Truth or Dare

I once knew a man who was what can only be called a pathological liar.  I never knew when he was telling the truth.  It was a disorienting experience relating to him because, as a literalist I wanted to believe what others told me.  In this case you simply had no solid ground on which to stand.  Recently someone else who knew him (he died some time ago) asked me for some information about him.  I was at a loss to come up with anything.  Since he seemed routinely to mix fiction liberally with fact, I didn’t know where to start.  In this post-truth world we now inhabit, I fear this may become much more common.  Everyone lies from time to time, but when it is a way of life, well, even Jesus had a name for the “father of lies.”

It’s with a bipartisan sense of sadness that I lament how the Republican Party has completely backed up a man that they know is like this.  Intentionally or not, political leaders set the character of nations—just consider how often we think of Russia as Putin or North Korea as Kim Jong-un.  America has become the nation of lies.  Don’t believe me?  Maybe I’m lying.  See what I mean?  Often I tried to figure out what this man I knew was up to.  What was his endgame?  I couldn’t be sure I’d ever know, even if he told me.  Especially if he told me.  You see, I was quite young at the time, and the young often don’t have the experience to get to the truth.  And when the truth is bartered for power, well, the father of lies is lurking nearby.

Recently I finished reading M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie.  This person I knew was in my mind quite a bit as I tried to sort out all the psychology being presented.  If I’m honest I know that even as a child I said this man was evil.  It was clear to me that he wanted to survive on his terms or no terms.  To do so, he believed his own lies.  Now I don’t know if he lied at work.  He had a job where many people depended upon him to carry out his tasks.  He seemed to do so conscientiously.  When not at work, however, he was back in the land where he felt the most comfortable, the land of untruth.  Recently someone again asked me about him.  I tried to recollect as much as I could, and like much of the world these days I answered, “I just don’t know.”

On Target

Time, especially weekend time, is a non-renewable resource.  Since I barely have enough time as it is, I do my best not to squander it.  Yesterday we had to visit our local Target—we don’t buy at WalMart because there’s an ethics even to shopping these days.  When we got inside it was obvious that a lot of people had the same idea.  I’d never seen Target so crowded, and I’ve been in one on a Christmas Eve.  We had only a small basket of purchases, so before long we headed for the checkout and saw an enormous line.  Not being afraid of tech, we went toward the self-checkout and found that line long as well.  Long and not moving.

Soon it became clear that all the registers were down.  Store employees were handing out free bottled water and snacks, like airports used to do with cancelled flights.  We were in for a good long wait.  When we finally reached the register, which had started to come back online, the manager was helping those trying self-checkout.  Since the system was still not really functioning, you could check out one item at a time—after several tries, each time requiring the manager to enter his pass-code—and pay for it and restart the process for the next item.  We asked about the outage.  He said it was global, all Target stores were down.  “You’ll have a story to tell,” he said.  My mind was actually going toward technology and its limitations.  How much we rely on it.  Without tech this blog would not be.  A lot of famous people would be unknown.  How would we find our way from point A to point B?  Or look up a phone number?

The internet is beguiling in its ubiquity.  We use it almost constantly and it’s always there for us.  So we’ve come to believe.  In addition to spreading the tissue of lies that is the Trump administration’s agenda of using post-truth as a means of power, it must be supported by a whole host of experts—those 45 routinely dismisses as irrelevant.  Clouds were gathering outside, and I had a lawn yet to mow before the day was out.  Indeed, my wife and I had intended this to be a quick trip because weekends and sunshine are a rare mix.  As we bagged our six items and thanked the manager, we could see the line still snaking the length of the store.  Had we more time we might’ve come back another day.  Instead, we had briefly fallen victim to something that an old-time punch register might’ve solved.  And a time when the pace of life itself was just a bit slower.

Fossilized Ideas

In our current political climate, perspective helps quite a bit.  Indeed, one of the shortcomings of our conscious species is our inability to think much beyond the present.  In either direction.  Because of the biblical basis of western civilization, a significant portion of otherwise intelligent people believe that the world was created 6000 years ago.  I grew up believing that myself, before I learned more about the Bible and its context.  I also grew up collecting fossils.  Somehow I had no problem knowing that the fossils were from times far before human beings walked the earth, but also that the earth wasn’t nearly as old as it had to be for that to have happened.  Faith often involves contradictions and remains self-convinced nevertheless.

While out walking yesterday I came across a fossil leaf.  Unbeknownst to our movers last summer, I have boxes of fossils that I’ve picked up in various places that I’ve lived.  I find it hard to leave them in situ because of the fascinating sense of contradictions that still grabs me when I see one.  There was an impression of a leaf from millions of years ago right at my feet.  It was in a rock deeply embedded in the ground and that had to be left in place.  Never having found a floral fossil before this was somewhat of a disappointment.  Still it left an impression on me.  Perhaps when dinosaurs roamed Pennsylvania—or perhaps before—this leaf had fallen and been buried to last for eons.  How the world has changed since then!

After that encounter, I considered the brown leaves scattered from the recently departed fall.  Some lay on the muddy path, but few or none of them would meet the precise conditions required to form a fossil.  If one did, however, it would be here after humanity has either grown up and evolved into something nobler or has destroyed itself in a fit of pique or hatred.  We know we’re better than the political games played by those who use the system for their own gain.  The impressions we leave are far less benign than this ossified leaf at my feet.  The Fundamentalist of the dispensationalist species sees world history divided into very brief ages.  God, they opine, created the entire earth to last less than 10,000 years.  All this effort, suffering, and hope exists to be wiped out before an actual fossil has time to form.  It’s a perspective as fascinating as it is dangerous.

Experimental Truth

Only the truly naive suppose that the government doesn’t lie. I just miss the days when they lied for what could be construed as good reasons. Now you can tell if the president’s lying simply by observing if he’s talking. In nostalgia for the days of defensible lies, and also my own youth, I picked up The Philadelphia Experiment by William L. Moore and Charles Berlitz. Before you roll your eyes too much, please bear with me. I was aware of this book when it first came out, but I never read it. My brother did and his interest has stayed with me all these decades until I finally got around to a bit of guilty pleasure reading myself. In case you don’t know the story, it goes like this:

In 1943 the U.S. Navy was experimenting with invisibility. At or near a naval yard around Philadelphia, the U. S. S. Eldridge was subjected to intense electro-magnetic fields that made it vanish. It showed up moments later in Chesapeake Bay, and then reappeared in Philadelphia. The crew aboard the ship went mad, although the experiment had been successful. Now, of course the story was denied, and still is, by the military. Moore and Berlitz track down enough clues in this book to make the event plausible. Nothing can be proven, and according to physics, this kind of thing can’t happen. Reading the account is a spot of fun amid the daily lies spewing from Pennsylvania Avenue.

There is a personal element involved in this story as well. One of the characters (at least one) uses a pseudonym. (Although the event was decades earlier than the book was written, the military has a long memory.) The pseudonym stuck out because it was Reno Franklin. The name was gleaned from a road sign from Oil City, where I went to high school. It gives the mileage to Reno, and then, Franklin (the town where I was born). Seeing my little town in a book that was a bestseller in it’s day was a strange kind of validation. Did the Eldridge really disappear one fine day in 1943? Most of us will never know. In the name of national security the truth, if there is anything actually to hide, has been classified. But that’s where guilty pleasures come in. Books like this, although they can’t be considered unvarnished truth, are enjoyable to read and vanish into a haze of a world where the Nazis ruled on the other side of the Atlantic, not over here.

Publish or Perish

Working in publishing, I’m well aware of the stresses of the information industry. Jobs frequently evaporate as new, less formal ways of spreading ideas develop. To the typical academic what a university press offers is the secret knowledge of where to send their monograph to get it printed and bound. As if a printer and spiral binder weren’t available at the local Kinko’s. Oh, wait. Kinko’s doesn’t exist any more. You can do most of this at your own university anyway. With 3-D printers you might even be able to print a reader. No, what academic presses have to offer is credibility. If we’re honest we’ll admit that some presses are known for publishing just about anything sent to them while others are selective. The selective presses are often considered the more reliable since they set up the highest hurdles and accept only materials that come as close to being true facts as information can. Self publishing, as might be expected, has muddied the waters.

The same is true in book publishing’s cousin, the newspaper industry. As analysts point out, you can get whatever “news” you want from social media. With varying levels of truth. Stop and think about the people you knew in high school. Those who tend to friend you on Facebook. Would you trust them for accurate news? This has become all the more important because our government is now in the business of fabricating facts. Fact checking is too much work and besides, who has time? It’s easier just to believe lies than it is to buy a copy of the New York Times. Newspapers, you see, used to offer the same thing as the academic press—credibility. The New York Times and the National Enquirer are two different things—you could tell at a glance. Now it’s hard to tell where the news originates.

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This point was made by Deborah Lev in a recent editorial in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. The real problem is our nation’s founders presumed that democracy would work for informed voters. Yes, there were difficulties with the way the system was set up. It was based on privilege and convention. We’ve finally, in theory, gotten to the point that any citizen of a certain age can vote, but we have no requirements for ability to discern the issues. That would be elitist. And we have eroded the traditional sources of attaining quality information—publishers of all sorts are struggling. For some topics self-published books outstrip traditionally published tomes by a fair margin. You can’t believe everything you read. Don’t take my word for it. I’m open to fact-checking. Just be careful where you reap your facts, because not all facts are created equal.

Stand Up

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At first glance, we had little in common. In fact, of all the people in the room the only one I knew was my wife. We were gathered together to find ways to defend ourselves against our government. Those who normalize Trump and claim that his nearly 3 million vote loss qualifies as a mandate are blind. Those of us who have been complacent, believing that our government—even with obviously inferior candidates such as the Bush family offerings—was in the process of self-balancing have found the bar of the scales of justice broken. Founded as a democracy, we’ve “elected” our first dictator, who, if unchallenged, has already indicated that our civil and human rights are just chattels to be bargained away around the boardroom table. Once those of us who survive the next four years stagger out, I wonder if it won’t be time to establish a test to be president. A basic competency test.

For my job, I’m evaluated on basic competencies. An editor, for example, has to understand both the language in which the job is undertaken and possess a fair amount of skill in a variety of administrative tasks to perform adequately. Why doesn’t the most powerful job in the nation require a set of basic competencies? Things such as a basic vocabulary test and being able to point to foreign nations on a map? It may sound elitist, but I grew up in a working class family and although I’ve never run for political office, even I knew the value of legitimate education. Watching a politician surrounding himself by fact-deniers in a cabinet of untruth should demonstrate to even those who voted for him that we’ve put an incompetent politician in power. We’ve batted our eyes at a man we don’t know and have asked him to dance.

I’ve made it more than half a century without needing to be political. We now all have to become political. It’s distressing to see others my age saying “what can you do?” with a shrug of the shoulders. We can organize. We can resist. We can insist that the values that 3 million more voters showed in an historic win of the popular vote be represented by our government. This is not status quo ante. This is not just another political snafu. We all face a challenge to basic democracy and a level of untruth unprecedented even by politicians in the past two centuries. Don’t sit still. Get involved. Stand up for human rights, because your government elect has made it clear that it won’t.