Grayson Lookner: A Dangerous Question
Thursday, January 26, 2017 11:09 AM
“What is truth?” It’s a question that we’ve all pondered. It is a question that has been pondered since human beings evolved the requisite physical brain infrastructure to foster the intellectual capacity to ponder such things. It is a question that has spawned religions, started wars, upended existing paradigms of thought and ushered in whole new eras of civilization. Everyone with the ability to ponder this question has probably considered it at some point during their lives: landscapers sweating over shovels, and Ph.D students toiling over dissertations in existentialist philosophy late into the night on Ivy League campuses; truck drivers trying to keep their eyes open and focused on the interstate, and Buddhist monks on years-long vows of silence in Himalayan monasteries. They all inevitably ask themselves, “What the hell is going on here?”
Grayson Lookner grew up in Camden, now lives in Portland.
For some, the question probably presents itself as a flash in their consciousness, a passing notion that warrants little more than a slight irritation and discomfort that their assumptions about the world may not be as solid as they would like to believe. Such individuals may exercise little autonomy and agency over their surrounding environments. For someone who is in a constant struggle for survival, such questions are meaningless and fleeting, something to be avoided and to seek reprieve from. Truth is the material reality that is dictated to them from without, and they must accept those conditions and do what is necessary to continue to stay alive. Many seek solace in the morally comforting but easily disputed claims of religion — for it is usually easier to accept something as true if it has a long tradition of authority, especially if it is often enforced through coercive means. Others may have the privilege of not being bound by the base necessities of physical survival, and the question might become a lifetime obsession that consumes their days and keeps them up at night. Such individuals may easily lose touch with the reality that truth for so many is not an abstract concept, but a physical construct; leading to all sorts of highfalutin’ assumptions that have earned academics and policy wonks of all stripes the reputation of being out-of-touch elitists among most people lacking a background in higher education.
The truth is always — to a greater or lesser extent — subjective, but there are a few ideas with which only the most annoying of contrarians would argue. “The sky is blue” is one such statement. The idea that human beings need food, water, clothing and shelter in order to live is another concept that the vast majority of people would agree with — as is the lived reality that people are born, age and inevitably die. Such statements usually don’t elicit dissenting views or contention.
Of course, the scientific method may at some point render those exact views obsolete, such as it did with the ideas that the earth is flat, that the sun revolves around the earth, and that what goes up must come down (although according to a Gallup poll, nearly one-fifth of Americans don’t believe in heliocentrism); but as of the date of this writing, the author knows of no plausible hypotheses or studies to suggest otherwise.
So there is a base, commonly accepted “truth” or reality that most Americans adhere to in order to get along in the world. The internal combustion engine is a product of the scientific method, and most people agree that cars are everywhere, are highly convenient, and enable modern life to a large degree. Computers and the internet are also products of that same spirit of scientific advancement and are bound by the laws of physics (which very few people fully understand or even care to endeavor to learn to understand, but they work nonetheless). These are technologies that have rapidly and indelibly altered how people live, and I would argue that their impact has yet to be fully realized. People accept that these technologies and many others permeate their existences, because they have to. These conditions are usually incontrovertible and they enable the raging and continuing debates on all manner of other issues that shouldn’t warrant the vehemence they receive from all sides. Climate change is one of these issues, as is what was observed and documented by millions of eyes and cameras just days ago.
This all brings me to the point of this lengthy and thoroughly incomplete meditation on the question “what is truth?” As anyone who is not completely divorced from the 21st century knows, Donald Trump is the president of the United States of America. I do not dispute this claim. Whether or not his presidency is legitimate — meaning whether or not it has been granted a mandate to govern in a democracy by the popular will of the people — is obviously a matter of hot contention that shows no sign of abating in the near future. Trump’s presidency is fraught with warning signs of corruption, oligarchy, tyranny and fascism of a type that hasn’t been witnessed by most Americans in living history (people who immigrated here from Chile under the reign of Pinochet, Cambodians who escaped here from the genocidal violence of the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s, and the continued trickle of asylum seekers who arrive here from Africa and the Middle East’s continuing civil wars are the exceptions to this rule), but the most troubling and outrageous of these warning signs is the Trump administration’s blatant and willing perversion of the truth.
The scale and the audacity of Trump’s ability to lie with a straight face is staggering, and those lies told by his administration follow suit. A day after the inauguration, which was attended by several hundred thousand red-cap-donning Republicans, leather-clad bikers, and shaven-headed neo-Nazis — as documented by thousands of sources including television footage, D.C. Metro rider statistics, personal cameras, and police — another event took place that was truly historic. The Women’s March on Washington that was organized in direct opposition to Trump’s agenda and personality conservatively boasted 500,000 attendees in Washington, D.C., alone; solidarity marches across the country and the world totaled between 3 and 5 million people, making it the largest single-day protest in the history of the world. About 20,000 people took to the streets in Augusta and Portland, no small feat for a small rural state like Maine.
The jubilation, triumph and hope that was felt at the rallies was palpable; and it was in no way abated by the mountain of trumped-up lies that followed from the administration in an attempt to appropriate, co-opt and take credit for a historically successful action that was explicitly designed to oppose that same administration. This fundamental subversion of truth is a characteristic of this White House, as demonstrated by Sean Spicer’s phony claims about optical illusions playing tricks on TV cameras being to blame for the seemingly mediocre attendance at the inauguration, by Mike Pence’s jaw-dropping assertion that over half of the marchers were actually Trump supporters who felt compelled to swap their red “MAGA” hats for pink-knit “pussy hats” for the day, or by Kellyanne Conway’s facepalm-inducing non sequitur about “alternative facts” (preceded and superseded only in sheer fist-clenching-, hair-pulling-, head-to-wall-banging-, muffled-groans-of-fury-producing ability by an earlier Trump aide’s utterance: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”). It may be tempting, at first, to laugh at the absurdity of such claims. How could anyone in their right minds believe in such fabrications? That is exactly the wrong reaction, and precisely the reason why such lies are so dangerous. The proper reaction should be outrage, since these words are coming from the highest office in the world. The numbing of this outrage is what the administration is relying on to impose its will on the American people.
It is a hallmark of totalitarianism that the truth becomes a criminal offense. Thus the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus’s lamentation that “In war, truth is the first casualty,” and in Geoge Orwell’s now hackneyed refrain, “During times of universal deceit telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” In such systems, the truth is not a concept to be ascertained through observation, discussion, analysis and debate, but rather becomes something that is dictated to the masses from a higher authority. Any disagreement with that authority becomes criminalized.
Vaclav Havel, the famous Czechoslovakian dissident who was imprisoned under the USSR and who later became the president of the Czech Republic, wrote in his defining essay, “The Power of the Powerless”: “If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth. This is why [the truth] must be suppressed more severely than anything else.” The Trump administration has begun its assault on the truth on numerous fronts, starting with the disappearance of the topic of climate change on the White House’s website, continuing with the subterfuge surrounding the attempted appropriation of the Women’s March, and will doubtlessly continue with an endless barrage of easily disputed tweets and personal attacks emanating from the commander-and-chief himself. The problem isn’t so much that these lies are easily identified and disproven, it’s that the lies have found a voracious audience to whom the veracity of the statements doesn’t matter, all that matters to them is the source from which the statements originate. That is why authoritarianism works, at least for a while: a large swath of the population will believe anything that the authority figure says, and do anything that the authority figure asks.
In America, we have treasured civil liberties, enshrined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, that are supposedly unassailable, even by the president. Among these is the freedom of speech. That liberty is what allowed the lies disseminated on the alt-right to gain traction, and a following that at least in part contributed to Trump’s ascension. Nazi Germany had to burn books and execute dissenters to suppress the truth, in Trump’s America the truth is in danger of being drowned in a sea of misinformation and distraction. What remains to be seen is if Americans have enough conviction in their own truth to stand up for themselves and their rights in the face of whatever is coming next.