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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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4 comments

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  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.

  3. Roy

    Story time: The Last Fable
    A long time ago, from a land far away, there lives the Strongest, Wisest, Kindest and most valiant Lion of them all. Of all kingdoms his was the most desired. This Lion had many beautiful cubs, both boys and girls. He protected them from all the bad things and gave them what they needed. These cubs, he loved them all. After some time, these little cubs grew up and it was time for them to go and become lions and lionesses and have families of their own. He didn’t want his children to be all alone, so the set them off each lion and his lioness, each to their different land. One he set in a beautiful valley that was surrounded by a dense jungle. They began to live a beautiful life, they were carefree and happy. Then the young lion found that some of the things that they made together were broken and ruined. They had worked hard and he was angry that this had happened. He worked hard to repair the damage, but he didn’t tell his lioness because he was most happy when she was happy. And he didn’t want her to be sad. After a while, the lion found so many of their things ruined that he had to find who was doing this and to put a stop to it before his lioness found out about it. For he was so happy to see his lioness frolic and prance around the nice little place they made. So he went out into the Jungle to find the bad animals that had been trying to ruin the beautiful life they had made. He was attacked while he was sleeping peacefully. The lion woke up and sprang back at his attackers. But, he was wounded and hurt. Before he had recovered he found himself in a trap they had made. He was bitten and wounded. He fought back doing the same to them. The battle turned into a war for the land and the lioness that he loved. He battled with them in hunger and without sleep. Injured he had to lick his own wounds. While in the battle his little lioness was enjoying living in the land. She entertained herself by making this and learning that. She was happy with what she was doing for herself. And was serious about what she wanted and enjoyed what she decided to enjoy. She made friends of the animals that lived in the land. Some of the animals pretended to be her friends, but they really wanted their beautiful land. So while the lion was battling the animals he knew where bad, the lioness was listening to bad animals she thought were good. After some time the animals of the jungle were beaten back and the lion made to return to his beautiful land and to his friend that he fought for. The war had changed him; he was not the delicate playful lion he once was. His mane was thin, he had many scars, his eye was scratched; but he was strong and wise in battle. On the way back he stopped at a watering hole to get a drink of water because he had become very thirsty and tired from the journey. While he was testing the water, he felt something he hadn’t felt in a while. He knew that mean animals where near, but there was something calm and nice in the air. But his eyes were prevented from seeing what it was that felt so nice. He looked but could not see what it was so he continued on his journey to home. On the way back he stopped somewhere near his pleasant valley to rest. It was then that he remembered that feeling. It was how he felt when he was near his little lioness when they were young. You see his little lioness spied her lion from a distance, but was afraid of him. He didn’t look like the one she knew before and she hid from him and didn’t go to him. She left him alone. The lion back from battle did not find his lioness friend when he returned. And he called to his Father Lion in grief. The LION said to his son, ‘What is it my son, why do you call for me?’ The lion said, ‘The lioness that you gave me is gone. The one that I have fought battles for, was wounded for, was hurt so badly for. She is not here and I can’t find her tho I have spent my life for her.’ The LION replied, ‘If your lioness can’t be found; she has chosen to be one of another pride. I will find another lioness for you, like you; who was rejected by her own. Son, I have raised you up to be a mighty warrior. In a war the victor also suffers loss. It is necessary for you so that you can truly understand what I have given you. But, you are yet to be the leader of a Pride. And to become a leader it is also necessary that you too Must Know My Pain.’
    Larmes du Lion

    The lion continues to search for whom he ….

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