These Trying Times
February 19, 2017
Remember “truthiness”? Stephen Cobert, in his parodic role of a brash conservative talk show personality, coined it in 2005 and it seemed to nail a fact of political life: politicians often said things that seemed true, that felt true, that appealed to an audience as true while sliding off to one side of demonstrable facts. He was giving a name to the political polarization that made Americans line up behind different sets of known “facts” along with a tendency to prefer assertions that carried an emotional charge.
“Truthiness,” named the 2005 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society, has given way to the Oxford Dictionaries 2016 Word of the Year, “Post-Truth,” which was a bit depressing until it was eclipsed by the furor over “fake news.” That last shape-shifting phrase means all kinds of things, including any news you don’t like. Entire news organizations have been labeled “fake news” by our president.
One of the odd things about this moment is the way that a president who lies frequently and without any shame (as when inventing terrorist events in Sweden while ignoring attacks in Quebec, Pakistan, and Iraq – and for that matter an actual terrorist attack in Sweden last month when Neo-Nazis bombed a refugee center in Gothenberg – that don’t play into his clash-of-civilizations narrative) is loved for appearing honest compared to the rehearsed and polished surface of most politicians. The man who poses on gilded furniture and brags about how much it costs to join his exclusive resort is praised for being a man of the people, unlike Washington insiders who work for the people but are despised for being elites. Expertise itself is rejected as elitist, but paying $200,000 to join a golf club owned by the president is not.
There are other odd things about this moment: Democrats suddenly believing everything an unnamed CIA or NSA source says to a reporter, for example, or being a little too quick to toss charges of treason around. But we need to resist becoming indifferent to a barrage of falsehoods.
Cultural institutions made a small gesture toward this last Friday with #DayofFacts, when around 280 museums and libraries shared facts and pointed toward resources for learning more. My library participated. It’s kind of sad that we have to take a stand for facts, but here we are.
Facts, of course, are not enough. After all, comment threads are full of demands for more facts and random facts wielded as ammunition. What’s really at stake is whether we care about truth and whether we think there are commonly agreed-upon ways to approach it. A recent essay in History Today by David Wooten gives some valuable reminders of how we began to trust the idea of facts as a dispassionate challenge to authority. He concludes that the traditions we have used since the Enlightenment are being undermined by a new appeal to authority pitched against “standards of reliability and evidence” that are the infrastructure for the rule of law.
I’m not sure that’s it, exactly. There is wide resentment that has developed for years, cleverly channeled by Trump, that experts have let us down, that politicians are not honest, that it’s time to destroy the institutions that didn’t preserve good jobs and prosperity for those who grew up expecting them. For some, lying as boldly as Donald Trump does is a refreshing cure for the status quo. It’s an acknowledgment that something is very wrong, and as a bonus it comes with whole populations who can be blamed.
After the #DayofFacts I’m pondering just how academics and cultural institutions can do more to clarify that these standards of reliability and evidence aren’t just a point of difference or an elitist insult, but can be actually useful to all of us as we figure out how to make things better.