Like many people, I suppose that my own views are right.All people think this, I suspect, otherwise they’d change their point of view.Unless they’ve been brainwashed, of course.Religion has a way of convincing people that they alone are right.(And perhaps also those who believe just like them.)I have plenty of experience with this.Seemingly normal, friendly people suddenly turn on you when you’re not there to defend yourself.All in the name of religion.The place, unfortunately, that it’s most found is in “conservative” religions.With preachers braying about righteousness and being washed in the blood of the lamb the human element is often sacrificed.Anyone who dares to think differently is going to Hell, and, in most of these traditions, you wish them godspeed.Then there are those who wish for true dialogue.
Dialogue means, however, that you have to admit you may be wrong.That’s one of the features the self-convinced fear most.Ironically, even those who think they’re right can admit that they could be wrong.Otherwise what’s the point of discussing anything at all?As Tom Nichols points out in The Death of Expertise, many are offended that someone has greater knowledge of any area than they.Like it or not, some of us have studied religion, the Bible, and spirituality for our entire lives.You might not agree with everything such a person says—we often disagree among ourselves—but at least one might admit that a mere Ph.D. counts for something.Even if on the stock market it simply won’t trade.
Ironically, as a young man I too was self-convinced.For some reason that I can’t fathom, I decided that if my beliefs were solid they would stand up to the challenge of higher education.As an undergrad I majored in religion at a conservative college and graduated summa cum laude.I chose a liberal seminary to challenge further what I believed and came away magna cum laude.Then the doctorate.(Edinburgh didn’t offer such trifles as honors; if you made it through the program you should be so thankful.)Tolerance became a massive part of my outlook, even as I ended up on the faculty of a very conservative seminary.I was willing to listen, but the same could not be said for those who saw things differently.Many of whom were far less educated, I say with all due self-abasement, than yours truly, in such things.As time goes on I can’t help but reflect on this.Even as I do I know others are completely convinced I’m wrong.
Not to beat a dead hadrosaurus, but creationism is in danger of driving us extinct. On a visit to the Paleontological Research Institution’s Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, I picked up a copy of Warren D. Allmon’s Evolution and Creationism: A Very Short Guide. Although I’ve read plenty of books on the subject, a refresher is never a bad idea. When it came to statistics, though, it grew scary. The majority of Americans do not accept evolution, despite all the evidence for it. What’s even scarier is that a large percentage of physicians—particularly Protestant ones—do not accept it either. Allmon is writing for a local readership, but these issues are quite large. World-wide, in fact. One thing most scientists don’t understand is that “religion” isn’t to blame. Literally reading of texts is.
Were it not for the creation myth in Genesis 1 there would be no conflict over evolution in Christianity or Islam. The question comes down to how one understands a sacred text. Many religious believers can’t get beyond the basic issue of if it took more than six days to create the world then that house of cards called biblical truth collapses. There’s a panic involved here. A very real and visceral fear that heaven itself is on the falling end of the balance. No amount of scientific reasoning will help with that. Hell is just too scary. And reason tells us that reason can’t solve this dilemma. Those raised religious by caring parents can’t believe that Mom and Dad would teach them wrong. Emotion plays a stronger role here than reason. More Kirk, less Spock. When even a majority of high school science teachers feel that “teaching the controversy” is okay, we’re in trouble.
Allmon’s book is well-intentioned. Of course, it was written before the post-fact world evolved. The stakes for not accepting reason (think Trump) are extraordinarily high. Having a figurehead that doesn’t accept rational explanations for what the educated can see plainly encourages widespread copycat ignorance. In the rational world there is no doubt about evolution. Most mainstream biblical scholars and clergy accept it. Don’t try to convince others with an argument, however. This is a matter of belief. Allmon does point out that science can’t speak to non-physical processes. It can say nothing about God. But a certain book can and does. Had it been written in modern times none of this might have become an issue. Until we realize the power of that book, we’re going to continue to struggle to come to grips with simple facts.
So it finally happened. Sean Spicer, I mean. Resigned. It must’ve been an impossible job, lying for a liar. The art of lying requires a knowledge of what’s true in order to be effectively done. Since truth is a commodity decidedly rare in Washington, DC, and imports aren’t reliable, to be a liar’s liar takes some considerable skill. Now, all people lie from time to time. Politicians more than most. If you’re too naive to believe that, well, I’m the president of the United States. Tweet. QED. I was in Washington the day of the inauguration from Hell. I was there for purposes of participating in the Women’s March the next day. A curious family member attended the inauguration and swore to what the cameras revealed—it was poorly attended. The next day the otherwise muddy mats—why they chose white I’ll never know—revealed the line where the crowds had stopped the day before. It wasn’t very far back, if I believe my own eyes.
The doleful night of nights, Sean Spicer made his first press appearance. It was the best attended inauguration ever, he lied. Those of us in DC at the time stared at the television screen in disbelief. Shortly after that we were informed that “alternative facts” revealed the way the president preferred to view reality. It has stayed that way pretty much ever since. The amazing thing is that Spicer lasted this long. Trump appointees come with a short shelf life. Behind-kissery will only get you so far. The funny thing was to watch the interweaving of untruths as Spicer spouted a falsehood only to have Trump trump him with yet a different post-truth answer.
The problem with dishonesty is that it quickly snowballs. In the case of the present administration it started well before January and the season for snow. Now it’s July and the melting is picking up speed. Past presidents, as bad as some may have been, seem to have had, at least to a reasonable degree, the greater good of the country in mind. Now we’ve got a commander-in-chief who takes everything personally and who can’t keep a press secretary even after he bans cameras from the room. And still his supporters think he’s doing a great job. Meanwhile, Spicer’s made a celebrity of himself. His resignation comes as no surprise since Trump staffers constantly find themselves living the lie. And for those Tea Partiers who still support 45, it would be a good idea to learn what it means to “bear false witness.” Oh, and the Bible says “thou shalt not” just before that.
The line for the train snakes through Union Station before 6:00 a.m. Many of us, maybe all of us, were at the Women’s March on Washington. Listening to strangers speak to one another, it’s clear that this was the largest “love in” in history. Trump supporters say it was about hate—we know they rely on “alternative facts” now. Nearly every speaker at the rally emphasized love. The government gives us Orwellian doublespeak. 1984 must become required reading once again. We can’t let the fascists control the narrative. Those who control the narrative sway the crowds. The Women’s March on Washington was not hateful. This was a peaceful gathering in the name of love. I write fiction as well as non. (My fiction has even fewer readers than this blog.) The point is, I know about controlling narratives. If you let a government with a documented history of distorting the truth (at just one day old) control the narrative, friends, we are lost.
The March was the beginning. I saw children just old enough to march. Children so young they had to march in strollers. I saw grandmothers in wheelchairs. I saw mothers and daughters. Sons, brothers, fathers. Not one unkind word among people standing shoulder-to-shoulder for over four hours. No room to sit down. Bathrooms inaccessible. We were united. We are united. This government has already shown that it will offer post-truth rather than facts whenever possible. Do not let them control the narrative! They will be trying to silence our voices. They will, like all fascists, try to make lies our national narrative. George Washington, they will tell us, voted for Donald Trump. And those who find blindly will believe it. Those who don’t read history will have no way to assess this. They will follow any narrative with a combed-over talking head. Question everything. Question what I write. Check it out. I believe in facts.
We are embarking on a dangerous journey. These waters, however, are not uncharted. The Bismarck steamed this way. Marches have been documented around the world. Millions of eyes are watching. They are part of the narrative. Write the story. Talk to others about this. Incessantly. The truth is not arbitrary. There are groups near you that you can join. Resist. Peacefully protest. Write the narrative. Share the narrative. If we need to March every weekend, we will. If we need to take turns, so be it. This is our story. Unlike the blatant post-truth we’re already being fed, our story is non-fiction. Read it and tell everyone else to read it too. This is what democracy looks like.
It 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.
Don’t believe the lies. Your government is lying to you already on day 1. I watched in disbelief as Trump’s press secretary for the White House, Sean Spicer, told bald-face lies the very first day of Trump’s reign of terror. I was in Washington, DC. My niece attended the inauguration. My extended family attended the Women’s March on Washington the next day. Spicer, clearly comfortable with untruth, lied through his teeth mere minutes after I myself stood outside the White House, saying that Trump’s inauguration was the best attended in history, far outstripping the paltry women’s march. Pure, unadulterated lies from the White House. My niece, and many others, noted how poorly attended the inauguration was. The evidence was in the white plastic matting, unbesmirched by mud on Saturday morning. The federal government disallowed the use of the Mall for the Women’s March. The unused matting was very clearly white the next morning. Around 8:30 on Saturday morning I saw for myself.
The Women’s March may have been the most significant event of my life. I was part of something much bigger than myself. Along with thousands of others, I stood for three hours while celebrities including Scarlett Johansson, Michael Moore, and Madonna, appeared on stage to cheering crowds. There was barely room to stand. We marched past the Washington Monument to the White House. A US Security guard told us there were an estimated 1.2 million people there, making this one of the largest marches on Washington in history. Just inside that white-washed tomb Spicer was lying his face off. He castigated the press for telling lies. Wake up, my fellow Americans. On day one our new government has shown that it intends to lie and smirk its way through every attempt at honesty. My eyes did not deceive me. I was there, on the ground.
I work in Manhattan. New York City is a community of some 8 million people. I’ve never in my life been in a crowd as large as yesterday’s in Washington. The Women’s March was peaceful and perhaps the largest protest in our nation’s history. Protests in over 600 cities around the world joined it. An administration of the people, by the people, and for the people would acknowledge that. The smug, implacable—and I use this word sparingly—evil administration that insists on lying to its citizens is already spinning a false narrative. I was there, on the ground. This March may have been the best use of time in my life. Beware, Americans, your government will regularly be lying to you until future notice.
Honestly, I’m not sure where the idea of votive candles started. An educated guess—which will have to do in my state of limited research time—is that candles, like oil lamps, began as a practical necessity in places of worship. Temples, churches, synagogues, mosques—these tended to be large rooms and sometimes featured stained glass in their windows. Even if they didn’t, sometimes people want to pray after dark. Especially after dark. In the days before electricity, a lamp or candle was an obvious choice. Over time the practice of lighting votive candles developed. Lighting a candle for someone, living or dead, symbolized saying a prayer for them. The idea is much more common in liturgical branches of Christianity than it is in strongly reformed ones. Still, it’s a comforting idea. The few times that I’ve lit a candle for someone I’ve always felt better for having done so.
Whenever a practice becomes sacred, parody is shortly to follow. As human beings we seem to be inherently aware that we take ourselves far too seriously far too much of the time. When I go to the grocery store—usually in the aisle with the more “Catholic” ethnic foods—I glance at the large, painted votives for sale. Secretly I’m hoping I might spot one for Santa Muerte, but this far north and east of the border that’s unlikely. Our own version of Saint Death is about to take office anyway. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find a Charles Darwin votive candle in my stocking this past month. Intended, of course, as a novelty, there’s nevertheless something a bit profound here. What we’re praying for is the continuity of life. Evolution itself is under threat of post-truth science which is soon to receive official sponsorship. Time to light a candle and hope for the best.
I plan to keep my Darwin candle for emergencies. The idea isn’t that the figure on the candle is a deity. Those painted on the candle are the saints who have some influence in the divine hierarchy of this cold universe. When you light a candle you ask that saint to witness your prayer. I sense that many among my own political party have recently rediscovered how to pray. The beauty of a Darwin votive is that it’s non-denominational. We all evolve, whether we admit it or not. So if you can’t get yourself to a church, synagogue, or mosque on the traditional day of worship, Darwin can shed light at any time. And maybe even support a prayer for light in the coming darkness.
What really happened? I grew up thinking that reading history gave the answer to that question. In fact, it is a viewpoint that I still struggle against. You see, historians try to marshal as many facts as they can to support their reconstruction of events in the past. Somethings, clearly, “really happened.” What those things are, however, depends on your point of view. For example we know that the twentieth century was dominated by wars and economic crises. Apart from a few periods when things seemed largely okay, it was a century of leapfrogging crisis after crisis. Historians pick a set of circumstances in this mix—let’s say the Second World War—and try to explain what led to certain results. But what if we stop to think about such events from another point of view? What if we think about it from the perspective that “nations” are purely fictional inventions? Who wins such a conflict?
This is more than an idle thought-experiment. We, as people, base our self-perception on how we view our personal histories. It can be quite jarring to have someone contradict our own personal narrative of “what really happened.” I’ve run into that from time to time—my reconstruction of events is not the same as someone else’s reconstruction. Who’s right? There’s no objective history. There are only events viewed from multiple angles. Turn the clock back a few centuries—was Jesus of Nazareth a political criminal (the Roman point of view), or a great sage out to save the world (a Christian point of view)? And these are only two out of many possible views of a political execution.
As we enter an era of post-truth politics, we’re going to find more and more historical events questioned. Facts have lost the anchoring functions they used to have. Historians built narratives by stepping from fact to fact, like using a series of stones to cross a river. They can’t tell us what really happened, but they can make sense out of an otherwise confusing stream of chaotic events. The thing about history, however, is that you have to read it to understand. Certain things we’ve pretty much all come to agree upon are now being questioned by those who see everything through the lens of capitalism. Money changes history. It is a narrative of great power as long as everyone agrees it’s true. What really happened? I think we may have all been too quick to accept what economists have told us and we have fabricated a fictional story that we can all believe.
Exorcism seems an especially appropriate trope these days. Embedded evil has to be faced squarely and forced out before it kills its host. I recently rewatched The Exorcism of Emily Rose. This is a most unusual horror film in that the story is born by a courtroom drama over whether the priest overseeing the ritual was responsible for the death of Emily Rose. Famously based on a true story, the movie raises a more basic question than whether it “really happened”—what is the viewpoint through which we view the world? We see from the very beginning that the case is actually a contest between two powerful law firms. Each wants a lawyer that can shred the case of the other. The prosecutors engage Ethan Thomas, a very religious Methodist, against the defense’s Erin Bruner, an agnostic. Believing Emily’s case to be purely medical, Thomas asserts that had she stayed on her medication Emily would’ve remained alive with the prospects of a healthy life. Fearing a complete loss, Bruner takes a risky counter-approach: what is Emily really was possessed?
The obligatory scary scenes are shown, of course. They are flashbacks inserted into the course of the trial, but nevertheless disturbing for all their calm, rational framing. The real question, as the story plays out, is can a supernatural worldview be allowed in a court of law. Ironically, such a worldview is already present when a witness swears on the Bible. This particular movie doesn’t show those scenes, but it would’ve been a fair point for Ms. Bruner to make. Clearly the court can’t decide if demons are real, but it can allow that possibility. It’s a classic case of science versus religion. Nevertheless, both sides make use of science. The anthropologist on the stand is dismissed by the religious Mr. Thomas. He has no time for Catholic, or any other religions’, superstition.
Many strange choices were made for this particular cinematic piece, but the story works nevertheless. Those who believe in spiritual realities are allowed to live them out only to a point. The legal system decides if a religion has gone too far. I couldn’t help but wonder if, in a post-truth world, any clear standard of rationality can possibly hold. But questioning universally accepted truths and subverting them to personal preferences its almost if we’ve actually reached the stage of “all those in favor of general relativity say ‘aye.’” As I say, the film was more timely than anticipated. Demons, after all, often appear in the guise of an angel of light. Especially for those motivated by fear.
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.
One of the benefits of working with words is that you get to participate in reality. George Orwell famously wrote that if people didn’t have the words to express concepts the government didn’t like, those concepts would cease to exist. At least as long as they allow us to have the internet, concepts may survive. Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year reflects just this. The word is “post-truth.” Post-truth is a word of hard currency in the political marketplace. It essentially means that objective facts no longer outweigh emotion and personal belief in establishing reality. Think “global warming isn’t happening because it cuts into my bottom line.” Think “humans didn’t evolve from a common ancestor apes because an outdated book doesn’t say they did.” Think “Donald Trump won the election.” Truth is no longer truth without “post” in front of it. Believe what you will. No, I mean that. I choose to believe Trump was not elected. Post-truth cuts both ways.
In a world where reaction has replaced dialogue and where you win arguments by revealing your NRA card, truth is merely the first casualty. Already mainstream media, who told us the post-truth that Trump, according to the polls, couldn’t win, are now telling us it’s all politics as normal. This will be a simple transition of power. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. There is no wizard in Oz. Politicians lie. Only those born without a brain stem don’t realize that objective fact. We can be sure that even George Washington lied from time to time. There was no cherry tree-gate. Unless you choose to believe there was, then I guess it has to be okay. Your truth’s as good as mine.
Over the past several years some prominent scientists have been saying philosophy is but misguided navel-gazing. It tells us nothing of reality. Truth, however, is a philosophical concept. Post is something to which you tie people before a firing squad. Truth has, until recent days, been considered that upon which all reasonable people could agree. The earth is not flat. We are flying around the sun so fast that it makes me earth-sick. We were able to put people on the moon. All of these are now post-truths. Along with the fact that every vote counts. In this slurry of fear, hatred, and distrust, who has time to worry about objective facts? Lexicographers do. And I praise them for giving us the most relevant word since Moses stumbled down the mountain with a tablet that read, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”