Middle of what - the American experiment, western civilization, human progress? How about the middle of geologic earth with billions of years yet to come?…
The truth is all the rage these days – claimed by those who subvert it. We need to rise above the confusion, collusion, and delusion to be whole with who we are and what we really know. The Blind Saint of Vrindivan, who I met in India, says we are viveka (inner knowing) that shines on aviveka (untruth, not-us). By seeing aviveka and renouncing it we grow free from illusions and lies, and we come to live from our own precious center.
The first image that comes to me about fake truth is from those early Apple phone ads. Perhaps you remember someone dancing wildly, their ear pods connected to their phones by a long white wire. Have you ever tried to do anything while plugged into those flimsy things? Apple used a weakness, making it into a hip positive. This is like stores wanting you to spend money, but they don’t put up big signs saying “Spend!” they put up ones to “Save.”
Remember the early Salem cigarette ads? They showed a pristine waterfall. A voice-over comes on saying, “Take a breath – its springtime. Salem Cigarettes.) They used our innate desire for clear breathing of clean air to sell a poisonous, addictive product.
When the cigarette executives testified before Congress, they lied. They went on to hire professional liars to persuade the public the “science isn’t settled” as to whether cigarettes cause harm. Those same firms and tactics are being used on us about fossil fuels and our climate. My mom died of cigarettes. She was advised by actors looking like doctors telling her which brand to buy. We’re being advised by enemies of environmentalism now in charge of our Environmental Protection Agency and Department of the Interior. (Jordan Cove ads)
There is something in us that resents lies. Hardest to counter are those lies a whole culture believes in, or pretends to. How old were you when you figured out there is no Santa Claus living at the North Pole delivering presents to all children everywhere, knowing, as is said, who was naughty and who was nice? At some point, we had to believe what we knew over and against what we were told.
As a young Catholic, I was told. We were given a Catechism, a little book with not only the right answers, but the appropriate questions. Because the Catholics were the only legitimate religion, we weren’t to inquire about what other religions taught. That was a sin itself. It took me till I was 14 to honor my own disagreement with them. I checked out some of the other religions only to find they relied on hocus pocus, authority, and group pressure to not believe your own truth and instead believe theirs.
It takes considerable self-reliance to buck the pressures of supposed and imposed religion. Having others who share your point of view helps. How happy I was to discover liberal religion. Here were others whose skepticism and freethought is honored. Here, rejecting overblown beliefs and lies was normal and honorable, not immoral and sinful. Here, we can accept or reject any element of prevailing belief. It is a high and holy honor to tell our truth.
I worked as an embalmer. With all the dead bodies I worked with, I never saw the hint of a ghost. As a minister I’ve been with people as they died. Never has any come to visit me. As a meditator for 50 years, I’ve never been contacted by superior beings. But man, the pressure to say I believe in an afterlife or reincarnation and disembodied beings!
People are eager to believe in realities beyond this one, in another chance in another body, in shamans or gurus or prophets or saviors who know truths beyond our own. We don’t seem satisfied with a lifetime in spectacular universe of beautiful, interrelated life; we pine for more and we’re vulnerable to those who offer it.
I was fortunate to study logic rather than philosophy in college. Logic tells us either tentatively or firmly the truth of arguments. By argumentation they didn’t mean people arguing, yelling, using a superior put-down; they meant reasonable ideas supported by evidence to hone in on what we can rely on as true. In legal and academic argumentation persons are respected as ideas are evaluated. Truth isn’t determined by who shouts loudest or bashes best.
Shouting and bashing impedes thinking. Our brains work better when we feel secure and adventurous, when those around us value us and our thinking. But slap the child down, silence the spouse, ridicule those whose questions or answers differ – and those brains go into protective inhibition. Fear and hate trump reason and compassion.
For a few years, I taught critical thinking at SOU. While I see it as a skill, I wince some at its title “critical” thinking. Does that mean criticizing, being picky and accusatory, or does it mean doing careful thinking? Perhaps critical means crucial, core.
I’m glad we inherit and improve a religion that honors the truth and our freedom and responsibility to know it and tell it. Our own Unitarianism was based on the rightness of reading the Bible for ourselves, not just believing what others say it says. That American stage of William Ellery Channing was built on earlier scriptural clarifications, such as there is no trinity in the Bible and hell is a fanciful exaggeration. All these assume we have the right to think for ourselves, and it is right to do so. Prior to our current Principles and Purposes, Earl Morse Wilbur taught us seminarians our religion rests on three pillars: Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance. We’re one of the only religions to explicitly affirm “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” We’re one of the only religions to welcome and use science and logic as part of our religious way, not threats to it.
Much of the western religious world suffers from alienation between thought and truth. The Garden of Eden creation myth seemed to show punishment for thinking. It was further distorted by Augustine, whose subtle deceptions went like this: Put a straight stick into the water and it appears to bend (which it does appear to do) so: See, you can’t trust your senses. Instead, trust the church and its version of the truth.
The way to know the truth is to believe what religious authorities assert. The theologian Tertullian idolized belief: “It is to be believed because it is absurd,” he wrote. Much later, at the dawn of the Renaissance, Voltaire added, “Those who can make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Indeed, the Inquisition was exactly that.
No matter what the theologians claimed, the masons and builders of cathedrals had to use more reliable knowledge. Gradually, the scientific method stood despite tribunals. Science might be thought of as “logic applied to fact.” Self-monitored and self-correcting, science might be thought of as “the best we know so-far.” Science, freethought, and rationality were crucial to the Enlightenment and the advances in humanistic freedoms we now enjoy.
Not so fast – because rationality, science, and the Enlightenment are all still under suspicion and attack even today. At a public meeting regarding whether to establish the Klamath Siskiyou National Monument an opponent of it took the mike: “Science means anything you want; just ask anybody.” No. Science means having to admit facts, even disturbing ones, and whether people believe it or not, it persists. And though some scientists can be hired to spin truths to say what some corporation wants, most scientists honor the process and the results.
Fundamentalist religions, my own culture’s New Agers, and some corporations would weaken our reliance on reason, our valuing Enlightenment and scientific principles, and our daring, trusting faith in humanistic freedoms. Because Heisenberg was uncertain about both the where and the when of electrons, some New Agers say “Reality is up for grabs.” It’s not. Reality is a stubborn fact not easily fixed by prayer or intention. Worse, political passions can undercut thinking and make the truth suspect. The truth becomes something to be mocked and dismissed, or created and imposed, not discovered and furthered.
Critical thinking is easily undermined. Fallacies may weaken an argument logically but they trick our brains just fine. We’re awash in truth trickery. Satirist Stephen Colbert explains “truthiness,” as the feeling of truth over the fact of it. Hillary Clinton became “crooked,” not by any particular thing she did, but by being repeatedly accused of it with a sneer. Sneers work better than reasons. Pushing such fake truths has become a tactic that works.
As Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, Roger Stone, and Steve Bannon all show, spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt discredits persons, policies or products. Just brand and label it, sow fear and anger, bullying and shaming. Pump up feigned outrage. Make fury fun! Call up self-righteous indignation. Create lies. Lies work well; their rebuttal comes off as defensive and weak. Tactics determine what’s true. The truth becomes a sport with sides, entertainment.
“Attacking with defensiveness” pre-excuses attacks. Somehow, fear of falling dominos justified the mayhem we inflicted in Vietnam. We attacked Iraq with massive numbers of actual weapons, claiming we were defending ourselves from the weapons we imagined. We declared “no-fly zones” in order to fly in them. The war business model relies on an old confusion: insurgents are those who fight back when we invade. There were no babies pulled from incubators prior to the first Gulf War, but lots of them died because of that war. When Anders Brievik murdered 76 teenagers in Norway, he reported his atrocious act was needed to protect Western Europe and to restore Christianity and the patriarchy. When white nationalists attacked others in Charlottesville, they chanted their complaint: “You will not replace us.”
“Fake news” is not new news. The Nazis applied the term Lugenpresse (lying press) and discredited “Jewish science” in favor of folk opinion. (Read Jerzy Kozinski’s Painted Bird to get a frightening view of what that folk opinion was like.) In “post-truth” objective facts don’t matter as much as emotion and opinion. Yale philosopher Jason Stanley shows how fascist ideology identifies just who is in-favor and who is an enemy, smashing truth with power. Historian Timothy Snyder says, “Post-truth is pre-fascism.”
According to the Washington Post, Donald Trump has told 6,420 lies so-far, 30 a day on average. Some have been repeated time after time, despite having been refuted.
Donald Trump is quite good at this one thing … he drills his messages into your head very effectively via obsessive repetition, simple language, and almost never bending to an opposing message … at the end of the segment, you certainly have one thing drilled into your head — whatever it is that he was repeating… Donald will almost never admit a mistake or say something negative about himself… the message Donald Trump hammers home in statement after statement is that he’s right, he’s good, and he doesn’t make mistakes. It is absurd… but it is an effective messaging strategy overall. (New Yorker)
Any negative news or opinion about him is dismissed as “fake news.” He’s pre-defended. When Mr. Trump confidently asserts “the voting system is rigged,” he’s might be speaking from inside knowledge. Consider the irony and projection inherent in this quote from our tweeting president: “Some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think. This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.” Yet he says it full-well knowing conflict commands attention and attention equals influence. He’s taken the bully pulpit to new heights – or is it depths?
David Remnick in The New Yorker: [Trump is] “… a masterful demagogue of the entertainment age. His instruments are resentment, sarcasm, unbounded insult, casual mendacity, and the swaggering assertion of dominance… [and they] come laced with a thread of malice. His outrages are not mistakes, they are deliberate and a matter of pride.”
“I have the best words,” he confidently asserts, adding, “many feel as I do.” Yet what he knows, how he feels, and how many feel likewise is a narrow, grandiose fantasy world. He wouldn’t listen to the tape of the torture and murder of journalist Kashoggi, explaining, “It’s a suffering tape.” Yes, it is, which is why he and the American people should listen to it. The truth is, suffering exists, and it can get worse. Consider the hapless residents of Yemen.
Consider how the truth is distorted and flipped by his media aides. Rush Limbaugh came off as mischievous and surly with an authoritative yet carefree attitude. Karl Rove teaches how to dismiss and discredit sources, confuse with red herring questions, and demoralize with cruel accusations. Trump’s lawyer Roy Cohn came out of the scandalous McCarthy hearings of the 50s, and Cohn trained Roger Stone. Stone says to admit nothing, deny everything, and counterattack. Steve Bannon worked with military SCL intelligence, and he used Cambridge Analytical to sway elections here and elsewhere. He is in Spain to help pump up right-wing hostilities there too and he advised Bolsonoro in Brazil.
Bolsonoro seized power in Brazil by jailing his opponent and spending $3.6M to discredit him. Virtually all the media in Brazil spun the truth Bolsorono’s way. In Russia, a former media czar was bludgeoned to death the day before he was to appear before the Justice Department. His was one of 14 such journalist deaths. In the Philippines, where Dutarte’s death squads have executed towards 10,000 people, the 34th lawyer for the poor has been killed. The journalist Kashoggi was murdered for the mildest of critiques of MbS.
To lie often, one must control the media. Authoritarians hate the truth. They have lies to tell instead, straight out of various “Ministries of Truth.” Even though the common agreement across cultures and within many religions is to abstain from lying and to distain it, Goebbel knew the big, audacious lies repeated often will stick.
Despite repeated accusations of a liberal media, Americans get dosed by conservatives. Those who believe Fox News is “fair and balanced” can tune in from noon to 6 pm every day, getting Rush Limbaugh for three hours and Sean Hannity for three more. The former “fairness doctrine,” dismantled under Reagan, called for some balance on the radio. Not only did that stop, not only do AM radio listeners get almost entirely conservative and Christian programming, now the TV markets are largely under control of one company, The Sinclair Group. They hold 182 stations in 89 markets, often pretending to be in competition with each other. If a new merger is approved, they’ll reach 72% of the American public. You may remember the montage of Sinclair news outlet announcers all saying the same thing.
Add to this the fifty thousand fake Facebook accounts active in the last election, thirty six thousands of which were based in Russia. Riling with ridicule and reveling in phony stories worked well. Rage was amplified and divisions made harsh. 126 million Americans were exposed to an array of crazy fake stories, but reviews of the situation always come with “it had no effect.” Americans are critical thinkers. They wouldn’t fall for lies labeled as truth.
Consider some of the words we use to think with. (“Eschew euphemisms!” I say.) Do enhanced interrogations ask better questions in an enchanting setting? Are extrajudicial killings more than legal? And what is liberal about neoliberal policies? Orwell’s doublespeak uses reversed meanings. Is Fox News really “fair and balanced?” Was the gate over the entry into Auschwitz honest for informing the arriving: “Labor Gives Freedom”?
When the language with which we think is twisted, how can our thinking be straight? How can it be straight, clear and compassionate when hostile emotions rile the ability to think? When we’re attacked with defensiveness, can we not take it personally? When ridicule, dismissiveness, and dehumanization are the tactics of argumentation, how can we be rational and tolerant? Should we be?
When we live into the challenge and opportunity of our seven principles, we see how each helps support the others. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning comes out of and serves the inherent worth, the justice, equity, compassion and acceptance. It is a crucial part of our conscience as we seek to live well with each other in our congregations, societies and world. It isn’t an easy religion. Truth, beauty, and goodness beckon us to ourselves.
Fake truths, imposed from afar or generated within, will never work well for long. We resist and resent lies. I hear there is a liberal press that is waging a culture war on our values. What liberal press? What war? What war on Christmas? Most of what Americans hear and then think with is conservative. Only a few even know of Noam Chomski or Chris Hedges. Leftists, liberals, journalists, and scientists are sidelined, insulted, and worse.
Emmanuel Durkheim told us in his book Suicide when social bonds are broken, it leads to anomie – a loss of meaning that leads to apathy and cynicism. We need to renew our regard for journalists, scientists, and those who pop the pretense of liars, especially comedians. The king has no clothes; only the innocent and truthful say so.
Emerson said, “Always a seer is a sayer.” Whether politically or personally, what does it take to be a seer who says?
Begin by realizing we live in a uniquely fallen time where even our president models bad behavior and worse thinking. That he continues to receive the support of evangelical Christians shows how narrow, reactive and slip-shod such religion has become. Greeting desperate children with razor wire and tear gas is not what Jesus meant when he said to suffer the children and bring them to him. Treating women, journalists and Democrats with mockery and disdain is not the golden rule in action. Putting up a big wall and making others pay for it is the epitome of an alienated, arrogant egotist.
Keep in mind brain science. We’re vulnerable to emotionalized mid-brain manipulation. When fear and hate lead, when anxiety and anger are constant, when us-them becomes pervasive – know that the better, more rational and relaxed ways of thinking are all the more needed. In your own family and circle, try to be the thoughtful one. Practice meditation to gain the ability to detach from emotionalized fake truth. Speak your truth instead.
Don’t take things personally. Look to the person behind the accusation or insult. Why are they acting this way? Just following the fad? Frightened and hurt underneath bullying? Poor training in how to think? People are trying to use their minds, but the words and ideas they’re using have been cheapened and distorted. Empathy for such persons is not endorsement. We can care and have compassion without just letting them have their say and way. Just stay with an angry jab or a stupid idea long enough to drain its energy.
Value thoughtful discourse and honest journalism. Cultivate patience with others and yourself. Seek to rise above low-life confusion with clarity and humor. It is fake; you are real. Lies prevail but you know your truths. So live up to yourself. You are viveka; the shouting is just noise. When whole citizens live up to their truths we’ll achieve democracy.
Value also our religion for valuing intelligence, freedom and responsibility. Humans shouldn’t be gullible and obedient. We’re born with large brains in order to use them. Our whole brain includes knowing our truth, our viveka. It’s in there as it should be, along with music, humor, kindness, and awe. When we drop fake truths we come to our truths.
Reverend Byron Bradley Carrier
For the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass
Grants Pass, Oregon
© December 9th, 2018