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Tomgram: Rebecca Gordon, Confronting "Alternative Facts"

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

They are unending. There's no way to keep up, much less respond effectively, and it almost goes without saying that they are never to be taken back, corrected, or amended in any way. Call them false claims, lies, untruths, misstatements, whatever you want, but they are what comes out of his mouth just about anytime he opens it. Take, for instance, that moment as 2018 ended when, in a blacked-out plane, he landed at al-Asad Air Base in Iraq for a three-hour presidential visit with the troops. It was there that he swore (as he had before) that he had won those troops a 10% pay raise for 2019 and that, to do so, he had fought it out in the trenches with unnamed military officials. ("They said, you know, we could make it smaller. We could make it 3%. We could make it 2%. We could make it 4%.' I said, 'No. Make it 10%. Make it more than 10%.'") He insisted as well that they hadn't had a raise, not just of such a monumental sort but of any kind, in "more than 10 years." As it happens, what were once known as the facts went like this: those troops last received a pay raise -- of 2.4% -- in 2018 (and every year before that for three decades); the 2019 pay raise is for 2.6%, not 10%; and those unnamed military officials evidently won!

For any half-normal president that would have been the trifecta: three outlandish falsehoods in a single try, but for Donald Trump it was just the modest, everyday demonstration of his remarkable ability to adjust reality to his needs, desires, and fantasies, and (as Jean-Luc Picard would once have said) "Make it so"! After all, for the man who, according to Washington Post fact-checkers, managed to make almost 6,000 "false and misleading claims" in 2018 alone, more than 15 a day and almost triple his record-setting pace of the previous year, that was nothing. Land him at al-Asad again in the middle of the night and don't for a second think he couldn't do better.

And maybe his example should free us up. After all, only the other day I was myself advising The Donald that, while the government is partially shut, he should begin building a 10-foot "Great Wall" around the White House, give himself a 10% pay raise, make Ivanka his secretary of defense, and send Jared to Afghanistan to evaluate the situation there -- and if you don't believe that, let me tell you another one. Or, alternatively, I might suggest that you check out TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon's account of what it means to live in a world in which the presidential "credibility gap" that was the heart and soul of the long-gone Vietnam era is now an artifact of Mesopotamian history amid the "incredibility chasm" of the present moment. Tom

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A Twenty-First-Century Incredibility Chasm
Life in the United States of Trump
By Rebecca Gordon

In one of the Bible stories about the death of Jesus, local collaborators with the Roman Empire haul him before Pontius Pilate, the imperial governor of Palestine. Although the situation is dire for one of them, the two engage in a bit of epistemological banter. Jesus allows that his work is about telling the truth and Pilate responds with his show-stopping query: "What is truth?"

Pilate's retort is probably not the first example in history of a powerful ruler challenging the very possibility that some things might be true and others lies, but it's certainly one of the best known. As the tale continues, the Gospel of John proceeds to impose its own political truth on the narrative. It describes an interaction that, according to historians, is almost certainly a piece of fiction: Pilate offers an angry crowd assembled at his front door a choice: he will free either Jesus or a man named Barabbas. The loser will be crucified.

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"Now," John tells us, "Barabbas had taken part in an uprising" against the Romans. When the crowd chooses to save him, John condemns them for preferring such a rebel over the man who told the "truth" -- the revolutionary zealot, that is, over the Messiah.

What, indeed, is truth? As Pilate implies and John's tale suggests, it seems to depend on who's telling the story -- and whose story we choose to believe. Could truth, in other words, just be a matter of opinion?

Many of my undergraduate philosophy students adopt this perspective. Over the course of a semester, they encounter a number of philosophers and struggle to understand what each is arguing and what to think when they contradict each other. I do my best to present scholarly assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of these varying approaches, but all too often students find themselves drowning in a pool of epistemological confusion. If a philosophy can be criticized, they wonder, how can it be true? The easiest solution, they often find, is to decide that truth is indeed just a matter of opinion, something that has only become easier now that Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office.

A more difficult route out of the morass would be to trust themselves to evaluate the claims of competing theories of how life works and decide, however tentatively, which seems most convincing. But it's precisely the skills needed to evaluate such competing claims that many of them lack. Often, they doubt that such skills even exist. In this, they are not unlike President Trump who is frequently astonished to learn things that ought to be part of an ordinary citizen's knowledge base. (Apparently, until he personally stumbled upon the fact, for example, "nobody knew that health care is complicated.") Their answer to most questions is some version of "nobody knows" or indeed can know; truth, in other words, is just a matter of opinion.

This popular belief that nobody really does or can know anything is the perfect soil for an authoritarian leader to take root.

But facts really are, as the popular expression has it, "a thing." Try telling a former resident of Paradise, California, that truth is just a matter of opinion when it comes, for example, to climate change. Paradise, you probably remember, was the town in Butte County that was incinerated last November by the deadliest wildfire in California history. Or rather the deadliest so far, since there can be no doubt -- if you don't happen to be the president or his climate-change-denying Republican colleagues and cabinet members or part of the 20% of Americans who still refuse to believe the obvious -- that worse is to come. After all, as the Associated Press reported recently, 15 of California's 20 "most destructive" wildfires have burned in the last two decades.

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For President Trump, whether or not the global climate is changing is not a question to be answered by examining evidence. "People like myself, we have very high levels of intelligence but we're not necessarily such believers," he told the Washington Post that very November, adding, "As to whether or not it's man-made and whether or not the effects that you're talking about are there, I don't see it."

To Trump, what is clearly the worst danger threatening humanity is a matter not of fact, but of belief, and possibly even a complete fiction.

From Credibility Gap to Alternative Facts

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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