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Posts Tagged ‘truth

“Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.”*…

A bonfire burned on Berlin’s most important thoroughfare, Unter den Linden, just opposite the Friedrich Wilhelm University on May 10, 1933. Watched by a cheering crowd of almost 40,000, a group of students marched toward the flames, carrying the bust of the Jewish intellectual Magnus Hirschfeld, and threw it atop thousands of seized books by other “un-German” writers. Rows of young men in Nazi uniforms gave the Heil Hitler salute, while similar scenes took place in 90 other locations across Germany. The bonfires were a warning sign of the attack on knowledge about to be unleashed by the Nazi regime; more than 100 million books may have been destroyed during the Holocaust.

“There is no political power without power over the archive,” the French philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote in his classic work Archive Fever. Authoritarian rulers have long understood the truth of this statement. But what does it mean in the Digital Age?

To many, libraries seem less important than ever—everything’s online, isn’t it? Yet control of knowledge remains a key battleground in the fight for democracy. At the outset of the Trump presidency in January 2017, his adviser Kellyanne Conway was claiming “alternate facts.” By the end of his presidency, after years of dishonesty, Trump sought to reverse his electoral loss with a “firehose of falsehood” strategy, persisting with the obfuscation even after a mob of supporters stormed the Capitol.

Protecting democracies against “alternate facts” means capturing the truth as well as statements that deny it, so that open societies have reference points to trust and rely on. For over three millennia, librarians and archivists have developed systems, methodologies, techniques and an ethos for preservation to ensure that knowledge persists. Their focus on facts underpins integrity in public decision-making; enables a sense of place in our communities; and ensures diversity of ideas, opinions and memory.

By contrast, recent cases of “book-burning” remind us of how ominous the destruction of information is. During the Bosnian War, the mass murder of humans went alongside the destruction of libraries and archives. Serb forces targeted the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina with incendiary shells in August 1992, while forces raided provincial archives across the country to destroy records of land ownership as a means of eradicating the official memory of where Muslims had lived. Millions of books and documents in libraries and archives all over Bosnia and Kosovo were destroyed in the ethnic conflicts of the former Yugoslavia—attacks that became part of the charge sheets at the International Criminal Tribunal in the former Yugoslavia.

Officials in South Africa’s apartheid regime destroyed documents on a massive scale too. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was hampered by this; in its final report, it devoted an entire section to the destruction of records. “The story of apartheid is, amongst other things, the story of the systematic elimination of thousands of voices that should have been part of the nation’s memory,” it said. “The tragedy is that the former government deliberately and systematically destroyed a huge body of state records and documentation in an attempt to remove incriminating evidence and thereby sanitize the history of oppressive rule.”

In Iraq, after the American-led coalition invaded in 2003, U.S. forces moved many of the key state records to the United States, where some, such as the archives of the Ba’ath Party, remained until recently. Just as the eradication of records can presage violence, the recent return of these documents can, I hope, form part of a process of national “truth and reconciliation” in Iraq.

Librarians today are not the stereotype of tweed-wearing introverts obsessed with enforcing silence. They are skilled professionals, often with subject-domain specialisms, adept at navigating physical and digital forms of knowledge–trained in project management and budgetary controls, and well-versed in deploying new technologies to support the public in identifying bogus online information, while using digitization to preserve fragile documents.

Digital technology lends itself to extraordinary archival projects, as in the work of the organization Mnemonic, whose Syrian Archive contains millions of online records about the civil war, alongside a Yemeni Archive and a Sudanese Archive, providing historians, journalists and international criminal lawyers the information to understand these conflicts. Other archival projects online include the Xinjiang Victims Database, which aims to document the Chinese campaign against the Uyghurs and other indigenous groups in northwest China.

As for institutional libraries and archives, they are highly trusted by the public—yet are experiencing declining levels of funding. This is happening when knowledge is increasingly held in digital form, controlled not by public institutions but by tech companies. How can we protect society from the “power over the archive” exercised by private corporations? Greater regulation should sit alongside a new role for libraries as citizens’ data sanctuaries, accountable to the public, and funded by a tax on tech-industry profits.

Looking back at the Nazi book-burnings in 1933, this low moment for human truth had lesser-known responses that should not be forgotten. Exactly a year later, on May 10, 1934, the Deutsche Freiheitsbibliothek (German Freedom Library, also known as the German Library of Burnt Books) opened in Paris, founded by German-Jewish writer Alfred Kantorowicz, with support from writers and intellectuals such as André Gide, Bertrand Russell and Heinrich Mann. Rapidly, it collected more than 20,000 volumes—not just the books that had been targeted for burning in Germany but also copies of key Nazi texts, in order to help understand the emerging regime.

The Brooklyn Jewish Center in New York established an American Library of Nazi-Banned Books in December 1934, with noted intellectuals on its advisory board, including Albert Einstein and Upton Sinclair. The library proclaimed itself a means of preserving and promoting Jewish culture at a time of renewed oppression.

If we are to heed George Orwell’s warning in Nineteen Eighty-Four—“The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth”—then we must ensure that libraries and archives have the resources and public support to serve as our guardians of knowledge.

Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden (@richove), author of the essential (and gripping) Burning the Books- A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge, explains why rampant dishonesty reminds us that we must preserve documents. Even– indeed, especially– in the Digital Age, archivists are crucial: “Facts in Flames.

Your correspondent supports institutional archives like Richard’s (Oxford’s Bodleian Library), the Harvard Libraries, and The New York Public Library; and the digital archive that’s the mother of them all, the remarkable Internet Archive. You might consider contributing to them or to the archives of your choice.

And, of course, we should all support our public libraries, which democratize access to information and knowledge and build community in ways that are critical to a healthy society and to constructive civil discourse.

* George Orwell, 1984

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As we prioritize preservation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1919 that fiery hot molasses poured into the streets of Boston, killing 21 people and injuring scores of others– the Great Boston Molasses Flood:

The United States Industrial Alcohol building was located on Commercial Street near North End Park in Boston. It was close to lunch time on January 15 and Boston was experiencing some unseasonably warm weather as workers were loading freight-train cars within the large building. Next to the workers was a 58-foot-high tank filled with 2.5 million gallons of crude molasses.

Suddenly, the bolts holding the bottom of the tank exploded, shooting out like bullets, and the hot molasses rushed out. An eight-foot-high wave of molasses swept away the freight cars and caved in the building’s doors and windows. The few workers in the building’s cellar had no chance as the liquid poured down and overwhelmed them.

The huge quantity of molasses then flowed into the street outside. It literally knocked over the local firehouse and then pushed over the support beams for the elevated train line. The hot and sticky substance then drowned and burned five workers at the Public Works Department. In all, 21 people and dozens of horses were killed in the flood. It took weeks to clean the molasses from the streets of Boston.

This disaster also produced an epic court battle, as more than 100 lawsuits were filed against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. After a six-year-investigation that involved 3,000 witnesses and 45,000 pages of testimony, a special auditor finally determined that the company was at fault because the tank used had not been strong enough to hold the molasses. Nearly $1 million [over $15.5 million in today’s dollars] was paid in settlement of the claims…

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“Context is everything”*…

Figure and ground… do all grounds make bad stories, and only figures make good ones?

“What’s the story?”

No question is asked more often by editors in newsrooms than that one. And for good reason: that’s what news is about: The Story.

Or, in the parlance of the moment, The Narrative. (Trend.)

I was just 22 when I wrote my first stories as a journalist, reporting for a daily newspaper in New Jersey. It was there that I first learned that all stories are built around three elements:

1. Character

2. Problem

3. Movement toward resolution

Subtract one or more of those and all you’ll have is an item, or an incident. Not a story. Which won’t run. So let’s unpack those elements a bit.

The character can be a person, a group, a team, a cause—anything with a noun. Mainly the character needs to be worth caring about in some way. You can love the character, hate it (or him, or her or whatever). Mainly you have to care about the character enough to be interested.

The problem can be of any kind at all, so long as it causes conflict involving the character. All that matters is that the conflict keeps going, toward the possibility of resolution. If the conflict ends, the story is over. For example, if you’re at a sports event, and your team is up (or down) by forty points with five minutes left, the character you now care about is your own ass, and your problem is getting it out of the parking lot. If that struggle turns out to be interesting, it might be a story you tell later at a bar.)

Movement toward resolution is nothing more than that. Bear in mind that many stories never arrive at a conclusion. In fact, that may be part of the story itself. Soap operas work that way…

… we do have two big fails for journalism here:

1. Its appetite for stories proves a weakness when it’s fed by a genius at hogging the stage.

2. It avoids reporting what doesn’t fit the story format. This includes most of reality.

My favorite priest says “some truths are so deep only stories can tell them,” and I’m sure this is true. But stories by themselves are also inadequate ways to present essential facts people need to know, because by design they exclude what doesn’t fit “the narrative,” which is the modern way to talk about story—and to spin journalists. (My hairs of suspicion stand on end every time I hear the word “narrative.”)

So here’s the paradox: We need to know more than stories can tell, yet stories are pretty much all human beings are interested in. Character, problem and movement give shape and purpose to every human life. We can’t correct for it.

That’s why my topic here—a deep and abiding flaw (also a feature) of both journalism and human nature—is one most journalists won’t touch. The flawed nature of The Story itself is not a story. Same goes for “earned media coverage.” Both are features rather than bugs, because they cause much of journalism’s success, and debugging them has proven impossible…

Consider The Holocaust (six million dead) vs. the story of Ann Frank. The Rwandan genocide vs. Hotel Rwanda. China’s one child policy (untold millions of full-term fetuses aborted or born babies killed or left beside the road to die) vs. One Child Nation. The Rohingya conflict (more than 10,000 civilians dead, 128,000 internally displaced, 950,000+ chased elsewhere) vs. approximately nobody. Heard of Holodomor? How about any of the millions who died during Mao’s revolution in China?

Without a story, statistics are cemeteries of facts.

Sure, academics and obsessives of other kinds (including journalists) can exhume those facts. But Big-J journalism will always be preoccupied with stories. Including, unavoidably, the genius for generating them who currently occupies the White House…

We traffic in stories because people can’t help being interested in them. But stories also fail at telling truths that don’t fit a tale. Presupposition is part of the problem; but only part. More fundamentally it is the privileging of strong (pure) emotion over messy reality, of “narrative impact” over understanding. Doc Searls (@dsearls) on “Where Journalism Fails,” eminently worth reading in full.

For some practical advice, follow Searls’ link to Jay Rosen’s suggestions.

And for a painful case-in-point, consider the wise Patrick Wyman‘s thoughts on the horrors of January 6:

We have a strong tendency to understand events unfolding as a story, a narrative, with all the structural beats we expect from a story: beginning, rising action, climax, resolution. Even as we’re consciously aware that there will be a tomorrow, a next week, and a next year, it’s hard to avoid treating the most recent big thing – in this case, the riot on the Capitol – as either the end or beginning of one particular story.

Narrative is how we process information and give the world some shape and meaning. But it’s deeply misleading as an attempt to understand the complex interactions between past and present that define a political system…

Do read it in full here.

[Searls’ piece via friend MS]

* In this phrasing and others closely linked, many, many authors/speakers, including Mary Beard, Margaret Atwood, Mary Catherine Bateson, and A.D. Garrett

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As we only connect, we might send circumscribed birthday greetings to Edmund Burke; he was born on this date in Dublin on this date in 1729.  An author, orator, political theorist, and philosopher, he moved to England and served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party.  He’s probably best remembered for his advocacy of the American and his opposition to the French revolutions.  While Burke was held up as a beacon by both conservatives and liberals in the 19th century, the 20th century generally viewed him as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism.

In “Consistency in Politics” Winston Churchill wrote:

On the one hand [Burke] is revealed as a foremost apostle of Liberty, on the other as the redoubtable champion of Authority. But a charge of political inconsistency applied to this life appears a mean and petty thing. History easily discerns the reasons and forces which actuated him, and the immense changes in the problems he was facing which evoked from the same profound mind and sincere spirit these entirely contrary manifestations. His soul revolted against tyranny, whether it appeared in the aspect of a domineering Monarch and a corrupt Court and Parliamentary system, or whether, mouthing the watch-words of a non-existent liberty, it towered up against him in the dictation of a brutal mob and wicked sect. No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the same ideals of society and Government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other.

And indeed, historian Piers Brendon credits Burke’ paternalistic insistence the colonial domination was a trust, with laying the moral foundations for the British Empire:  Burke wrote that “The British Empire must be governed on a plan of freedom, for it will be governed by no other”– it was to be so exercised for the benefit of subject people that they would eventually attain their birthright—freedom” …a noble aim that was in the event an ideological bacillus, as Brendon observed, that would prove fatal.

“You can never plan the future by the past.” – “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly” (1791)

“Justice is itself the great standing policy of civil society; and any eminent departure from it, under any circumstances, lies under the suspicion of being no policy at all”. – Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)

Burke c. 1767/69, from the studio of Joshua Reynolds

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“All that is solid melts into air”*…

 

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Ideas replaced with feelings. A radical relativism that implies truth is unknowable. Politicians who revel in lying openly, shamelessly, as if being caught out is the point of politics. The notion of the people and the many redefined ceaselessly, words unmoored from meaning, ideas of the future dissolving into nasty nostalgias with enemies everywhere, conspiracy replacing ideology, facts equated to fibs, discussion collapsing into mutual accusations, where every argument is just another smear campaign, all information warfare … and the sense that everything under one’s feet is constantly moving, inherently unstable, liquid …

Almost a decade ago I left Russia because I was exhausted by living in a system where, to quote myself invoking Hannah Arendt, “nothing is true and everything is possible.” Those were still relatively vegetarian days in Moscow — before the invasion of Ukraine — but it was already a world where terms like liberal or democracy were used to mean their opposite, where paranoia was increasingly replacing reasoned argument, and where spectacle had pushed out sense. You were left with only gut feelings to lead your way through the fog of disinformation. I returned to the thing once known as “the West,” living in London and often working in the United States, because, in the words of my naïve self, I wanted to live in a world where “words have meaning,” where facts were not dismissed as “just information war.” Russia seemed a country unable to come to terms with the loss of the Cold War, or with any of the traumas of the 20th century. It was ultimately, I thought, a sideshow, a curio pickled in its own agonies. Russians stressed this themselves: in Western Europe, America, things are “normalno” they would tell me. If you have the chance, that is where you send your wives, children, money … to “normalnost.”

Back in the West, however, I soon noticed things that reminded me of Moscow…

Peter Pomerantsev in an essay from his new book, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality: “Normalnost.”

Pair with his essay “The Info War of All Against All” and this review of his book.

[image above: source]

* Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto

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As we get down with Diogenes, we might expect little or no help from today’s birthday boy, Henri-Louis Bergson; he was born on this date in 1859.  A philosopher especially influential in the first half of the 20th Century, Bergson convinced many of the primacy of immediate experience and intuition over rationalism and science for the understanding reality…. many, but not the likes of Wittgenstein, Russell, Moore, and Santayana, who thought that he willfully misunderstood the scientific method in order to justify his “projection of subjectivity onto the physical world.”  Still, in 1927 Bergson won the Nobel Prize (in Literature); and in 1930, received France’s highest honor, the Grand-Croix de la Legion d’honneur.

Bergson’s influence waned mightily later in the century.  To the extent that there’s been a bit of a resurgence of interest, it’s largely the result, in philosophical circles, of Gilles Deleuze’s appropriation of Bergson’s concept of “mulitplicity” and his treatment of duration, which Deleuze used in his critique of Hegel’s dialectic, and in the religious and spiritualist studies communities, of Bergson’s seeming embrace of the concept of an overriding/underlying consciousness in which humans participate.

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Written by LW

October 18, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The reason I talk to myself is because I’m the only one whose answers I accept”*…

 

Robinson-DemocracyTruth_img

One of the stranger rituals performed by the media in the Trump era has been to keep an obsessive count of the president’s lies since he took office. By September 2018, TheWashington Post reported, he had already passed the 5,000 mark, including a new one-day record of 125 on September 7. The Poynter Institute’s nonpartisan fact-checking project PolitiFact keeps a running list, and The New York Times did likewise throughout 2017.

There is a certain pointlessness to these exercises. Anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to Donald Trump should recognize that, since long before his presidential campaign, he lies as easily as he breathes. He says whatever he thinks will get him what he wants, and whatever he thinks he can get away with. But if there is nothing truly revelatory about the number of Trump’s lies, keeping track of them still serves a variety of symbolic purposes for the commentators who repeat the steadily mounting figures with gleeful outrage. One is simply to underline the extent to which this is not a normal presidency. Another, far more debatable, is to hold up Trump as a symptom and symbol of what is often called the “post-truth era.”…

Princeton historian David Bell, reviewing Penn historian Sophia Rosenfeld’s Democracy and History: a Short History

Not only does she make short work of the “postmodernism is to blame” argument; she provides the historical background necessary to understand our current truth crisis. That a crisis does indeed exist, Rosenfeld has no doubt. But it is not one that came upon the Western world from nowhere, like a meteor strike vaporizing a peaceful pastoral landscape. Instead, it broke along an epistemological fault line that has existed in modern democratic regimes since their founding: Who has the authority, in a democracy, to determine what counts as truth—an elite of the supposedly best, most intellectually capable citizens, or the people as a whole?…

Rosenfeld cannot resist mentioning the Trump lie count at the start of her book. But rather than treat it as a shocking sign of the new “post-truth era,” she uses it to note the obvious fact that truth and democratic politics have “never been on very good terms.” If we are now living in an age of unprecedented mendacity, what was the Nixon administration? For that matter, no less an American icon than George Washington complained, at the end of his presidency, of the “ignorance of facts” and “malicious falsehoods” with which hostile newspapers had tried to destroy his reputation.

Rosenfeld also insists (borrowing, yes, from Foucault) that different societies exist under different “regimes of truth.” Not all truths are self-evident, and not all facts are easily verifiable, so societies need particular evidentiary standards and forms of authority to determine where truth lies. These can change from place to place and from era to era; they are rarely (if ever) stable or uncontested, but continuities are still discernible.

Our own regime of truth dates back to the 18th century, when a host of Enlightenment thinkers challenged established churches and rulers. They insisted that no single individual or institution should “hold a monopoly…on determining what counts as truth in public life” and disputed the idea—long promoted by absolute monarchs—that good rulership involved keeping most information secret and lying when necessary to protect the state. They put a premium on the values of openness, transparency, sincerity, freedom of expression, and unfettered debate. In short, they created the “truth culture of the transatlantic Enlightenment.”…

How does truth fit into democracy?  Read in full at “An Equal Say.”

* George Carlin

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As we contemplate context, we might recall that it was on this date in 1825 that the U.S. House of Representatives elected John Quincy Adams to the Presidency.  The election of 1824 had been contested by four candidates from the Democratic-Republican Party: John Quincy Adams, Andrew jackson, William Crawford, and Henry Clay.  Jackson won a plurality of the popular vote, and a plurality– but not a majority– of the electoral college vote… so the race went to the House of Representatives.  Per the Twelfth Amendment, the House considered the top three vote-getters in the electoral college.  That eliminated Clay, who threw his support to Adams– who prevailed.

After the election (the first in which a president did not receive the most popular votes; so far the only race settled in the House), Adams named Clay to the coveted post of Secretary of State– deemed “the corrupt bargain” by Jackson, who went on to form (what evolved into) the Democratic Party.  The Democratic-Republicans became the National Republican Party (AKA, the Anti-Jackson Party), then the Whig Party.

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Written by LW

February 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

“No high-minded man, no man of right feeling, can contemplate the lumbering and slovenly lying of the present day without grieving to see a noble art so prostituted”*…

 

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“Joesph’s Tunic” by Velasquez (in which Joseph’s sons lie to him…)

On the sad occasion of the passing of scholar, showman, and sleight-of-hand expert nonpareil Ricky Jay, your correspondent revisited this 2009 interview, conducted by another remarkable, filmmaker Errol Morris in the late, lamented New York Times‘ Opinionator blog….

We think we know what a lie is, but the moment we try to define it, we run into trouble. Take the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary. (A dictionary definition in an essay should be seen as a red flag, or at the very least, an amber cautionary light, but please bear with me.) According to the O.E.D., a lie is “a false statement made with intent to deceive.” The O.E.D. complicates matters by telling us that to deceive is “to cause to believe what is false, to mislead as to a matter of fact, to lead into error” [emphasis mine] [6]. It also tells us that “in modern use, the word [“lie”] is normally a violent expression of moral reprobation, which in polite conversation tends to be avoided, the synonyms falsehood and untruth being often substituted as relatively euphemistic.” This is where the trouble begins. Are “falsehood” and “untruth” really synonyms for a “lie?” Is lying an attempt merely to mislead or an attempt to get someone to believe that which is false? Or is lying used in two different ways? Here, I believe the O.E.D. is merely reinforcing a standard confusion. I would argue that all that is needed for lying are beliefs about what is true or false — not knowledge of what is true or false.

The fact that there are these two senses of lying gets us into trouble. When we focus on intent, the goal of lying seems utterly clear. When we focus on truth and falsity, we are often led into error…

Read it and reap: “Seven Lies About Lying, Part One and Part Two.”

* Mark Twain, “On the Decay of the Art of Lying”

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As we think about trickery, we might send mannerly birthday greetings to a master of the sly deception and the flattering white lie, Baldassare Castiglione; he was born on this date in 1478.  A Renaissance soldier, diplomat, and author, he is most famous for The Book of the Courtier.– a prime example of the courtesy book, offering advice on and dealing with questions of the etiquette and morality of the courtier– which was enormously influential in 16th century European court circles.

Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione

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Written by LW

December 6, 2018 at 1:01 am

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