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.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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