Letter to America: Of Truth, Post-Truth, Alternative Facts, and Lies
By Gregory McNamee
You and I have a problem, dear America.
You have been telling me lies for all the 60 years I have been alive, telling me sweet tales of exceptionalism and opportunity, whispering that no, no, it can’t happen here.
I, in turn, have been lying to myself for all those years, attempting to convince myself that your stories are true.
I no longer trust you, America, just as it seems you don’t trust me—for otherwise, why would you tell me those sweet stories in the first place? As a result, we find ourselves at what a fine talker—the title character of Herman Melville’s great American novel The Confidence Man, say—might call an epistemological crossroads.
Put another way, as many these days are saying, we’re in a “post-truth era.” But because “post-truth” is itself a post-truthful word, of a piece with its recent predecessors “truthy” and “truthiness,” let us call our time what it is: the Age of Lies.
If it is indeed this Age of Lies, then the old rules no longer apply. And if the old rules don’t apply, we need a few new ones, or at least a few rules of thumb, to help us navigate all the post-truths that are being thrown at us. Here are a few that I’ve found to be of use, and I offer them to my fellow Americans, if not to you, my mendacious America.
Take it as a matter of faith, if it’s not too oddly self-contradictory, that you should believe nothing. If the last election taught us anything, it is not to believe polls, for instance. If anyone comes to you and says that six out of ten Americans opposes a woman’s right to choose or supports some form of gun control, ask politely, “Are you sure you’ve counted them all?” Extrapolations, chi-squares, and all the rest seem to be all in keeping with the Age of Lies: the extrapolators are thinking wishfully, the poll respondents are lying through their teeth.
However, all that said, let’s run a few numbers of our own. Let us say that half of all eligible American voters actually showed up. Of those, somewhat more voted for the blue candidate than for the red one. Let’s simplify to say that half voted for each. So: one in four eligible American voters cast their lot for Donald Trump.
But of them, how many voted for him because they were enthusiastically for him, as opposed to enthusiastically against her? By an informal poll of friends and family—and I grew up in the South, where peckerwoods grow on trees—about one out of three. So let’s say that one in ten of our fellow Americans is really inclined to fascism, or authoritarianism, or whatever you wish to call it. Which is probably the same as it’s ever been: There is no difference in kind, only in the quality and volume of the noise they’ve been making.
Do you believe my numbers? If so, I love you. But you should not believe them, of course: You should scorn them, doubt them, revile them until you’ve checked them for yourself.
As a corollary: Interrogate any reputed facts that come your way, and relentlessly. Spend a portion of each day asking, Which came first, the chicken or the egg? I don’t know, but I do know this: In 1960 humans consumed six billion chickens. There were about 2.5 billion humans then, so about 2.5 chickens per human. Today the number is 50 billion chickens eaten by seven billion humans, or about seven chickens per human. And since the 1930s chickens have doubled in weight—which means chemicals are involved, and girth.
Oh, yes, interrogate your facts. Interrogate your sources as Detective Sergeant Joe Friday would interrogate a hippie. All right, it’s an ancient reference, but I like it. We can update: as Bigfoot Bjornsen from Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice would interrogate a hippie.
When evaluating the statements of others who mean for you to take them as facts, look for the passive voice. When someone says, “Mistakes were made,” set your antennae on the most sensitive tuning. Anyone who thinks he can lie to you will, passively and actively. This includes whole branches of industry, commerce, and government.
No matter what your political, economic, religious, or cultural beliefs, practice symmetrical skepticism. Assume goodwill, but also assume that everything people tell you, whether your political opponents or those you count among your political friends and allies, is wrong until you have looked it up for yourself.
Suspect even what I’ve told you. Well—no. Would I lie to you? Never…
In the days of yore, when I got started in journalism, grizzled newspaper editors used to intone, “If your mother says she loves you, get it from two independent sources.” That’s precisely the attitude I mean for us all to take. It smacks of cynicism, but then, so does this whole era.
Symmetrical skepticism. It’s essential. It’s indispensable. On the matter of missing things and making mistakes, I try to remember, whenever I write, something that John McPhee once said: “Are you going to get it wrong? Of course! You were an English major.” But getting it wrong doesn’t mean it has to stay wrong. A serious writer, activist, thinker is going to sit there and bleed out the forehead until he or she understands the data and science at hand. Science takes time. So does education. And so does cultivating the exquisite sense of symmetrical skepticism that is too often missing from the world.
If you’re excited by a piece of news or a press release or somesuch discovery, wait a few days before you commit yourself to it. Mistakes are made (he said, passively). Corrections are issued—and sometimes reissued.
In a democracy, everyone is entitled to an opinion. And given that our Supreme Court has ruled that a corporation counts as a person, that person is entitled to an opinion, too, it would seem.
But that does not mean that everyone’s opinion is as worthy as everyone else’s. Knowledge is not evenly distributed, universal, or unspecialized. The reality is that to have weight, opinions have to be matched by data, and by expertise—which is why we consult with the experts when we need to know something.
Yet we live in a time when expertise is devalued and experts are suspect. We live in a time when the ruling source of information is, and I quote, “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” The problem is, anyone can, and anyone does. The ruling premise is that everyone’s opinion is as good as everyone else’s, that the wisdom of the crowd is by definition, through sheer strength of numbers, superior to the wisdom of an individual. If enough people believe that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet—he did not, by the way—well, then, Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet, regardless of whether he actually did or not.
So stay away from Wikipedia. Stay away from the blogs: the world is full of opinion, but distressingly light on truth. Read the papers. Read a book.
All right, then: What qualifies one source to claim superiority over another? There are friendly librarians all around you who can help answer that question. All you have to do is ask. Make friends of your friendly local reference librarian. Librarians live and breathe to help guide you toward the truth. Indeed, if there is any category of citizen who is essential to democracy, it is the librarian.
And journalists, too—but practice symmetrical skepticism there, too, for just about anyone who wants the title, for whatever reason, can claim it. In that regard, The Huffington Post, that nasty sweatshop, is to be trusted less than the multiply-layered-with-editors-and-fact-checkers Salon, to say nothing of the The New York Times, The Washington Post, and so forth.
At a minimum, look for a source that does fact check, that does edit, and that does run both letters to the editor and its own corrections columns.
On that note, I am very pleased to see that since the election, circulation rates have been going up for the best of the newspapers—and even for The Wall Street Journal, which has great reporting, perhaps a less noble editorial position. Things seem to be looking up for the second-tier publications as well, such as The Christian Science Monitor, a fine paper except for its medicine column.
Be prepared to be wrong. Facts, as Ronald Reagan once observed, are stupid things. He did say that, didn’t he? Why, yes, he did. But then he corrected himself immediately afterward. He was quoting John Adams, who once said, “Facts are stubborn things,” and he made a little slip, which he immediately corrected. Reagan said, “Facts are stupid things—stubborn things, should I say,” but very few quotation dictionaries bother to note his correction.
Make mistakes. Then own up to them. Facts are stupid things, but they can entrap the most careful of us. And we are never so certain of ourselves as when we’re wrong.
You have to dig, to sift, to question, to research, to cross-examine, to interrogate—and then make sense of it all. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but given that we’re all likely to be on the unemployment line in short order, there’ll be plenty of time for the work.
The Buddhist philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that you tape a little note to your telephone that asks, “Are You Sure?” I keep that question affixed to every computer I own. It doesn’t keep me from being wrong, but it has spared me a bit of embarrassment from time to time.
Today’s fact is tomorrow’s fable, almost everything we know is wrong—and if we had any sense, we’d proceed with extra caution for that very reason. Are you sure about that yellow cake uranium from Niger? Are you sure there’s no downside to drilling for shale oil? Are you sure there’s no such thing as global warming? Are you sure what you’re saying is true?
We have some gazing to do into each other’s eyes, America. I won’t stop believing in you, but I won’t stop doubting you, either. Now stop lying to me, and let’s get to work.
Gregory McNamee is the author of more than 40 books and more than 5,000 periodical pieces. He likes to think that most of them are accurate, and even truthful. For more, please visit his website: www.gregorymcnamee.com.