Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Enlightenment! Truth! Propaganda!

Across the world we have people complaining about Donald Trump. Politicians, software engineers, artists, photographers. Colbergs.

A not uncommon theme is the notion that Enlightenment Values of reason and logic have abruptly fallen by the wayside, discarded by a madman, and replaced with wild delarations about FAKE NEWS and whatnot. The world, in the minds of many, is divided in to Before Trump and After Trump, and in the BT people were swayed by reason, by common sense. Why, a man could effect change with a properly formatted syllogism!

This is utter BS. What makes Trump distinct is that his lies are misaligned with the lies his own administration drags out. His wild-eyed and nonsensical stories are, as often as not, the exact opposite of the wild-eyed nonsensical stories peddled by his own staff. That's genuinely interesting and new, but the lying part isn't new at all. These are, and long have been, people for whom truth isn't an interesting idea.

What is infuriating to see from the Colberg set is the hand-wringing "whatever shall we do? this is unfamiliar territory!" narrative. Are these dopes so dumb as to be unable to make the leap from the fact of propaganda in general, and the Farm Security Administration photographs in particular, to this modern context?

There are reasons that those in power find the idea of Truth to be uninteresting.

The first is that it is devilishly difficult to actually get your arms around. My daughter knocks a cup off the table, and it shatters. That is a fact. But what is the true story here? She was riding her scooter in the house, too fast, and not completely in control. But also my other daughter left the cup on the edge of the table, on a placemat. The placemat had slipped partially off the table, so a corner was hanging over the edge, because Dad was distracted by the dog's whining to go out as he tidied up the table. It was that stray corner of fabric that the younger daughter brushed as she scooted past.

Is it the dog's fault that the cup was broken? Or was the root cause Dad's carelessness? Or is it the older daughter's failure to bring her cup back to the kitchen?

These things unpack indefinitely, back to the Big Bang, if you're not careful. A proper and Truthful Account of the Incident of the Cup unravels things to a degree, but not to the ultimate degree, and assigns cause in a just fashion. I am put in mind of the accident reports produced by the NTSB (which investigates transportation accidents here in the USA, with a degree of rigor and, well, taste, which simply has to be read to be grasped.)

The second reason power finds Truth uninteresting flows from the first. Given the inherently squishy nature of these things, the world lends itself to selective telling. If you're good at this, you can stick to factual statements, and still shape the tale to your own ends and give, ultimately, an impression which suits you best. It may or may not resemble the actual state of affairs as others might see it.

Power, having ends to which it would like to shape stories, finds this irresistible.

The official story of the killing of Osama bin Laden and Seymour Hersh's story of the same agree on almost every single factual detail, but are completely different stories. The former, naturally, makes the government of the USA look a lot better.

Imagine, if you will, a boxing match between Bob and Abe. Bob was awarded the win by the judges, having handily beaten Abe in the first two rounds, and finally knocked him out in the third round. How might one mis-report this?

One might report this with a photograph that was completely contrafactual. One might photoshop Abe into a frame showing his arm held aloft by the referee, indicating victory.

One might report this with a factual photograph taken in the first round in which Abe is shown smashing Bob in the face, Bob reeling backwards with his his face distorted by the force of the blow.

One might use a series of pictures, which the viewer would take as a representation of the ryhthm of the fight. You could show Abe consistently beating Bob down, with Bob finally landing a lucky shot in the middle of round three, apparently winning almost by accident.

The first would be the Trumpian mode. The judges, if they saw your report, would say "But.. that did not happen." The others would be the mode of a competent world leader. The judges would be unable to say that none of the pictures are true, but would likely hem and haw about "it wasn't like that" but would be easily discredited by demanding that they point out exactly which picture it is that's untrue. The truth, NTSB report style, is a subtle and nuanced thing, too complex to be grasped quickly, too complex to be summarized in a few sound bites, a few photos.

Now, you could argue that if you simply photographed Bob with his arm held up by the referee, indicating his victory, well then you'd have the Truth. And certainly that would be more true than the false reports I suggested. But it would not in any meaningful way be The Truth, it would simply be a shorthand easily grasped symbol that happens to align with what a sensible person would agree to be The Truth.

In the real world, few things have as clear and simple an answer as "to which contestant did the judges award the victory", the real world, especially the political one, has rather more issues which take the general shape of, "So, tell me, how did World War I start?"

In this sort of world, there is no simple summary. There is no single thread of story that sensible people would agree is true. There is only the mass of detail, of nuanced and subtle analysis.

Why did Hillary Clinton lose the presidential election? Was it because she labelled a mass of people "deplorables?" Was it because she did not campaign in the state of Wisconsin? Was it this? Was it that?

There is a long list of things which, if she had done any 1 or 2 or 3 of them differently, she might have won. If there are 50 things on that list, which one can you reasonably describe as "the cause" of her loss? What, in reasonable terms, is "the cause?" Well, none of them and all of them. There is no glib answer here, there is only the mass of detail.

When you have these masses of detail, these stories in which The Truth if present at all is multi-faceted and complex, there is an opportunity to carve out a narrative. Any selected thread through the mass will be, in a sense, a lie. If it be not a lie, well then it certainly is not The Truth.

Confronted with these complex and subtle stories like "Why did WWI start", "Why did Hilary lose?", "Why does Poverty Happen?" and so on, we can imagine that a person might dig through the mass of material and analysis, and having carried out a complete survey, develop a sort of gestalt understanding. Then we might imagine that many people did this, each arriving at their own gestalt.

Do these various broad understandings, arrived at by honest, earnest, and reasonable people generally agree or not? One might imagine a sort of cloud of these understandings, one point representing each person's view. Is that cloud diffuse, spread out all over the place? Or is it a dense mass? In the latter case, one might say that there is a sort of Truth to the whole thing, a fairly clear, more or less agreeable-upon notion of What Happened. In the former, perhaps there simply isn't.

And so when we carve out a narrative, a single thread, a voice, which takes on a particular viewpoint, is there even a Truth for that narrative to align with? Perhaps there is, perhaps there is not.

If that cloud of hypothetical gestalts of understanding be diffuse, then there really does not seem to be anything one can do except tell this story or that, according to your lights. There is nothing in play that really resembles a Truth. No judges agreed that Bob won, there's really just a mass of material and myriad interpretations of it, peppered through with the occasional fact like "the bridge collapsed" and "the dog died".

If that cloud of hypothetical gestalts be dense, coherent, then perhaps there is a Truth, roughly speaking, that one's narrative might align with.

That narrative would not be true, such a single thread, a single opinion, a single slice, will not an any meaningful way explicate the truth of the matter. At best it will be a symbol, a representation, which might align with some notion of Truth, if these even is such a thing.

Life magazine, it is generally assumed, provided us with wonderful picture-drive narratives that aligned with truths, where possible. I have in my hands an issue for October of 1946, with a little photo essay on the death sentences handed down at Nürnberg. We see before and after photos of Göring, Ribbentrop, Funk, Streicher, Raeder, and Hess. The before are generally official portraits from during or before the war, the men look well fed, arrogant, proud. The afters are from the trial period, and then men invariably look desperate, haggard, usually thinner. We have a photo of the transcript room, essentially a sea of paper, and a caption referring to millions of recorded words.

Turning the page we find photographs of the wives and children of some of the convicted, along with a few more or less random personal notes. So and so was a minor actress. So and so was rude to the other wives. A little personal touch.

In 4 pages, 18 photographs, and a few lines of of text, Life gives us the Nürnberg trials. These men, bad men (Striecher is a "Jew-baiter", Göring shifty, Life is not pulling its punches) have been tried, at great length and detail, have been sentenced to die, and have already paid a substantial toll. Their wives and children are ordinary women, suffering as well, grieving as one might expect. These men were not only architects of great evil, but also were people with wives, children. Parts of their existence were quite ordinary, parts were extraordinary, and their end will also be.

Is this Truth? Sure, the pictures are indexes, the facts described are factual, and even the overall impression is probably not something any sensible person would disagree with. Is it complete? Certainly not. Is it almost hilariously trivializing of a monumental moment in modern history? Yes. Yes it is.

The FSA photo archive is, I suspect, one of those veins of narrative drawn from a mass of detail which itself admits no agreed-upon truth. There is only the detail of the depression, of the plight of the American Farmer in that time, of the dust bowls, of the migrations. Nonetheless, drawn from this mass Roy Stryker drew a tale of the basic resilience and strength of the American, especially the rural American. He drew a story of trials faced with iron will, of struggle, of difficulty to be, inevitably, overcome. He drew from the mass of detail, a strong and clear argument for the power and influence of the Farm Security Administration. It is well documented that he did so deliberately, with real ability, according to a set of methods that were in no way mysterious.

Again, the pictures are indexes, the facts are (mostly) factual. The story given is in no meaningful way Truth, because there is no meaningful over-arching Truth here, there are only details and situations, individual stories, and the facts of the weather, the price of cotton, and so on.

And so on and so forth.

What is missing in this modern era is not an understanding of the methods. What is missing is the organization skills to make something happen. We see occasional photo essays here and there, notably the New York Times occasionally puts together a handful of pictures. But the NYT has sold its credibility with the masses long ago. We're left with dipshits like Reading The Pictures with their endless sneering pseudo-academic virtue signalling. We're left with dipshits like Colberg, bleating about how awful fascism is (again, mere virtue signalling).

Nobody is taking a strong editorial stance, backed up with credibility, to carve those stories out of the mass of detail. The press is trapped in some hideous middle ground between toadying to corporate masters and some half-assed attempt at even-handedness.

It's some sort of minor scandal when some photograph of a weeping child turns out not to have been one of the children forcibly removed from its parents by the recent catastrophic ICE policy here in the USA. Who cares? There were children removed, and they wept. This is not a picture to back down on, this is a picture to double down on. Why are we not seeing strongly positioned photo essays produced on a daily basis?

The methods are clear and well known, the motivation appears to be there, if we measure by the sheer tonnage of pearls being clutched.

The left appears to be in the hands of basically stupid people focused on their careers. Virtue signalling is the proper path to career advancement on the left, not strong editorial positions skillfully executed, unfortunately.


  1. You can flim-flam this all you like, mister, with your sophisticated "what is truth?" routine, but everyone knows that breaking that cup was your fault.

    Can't disagree with that final paragraph, though. I sometimes have the feeling that that might, in some obscure chain of causation rooted in personal laziness and aversion to meetings and committees, be my fault. Ah well, too late now to rule the world.

    Love "sheer tonnage of pearls being clutched", btw.


    1. It's true that I am preparing my defense, desperately hoping to weasel out of it.

      Together, we are remaking the English Language!