In these post-truth times, it is interesting to ponder what would happen if these tenuously United States managed to create a society wherein truth wholly ceased to matter. What would be shape of the social structure? Could democracy survive?
Or would the Orwellian world of the novel “1984” become a necessity just to provide enough order to make it possible for everyone to get through the day?
Because some sort of order is necessary to prevent chaos.
Forget the big things and consider the mundane. What happens when person after person pulls into a McDonald’s drive thru, and places an order for a quarter-pounder and cheese with fries only to be handed from the window whatever is nearest the server:
“This isn’t what I ordered.”
“I’m sorry, sir. It’s exactly what you ordered.”
“I ordered a quarter-pounder and fries, and this is a fish filet and a chocolate shake.”
“Yes sir, that is exactly what you ordered.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did. It is exactly as you ordered. We never make a mistake here at McDonald’s. Move along.”
Could a world like that somehow function? Because it’s where we seem headed in these times of a dying appreciation for facts.
Good old days
Remember when liars could be counted on to confess their sins, throw themselves on the mercy of the public and trundle off to rehab to resolve their issue, whatever the issue might be?
Where and when did that begin to end?
Was it with President Bill Clinton? He of the now famous address to the American people: “I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.”
Then again, given that Duchovny did what he did and that others did similarly a decade after Clinton, maybe that former president can be let off the hook for where we are today.
Maybe he left the seed of the future approach to controversy – don’t apologize, just reload – buried deep enough that it would take a barracuda to find it. Maybe that little gopher Sarah Palin had to dig up the Clinton seedling and come up with those “death panels” of 2009.
Once she hung the death panels around the neck of former President Barack Obama and learned folks on the right rushed to back her for political reasons, truth started disappearing fast in the rearview mirror of public policy. It was something to behold the convoluted defense posited by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to support a claim of something that simply didn’t exist.
The late Charles Krauthammer, a conservative advocate for truth, was moved to set the record straight: “There are no ‘death panels’ in the Democratic health care bills, and to say that there are is to debase the debate.”
Few listened. The debate was debased.
Almost a decade on there were those still arguing the Affordable Care Act sorta, kinda, mighta contain “death panel” provisions. Parts of the Act, as the The Weekly Standard put it, “could, one day, be weaponized to implement invidious medical discrimination mandates—e.g., health-care rationing.”
So apparently the conservative Standard believed the U.S. could become the first country in the world able to afford to keep people alive (if you can call it that) on ventilators and feeding tubes forever to avoid anyone making the decision to turn off the technology and let nature take its course.
All of which pretty much sums Krauthammer’s argument about debasing the debate. The reality is that life is a death sentence, and it’s going to end of for all of us sometime, as it did for Krauthammer.
“I am grateful to have played a small role in the conversations that have helped guide this extraordinary nation’s destiny.”
What he would think of “this extraordinary nation” as truth slips ever farther away as a national standard is hard to say.
Led by a president who cares little for the truth and an opposition that increasingly seems to have decided that, “hey, if it works for him…,” the perfidious posturing of today makes the death-panel charge of yesterday seem rather small potatoes.
Look at what Jussie Smollett did. He managed to convince much of the country that anti-gay, white supremacists have been so emboldened by the election of Trump that they would hunt down and assault a gay, black celebrity in an upscale part of Chicago on his way home from a Subway in the wee hours of the morning.
Chicago Police spent days looking for those “white” assailants and eventually found them. They turned out to be two African-American acquaintances of Smollett, who when questioned said Smollett paid them to stage the assault.
Smollett denied it all and stuck to his story. Why wouldn’t he? It’s the new way things work. Chicago prosecutors didn’t seem to have much of a problem with it either. They rolled Smollett’s $10,000 bail into city coffers; credited him for volunteering 16 hours to talk to young people at Rainbow Push, an NGO; promised to seal the records of his case; and told him he was good to go.
Lacking a trial and a jury to sort things out, everyone could claim their own truth afterward. It was the perfect resolution for these times.
“I have been truthful and consistent on every single level since day one,” Smollett said. “I would not be my mother’s son if I was capable of one drop of what I’ve been accused of. This has been an incredibly difficult time — honestly one of the worst of my entire life.”
“Based on the facts and the evidence that was presented in the charging decision that was made by this office,” said Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, “this office believed that they could prove him guilty.”
Pick a side. Believe who you want to believe.
If you believe, gay-bashing, white supremacists in Make America Great Again (MAGA) hats are running wild in the streets, you have the Smollett version of reality. If you believe black people go around staging crimes to defame white people, you can embrace the reality of prosecutors, police and Chicago’s mayor.
The facts? Who needs those?
Theoretically, we all do. Facts provide a certain structure to life. In architecture, they would be the engineering. A talented architect can spin all sorts of designs around the engineering, but the engineering is vital.
Get that wrong, and the building – no matter how pretty – falls down.
As an old-school journalist, and more so as someone primarily trained in the sciences at university, I admit to being prejudice toward facts. They are, or at least once were supposed to be, the foundation of journalism, and they are the essence of science.
The are also losing their value day by day on both the right and the left.
“Ocasio-Cortez says the world will end in 12 years,” headlines The Washington Post. “She is absolutely right.”
Admittedly, the headline appears on the “Opinion” page, and below it editorial cartoonist Tom Toles opines that “apparently all anyone has any strength or enthusiasm for is applying a literalism test on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)’s all-too-accurate warnings….I know, let’s feign alarm that she has exaggerated instead of having genuine alarm about the genuine problem she is raising the red flags over.”
He then proceeds to defend the falsehood with the claim that climate change skeptics have made even more inaccurate statements.
“‘It’s cold today, so climate science is wrong,’ he writes. ‘Yes, there’s a problem but hardly a crisis.’ That last position is where the Washington consensus currently resides (President Sir Lies-a-Lot notwithstanding), and it is that position that is dangerously wrong, and what AOC is (correctly) fighting against.”
What is this? This is a defense of a younger Palin with different glasses wrapped in a Democrat cloak. The world isn’t going to end in 12 years anymore than the Affordable Care Act contained death panels.
The world isn’t even going to become uninhabitable for humans in 12 years.
“The global temperature increase could indeed reach 4-5 degrees by 2100, if humans don’t do anything to our emissions, and beyond this patches of uninhabitable areas (for humans) could start to open up in the tropics, due to heat stress limits imposed by the evaporative limits of our body,” notes Christopher Colose, a postdoctoral research fellow at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
“…The world also does not end in 2100….the near future climatic fate of New York probably looks more like the climate of South Carolina or Georgia than something from a Mad Max movie. This is still an important basis for concern given that the socio-political infrastructure that exists around the world is biased toward the modern climate.
“(But) many of the nightmare scenarios… such as no more food, unbreathable air, poisoned oceans, perpetual warfare, etc. are simply ridiculous, although food security is indeed an issue at stake. A ‘business-as-usual’ climate in 1-2 centuries still looks markedly different than the current one, but there’s no reason yet to think much of the world will become uninhabitable or look like a science-fiction novel.”
And yet, some people believe Ocasio-Cortez’s nonsense, because they want to, just as others believe Trump’s claim that “we’ve accomplished an economic turnaround of historic proportions” because they want to.
The economy has indeed done well under Trump. It has steadily tracked upward since his election, but there was nothing to “turnaround” when he assumed office. The economy was in pretty good shape and already ticking upward.
Trump hyped the claim, as he does so many things, and as does Ocasio-Cortez and a long list of others. They do it because they can. They do it despite all the media “fact checking” because facts don’t matter.
They have been devalued.
And the problem has become universal. It plagues politics, the media, business, sometimes now even science.
Bill Templin, the chief fishery scientist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, told the Alaska Board of Fisheries in March that it should be careful which salmon science it trusts because a lot of it can’t be trusted.
Basically, it was a pitch to the regulatory body for state fisheries that it shouldn’t trust anyone but him or his agency. The presentation was a little self-serving, but the inadequacy of science and scientific peer-review – the process designed to catch mistakes in scientific papers – has become the focus of much discussion among scientists in recent years after a paper in Nature concluded peer-review often failed.
Scientific studies sometimes suffer due to simple sloppiness, but scientists are only human, like the rest of us, and they suffer from an all-too-common human frailty: we believe what we want to believe.
Unfortunately, the internet that provides so much information is also overrun with people who play to that human weakness. There are reasons Trump and Ocasio-Cortez and others are so active in social media. They’re busy pedaling their truth.
Some of it might even be true. But with each step away from fact in favor of fiction, the truth erodes a little more.