14 September 2008

Truthiness, circa 2008

I have been doing my best to resist commenting on the Presidential election news cycles, being dominated as they have been by such inanities as porcine makeup. Yet I no longer can resist the onslaught of truthiness brought to bear by the Republican candidates. Yes, truthiness. Those of you who are fans of the Colbert Report know whereof I write. On its premiere episode, Stephen Colbert proclaimed, "We're not talking about truth, we're talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist…I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart. And that's exactly what's pulling our country apart today. 'Cause face it, folks; we are a divided nation. Not between Democrats and U.S. Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No, we are divided between those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart.”

Later, in a non-satirical (i.e., out of character) interview, Colbert explained his satire, saying “Truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don't mean the argument over who came up with the word…It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty. People love the President because he's certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don't seem to exist. It's the fact that he's certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?…Truthiness is 'What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.' It's not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There's not only an emotional quality, but there's a selfish quality.”

This is exactly the playing field of the current election cycle, particularly since the selection of Governor Sarah Palin as the GOP’s Vice Presidential candidate. It’s not about what is true, it’s about what a certain segment of the populace wants to be true. It’s the notion that if you say something, all I have to do is disagree with your statement and I automatically have put forth an equally valid statement. For example, if I defend evolution and you counter by saying that creationism (or “intelligent design”, an oxymoron if ever there was one) is a “competing theory”, you have elevated intelligent design to an equal level of truthiness as evolution, simply by positing it as a valid alternative. Likewise, if you assert loudly and often enough that the causes of global warming are uncertain, then they really must be uncertain.

You have to live in the world of truthiness to be able to pull this off. Imagine someone challenging the scientific theory of gravity as being “just a theory”. Do you really want to try jumping off the roof to test this “just a theory”? If so, go for it, and I will include you in next year’s Darwin Award nominations.

The Republican candidates continue to utilize this satirical concept in shameful ways. When they run commercials about Senator Obama asserting that a law he supported means that he was in favor of “comprehensive sex education” for kindergarteners, even though what the bill really did was to encourage age-appropriate education for young children to help protect them from sexual predators, they commit truthiness. When they object to Obama’s commercials about Senator McCain noting that McCain is out of touch and can’t even compose emails by claiming that McCain’s war injuries prevent him from using a typewriter and therefore he can’t possibly compose emails, even though McCain himself has said in interviews that his cell phone is his favorite gadget, then they commit truthiness. (Gee, if only someone would invent a cell phone that you could use to send emails…wow, I wonder when they’ll come up with that…)

Similarly, when your son bravely joins his unit to deploy to Iraq, and you give a speech extolling the virtues of his unit because they will “be there to defend the innocent from the enemies who planned and carried out and rejoiced in the death of thousands of Americans”, you engage in truthiness because you ignore the supreme fact that the evil terrorists who attacked America on September 11, 2001 were not Iraqis, and that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia didn’t even exist on September 11, 2001. With all due respect to the honorable members of Private First Class Track Palin’s unit, the 1st Stryker Brigade, 25th Infantry Division’s Combat Team, they are not being deployed to fight the enemy that attacked us on 9/11.

KA and SI, help me out here. The idea that by repeating a meme often enough it takes on a degree of truth – dare I say, truthiness – is repugnant to those of us who believe in actual truths, who think that there are in fact objective measures of truth and falsehood, and who believe that intelligent, reflective persons will comprehend these measures and will apply them to the most critical choices of our generation. And if they don’t, I suppose they will get the President they deserve…and I will get a sizeable incentive to emigrate to Sweden or Canada.


Pat Z said...

Hey Dan, I finally found and read your blog. Aren't ya thrilled? Of course you post raises all sorts of epistemological issues, including but not limited to the relationship of faith and science. But at an even more religiously fundamental(ist) level, don't these folks remember the commandment to not bear false witness against the neighbor? (Ok, define "False." Should we also coin the word "falsiness"? Or maybe it's the neighbor part they're having trouble with.) PZ

Anonymous said...

Dan - given the market turmoil I had too much time on my hands - so I read your blog. The level of truthiness also seems to increase the more times the statement is repeated on television. For example, Palin really does believe that she opposed the 'bridge to nowhere' and is a champion of eliminating earmarks. By the way, how much do snowmobile racers make? Can you get an earmark if you need to further develop the snowmobile racing circuit?


Dan said...

Pat, definitely thrilled to have you on board. I like the idea of "falsiness"...could go many directions with that.

SBC, snowmobile racers can make a bit of money, but not nearly as much as guys who work for BP on the north shore (which Mr. Palin, a/k/a the "First Dude" does when he's not racing or fishing).

There is definitely this idea out there that the more something is repeated, the more it must be true. This fits right in with the notion of truthiness - and falsiness would follow the same guideline, I would imagine.

Note to self: Must keep a sense of humor about this election cycle...