Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Fears of a post-truth planet (part two)

Paul Klee, Die Zwitscher-Maschine (1922)

Continued from where we left off.


Trump isn't the first reality TV star to be elected president. That (dubious?) honor goes to Jack Kennedy. Every presidential election since 1960 has been, to a progressively wider degree, a TV pageant where the last contestant standing after the final elimination round gets to live in the White House. All of our presidents, and certainly most of our high-profile legislators, are characters on television.

It is question for the child development specialists: at what point does the young boy or girl learn and understand that the events shown on Clarissa Explains It All and Salute Your Shorts (come on, I'm not going to pretend to know what the kids are watching these days) aren't really happening? How does he or she learn and come to apply knowledge of the difference between "real" and "just pretend" content in the mass media?

It may be a matter of aesthetic: perhaps the child extrapolates from the stylistic variations the difference between the fabricated drama of Veep or West Wing reruns and the real drama of a presidential press conference or State of the Union address. The better the teleplay and direction, the more likely it is to be pretend. Reality means low production values, discounting the dramatic cable news CG transitions. Maybe those transitions are themselves the telltale indicators.

In all likelihood the distinction must be explained to them by someone who already knows better. In The Gutenberg Galaxy, Marshall McLuhan cites one John Wilson of the African Institute of London University who describes the responses of non-literate villagers to an educational film, and determines that viewing and making sense of a Western motion picture actually requires some training. (Regrettably, McLuhan doesn't see fit to specify where on the African continent Mr. Wilson was, and the original paper is unavailable.) The artificiality of a live-action TV drama won't be obvious to someone who doesn't know any better and has nobody to teach them otherwise, and it's not unlikely that they would continue believing its veracity until presented with compelling evidence to the contrary.

Perhaps the partition we draw between "real" media and "pretend" media is prone to porousness. After all, there are hundreds, thousands of people, grown adults, proving every day on social media, message boards, and break room conversations that the contrived personalities and enacted narratives of mass media fictions are as urgent and real to them as anything in the news. (Case in point: how many American adults are talking about Rogue One? And how many are talking about Aleppo?)

Our politicians and political narratives must exist, for most of us, and to varying degrees, on the same layer of reality as Rogue One or Westworld. They reach us through the same channels. They vanish when we turn off our viewing device, or when their onscreen appearance arrives at its end and the scene transitions. Then, should we care to listen, a journalistic Greek chorus narrates what happens between now and the next time the character enters onstage.

For all most of us know, they only exist when they're on camera.

How real is Donald Trump to you? How real is he really? How really real?

I've never met him in person (and I'm glad of it). He's not so much a human being to me, but a motif in the media. Like Darth Vader.

Okay. I'm not so extreme a skeptic that I'd posit Donald Trump has no material existence—although I'm a little tempted to because it would probably get under his skin, seeing as how he whole life has been a screaming declaration of his own existence. (Like Freddy Kreuger, he derives his nightmarish powers from people's belief in him.) But I have no direct experience of the man. It all arrives secondhand. People talk about him on the radio. He comes up in conversations at work and at home. The orange and yellow and black blob of his likeness appears in stills in Firefox. Videos of him eerily thumping his own chest with his own voice appear on my laptop screen. Sometimes he sneaks into my Twitter feed, and he's no more real to me there than anyone else I follow.

No, no—if you're coming here from Twitter, I don't doubt you're a real human being. But I don't experience you as one. You're a digital artifact. A recurrent pattern in the digital hypernarrative. There's no corporeal you that exists to me, but rather the modular hieroglyphics of you.

Is "ghost in the machine" too hoary an idiom?

An unreality clings to our politics because the majority of us experience political life thirdhand, via screens and speakers; we have no direct corporeal experience with the actors or the venue, and much of the plot comes to (most of) us even less directly. This unreality is conducive to distortion; the facts are malleable because the information is as concrete to us as the events of a TV serial.

I wonder how it was in the early days of the Republic? How real to his people was Thomas Jefferson as compared to Donald Trump or Barack Obama is to us today? What character would Jefferson's office have assumed had his entity were fragmented into a million pieces, transubstantiated into naked sounds and images, and scattered to the winds like snow crystals catching light in the sun? Is the complete man, unseen, more or less "true" than the ubiquitously visible—but discontinuous—pieces of a man?

(For my part, seeing Santa Claus at the mall when I was a young boy aroused more doubt than belief in the Christmas myth.)

To be clear, I am not an apologist for the restricted suffrage of United States' early years, but: restricting the vote to landed white males (who voted for other members of the landed white male club) increased the likelihood that voters had relatively few degrees of separation from the people for whom they cast their ballots, and more of a stake in and firsthand appreciation for matters concerning their communities/states. There's something to be said for ensuring an informed body of voters—as there is wisdom and benevolence in not giving elites and ethnic majorities carte blanche to determine the destiny of everyone else.

American democracy antedates electronic mass media; we are every day experiencing how the one mutates the other.

To be "media-savvy" is to be a skilled manipulator; it is to be deceptive and alluring in ways that the traditional oratorical demagogue is not. It is one thing to be able to be pleasing to the eye, a skilled and persuasive debater, and an eloquent speaker. It takes another strain of talent to convert oneself into a constellation of sound bites, quotes, stills, and video clips, to reach into people through their screens, and to make them feel a hot tickle in their brain stem.

I am in no position to comment on how or how much the civic knowledge of the American voting aggregate has changed as restrictions were lifted and information technology evolved (from newspapers to radio to television to digital audio/video) over the last 250 years. But the fact that we've got people in Trump country fearing they might lose their health benefits after voting for the candidate who campaigned on the promise to take away their health benefits is a strong argument for the inadequacy of our media environment to the American political system (or vice versa?).

Greg Sargent at the Washington Post is more sympathetic towards these folks than I'm inclined to be:
So what did Trump really tell these voters?

Yes, Trump said endlessly that he’d do away with the ACA instantly. Yes, his own replacement plan would leave millions without coverage. But here’s the rub: Trump also went to great lengths to portray himself as ideologically different from most other Republicans on fundamental questions about the proper role of governmental intervention to help poor and sick people without sufficient access to medical care.

In January of 2015, Trump said he wanted “to try and help” lower income people get health care, even if it cost him the GOP nomination —— signaling a core difference with the GOP on this moral imperative. During the primaries, Trump pointedly told fellow Republicans he would not allow people to “die on the street,” telegraphing that core difference once again. Trump also repeatedly vowed not to touch Medicare, explicitly holding this up as proof he is not ideologically aligned with Paul Ryan on the safety net. As David Leonhardt details, Trump repeatedly demonstrated an ideological willingness to embrace a role for government in expanding health care to, well, all Americans.

And so, if many Trump voters didn’t really believe they’d lose protections under President Trump, this was not a crazy calculation to make. Now, Trump and congressional Republicans may indeed end up rolling back protections for millions who voted for him. But if that happens, and these voters do end up feeling betrayed by Trump, they will be right to feel that way — they will, in fact, have been scammed by Trump.

Perhaps, like other scam victims, they should have looked more closely at the fine print. But the broad conclusion they reached was a perfectly reasonable one.
It is only reasonable if we grant one of two things: (1) They somehow missed or ignored the reckless opportunism Candidate Trump exhibited throughout his entire campaign. (2) They were perfectly aware of the reckless opportunism Candidate Trump exhibited throughout his entire campaign.

Trump has made so many promises and said so many things that supporters could easily (and probably unconsciously) choose to believe in the imaginary figment of him that suits them best.

Trump is a media genius, in his own way: a swaggering con artist able to exploit his image and the communication channels such that everyone sees him, but never the real and complete him, has his future made for him in a political system like the United States'.


The looming catastrophe of climate change will be the greatest global political failure in human history. But it is an understandable and probably unavoidable failure: human beings are pretty good at connecting events to immediate causes, but connecting broad and gradual transformations to accretions of small and inconspicuous events is another matter altogether.

I believe accelerated climate change is really happening, and I believe human activity is the cause.

This is not because I am intimately familiar with the science, but because I trust the scientists.

It is true that the scientific community can show much more rigorous evidence for its sweeping claims than can, say, the Catholic Church. But most of us aren't going to spend much time reading their papers. Even fewer of us are qualified to subject their studies to a critical review.

But we trust the scientists, and we trust the people paraphrasing the scientists on our behalf.

We trust the narrative. We have faith in the storytellers.

The world has become more interconnected, and in becoming so has been made more complex. A local economy cannot be considered in isolation: it is contingent on conditions in the national and global markets. The same applies to politics. While it's true that information technology has, on one hand, simply made us more aware of the interrelatedness of peoples and nations than we were before, it has also deepened those connections, stacked those contingencies by accelerating travel, trade, and communication.

When paying work dries up in coal country or Midwestern factory towns, explanations will not be found by searching locally. When a real estate bubble bursts, a homeowner won't learn why his or her house is worth $20,000 less than it was last year by inspecting the property. When the numbers suggest a robust economy but people are still struggling to find jobs, one expects there must be a reason for it. But the causes are as multifarious and chaotic as the precipitants of the weather on a given day, and just as unobvious. If you ask a random person shopping at Target about why the financial crisis of 2008 happened, you'll get a vague and incomplete response at best.

It's not their fault. Unless you're a sedulous political wonk or have a Wall Street background, I doubt you could offer a very thorough off-the-cuff explanation either. (If someone asked me point-blank, I'd probably just sputter the words "subprime mortgages," "deregulation," "predatory lending," and "down the fucking toilet.") Economics is complicated and distant. Everything is complicated and distant.

In War and Peace, Tolstoy rejects the classic historian's assumption that the will of The Great Man is the primum mobile of revolution and empire. The movements of humanity and their causes, Tolstoy argues, are much more anarchic in nature:
Napoleon went to war with Russia because he could not resist going to Dresden, could not resist the adulation, could not resist the idea of donning the Polish uniform, and giving in to the stimulating feel of a June morning, and could not contain his petulant outbursts in the presence of Kurakin and later on Balashev.

Alexander refused all negotiations because he felt personally insulted. Barclay de Tolly tried to command the army as best he could so as to do his duty and earn a glorious reputation as a great general. Rostov attacked the French because he could not resist the temptation to gallop across a flat field. And all the countless numbers of people involved in this war acted like this, each according to his own particular habits, circumstances, and aims. Moved ostensibly by fear or vanity, pleasure, indignation or reason, and acting on the assumption they knew what they were doing and were doing it for themselves, they were actually nothing more than unwitting tools in the hands of history, performing a function hidden to themselves but comprehensible to us.
In other words, "everything develops from the interplay of of infinitely varied and arbitrary twists and turns."

But in criticizing the historians who ascribe discrete, facile causes to explosive geopolitical events implicating thousands or millions of people, the Count indeliberately calls attention to the fact that our understanding of the world depend on who explains the world to us: on the people, whoever they are, in a position to collocate the reports of these force vectors overlapping over here and those particles bouncing off each other over there, and interpret what is happening and what it means, framing and reporting the Brownian behavior of humanity into an intelligible (if not teleological) narrative for those of us who can't view what's happening for ourselves, with our own eyes.

Even when the interpreters/narrators are being as honest as they can be, they are not infallible. They have blind spots. They have biases. The mere act of summarizing a series of events, reducing their parts into a whole that is less than their sum, is to produce a narrative that is not congruous with reality.

The sad, dark secret is that "truth" in the reporting of world events is something that, if it ever existed, only existed because we believed it did. Trusting in any narrative that isn't wholly informed by one's own direct experience is an act of faith.

Donald Trump's election was traumatic for some of us because it rocked our faith in our narrative and its storytellers. We who listened to NPR and read the New York Times were so damn confident we were getting the factual, un-fake news, and our real news said Donald Trump was headed for a crushing defeat.

Our weathermen got it wrong. We trusted them to know, and they didn't know. I suppose they couldn't.

All anyone can really do is make an educated guess—not only about what will happen, but about what is happening.

Our world is too intricate and far too large for any one consistent, accurate, unfudged narrative. The fucking postmodernists were right. Our politics were built on a Newtonian conception of social existence, and electric/electronic media has made it clear our reality is patently Einsteinian, with frames of reference precluding absolutes.

No—it has the smack of quantum mechanics. Nobody really knows enough to know what's really happening, and the contents and significant points of the narrative are open to interpretation.

To restate the problem we face in the meantime: with the "truth" already so distant, so abstruse, and so difficult to apprehend, and information coming to us in digital packets via remote entities, it will be difficult to disprove the validity of narratives predicated on bad information. The alternative to "truth" today isn't "falsehood;" it is "different truth." Different interpretations of different permutations of "facts," all accepted on faith, all impossible to refute because our facts are intangible as the pixels that purport to disclose them.


One short, final note.

Ever eavesdrop on political discussions between drunk people at a grimy bar? Do you get the impression that the partisans on either side are having two entirely different conversations? They won't really answer their opponents questions or respond to their points; they'll just pause for a minute and pick up more or less where they left off, continuing along the fixed rails of their opinion.

A conservative and a liberal are sitting on neighboring barstools, drunk and affable, just wanting to have a conversation about The Issues. The conservative cites some numbers about the deficit and why it's a big problem. The liberal is more concerned with unemployment rates and average worker pay, and doesn't pay much attention to the deficit, so he starts saying something about government spending that becomes a tangent about how raising the minimum wage in cities like Seattle is a good thing for everyone. The conservative says that this burden on employers will actually cause more jobs to be automated and outsourced, which means fewer jobs all around, more government intervention, and higher deficit. The liberal cites some numbers the conservative hasn't heard before and can't comment on, so he says something about how high corporate taxes are driving job creators out of the country. The liberal takes a shot of Jameson and says something about solar panels. The conservative pounds his can of Budweiser and says something about China owning too much of our debt and taking too many of our jobs. The liberal rattles off some numbers and factoids about China's own problems. The conservative asks if that's true. The liberal says he thinks so, but can't remember where he heard it. And so it goes on and on and on until one of them takes a piss break, and then when he comes back they talk about Pokémon instead.

A passage from from Plato's Phaedrus comes to mind:
At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
Okay. No. Wait.

What really comes to mind here are a few lines from Alexander Pope:
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Question: is it better to have incomplete knowledge or no knowledge?

Plato and Pope would say it's preferable to have no knowledge than to have partial knowledge, insofar as one who knows just a little will know enough to be confident, but not enough to be knowledgeable.

Seventy-six percent of eligible American voters can't name the three branches of government. In a Newsweek poll of a thousand people, 73% of respondents couldn't explain what motivated the Cold War. A 2011 CNN poll found that Americans, on average, believe 10% of the federal budget is allotted to foreign aid, when the actual amount is near 1%. In 2014, a Vox piece reported that when 1,001 Americans were asked about the unemployment rate, the responses averaged out to 32%—when the actual figure was closer to 6%. A 2014 survey of 2,066 Americans found that 84% of respondents couldn't find Ukraine on a map.

I am sure that when these people get into arguments about politics, they are confident in their convictions and in their grasp of the facts.

Maybe all these analyses of a new post-truth paradigm—at least where the United States is concerned—are simply belated diagnoses of the American ignorance epidemic.

If so, I'm not exactly relieved.

No comments:

Post a Comment