Opinion » Maxed Out

Welcome to the age of the alternative truth



"...truth is truth. To the end of reckoning."
"...while you live, tell truth and shame the devil!"

I didn't say either of those things. Well, I might have said the first part of the first one in a cheap, tautological attempt to define truth when called on in a class I'd been napping through, but both quotes are way too cool to have come from me. William Shakespeare said them, or rather penned them, long ago and far away. They're just snippets from a couple of his plays — Measure for Measure and Henry IV, respectively, if you're the kind of curious person who just has to know details like that — and, as such, are taken grossly out of context. To put them into their actual context would take this whole column. As appealing as that seems this morning, since it would relieve me from coming up with anything more to say, it would probably run counter to the admittedly unspecific agreement I have with Pique to write something marginally original, unless I'm lost at sea without an Internet connection, in which case I can rerun an old column.

Originality is a tricky concept and, truth be told, since we seem to be on a truth vector this week, isn't always all it's cracked up to be. Some years ago, an aspiring actor-playwright did a one-man show off, off Broadway. It consisted of him, sitting at a small table, under a bare bulb, sipping unidentified liquid from an oversized coffee cup and reading the New York phone book. The only other prop was a lacquered bamboo backscratcher that sat on the table and piqued the audience's curiosity about when, or if, it might ever be put to use. The show ran some three hours and closed, not surprisingly, after its first night. He is, today, doing community theatre in Columbus, Ohio, and working in an abattoir to make ends meat.

But truth has been on my mind a lot lately, largely because it seems to have become a much more slippery concept than it used to be. I wouldn't be surprised if it was on yours as well since we've morphed from a post-truth world to an alternative truth one.

Choosing to tell the truth or tell a lie used to be pretty much a binary choice. If you were predisposed to tell the truth, whether for reasons of scruples or simply because you couldn't keep your lies straight, you just told the truth and let the consequences flow. If chronic truth-telling became apparent early enough in your life, some benevolent guidance counsellor might have tried to steer you into areas of endeavour where truth wouldn't be a handicap. Cheesemaking, for instance, or maybe woodworking.

If lying was your long suit, you probably thought you were better at it than you really were. Sooner or later, everyone around you clued into your modus operandi and came to regard you as, well, a liar. They may well have continued to be your friends and even liked you but they tended not to completely believe you in matters that counted. If your lies were relatively harmless and interesting to listen to, you may have been encouraged to become a writer. Don't ask me how I know this. But if your lies were too wild to be misconstrued as fiction or hinted at a pathological predisposition to lie, careers in marketing, investment banking or politics may have been strongly recommended.

Marketing types generally tend to tell lies that cater to our innate sense of illusory self-esteem. For example, that smoking makes us look cool or that shiny convertible is a chick magnet or just the right mascara will have men falling at your feet. More often than not, these lies are relatively harmless, smoking being a notable exception unless you're the current vice-president of the U.S., and, if we're truthful with ourselves — one of the hardest truths in the universe — a deception we willingly engage in and whose ultimate lack of truth we deserve when we eventually discover it.

For most of history, bankers didn't have to tell lies, per se. Controlling money and access to money was powerful enough to make lies irrelevant. When good, old-fashioned profitability became harder and harder to come by, lying became more fashionable in banking circles. And when the barriers between investment banks and commercial banks were ripped away, all hell broke loose and lying was raised to a fine art as witnessed by the phony-baloney "securities" created by bundling bogus mortgages. The too-big-to-fail myth bailed bankers collective butts out on that one and probably will again when their next big lie is revealed.

Politics, though, is where lying can really pay off. Whether it's as seemingly benign as telling people what they want to hear or as grotesque as looting the national treasury, politics is a magnet for liars who find the risks of honestly swindling people too dangerous.

The political arena is so rife with self-serving lies that the Supreme Court of Canada actually had to hand down a decision a couple of years ago enshrining political lying as the law of the land. No one can legally hold a politician to the truth of what they say and, to grossly paraphrase the Court, you'd have to be some kind of fool to believe what the buggers tell you.

But until now, at least in a North American context, political lying has generally been of the sort designed to get liars elected in the first place, keep them out of trouble — "I didn't have sex with that woman!", "I'm not a crook!" — or rally the populace into supporting the immoral and unnecessary wars.

Until now.

Now we are witnessing a relatively new variant — a pathological liar holding high office. A person who seems incapable of actually distinguishing truth from alternative truth. A person who will lie and when presented evidence of the lie, lie about ever having told the lie.

While this would be amusing if it weren't so infuriating, it's coupled with an old variant of the lying game, one that history has proven over and over again is dangerous. That would be the Ministry of Propaganda and its current head. The devil with a stick that not only tells lies, stating, for example, "We have the right to disagree with facts," — think about that — but will lash out and punish those, especially in what laughingly used to be called the "free press," who publish truths, which are called lies by the liars, and simultaneously admonish them for not spreading party-approved propaganda.

Now, let me see, when in the recent past, say the middle of the last century, did we see that play out? And to what end?

No hints; it'll come to me.