Tag Archives: alternative facts

Who Knows What?

Nobody likes to have their shortcomings pointed out. I suspect that’s why many people might find Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters a little uncomfortable. Nichols doesn’t pull any punches. Nor does he claim to be an expert on everything. What he does claim, however, is very important. He shows how America has taken a distinctly hostile attitude toward experts and specialists. Somewhere along the line hoi polloi began to mistake everyone has a right to their opinions for “everyone has the right to be an expert on what they express in those opinions.” This isn’t a new problem, but there’s no doubt that the Internet has exacerbated it. We’ve got people arrogant of their lack of training claiming alternative facts that are “just as good as” established facts. One of them resides in the White House. There’s no arrogance in claiming you have extensive, highly specialized training if you do. It’s a simple, non-alternative, fact.

A perfect book for our times, The Death of Expertise should be—must be—widely read. It’s not likely to change the minds of those who’ve already decided that with the Internet giving them a voice they’ve become the gurus of a new generation of the “Know Nothing Party.” The rest of us, however, should read and ponder. Nichols doesn’t shield himself in his ivory tower—he admits there’s plenty that he doesn’t know. He’s not shy, however, in saying he’s an expert on what he does know. I remember when facts used to stand for something. Winning at Trivial Pursuit was a matter of pride. Now everyone’s a contestant on Jeopardy and Alex Trebek has taken the express train home. All answers are right, for all people are experts. Seems like we have a surplus economy in arrogance these days. And that surplus just keeps growing.

An area where Nichols isn’t an expert is religious studies. He wouldn’t claim he is. I did find it interesting, however, that when he wants to make some of his strongest points he quotes C. S. Lewis. Any evangelicals out there should read The Screwtape Letters again and check what Nichols says. Lewis would not have been a Trump supporter. Not by a long shot. And he uses the word “ass” in his books, even when he’s not referring to literal donkeys. He may have been onto something. We have an anti-expert president who has appointed anti-experts at the head of major government agencies. He anti-expertly launches missiles at Syria illegally. C. S. Lewis was an expert Anglican. 45 may be an expert of the sort Lewis wasn’t afraid to name. We need to be educated. Read Nichols and give our nation a fighting chance. There’s always more to learn.

An Anatomy of Lies

I had an email from Mike Pence. Mike Pence doesn’t know me from Adam, but if he met me he surely wouldn’t like me. His email tried to explain, in tottering logic, why he voted for Betsy DeVos. When I finished wiping the vomit from my mouth, I began to think about someone America needs again: Mark Twain. I’d just been reading about some of Twain’s classics and I recalled his famous quip (which he attributed to Disraeli): “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” We now live in an era so surreal that it requires a fourth kind of lie: alternative facts. Government communications are full of them. Not one word from the White House can be trusted with the common decency that you’d attribute to a Boy Scout innocently helping an elderly person across the street. One hand is held out for you to shake while the other is picking your pocket.

The volume of the lies has grown louder. I’m sorry Nigel Tufnel, but this amplifier goes up to twelve. Some time back I blogged about the overuse of superlatives. When everything’s the ultimate, nothing’s the ultimate. We need a new anatomy of lies to apply to our Addamsesque government. Since the only people who believe in Hell are the ones who elected Hell’s own party to the White House, you can’t even tell them where to go any more. There was a day when telling someone to go to Hell brought real consternation. These days all you have to do is buy a ticket to the District of Columbia. People listened to Mark Twain. Here was an educated southerner who told the truth, no matter how fictionalized. Truth no longer exists, and I should just get over it. Problem is, the country I was born in now only supports the rich and I can’t afford to live in a cardboard box.

We all know what a lie is. If we’re honest we’ll all admit to telling one once in a while. All humans do. Damned lies are those we used to condemn. The exegesis of the word “damned” these days is perhaps euphemistic for “good for government.” Statistics, as 99 percent of people know, are made up. Then come “alternative facts.” Even after being called out repeatedly for making things up, Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, and now even Mike Pence, continue to rationalize their own reality.

Mr. Clemens, what do you call fabricated detritus so filthy that “lie” is hardly adequate to make an impact in its dense, brown verbiage? The kind of thing we might expect from an individual incapable of distinguishing truth from fantasy? Don’t take it personally, Mike, but I’ve assigned you to my SPAM list. You’ve just been made an alternative fact in my personal reality. How’d you even get my email address? Mark Twain may have been a pen name, but his fiction was fact. He was a man ahead of his time.

Image source: Qwertyxp2000, Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Qwertyxp2000, Wikimedia Commons

Jericho

Those who think walls actually keep people out have never ridden the train through North Philadelphia. Or into Newark. I have to admit that I’ve always found rail-side graffiti aesthetically pleasing. Some of these vandals are real artists on a scale that is truly impressive. Speeding trains are, of course, dangerous. And in urban areas they are fenced off to keep people out. Thing is, walls don’t work. Riding to Washington DC for the Women’s March a couple weekends ago, I was watching the graffiti on the way into Philly. Vast, colorful, and with a flair for design, it makes the usual visual fare for railway riders much more interesting. Buildings, we know, have facades to be public facing. If you go around to the back of the strip mall, things look a lot more spartan indeed. I’ve spent my fair share of time in employee break rooms. Executive washrooms they’re not.

The thing about facades is that they’re fake. Like in those old westerns where we see them jutting up higher than the actual roof of the store or saloon, making them look bigger than they really are. Or even a small town boy who works in Manhattan can see it. Walk down the avenues of Midtown and the glitz is never-ending. Once you get to the minor cross-streets you see the service entrances and smelly trash bags stacked in the alleys. Would you want to enter that store if you knew what was coming out the back? We prefer our self-deception. We prefer to call our lies alternative facts. We can sleep better at night that way, knowing that our heads of state are so so brutally honest. Just don’t wander behind the cameraman. Things aren’t what they seem.

img_3171

To get to New York City from where I live, you have to change trains in Newark. The graffiti along the way is intense. Long ago I noticed a signal hidden in the noise. “Paint the Revolution” it reads. Or read. I don’t know if it’s still there. Graffiti’s often the bare truth. The thing is, it’s difficult to photograph. Trains move fast and phones focus slowly. Things look blurry and those in power can tell us the words of hoi polloi are ugly and defacement of property. Have they ever walked behind the building to where the workers come out? It’s easy to find. If you smell the piles of garbage you’re getting close. Executive washrooms they’re not. But the back door is far more honest than any facade.

Alternative Reality

devilsdominionIt is a caution that may become increasingly necessary as Trump’s supporters of “alternate facts” begin to sink their insidious hooks into feeble American minds that magical belief is part of our culture. While most would deny it in any kind of direct way, from the earliest days we have been a credulous lot. Richard Godbeer explores this historical affinity in The Devil’s Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England. Mostly concentrating on the events that led up to the Salem Witch Trials, and some analysis of the trials themselves, he traces the origins to such belief back to the theology of Calvinistic Congregationalists who held undisputed sway in the earliest days. Without benefit of clergy who might urge them to look at the world as a good creation, people instead saw evil and the Devil lurking everywhere. Magic was a regular component of their intellectual diet.

Now, some three centuries later, it’s looking as if things haven’t changed much. Those closest to the highest office in the land—and more frightening still, the most powerful single office on earth—are claiming that facts can have alternatives (what used to be called “lies”) and that if a rich man feels offended reality must be rewritten to make him feel better about himself again. The rewriting of history and science and law is really a mere trifle if you can claim “alternative facts” whenever you please. I wonder what you might find in Alternative Facts on File? I had a chance to thumb through recently and here’s what I found:

Alternative fact 1: Donald Trump didn’t win the election after all! We got the wrong guy in the White House. It’s a fact. Alternative fact 2: the Electoral College was abolished on November 8, 2016. That means that the popular vote wins the White House and Hilary Clinton is, in fact, President of the United States. Go ahead and challenge me on any of this Sean and KellyAnn—for any of your facts I can offer alternatives and they are, by definition, equally valid. Who’s with me? As long as alternative facts are now official discourse supported by the White House, let’s use them to the advantage of the entire nation. Is there a lawyer in the house? Even a Jesuit would do. The one I feel sorry for, however, is Richard Godbeer. His fine book has had to play Devil’s second fiddle to the new reality of post-truth Washington. Maybe the White House really does believe you can shake the Devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding. Wake up, America—you’re being laughed at and mocked by your own government.