Francine Prose - Truth is evaporating before our eyes

Given how little content the 2016 presidential debates contained, how rarely specific policies or programs were outlined or even mentioned, it often seemed that the only thing left for journalists – and ordinary citizens – to do was tally the number of lies each candidate told.

By some counts, Donald Trump told a lie every few minutes; Hillary Clinton’s distortions appear to have been fewer and less blatant. And when the bigger liar won the election, one conclusion to be drawn was that, for millions of Americans, honesty was not nearly so important as we might have wished or assumed. If we factor in the popular assumption that all politicians lie, perhaps all that mattered was what they lied about.

Who cared if Trump denied sexually harassing women when he was so boldly telling the truth about the fear, rage, racism, xenophobia and misogyny that many of his supporters felt but had hesitated to voice? More recently, Newt Gingrich, among others, has been informing us that facts and statistics no longer count so much as feelings, suspicions, prejudices and anecdotal evidence. The fact that violent crime is down, Gingrich explained on CNN, is of less import than the fact that “people feel more threatened. Liberals have a whole set of statistics which theoretically may be right but are not how human beings are. As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel, and I’ll let you go with theoreticians.” 

As a consequence, we have begun to hear that we are living in a post-truth era, a period in which (to paraphrase Gingrich) those in power get to decide what is true and what isn’t. When, just before the election, a friend in upstate New York confronted a neighbor with evidence of Donald Trump’s misdeeds, her neighbor’s only response was: “That depends on where you get your facts.”

It’s dismaying to see how accurately George Orwell’s 1943 essay on the Spanish civil war predicted the present moment. Orwell feared “that the concept of objective truth is fading out of the world … I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written. In the past people deliberately lied, or unconsciously colored what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth … but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.

“Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists … The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ – well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five – well, two and two are five.”

If we look for the reasons why Orwell’s dire presentiments threaten to become our everyday reality, we might consider the idea that Trump and his cohorts are reaping the benefits of the gradual (and, I would suggest, intentional) undermining and dismantling of our increasingly overcrowded and understaffed public education system. In school, we learn to distinguish truth from speculation, to value facts, to assess evidence, to evaluate information, to identify propaganda – to think. If what worried Orwell was widespread skepticism about our chances of writing history with any resemblance to the truth, how would he feel about a populace and a leadership that no longer values history at all, that has no respect for science, that believes the only subject worth pursuing is the how-to of uncontrolled capitalism?

Meanwhile many of us keep looking for some gleam of … something to brighten the insomniac nights. Perhaps the ascendancy of liars and truth-deniers will inspire Americans to become more vigilant, more alert to the malignantly proliferating lies of euphemistic language, lies of omission, lies that normalize the rise of a president with no regard for, or knowledge of, the US constitution, that most precious and beautiful of documents.

Perhaps this vigilance will make us braver about speaking up, speaking out. Or perhaps Trump’s supporters will realize that they have been lied to, that the “populism” they were promised has turned out to be a shill for a government run by billionaires.

Who would have imagined that we would find such reassurance in the maxim most commonly (if, as some say, erroneously) attributed to that great American showman PT Barnum: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” Or anyway, so we can hope.

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