blackbirdonline journalFall 2017  Vol. 16 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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The Twilight of Truth?

The most baleful mischiefs may be expected from the unmanly
conduct of not daring to face truth, because it is unpleasing.
—Thomas Robert Malthus

—What person do they elevate
above the storm cloud’s smoking wrath,
even above the stars, or fate?
—The one who brings the world the truth.

—And who is heartlessly consigned
to fog and darkness, in sackcloth
to freeze in mud and icy wind?
—The one who brings the world the truth.
—Vasily Kazantsev, “Who Has Been Exalted,” translated from the Russian by Henry Taylor.

Few of us in the news media ever expected to live in a country where millions of benighted citizens go shopping for their reality, for designer “truths,” much as they go shopping for designer furniture or fashions. Or where the most successful salesman of custom-tailored reality, a macabre fugitive from the slime pits of reality television, could become an American president with the insufferable gall to call the most respected American journalists and media outlets “the enemy of the people.”

The forty-fifth president is not a learned man, which is possibly the greatest understatement I ever committed to print. He can’t be expected to know what Thomas Jefferson, a very learned man (and a natural redhead), had to say on this subject: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Donald Trump certainly never heard what the late I.F. Stone, a more recent patriot who represented the press, had to say in support of Jefferson’s choice: “With a free press, if the government does something wrong, it will become known and the government can fix it. But if something goes wrong with a free press, the country will go straight to hell.”

It’s no surprise that a population coarsened by rhetorical overkill, by campaign crowds screaming “Lock her up!” at every mention of Hillary Clinton, failed to mobilize in furious defense of the free press and the First Amendment. But every reporter and editor, every lawyer and judge, every historian recognized immediately that this “enemy” business is nothing like business as usual. In a classroom at Columbia University fifty years ago, I heard the distinguished historian William Leuchtenburg deliver a lecture titled “The Press and the Presidency,” illuminating the colorful, often adversarial relationship between the White House and the Fourth Estate. The other night I drank a glass or two with Dr. Leuchtenburg, now a still-productive ninety-five, and received his reassurance that no, never had any previous president been stupid (he may have said “naïve”) enough to declare himself in hostile opposition to the entire news establishment.

The closest analogy to Trump’s declaration of war on the newsroom came at the very beginning of the American experiment, in 1798, when John Adams and his Federalist-controlled Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, and several newspaper editors actually served jail time for unrestrained attacks on the second president. The United States was in a very exposed and precarious position in the world, barely free of British armies and newly alienated from France. If Adams was paranoid about his antagonists in the press, he was not alone—George Washington supported the Sedition Act, and Adams’s wife Abigail, outraged by the “criminal” language directed at her husband, had insisted on it. One great difference between 1798 and 2017 is that Adams, while in error, was arguably a more honest, honorable, and intelligent man than most of his enemies in the press. And America itself was only an infant nation still nursing at liberty’s breast, not a middle-aged, supposedly mature 241. Adams’s impulse was to overprotect a fragile child in dire need of postnatal care—Trump’s, apparently, is to dominate a prematurely senile democracy by depriving it of its last links to reality.

Still more bloodcurdling than President Trump’s “enemy of the people” outburst was a speech on the floor of Congress by the Texas Republican Lamar Smith, who advised his constituents, “Better to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.” This man serves in the House of Representatives; he swore an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. He appears to be unaware that his speech is a clarion call for fascist dictatorship in the mold of the toadies who serve Kim Jong-un or Robert Mugabe.

What internal putrefaction has reduced us to this, to a Lamar Smith, to stone-blind partisans who take the word of a spectacular, apparently pathological liar over the collected words of an entire caste of professional journalists, most of whom are still committed to the idea that objective truth is the holy grail of their calling? The profession’s commitment to the truth has varied widely from individual to individual and from one historical period to another—a wise reader of newspapers and magazines is always a skeptical reader. But accusing America’s most venerable and self-respecting media of peddling “fake news” when they contradict the president or catch him in a lie is groundbreaking behavior.

There was widespread mirth when presidential henchperson Kellyanne Conway described a colleague’s flagrant fictions as “alternative facts.” There was less when it became evident to us elitists that America sustains an enthusiastic constituency for “alternative facts” and genuine “fake news”—lies manufactured and distributed for the sole purpose of manipulating that constituency. “Alternative fact” is a perfect point of departure because it illustrates both the bad faith of partisan hacks like Conway and the fact that language is a critical battleground in this struggle for the hearts and minds of Americans. Semantically, it’s an obvious oxymoron, a self-contradictory expression. There are alternative opinions, there are alternative interpretations of facts, but there are no alternative facts. “Fact” is a word that accepts no alternatives. It means “this is the case.” Any alternative is not the case. It’s a misperception or a deliberate lie.

It is a demoralizing sign of cultural and linguistic collapse when we have to go digging at the roots of words like “fact” and its more glamorous, poetic sibling, “truth,” to stake out a position for political debate. The human race has been searching for truth—and defining and redefining it—since long before the invention of the printing press or any semblance of organized media. Plato and Aristotle, Confucius and the Buddha all made serious contributions to the pursuit of truth and meaning, known to philosophers as epistemology. The Christian fathers, from Saint Augustine to Thomas Aquinas, offered a variety of “alternative” visions. But it was only at the dawn of the age of science, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that European philosophers—prominently René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant—found the epistemological confidence to discard the received truths of their ancestors.

In spite of the opposition of the Christian Church, which realized that its power depended on a monopoly of the truth, many governments promoted science because it seemed to promise progress and prosperity. The scientific method’s most notable secular enemies were the homicidal dictators Hitler and Stalin, whose captive scientists concocted strange theories to suit their masters’ ideologies. For the most part, science, technology, and the search for truth supported and complemented each other through the Industrial Revolution and much of the twentieth century. And then at a certain point—particularly in the United States, with its mystical faith in capitalism—they began to betray each other.

The consumer society proved to be no friend to epistemology. Clear language, which had been one of the sharp tools of the Enlightenment, began to lose an uneven battle with advertising, a smothering cloud of duplicitous verbiage where truth was never at a premium. Technology, with the invention of television, has made advertising ubiquitous and surrounded it with cheap, disposable entertainments that distract a mass audience from more challenging cultural diversions. The cheapest and least real of all have been TV shows labeled “reality.” The evil genius Roger Ailes, a disgraced sexual predator who might have been proud to be called the Joseph Goebbels of the conservative revolution, erased the line between news and propaganda with his wildly successful Fox News Channel. Ex–disc jockeys and Republican party hacks impersonated journalists and experts on everything from climate science to foreign policy; Ailes found a huge audience that could be fooled all of the time, and loved it.

That same decade, the 1990s, saw the high-water moment of a kind of feckless “relativism” in the humanities, with many postmodernist scholars arguing that historical truth is nothing but opinion, myth, and ideology. A truism—essentially “hey, you never know for sure, Jack”—was elevated to ideology by intellectuals who should have known better. I smelled the infuriating attitude that Truth, since it was so elusive, was no longer worth pursuing, at least not by sophisticates. Absolute truth may lie well beyond the reach of our poor simian brains, but is it too much to demand absolute respect for the truth and absolute desire to push toward it rather than away from it? If this were the gold standard, most journalists I know would outrank nearly all of their critics.

Looking around the American marketplace twenty years ago, you might fear that the truth had no friends at all. But the worst was still ahead. If the pursuit of objective Truth is the camel with a broken back, the internet and the twenty-first century’s infernal, addictive social media were the final straw. Where there had been a few dozen news sources, many of which had honestly earned the public’s trust, suddenly there were hundreds of competing, conflicting sources and literally millions of strident voices, their motivations sinister or unknown—a host of unreliable narrators vying to tell America’s story.

Exposure—hits, clicks, page views—became the measure of success instead of accuracy. The line between a journalist and a shill was blurred deliberately and fatally. “Respectable” media struggled, with limited success, to separate themselves from the din. The best of news consumers, the truth-seekers, were frustrated and confused. The worst did something terrible—terrible for truth, for free speech, for democracy. They embraced the “alternative facts” that made them most comfortable and ignored the rest. The final ironic twist, in a culture where language is becoming a medium for manipulation instead of communication, is a president who is both a manufacturer and a devoted consumer of “alternative facts.” Traditionally known as lies.

Where could an honest seeker find certain truth in this maelstrom of manipulation and misinformation? It’s much easier to tell him where he won’t find it. Where truth is concerned, wishful thinking is always where the red flag waves. The road to intellectual hell is paved with wishful thinking. The thing that is least likely to be true—a blissful afterlife, for instance, and forgiveness for all our sins—is the thing the believer most passionately wishes to be true. This is not a welcome caution, I know, for believers in traditional religions. But a person who can will himself to believe in angels—three-quarters of Americans claim that they do—can will himself to believe in damn near anything.

It’s hard to sustain much enthusiasm, or optimism, for a country where half the people expend as much effort hiding from the truth as Hume, Spinoza, and company expended in pursuit of it. “Three things cannot long be hidden,” according to Gautama Buddha, “the sun, the moon, and the truth.” But the Enlightened One never knew Roger Ailes or the Koch brothers. America produces very few followers of the Buddha, who sat under a peepal tree for forty-nine days and swore never to arise until he found the Truth. It might take even longer for a modern seeker to find it on social media.

The path to the truth was never a wide, level, well-lighted one. Undisputed facts are hard to come by; to offer anything labeled “truth” is to invite derision from both cynics and postmodernists, who ask, legitimately, “Just whose truth? Yours?” The philosophical debate over subjective reality—do any two human beings experience this world the same way?—will never be resolved. But it’s easier to expose falsehood than to enshrine unchallenged truth, and there are useful rules of thumb. When many people agree on a matter of fact, and no one disagrees except those who have much to lose by agreeing, it’s generally safe to believe the majority. It’s possible that Bill Cosby never harmed any of those women, and possible that Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly (or Donald Trump) never crossed that line with their female accusers, either. It’s possible that burning fossil fuels has nothing to do with global warming, though virtually all scientists disagree, and the only voices on the other side are selling fossil fuels.

Sometimes it comes down to probability—and credibility. I think it’s fair to say of my generation in the news business that most of us have been caught in mistakes, but very few of us have been caught in lies. I was once sued for millions of dollars by a media executive who claimed I had libeled him, but a jury found otherwise. Truth, it says in libel law, is an absolute defense. Most of the journalists the president calls “[enemies] of the people” have never had their veracity challenged in court. The president, who’s been involved in hundreds of lawsuits, has never had his veracity sustained in court, as far as I can tell. He’s had it impeached nearly everywhere else by Republican rivals, Democrats, and journalists alike. In his native New York City, no one trusts Trump and scarcely anyone voted for him—one voter in nine. “I wouldn’t believe Donald Trump if his tongue were notarized,” Deputy Mayor Alair Townsend famously warned her boss, Mayor Ed Koch, who remembered Trump as “one of the least likable people I have met during the twelve years that I served as mayor.”

Blame it on dementia, sociopathy, or just a dismal lack of integrity, but a confirmed serial liar is now America’s liar-in-chief. More disturbing than his own paranoid imagination are the poisoned sources of much of the “news” he absorbs and appears to believe. The preposterous scandals and conspiracy theories circulated by right-wing media like Breitbart and Infowars make Fox News look like Reader’s Digest. Many of these outlaws of the airwaves and the internet—Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham, and company—earn millions of dollars because millions of angry, irrational Americans feed their inner fires with these fantasies. The Far Right learned long ago that its target audience requires no verification, no traditional fact-checking of any kind. And now the target audience includes the strange, fact-free fellow who sometimes sleeps in the White House.

Wild characters inhabit this netherworld of misinformation. On the radio, Trump’s favorite, Alex Jones of Infowars, sounds like a madman raving in a padded cell. But a journalist’s quarrel with the kamikaze pilots of the Right is entirely apart from the culture wars. It doesn’t matter whether they’re conservative, whether I disagree with them about the role of the federal government or the tax code or even civil rights or reproductive rights. I loathe and fear them because they lie deliberately and accept no responsibility when fools believe them. For them to call legitimate journalists “[enemies] of the people” is not the pot calling the kettle black. It’s more like a charcoal briquette screaming “Black!” at a snowball.

Two decades ago a fifty-year-old essayist, well past the high noon of his idealism, published a meditation on the nature and value of truth. Titled “Nothing But the Truth,” it was his anxious response to a public moment when political propaganda had begun to masquerade as news, and one academic necromancer of the trending postmodernist tribe had gone so far as to declare that “the search for truth is meaningless.” The following passage captures the spirit of that tortured writer’s counterattack.

For every lie, for every deceitful silence, some horrible crime goes unremarked and unpunished, some dreadful mistake lies waiting to be repeated. This is no daydream. This is more than your point of view, your angle of vision. It matters, profoundly, Just How It Was. Lee surrendered, not Grant. The smoke from Auschwitz carried an unbearable smell. Anne Boleyn’s head was severed from her body. Between which two vertebrae the blade fell, that alone is a matter for conjecture.

Who fired the first shot, how tall was the general, was it raining? It all matters. It’s my conviction that cruelty follows a lie, loves a lie, makes its nest in a lie. And I’ve never been able to divine any purpose in our individual human lives, unless it’s to reduce the sum of human cruelty during the time when we’re alive. That’s reason enough to press for the truth, to expose falsehood, even to deplore ambiguity if it’s thick enough for cruelty to hide behind it.

Actually, that writer was me. And twenty years later, in the throes of a political and cultural decline few of us could have imagined in 1996, this idealistic flourish still rests at the core of my embattled system of beliefs. But I’m much less certain, now, that most of you are with me.  

In 2002, Hal Crowther was interviewed in our inauguaral issue, Blackbird v1n1, by editor Gregory Donovan. In that interview, Crowther voices many of the same preoccupations as in “Twilight or Truth” above, though more forefully today. An Interview with Hal Crowther, is available in our archive, as is Crowther’s essay Mencken and Me, which we were grateful to publish in that same first issue.

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