On the Importance of Context and Perhaps Truth as Well

Pigs playing in shit

Morning Joe or mourning Joe?

“He punched me back, arrest him!!”  The cry of the absurdly privileged bully that’s become the rule in the United States for many, many things.  Perhaps that’s the way it’s always been.

I recall the image of American indigenous people portrayed in United States entertainment media when I was a child: bloodthirsty savages torturing, killing and raping whites, especially women, and then scalping them.  Of course, the fact that European colonists had started it all and were at least equally vicious was rarely alluded to, nor was the fact that the reactive actions of indigenous Americans were hyperbolically distorted.  The same has been true in most armed conflicts in which United States has participated (they used to be called wars but wars are now purportedly illegal).  The same is true of purported Muslim extremists today, those seeking to defend their own homelands from foreign invaders and Zionists colonization.

[From the shadows, a refrain: “No they’re not, they’re evil!  They hate our way of life, they hate liberty and freedom, and besides, they want to make us all Muslims, and if we didn’t invade them they’d invade us).  It is true that from time to time they succeed in relatively feeble efforts to strike back (at least comparatively feeble if we believe all life is sacred, but then, is collateral damage really life?).

The foregoing is an American cultural reality but perhaps it’s much more general, a natural human instinct tied to our instinct to prevaricate in order to avoid the consequences of our actions.  Some of our more innocuous traditions are illustrative.  American football now uses replay to correct official judgment errors but not in cases of “unsportsmanlike conduct” or “unnecessary roughness” when all too frequently the initial victim is the one penalized and the initial aggressor the one rewarded.  Almost anyone with more than one child has faced a similar arbitral dilemma (there may have been an exception somewhere, at some time, but probably not):  “She started it!!!”  “Did not, did not”  “Both of you stop it this instant”  “That’s not fair”.  Sound familiar?

Lying is never a good thing but our culture accepts a degree of lying as inevitable, a realistic acknowledgment; and other lying as “harmless”.  Harmless because on occasion it is virtually victimless without seriously negative consequences.  Of course, not all erroneous transmittal of information is lying.  For example, merely being mistaken is not the same as a lie.  Lying requires a knowledge that the information being conveyed is wrong.  The correction of a prior mistake is also not acknowledgment of a lie, it is in fact an indicia of a proclivity towards accuracy.  Neither is merely changing one’s mind even if the change is from one misconception to another.  But lying in its strict sense has become so pervasive in our society, especially in more “liberal” and more “tolerant” societies, that we have developed philosophies to justify it.  Philosophies premised on the belief that truth does not exist, that it is at best a relative concept, that reality is not something that can be definitively proven, that every person’s perception of truth is valid.  The more we think we learn about science and scientific methods, the more confused we become.  For example, time is “relative” and quantum mechanics, the science that appears to rule at the micro level, implies that existence is dependent on the observer.  Poor Schrodinger’s cat!!!  So we are left with “conventions”.  Tools we treat as truths because they seem to work.  Purported facts whose ultimate premises are unprovable on a permanent basis although if inaccurate they can at least be disproved.  The fundament of the so called scientific method.  No wonder we are so easy to confuse.

Even with conventions that we treat as truths there is a perceptual boundary that we no longer respect, for example, the “phenomenon colloquially described as “flat out lying”, i.e., making wholly inaccurate statements where all parties concerned know they’re inaccurate and the party responsible for the inaccuracy blatantly claims otherwise on the “premise that, if the “bluff” works, wrong becomes right and right becomes wrong.  Of course!  Right and wrong have also become relative concepts in our all too jaded society.  Winning is the only thing that matters, oh, amend that, and acquisition, and maintenance of power over others, and acquisition again.

Of course, notwithstanding our relativist notions and rhetorical talents actions do have consequences.  In societal contexts, truth is not an abstract moral concept.  It is a working premise for societal functioning without which the best we can hope for is dysfunction.  And dysfunction generally bears a price.  A price we are paying with a world in turmoil, with state sponsored murder legalized and the reaction of victims (what we generally describe as terrorism) criminalized; with resulting fear and insecurity for us all as victims refuse to cooperate by just “grinning and bearing it”, by just “laying back and enjoying it”.

In the United States, the deliberate and constant distortion of truth which we now refer to as political discourse and journalism are polarizing us more and more, having devolved into genres so lacking in even the veneer of verisimilitude that publishers of fiction might all too frequently reject them as lacking even the semblance of credibility.  But such lack of accuracy is being “addressed”, errr, I mean “corrected” (irony and satire for those who might not get it) by constant and hyperbolically hysterical repetition.  Political discourse and political reporting, for example, are no longer used primarily as ways of conveying accurate information from which analysis can lead to useful conclusions, but rather, as means of eliciting reactions that can then be distorted and manipulated in a way that generates the semblance of news but with enhanced entertainment value.  Entertainment value that generates increased ratings and increased ratings that generate greater income and greater income that increases stock prices, creating more and more illusory wealth while concurrently concentrating political power in “reliable hands” (in this context, “reliable has nothing to do with common welfare).

Recent illustrations of the foregoing involve surreptitiously obtained information (from a CNN producer) concerning the creation of a “Russiagate” narrative (not just by CNN but by almost all of the mainstream media) in order to increase ratings, notwithstanding the fact that such creative activities might lead to nuclear holocaust.  The goal is a bit more ambitious though.  During the last presidential election one candidate refused to follow the script and somehow, against virtually all odds, won, and that needs correcting to return power to “more reliable hands”.  Not that the winning candidate and the winning political party (part of the two-headed monster some refer to as the duopoly) had beneficent policies or a profound regard for truth, neither major party does, but instead that the losing candidate had been duly selected beforehand in sacredly secret conclave (notwithstanding that such party’s primary voters had probably opted for another, but less “reliable” option).  That error must be corrected according to the mainstream media, the shocked electoral loser and the carefully implanted members of the misnamed “intelligence community”, and no holds can be barred.  None at all.  Even if they have to be made up.

With sufficient hyperbolically hysterical repetition and induced reaction it is hoped that Floridian mole hills can become Colorado Rocky Mountains; after all, truth is relative at best and most probably irrelevant: the “show’s the thing”.  Indeed, through trial and error and even more, through observation of quotidian phenomena, cultural dissimulation is being constantly improved thus, using temporal tools segmenting a sequence of related events and cutting off those that prove inconvenient, i.e., ignoring inconvenient “truths”, victims can easily be converted into purported victimizers. Hmmm, that sounds a bit too complex and too confusing, so, how about an example?  How about the one we started with? By ignoring the fact that one person initiated an aggressive assault by punching another, the reactive defensive violence of the victim can be made to appear as the initial aggression.  Easy!

A specific very recent example of the foregoing involves the cable “news” network MSNBC (don’t want to always pick on CNN, the NYT or the Wapo, … they now like being referred to in acronyms for some reason, like the CIA, NSA and FBI, a virtual acronymicon).  So, … MSNBC (the new Fox News), as one of the more “creative” participants in the mainstream media, has a poorly rated morning show hosted by a former Republican congressman, who, following his defeat, has over the years and after his recent engagement come to see the “political light” (the show is co-hosted by his fiancé).  For months, in an effort to boost its dismal ratings, the co-hosts have followed the template set by the host of another program on the same cable network (a much more successfully rated show) by constantly insulting and berating the current erroneously elected (according to them) President  and his entire family.  Their “commentary” has been consistently laced with vicious and disgusting appellations, involving not only his integrity and intelligence (fair targets, he is not the most accurate person around) but even remarks concerning hoped for results of his bodily functions, his hair, the way he ties his ties, the relative size of his reproductive organs compared to his hands, etc., etc., etc. ad nauseum.  A few days ago, they hit pay “dirt”, at least as interpreted by them and their mainstream media colleagues.  The President hit back, perhaps as good as he got.  Although his “tweeted” comments (the only way he can evade the mainstream media filter) may well have been accurate, they were also rude, crude and irrelevant.  The resulting cacophony is deafening.  It has to be.  The Russiagate angle had no useful new fictions to play that day.  And the ratings?  Expect them to skyrocket!!!!  Excelsior (whatever that means).  A brand new storyline, not just a story, expect it to stretch and stretch and stretch, after all, having no substance it can easily stretch almost infinitely.  And the common welfare, tax reform, healthcare, infrastructure, immigration reform, employment, the quest for equity, equality and peace, minimization of corruption?  Not to worry, they’re being mishandled too.

A rude, crude metaphor comes to mind, “playing in shit”, although it lacks the element of irrelevancy (if not irreverence) that seems so popular nowadays.  “Down the toilet bowl” may also be a useful metaphor.  The imagery may be “profound” (if puns are the lowest form of humor, that does not always deprive them of utility).

“He punched me back, arrest him!!”  The cry of the absurdly privileged bully that’s become the rule in the United States for many, many things.  Perhaps that’s the way it’s always been.

© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2017; all rights reserved

Guillermo Calvo Mahé is a writer, political commentator and academic currently residing in the Republic of Colombia.  Until recently he chaired the Political Science, Government and International Relations programs at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales.  He has academic degrees in political science, law, international legal studies and translation studies and can be contacted at wacalvo3@autonoma.edu.co.  Much of his writing is available through his blog at www.guillermocalvo.com.

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