All Along the Watchtower

“There must be some way out of here
Said the joker to the thief
There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief

No reason to get excited, the thief, he kindly spoke
There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late” (Bob Dylan)

Downy Woodpecker

Our children are watching… (Bill Knowlton photo)

All politics aside, I find the recent spate of reports about fake news, deliberate misinformation, distortion of facts, refusal to distinguish between truth and lies, etc. upsetting and demoralizing. The feeling is akin to a curtain being pulled behind which we discover, as does Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, that the god-like wizard (in this case our experts, our authorities, even our government) is in fact a mere man creating smoke-and-mirror illusions of strength and wisdom and power. Perhaps more accurately  our refusal to seek a higher standard recalls “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in which no one dares to say the truth fearing they will be declared “unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent.”

The sad truth is that there no longer seems to be a consensus about what is real or factual. Substance appears to have little meaning any more. Everything seems to rest on opinion or bias, point of view or perspective. If a narrative conforms to an existing belief, it is accepted as gospel. If it challenges that belief, it is declared false, fake, part of a conspiracy. We live in a “post-truth” world in which facts don’t matter when shaping public opinion. Appeals to emotion and personal belief have far more sway.

Perhaps, as some suggest, this has always been the case. Megan Garber makes a good argument for that idea in her Atlantic article “The Image in the Age of Pseudo-Reality.” Garber examines Daniel Boorstin’s thesis that we live in (and have for a long time) a P.T. Barnum world in which people not only can be fooled, but want to be fooled. “We don’t quite know what reality is anymore. And, more worryingly, we don’t seem much to care,” says Garber.

“The image, the stereotype, the ad, the manufactured spectacle, the cheerful lie … these are, (Garber says), all of a piece. They are evidence of Americans’ constitutional comfort with illusions—not just in our cultural creations, but in our everyday lives. Deceptions are our water: They are everywhere, around us and within us, palpably yet also, too often, invisibly.”

That idea is reinforced by Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg in their insightful Salon article about redeeming civic virtue in an era of looking for simplistic answers through an imaginary past. They argue that “our political mythology is stuck on the constant longing for an earlier-imagined simplicity, a return to fairness by stripping away barriers of bureaucracy. In America, people have always demanded simple answers, as if “simple” was inherently virtuous.” Exacerbating this tendency, they say, is the fact that:

“Educated opinion is distorted today as never before: modern media sensationalism, commercial sponsorship of every conceivable space, Internet tunnel vision, fake news. Fame has become an end in itself, counted in Twitter followers, YouTube viewers and the like. And then there’s the ongoing addiction to reality TV, where outright humiliation is tolerated so long as it insures the image-conscious(ness) of enduring popularity.”

Canada Goose

Beyond the bluster and noise… (Bill Knowlton photo)

In effect, if image is more important than substance, popularity more valued than reflection or vigorous debate, bluster and noise more credible than intelligence or open-mindedness, pettiness and self-aggrandizement more common than empathy and a willingness to sacrifice, then we have little chance of meaningful discussions and little hope of mustering the discipline necessary to effect change.

Nico Lang says as much in his Salon article comparing fake news to modern propaganda. He recalls a recent speech given by President Obama in which he says, “If we are not serious about the facts and what’s true and what’s not, particularly in the social media era when so many get information from sound bites and snippets off their phone, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.”

Words matter. Actions have consequences. And everyday people need to be held accountable for their decision-making as much as politicians and civic leaders, educators and professionals of every stripe. Charles Taylor echoes this idea in the Boston Globe when he says, “There’s no shame in not knowing; there’s shame in not wanting to know.” He adds, “No one is too disenfranchised or despised or dismissed not to be held morally accountable for their choices.”

Scientists like Donald Hoffman of U Cal Irvine may give credence to the existential crisis into which we have fallen by telling us that “the world presented to us is nothing like reality…” Our perceptions fool us into thinking that “the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us.” They may declare boldly, as does Julie Shaw in Scientific American that “I don’t believe in facts,” that our job as scientists is to “collect evidence that supports or does not support our predictions… but at no point have we proved anything… our findings are wrong, almost by necessity.”

But they also give us a path to dealing with our angst. “Let’s make it our job as a society,” Shaw says, “to encourage each other to find replicable and falsifiable evidence to support our views, and to logically argue our positions.” Beyond that stance, I would argue, we need to educate our children in the subtleties of propaganda, the increasingly sophisticated tactics of advertising, and the perils of online “sourcing.” We need to teach them how to conduct research and evaluate reliable resources, how to structure a reasoned argument and listen with an open mind to viewpoints different from their own.

American Robin

“If we are alive, let us go about our business” (Thoreau-Bill Knowlton photo)

I would suggest, too, that old and young would do well to become re-acquainted with Thoreau’s Walden, particularly “Where I Lived and What I Lived for.” Nowhere will we find a more sage and prescient prescription for what ails us today. Essentially Thoreau argues for simplicity, saying that “our lives are frittered away by detail.” He argues for pace and proportion, saying we think it essential “that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour… but whether we live like baboons or like men is a little uncertain.” He argues for presence and living in the moment rather than waking from a half-hour’s nap after dinner only to worry about “what’s the news?”

“Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths,” he tells us, “while reality is fabulous.” As for facts, if we stood face to face with one, he says, we would “see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing (us) through the heart and marrow… Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” For Thoreau, that reality lay in “living as deliberately as Nature,” beyond the “mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe…”

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What we seek is right before our eyes…

For us, reality may become clearer in a moment of quiet, the tranquility of a walk, the smile of a loved one: the satisfaction that comes with a job well done, the release of self-discovery, the excitement of pursuing an unfamiliar path. Something simple and focused that allows us to breathe, something that forces us into the present moment. Whatever takes us out of ourselves will at the same time take us within. “When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence,” says Thoreau. “…petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality.” We create our own lives, Thoreau would remind us. We can change what we know to be untrue or doesn’t work or isn’t acceptable. We do not have to depend upon others for the formula. Our instincts and intellect will guide us along the right path.