish the immense goodness of Jesus?
    And thirdly, by semantic definition, anti-Christ is an entity opposed or opposing Christ. As such, its mysterious lure must have the splendid power to subvert minds and souls given or at least potentially open to Christ. Not only those feeble by fear and hatred, feeble by desperation, feeble by ignorance, but also the ones who would never be confused by a lesser charm. Well, let’s just say the vote last November proves the limits of Trump’s influence.
    The notion that Trump can be an anti-Christ is preposterous. Our President is just a peculiarly colored Golgothan.

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