Saturday, March 31, 2012

real scared

You're not makin' it easy for me and Opie to walk down Main Street.

-- Paul David and John L. Greene, "The Battle of Mayberry" (April 4, 1966)

So I wuz' a-watching this episode of The Andy Griffith Show, and it near scared me to death.  Seems Opie was writin' a historical essay for a contest, and they would publish the winning essay in the paper.  The topic was the legendary Battle of Mayberry, when heroic settlers defeated the savage Indians, and made North Carolina safe for little groups of white men.  And the kids were supposed to do a lot of research.  After all, there was a lot of material to work with.  Everybody in town had an ancestor in the battle, and everybody's ancestor was the main hero.  Aunt Bee told about Captain Taylor, and Clara showed up with the actual sword that had won the battle, and Floyd the Barber and Goober fought about their forbears till they stopped talking.  Opie wrote all their stories down in his notebook.  He even talked to Tom Strongbow, who told him how the Cherokee Chief Strongbow (who was of course the hero of the battle) with fifty braves turned back five times that number of white people who had guns, winning the victory and protecting the ancestral hunting grounds.

So to help Opie get an edge in the contest, and perhaps to resolve the conflicts in his source material, Andy took Opie to the big city library to find something more like original sources; and Opie found out the truth.

And here's the truth.  There was no battle.  There was an argument between fifty Indians and fifty settlers about cattle, and they all made up their differences and got drunk together, and by mistake somebody shot a cow, and that was the only casualty.  There was no battle.

"Oh boy," said Andy.

And here' s where I got real scared, because I thought I saw where this was going.  'Cause Opie would obviously win the contest, and then they would publish his essay, and it would insult everybody in town (and their heroic ancestors), and Opie would be the least popular boy in school, and Andy the least popular sheriff.  The real treasure of Mayberry was of course its community spirit.  So no true citizen of Mayberry, no public official or  leader, would want to shred the consensus on which community depended, for the sake of a revisionist history.  So this is where it was going: Andy was a-settin' out to suppress the truth.  And I was scared he would win.

First he tried to corrupt his son.  He told Opie that he didn't have to publish what he knew -- that his essay would still be the best in the school, and he would still win the contest and get published in the paper.  He told him how important it was to keep the peace, and respect people's feelings, sometimes more important even than the truth.  But Opie wasn't having it.

So then Andy tried to corrupt Opie's teacher (who by the way was also Andy's girlfriend).  He said she had to cancel the contest; but that just wasn't going to happen.  So then he begged her to give the prize to some other kid; but that was askin' her to lie.  And then he begged that they not publish the essay after all, and she said it was too late, it was all arranged and couldn't be changed.  And then he lamented how hard this was going to be for him.  But the lady's heart remained obdurate.  Andy had failed to suppress the truth.

So the essay was published, and the townspeople were offended.  And then something strange happened.  The governor got wind of the contest and read the winning essay on the radio.  All tuned in to hear him, and the governor praised the town for its honesty and integrity, for following the truth wherever it led, even to debunking of precious false memories.  And all were pleased.  They agreed that they were a fine and honest community.  Andy and Opie could walk down Main Street again.

And I, of little faith, had doubted.  I didn't think this show about small town values would defend the truth; I had thought the show would endorse consensus over truth.  Ah, those were the days.  When we thought that truth was important.

And this is how truth would win in those days.  Mayberry -- perhaps we have forgotten -- was in the South.  There were no black people there; but its fictional conflict took the form of the great campaigns against Jim Crow and segregation.  The community's consensus -- its civility -- was based on a lie, told and retold by all from morning till night.  Mayberry said they had heroically beaten the indigenous peoples.  The South as a whole said that the "Niggrahs" had been given freedom but had shown themselves "not ready," and now they lived separately but equally, and it was best for everyone.  To question any part of this false history at any time was to make oneself a public enemy, a person who could not walk down Main Street.

When Nine black children in Little Rock challenged false history, walking down their own Main Street to Central High, the scene was ugly.  Officers of the law enforced immoral law, and well-dressed mothers shrieked abuse into the ears of children.  Until, as in Mayberry, a larger authority intervened.  The governor changed the ethical equation in 1966 Mayberry, as the 101st Airborne Division at the command of General Eisenhower changed the power equation in 1958 Little Rock.

This is how truth breaks in upon the world -- by appealing to the higher power or, as Emerson said, by drawing the larger circle.  Revelation is always a power play.  Sometimes truth arrives at a drunken supper party, sometimes in a prayer, sometimes at a therapy session, sometimes in an election, and sometimes -- if we manage it no better way -- in a murderous mass conflict.  But it's never on the lesson plan.

A liberal knows that he can never own the whole truth; but the liberal faith, the pragmatic faith, the American faith, is that greater truth inheres in the larger realm.  Mayberry on the day in question was corrected by the larger truth of North Carolina, and Arkansas on its chosen day was corrected by the larger truth of the United States.  "Around every circle another can be drawn," wrote Emerson.  The search for truth is freedom, and freedom expands in the ceaseless drawing of the larger circle.

The truth is a thing that no one can own.  We can only increase the size of our vision.  Every ideology, every religion, every national epic, every form of life, is a partial rendition of the truth seeking wholeness.  The truth however is not partial but whole in itself; its wholeness is what gives the lie to falsehood.  Beyond the songs of the master and the slave there is a greater song that includes and explains them both.  Truth is what always seeks to be be larger, more complete.  When we balkanize the truth, we give our reverence to the lie.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

ugly truth

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

-- attr. to Benjamin Disraeli

What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism.

-- Mike Daisey*

Beauty may be truth and truth beauty as Keats said, but not in the short run. The Grecian urn speaks not to our present condition but to a transcendent Truth. To write what Keats wrote, or to affirm it as I have done,** is an act of faith. In the short run truth is often ugly, and any beautiful statement of our condition is suspect because of its beauty. That's why we have journalists.

It's a journalist's job to find out the truth about our present condition -- to publish both what we want to know and what we don't want to know. The mayor says the water is safe to drink; the general says there's light at the end of the tunnel; the vice-president says the insurgency is on its last legs; the congressman says we can lift the recession by putting people out of work. The journalist tells us what they said, but cannot stop there -- he must also inform us how much of what they said is wrong, how much a lie, how much a misleading statistic, and how much a damned lie. The journalist makes these determinations on the basis of facts. The official statement is one fact, the documents or statements that belie it are other facts. It's easy to be a stenographer, but finding out the whole ugly truth is very difficult. Journalism is difficult and sometimes dangerous. Persons of stature gather stenographers around them, but they keep journalists at a distance or hate them openly. Journalism is essentially anti-institutional and liberal. And unpopular.

There's a television art-form in which well-known people portray themselves unflatteringly, and their self-deprecation encourages their famous friends to satirize themselves as well. Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Warwick Davis in Life's Too Short, bring us to the boundary of life and art. Their imagery is both true and untrue.  That's really Warwick Davis, we say, and yet we know it is not the reality of him. There is a strange safety in self-pillory; if Larry David knew himself to be so shabby as all that, he wouldn't publicize it. This can be uncomfortable to watch, and very amusing.

It's as if the last few weeks have brought us to a threshold of confusion between the ethics of reality and the ethics of fiction. The quarrel of an essayist with his fact-checker recently became a national spat.***  And now Ira Glass has withdrawn one episode of This American Life because it contained fabrications, accounts of conversations with Chinese factory workers, conversations that did not happen.  These accounts were excerpted from a performance monologue by Mike Daisey, entitled "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." The workers were portrayed as complaining about the working conditions at a Chinese company called Foxconn that manufactures parts for Apple products. The question posed to Glass, a question that he now admits he answered incorrectly, was this: in a radio show of spoken art that sometimes but not always commits journalism, were these factual-sounding statements on a public ethical issue true in the way that journalism requires? It turns out that the monologist made these conversations up for dramatic effect.

These distinctions need not be complicated, but have gotten so. There is a long tradition of social commentary in fiction, and it's not hard to identify it. The author is obliged merely to follow the rules of literature. He changes the names and a few of the circumstances, admits he is an author, and makes it clear he is manipulating an imaginary world. In return for this concession, the artist wins the rights of poetic truth, to imagine what she cannot prove to have happened; and the beautiful resemblance of her imagination to reality changes the real world with every reading. The genres of art -- the novel, the sonnet, the short story, the monologue -- are created to bracket the fact-like statements of artists, saying "this is not to be checked because it is not a fact-claim;" but the artistic bracket also says, as a pedal-point to all its themes, "Look at the world and you'll see it's like this." There was no Nicholas Nickleby and no Smike, but there are people like them, and the one's compassion for the other must be realized in the world. There was no Anna Karenina and no Levin, but Levin is on the right path for the real world and Anna is not.

These matters are not hard to understand, if you care about literature and have learned from its history. You have a right to your opinions, and you have a right to your vision; but you don't have a right to your own facts, even if you are an artist. It's fun to play around the borders of life and art, but if you want to use the transgressive authority of a fact-claim -- if you want to say to your audience This really happened to me -- you must also accept the responsibilities of a journalist.  Daisey's maneuver was phoney journalism and false art, and raises not only ethical but esthetic questions about his other work. He seems to lack respect for the truth claims of art, the shattering power of the probable impossible that Aristotle thought better than any history. If he understood the power of fiction he would not have tried to pass it off as fact.

Novelists of the last century learned the art of unreliable narration, as we have learned in modern times that no one including a narrator possesses whole truth. But to banish the idea of truth just because you don't have it all is to commit the philosophical howler of post-modernism. It's a juvenile act. A grownup doesn't sweep the pieces off the chessboard just because he can't win.

These unnecessary confusions prove that free inquiry, and journalism, are necessary. We have to keep the faith with truth, precisely because she is never fully revealed.

*Mike Daisey: His Secret Fortress on the Web,, March 16, 2012

**"Still hope," December 11, 2011

***"Deconstructionist Word," March 3, 2012

Saturday, March 3, 2012

deconstructionist word

With respect to the requirements of art, the probable impossible is always preferable to the improbable possible.

-- Aristotle, Poetics

There was a battle about truth last weekend, an old-fashioned meeting engagement fought in the open pages of my favorite sources of truth, the New York Times and National Public Radio. There's a book about this battle,* the quarrel seven years ago between a writer and a fact-checker. Jim Fingal the fact-checker said to John D'Agata the  writer that he had made many errors of fact. Said D'Agata to Fingal, don't bother me I'm an essayist and the details are of no consequence.

D'Agato had written about a suicide in Las Vegas in the year 2002. He referred to the young man who had jumped from a hotel observation deck by his actual name and then, shall we say, he mused about what was going on in the city at the same time.  Along the way he made statements of factual form.  He wrote for instance that at the time of the death there were "34 licensed strip clubs in Vegas," and that it took nine seconds for the suicide to reach the ground.  Fingal's findings included the following corrections: there were 31 licensed strip clubs, and the fall lasted eight seconds.**

Ah, if only I had a person of skill at my disposal, who would verify or disprove with more care than I can give the few factual statements I allow in these digital pages! I would be grateful for such service. It's hard for me to get excited about a difference of three strip clubs or one second. But D'Agato got very excited and defended all his, let's call them liberties; he defended them as the prerogative of a writer seeking greater Truth.  Those lucky enough never to have been confused by false pedagogy of the "five-paragraph essay" (a bizarre creature of remedial education precisely opposed to what it claims to be) will know that D'Agato is claiming certain privileges of an essayist. He certainly disdains the title of journalist. He was not, he says, "reporting" on the death, and Fingal is "ruining this essay" by confronting its factual statements with actual facts.

D'Agato's very specific defenses illuminate the literary territory that he wants to live in. 34 is the right number of strip clubs, he says, "because the rhythm of '34' works better . . . than the rhythm of '31.'" (I can't help but note, factually, that the the rhythm of "34" is precisely the same as the rhythm of "31.") He describes the other Vegas suicide of the date in question as a hanging (when it was in fact also a leap from height) because "I wanted [the death] to be more unique." D'Agato assumes omnipotence, in the manner of a poet or novelist, over the figurative world of his text. Works of fiction aim to be true in a way related to fact but at the same time transcending fact.  There was no Oliver Twist, but Dickens revealed the brutality and cruelty of nineteenth-century London more effectively than a hundred books of social history (and this, dearest reader is not a factual statement, so I am beyond the need of a fact-checker as I write it.) Here's the point: D'Agato was not writing a novel.  He might have written a novel.  Many novelists these days write about this kind of subject (Don DeLillo, where are you when we need you?) But the piece of writing in question is not fiction.

If the fact-checked essay had been a short story instead, its writer could invent names, persons, dates, cities, incidents and personal narratives, with only a voluntary and impressionistic relation to fact. Readers would understand his allegiance, and no issues of truth would arise. The truth of fiction, as Aristotle noticed, is the truth of the probable rather than of the possible. The beholder is not supposed to say, "Yes, I was just talking to Antonio the other day in the Rialto," but rather, "Yes, Antonio is like a kind of person I might talk to if I went to some place like the Rialto."  There is no controversy among liberally educated people about the contract of fiction; but if a writer behaves this way outside the bounds of fiction he wanders in the Colbertian wonderland of "truthiness."***  It's truthy though untrue that there were 34 strip clubs. It's also truthy though untrue that Obama is a Muslim. In the South as half my family grew up there it was truthy that "niggrahs" weren't ready for freedom, and in 1988 it was plenty truthy that Willie Horton was coming to rape your daughter.

It's worth saying again that I'm a liberal, was born, raised and will die a liberal. But these days a liberal has to be a conservative as well, since those who now call themselves conservative have abandoned their posts. So as a conservative I must point out that, though I do not own it, there is such a thing as truth. It's precisely because there is truth that as a liberal I must refuse to let anyone claim to own it. The truth is too important to be owned, and everyone who claims it must be tested. There is truth, and what conflicts with it is falsehood, and no human being is completely true.

We don't hold it against Tolstoy that there was in fact no civilian named Pierre Bezukhov wandering through the battle of Borodino. And when Tolstoy says that all happy families are alike, you may disagree with him but your disagreement is not factual, because you are disagreeing with his judgment and his definitions not with the facts. What is "happiness"? How exactly are happy families "alike"? These are not factual questions. You want to know what Tolstoy means when he asks them, and he tells you for a thousand pages, and no fact-checker comes to plague  him. But these are rights of a novelist.

There are different categories of truth. There's the truth of a fact, of a cadence, of a currency, of a soliloquy, of a dialogue, of an epigram, of a quatrain, of a prayer, of a lover's vow, of a plumb line, of a gunsight, of a song, of a self-evident right. The different  categories of truth are tested in their various ways, but factual truth is tested factually. And unless you're writing fiction, every factual statement a writer writes is subject to fact-checking -- and the writer should be grateful.

An essay is not fiction, but it is not particularly about facts, and an essayist who does not want to spend his days with the fact-checker will be sparing in his factual statements. Lucky for him, such a writer is in a great tradition. Montaigne wrote that "I study myself more than any other subject." And the essay is a private musing on experiences not meant in themselves to be questionable, a private musing written in the hope of being so predictably unpredictable, so astonishing in its self-evidence, that it has public appeal.  Emerson's thundering serial aphorisms are meant like an organ concerto to sweep you into another realm before you can wonder about the truth of the first note, which would not in any case determine the value of the last one.  The essayist says "I am here, now, seeing this and thinking that, reminded of a third thing and suffering its experience, following where it escapes and tracking it to the next site where a dying campfire shows that the sprite has once again gone missing."  To read an essay is to go on a journey with a guide who, if she had a map, wouldn't show it to you. If you don't like this, you don't like essays.

An essay is literature not science; it is a singularity not a generalization.  It is verifiable -- or disprovable -- only by the power -- or the weakness -- of its performance. Many of the most important truths are performative. Certain things become true because the right person says it in the right way at the right time. If the pastor says, accompanied by the signing of certain documents, that you are now husband and wife -- well then you are now husband and wife, and if you try to pretend otherwise the law will catch you up. If the Treasury says in writing that a pigmented piece of paper has the value of a dollar, then it really does have the value of a dollar, whatever at the moment that value is; and if you try to pass off another piece of paper as a dollar, a piece of paper that the Treasury has not approved, then you are a criminal no matter how exactly you have rendered the "truth" of a dollar in your counterfeit. Emerson mints his own currency; he gets away with arrogant ellipses because his fireworks blind you.

An essay is not a news report. But when it acts like a news report it is vulnerable to factual correction. There are many today who say they are not journalists, and all they really want is to avoid the responsibilities of journalism. So Mr. D'Agato, if you are not a journalist, don't act like one; if you are an essayist, remember how essayists write.

Yes, as a liberal compelled to be conservative, I say that there is truth, and that to refuse correction is to lie. All discourses are not equivalent in value; and we know this because the Deconstructionist Word once became flesh, and it was George W. Bush.

*The Lifespan of a Fact, John D'Agato and Jim Fingal (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012).  I have not read the book. My source for the facts of their dispute is Jennifer B. McDonald's review in the New York Times Book Review of Feb. 26.

**I do not find the latter dispute in McDonald's review, but I heard it discussed on NPR.

***McDonald also noticed the destination of this slippery slope: "Suddenly there is no difference between essaying the Truth and essaying Truthiness."