Many years ago, during a visit to my family in my hometown of Boaz, Alabama, I got the notion to prepare a really fabulous meal for everybody.
On the face of it, this would seem like a nice gesture, but don’t fool yourself. I was thirty years old, and my snobbery knew no limits. I was from Boaz, but not of Boaz; I had gone away and become part of a wider world, and a fancy meal was just another way to prove my superiority. (I suppose all escapees from small towns go through that phase somewhere down the line. We’re Truman Capote or Andy Warhol: We go away for a few years, then come back to visit, proudly bearing suitcases full of Robert Rauschenberg and Igor Stravinsky and W. H. Auden and chicken recipes in Italian.)
At that time there were two grocery stores of any size and scope in the town, a Piggly Wiggly and an A&P. Since our family had patronized the Piggly Wiggly since time immemorial, that’s where I went to gather the materials for the feast I was planning. Spinach. Chicken breasts. Feta. Nutmeg (and something to grate it with). Butter. Balsamic vinegar.
My scheme was, of course, doomed from the beginning. The month was December. Spinach was available only as little green bricks packed in torn cardboard, crusted with ice that smelled faintly of cat urine; the chicken breasts were gray and exhausted, having been frozen and thawed more often than Great Bear Lake; the only cheese available – apart from Kraft “cheese food products” – was a rubbery orange material that claimed to have been manufactured with, but not of, real milk; and there was no butter, only margarine. Nutmeg was there, yes, but pre-ground in a tiny red-capped plastic jar, with a sell-by date some three years previous to that of my visit. Vinegar was limited to cider and distilled white, in half-gallon jugs.
I made do, but I also made a fuss. After all, my true purpose – had I been willing to admit it – was to display my superior savoir-faire before the benighted locals, and this could be served just as easily by a spectacular failure that spotlighted the shortcomings of the local supermarket as by a successful dining experience.
Predictably, dinner was a flop, nobody enjoyed themselves – and I found myself even more frustrated and unhappy than I had been at the beginning of the process.
In retrospect, the problem is easy to see. I was desperately anxious to prove that I was so ill-adapted to the pond that had spawned me not because there was something wrong with me, but because I was in fact not a fish or a frog at all: I was a rabbit or a raccoon, not damaged or inadequate, just a critter meant for a completely different environment.
I refused to look honestly at what I was doing and why, and as a result went to a lot of trouble and expense only to make myself and everyone around me miserable.
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Back in 1546, English poet and playwright John Heywood noted that “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” Heywood understood the difference between ignorance derived from a lack of information, and stupidity, in which the individual has the facts in front of him but chooses to deny them out of weakness, or laziness, or to protect prejudices or comfortable misconceptions.
Philosophers and theologians have struggled since the dawn of time with the question of objective truth: Is anything true in a universal, abstract sense, or is all information contingent, dependent on our perceptions and our ability to process the data? In 1637 René Descartes decided that nothing could be trusted but the fact that we were asking the question in the first place; while his “cogito ergo sum” makes a great bumper sticker, it unfortunately doesn’t give us much to work with. Gravity happens: if I step off the edge of the roof, I’m going to slam into the ground a split-second later. I can refuse to accept the existence of gravity as an objective truth, but I’m still going to bust my head every time I perform the experiment. We have to lay down some basic ground rules and agree that some things are “real”, regardless of ideology, or we don’t survive.
In the science of decision theory, there is a principle called “minimax/maximin”. Here, absolutes are irrelevant. The goal is to minimize the possible bad outcomes of a decision, while maximizing the possible good outcomes. In his “Pensees”, Blaise Pascal (1623-62) stated his argument for believing in God: “If I bet that God DOES exist, and he does, I win everything, and if I lose, I lose nothing. If I bet that God DOES NOT exist, and I win, I win nothing, but if I lose? I lose everything.” Truth becomes a question of calculation.
We all want certain things to be true, and others to be false. We can, to some degree, even behave according to those desires: believing that Santa Claus lives in a vast factory complex at the north pole, churning out billions of brand-name consumer items that he will then distribute – at no cost to anyone, anywhere – during a single twenty-four hour period each December … Well, it’s a lovely idea, and I think we’d all like to be able to embrace it, but if we plan our holiday budgeting around that premise there’s going to be trouble.
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Pretending that six hundred thousand people is a vastly larger crowd than one-point-eight million people is not “alternative facts”, it’s just foolishness; especially when the issue in question is not even of any real importance. “Spinning” information – presenting data in such a way as to support a particular objective — is a tried and true component of our politics, our marketing, our advertising, and always will be, but even when we’re selling toothpaste or movie tickets or smartphones – or inaugural crowds, or border fences, or oil pipelines – we have to be able to discern the objective reality for ourselves. We can lie to everyone else, but the essence of a useful lie is that the liar knows that it’s a lie, and can act on the basis of the truth, regardless of what sort of fiction he or she is promoting to the crowd. I may convince you that gravity is a hoax, and that it’s perfectly safe for you to walk off the roof of a four-story building, but that scheme only works as long as I know that I’m lying to you: if I believe my own “alternative facts”, and I walk off the roof myself, then the game is over.
My relationship to my origins is still pretty complicated, but I have, over time, come to realize that the best thing for everybody involved is to simply face the facts: it’s useless to try to manage that relationship on the basis of what I think should be true, or what I wish were true, or what I have believed in the past to be true. I need to try to assess the facts, dispassionately and objectively, to the best of my ability. If I want to make things work, I have to be honest about what I’m trying to do, and about what the circumstances are – honest with others, yes, but most importantly, honest with myself.
Voltaire pointed out in 1733 that “The interest I have in believing a thing is not a proof of the existence of that thing.” We may not all agree as to what the facts are, but we can agree that the facts matter, that there is such a thing as objective reality, and that we should refer to it when we make the important decisions for ourselves and for those who depend on us. As soon as we start telling ourselves that the truth is nothing but an ideological construct, to be invented or destroyed or ignored at will, we’re only one step away from that long dive off the roof.