XCII – Inconstant Interests in Truth

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Such is
the irresistible nature of truth that all
it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of
appearing.

~
Thomas Paine

Oliver
Stone's latest film, Alexander, has awakened the producer's
critics for another cycle of furious clucking over his alleged intertwining
of truth and fiction. One could take reviews of his movie, JFK,
substitute the main character and film title with "Alexander,"
and read the same basic critique. Even some Greeks are getting in
on the Stone-stoning, upset that his movie distorts Alexander's
life.

It
is amusing to observe the inconstancy with which truth is treated
in our modern culture. To begin with, one must bear in mind that
Oliver Stone is in the business of producing films for the entertainment
of theater audiences. To my knowledge, he does not hold himself
out to be either a scholar of history or a documentarian. Nor is
he the first Hollywood producer to present a fictionalized account
of historic events. To the contrary, the vaults are filled with
movies depicting the lives of great and not-so-great men and women;
wars — in which members of the "home team" are always
noble and brave, while the "enemy" is vicious and inhumane;
and well-staged recreations of earlier periods.

There
has long been a willingness to grant "poetic license"
to producers of fiction, and for their audiences to recognize the
need to "suspend judgment" in responding to their works.
While I have always preferred Gore Vidal's approach — in which his
novels incorporate actual words and actions of historic figures
into fictionalized settings — I am prepared to regard novels, plays,
and films for what they are: allegorical works designed to represent
some aspect of the human condition.

This
process of fictionalizing history did not begin with Oliver Stone.
Before Greek critics become too self-righteous in this matter, they
should review the writings of Sophocles, Euripides, and Homer, to
see how closely they conformed to the empirical record. Nor can
Shakespeare be immunized against the insistence that fiction not
be intertwined with truth. What judgments are we to pass upon Charles
Dickens, who used historic periods for the playing out of his imagination?
And shall we condemn Frank Capra because there was no "Mr.
Smith
" who went to Washington? Shall Gone
With the Wind
be reviled for having misled people to believe
in the authenticity of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara?

I
might have given little pause to this current demand for truthfulness
in film-making, were it not for the political and social setting
in which it is being voiced. It is astounding that men and women
can be critical of a man whose work is admittedly that of marketing
fictionalized entertainment while, at the same time, they ignore
their president's blatant lying and other factual distortions that
have thus far produced the slaughter of over 100,000 people! For
whatever reasons, many moviegoers are unwilling to go to a theater
to watch the fictional exploits of an ancient who conquered his
then-known world, but will show up at polling booths to vote for
a contemporary tyrant who desires to conquer the world.

Nor
are the critics of Mr. Bush terribly bothered by his endless dishonesty.
John Kerry had little criticism to offer of the systematic deceit
and lying of the Bush administration. Being a politician, he may
have desired to protect the epistemological precept upon which all
political systems ultimately rely: truth-telling as simply one of
many competing strategies.

Perhaps
the indignation expressed over Oliver Stone's alleged distortions
of truth represents a form of psychological projection or transference.
Unwilling to condemn the falsehoods of the current political system
with which they associate themselves, many find it safer to criticize
Stone for his deviations from the truth. Oliver Stone — and Alexander
— thus become convenient scapegoats for people who fear looking
into the mirror of a corrupt system with which they identify their
very being. Such thinking helps explain why Martha Stewart can be
pilloried and imprisoned for telling an insignificant lie — one
that led to the death or injury of no one — while George Bush was
reelected despite his constant lying that has produced casualties
in the hundreds of thousands.

Most
of mankind suffers from an irregularity regarding both the nature
and the importance of "truth." Unlike other species, we
humans have few instincts to direct our behavior, thus we must rely
on consciousness to analyze situations in which we find ourselves,
and to generate effective courses of action. While we live in an
objective world, our understanding of that world can never be anything
more than our mind's subjective experiences with the world. Contrary
to political types who insist on babbling about what "society
believes," there is no collective means by which we can comprehend
reality. The search for truth and understanding is an inherently
individual undertaking that occurs within the subjective
mind of each of us.

If
we are to live well — in both the material and spiritual sense —
truth-seeking and truth-telling must be integrated
with an awareness that our efforts will always be clouded in uncertainty
and the illusions that the Hindus refer to as "maya."
Understanding arises from the interplay of the search for truth
and a willingness to be comfortable with the uncertainties that
increasingly arise from that search. Einstein expressed this relationship
well when he observed: "as a circle of light increases, so
does the circumference of darkness around it."

Unfortunately,
the human mind has a way of institutionalizing its present understanding;
of resisting anything that does not fit within the well-defined
patterns we subjectively create for ourselves. The older we become,
the more rigidly we cling to our established patterns of "reality,"
a malady Marshall McLuhan described as a "hardening of the
categories." Our minds mirror the insistence of social institutions
to structure thinking and behavior in ways that pose no threat to
their existence. If an "institution" can be defined as
an organization that has become its own reason for being, our mind
can be seen as an institution structured around the very patterns
it has created for itself!

When
our mind identifies itself with an institution (e.g., the state)
it resists any inquiries that threaten the well-being of that with
which it has defined itself. This is the reason most Americans
really don't care that government officials — who exercise the power
of the state — lie to them. If George Bush was to go on television
and announce that all of his post 9/11 policies were grounded in
lies that he had fabricated, most Americans would praise the
man for his "honesty" about being a liar!

This
tolerance for dishonesty arises not so much from a basic character
flaw as from a desire to protect the image of any system with which
people associate themselves. This attitude helps to explain the
wimpish presidential campaign of the Democrats, who did not want
to see the office whose power they covet besmirched by revelations
of wrongdoing. One sees the same tendency in most police officers
who, while preferring not to be associated with officers who behave
as brutish thugs, will nonetheless refuse to condemn their actions
lest it bring discredit upon the police system.

Another
expression of institutionalized minds is found in the willingness
of more people to trust news reports from the establishment media
than from alternative sources such as the Internet. Any discussion
of the Internet as an important information source is almost always
accompanied by the platitude "but one must be skeptical of
what one reads there, because anyone can put out whatever they want."
As a very skeptical person, I wholeheartedly agree with this caveat,
and only wish that those who recite this new social catechism would
be as eager to follow the same course of action when watching network
television news, or reading the major self-styled newspapers "of
record."

The
Internet represents the same threat to established interests today
that Guttenberg's invention posed to the institutional interests
of yore: a means for individualizing — and thus decentralizing —
the pursuit of truth and understanding. Because modern inquisitions
and heresy trials might unduly disturb the consciousness of even
the most politically-conditioned man or woman, the state will confront
this threat to collective thinking in other ways. All sorts of Internet
regulations will be imposed in the name of protecting your "privacy,"
while more straight-forward attacks will take the form offered by
Hillary Clinton when she urged that the Internet needed a "gatekeeper,"
to prevent just anyone from getting on and expressing their
viewpoint! Dragging out the ubiquitous hobgoblin of "terrorism,"
former CIA Director George Tenet echoed Hillary when he declared
that the "free and open society" represented by the Internet
"must give way to governance and control."

But
don't let the fact that government officials habitually lie to the
public, or that they fear the openness of the Internet, lead you
to conclude that the state has a complete hostility to the pursuit
of truth. It is deeply interested in the truth of your beliefs,
activities, financial dealings, and group associations and, to this
end, has set up elaborate systems of surveillance to not only watch
your movements, but to get into your business, health, and banking
records; credit-card purchases; computer systems; and library selections.
Indeed, your interference with their efforts to discover the truth
about you may lead to your criminal prosecution.

On
the other hand, the state has no interest in having you learn the
truth about its activities. In the name of "national
security," or its desire to protect the identities of its intelligence
agents, it will insist upon the inviolability of "state secrets."
Journalists who reveal what the state does not want exposed may
face criminal liability, a consequence made easier by the willingness
of Boobus Americanus to look upon inquisitive news reporters
with contempt. Likewise, while state officials feel free to pry
into your computer files for whatever information they want, you
had better not try getting into their computer systems lest
you find yourself labeled today's all-purpose bogeyman: a terrorist.

There
is almost an inverse relationship here: the more state functionaries
lie to and deceive us, the more truthful we are expected to be toward
them. The less accountable the state is for its falsehoods, the
greater the power it expects to have over the factual details of
our lives.

How
we regard the role of truth will determine whether or not we will
live with integrity (i.e., as integrated, non-contradictory
beings). Psychiatrists' couches are filled by people whose lives
are confused and disordered from years of faking reality. The social
consequences of this behavior are clear: a culture that disrespects
truth and reveres liars has but a bleak future.

"Truth"
is a quality that is inherently subjective and elusive, whose uncertainties
are compounded, exponentially, by the unpredictable nature of a
complex world. For truth to have a creative and peaceful influence
upon our lives, we must have a deep respect for its importance and,
at the same time, a strong sense of humility regarding the conclusions
we reach. That respect is exemplified by treating truth more as
a verb (i.e., truth-seeking) than as a noun (i.e.,
fixed, definitive answers). Our world is being torn apart
by men and women who long ago gave up the search for truth, and
who are now peddling — at the point of a gun — rigid, absolutist
practices grounded in the proposition that a lie is as good as the
truth as long as people will believe it.

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