by Barry Edelson
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What is True

Mistaken Notions, Conspiracy Theories and Just Plain Lies


"It was a cold-blooded lie that a god had lovingly made the world and set out the sun and moon as light to land-dwellers, that brothers had fought, that one of the races was saved, the other cursed. Yet he, the old Shaper, might make it true, by the sweetness of his harp, his cunning trickery. It came to me with a fierce jolt that I wanted it. As they did too, though vicious animals, cunning, cracked with theories."
— John Gardner, Grendel


News item: Before tornados had even ended their spree of random destruction in the Midwest last Sunday, a self-described Christian preacher somewhere was already blaming the outbreak of storms on the imminent legalization of gay marriage in Illinois, the state that bore the brunt of the storm front.

This sad and slightly maddening response to a natural disaster is so eminently plausible and predictable that one would not even feel compelled to look it up to see if it is actually true. In point of fact, it is a product of this writer's imagination. Some poor excuse for a clergyman may very well have said such a thing, but you would have to verify that for yourself. If it were encountered in a novel, however, its familiarity would confer upon it a ring of truth sufficient to avoid any interruption in the reader's suspension of disbelief. This is a paradox as old as story-telling itself: fiction is a deliberate lie that somehow reveals the truth of human experience. Whether we accept or reject the lessons we encounter in our reading has nothing to do with verisimilitude itself but with the skill by which the author has created a convincing facsimile of the world we know. Mankind's daily travel and travail offer unending examples of truth's elusive nature, and it remains a rich source of confusion and chicanery in every imaginable realm of human interaction — from the familial and romantic to the religious and political.

Is Fiction More Real than Truth?

There is an old saying that the first casualty of war is the truth. Three excellent, recently read books bear this out in exceptional feats of imagination. The first is City of Thieves, David Benioff's tale of survival in the siege of Leningrad in World War II. The author spares none of his characters from the wanton cruelty inflicted by both armies in the conflict. The Soviet defenders are nearly as indifferent to the fate of the city's inhabitants as the Nazi aggressors. So appalling is the Communist government's rigidity and ineptitude that the reader could almost believe the two sides were complicit in bombing, starving and freezing the population to death. Arbitrary edicts are divorced from the reality of constant misery, and complicate the people's lives for no apparent reason and to no military effect. The truth is subordinated to ideological abstractions that no one even cares to understand.

The second book, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is a very dark account of the two Russian wars against Chechnya in the 1990s and early 2000s. These invasions of virtual annihilation, which left the city of Grozny in near-total ruins (see photo), were so one-sided that one hesitates to call them wars at all. Whatever dreadful acts of violence the Chechens committed against the Russians in the century or more since Tolstoy depicted an earlier stage of this savage conflict in Hadji Murad, it is hard to imagine how anyone could justify a pair of invasions that exacted an unspeakable human cost. But Russians in their millions wholeheartedly supported the actions of their President-General Putin. Both sides are deeply ingrained with entirely distinct vocabularies of truth: the Russian are weaned on the barbarism of Chechens to the point of questioning their very humanity, while the Chechens are imbued with a visceral hatred for an imperial power that has been equally ruthless in every one of its historical incarnations. The search for truth in such a dire conflict is pointless, and the author, Anthony Marra, wisely opts to keep his readers grounded in the human truth of suffering.

Finally, the bleakest book of the three (no small accomplishment) is The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson. There have been other books about North Korea's notoriously vicious penal system, mostly by or about defectors who have borne witness to it. But none have previously painted as thorough a picture of the entire society, which has been warped by decades of ceaseless terror into a shape that is barely recognizable as human. Though not strictly a book about war, the regime constantly drills the specter of an imminent American invasion into the minds of its beleaguered and half-starved subjects, so that the entire population remains on a psychological war footing at all times. Transparently absurd fictions are recited daily over loudspeakers about the glories of the North Korean paradise (did you know that the North routinely sends generous shipments of food aid to their desperate South Korean brethren?) and the depravity of the country's capitalist enemies (apparently Americans keep dogs as pets and even give them names). But the diet of propaganda and fear upon which the North Koreans are raised leaves most of them, who have no contact with the rest of the world, with no point of reference for any truth but the one their government decides they should hear.

Worse even than living in a country whose civil society and penal system have been wrapped into a single, giant apparatus of subjugation, and in which the government has an insatiable appetite for inflicting physical and psychological pain, are the dreadful lies that can hardly be deciphered: the beach-front retirement community from which no word is ever heard by the relatives of those sent off to live there; the abundant harvests that leave everyone perpetually hungry; the astonishing brilliance and talents of the leader (in this case the late Kim Jong Il), whose prowess at virtually everything somehow does nothing to improve the horrible lot of the masses of living dead upon whose broken backs is propped his despicable regime.

All three of these books are imaginary, in the sense that none of the authors had direct experience of the conflicts they are depicting. Their research evidently provided a wealth of detail upon which to draw, and their narratives are more than realistic enough to evoke fear, revulsion, anguish and many other strong reactions in the reader. But they are, by their essence, illusions. The actual truth of real-life violence is disputed among winners and losers, perpetrators and victims. The implied truth of a work of fiction is not open for dispute in the same way as, say, the facts in a court trial, which immunizes it to a degree from conventional charges of falsehood. This is a fictional story's strength and also its vulnerability. Literature in its highest form does not offer moral judgments on history but renders accounts of moral confusion and failure about which readers make their own judgments. The degree to which the author reveals his or her own moral view is a measurement of just how well the story succeeds in making the case for humanity in all its manifestations, not just those aspects of humanity that one particular imaginative mind finds salutary.

The Truth Has Many Rivals

There are other forms of fictional narrative that hold sway. There is the outright lie of the sort propagated by governments, most egregiously by dictatorships but to some extent by all sovereign entities of various sizes and strengths. The tendency of leaders to protect themselves and their institutional interests leads to all manner of distortions, ranging from the despotic to the merely foolish. The totalitarian impulse to subjugate every official act and utterance to the imperative of state domination is not a difference in kind from the local zoning board's alterations and omissions in defense of a questionable decision of minor consequence. The ability to enforce a particular point of view, even one of total irrationality, is limited only to the willingness of the populace to acquiesce in its own self-deceit, or to its relative powerlessness to do otherwise.

Even in a comparatively free society, freedom of thought can never be absolute because it is self-regulating. The seemingly entrenched ignorance of large swathes of the adult population in many democratic countries is a source of consternation for the educated and ruling classes. What could be more disheartening to the liberal ideal (in the sense that all Western democracies are nominally liberal rather than repressive) than to live in an era in which more information is readily available to more people than at any other time in history, only to find this early digital age largely squandered by greed, triviality, depravity and self-reinforcing systems of belief. Rather than capitalizing on this newfound paradise of data for the pursuit of greater knowledge, many seem to respond by regressing to a primitive state of immediate self-gratification and tribal security. Hence the pursuit of the truth is again revealed not as a means of self-enlightenment but as a crude tool for self-preservation, no different from any of the other physical or mental tools in our limited arsenal. The biologist Lewis Wolpert said, "The primary aim of human judgment is not accuracy but the avoidance of paralyzing uncertainty." The avalanche of facts set off by the internet and the proliferation of devices that deliver it to us are felt by many to be threats as much as benefits to survival. Ironically, our less than robust embrace of information as a way of ascertaining greater truths vindicates the totalitarian view of information as an instrument of repression. If people are not able or willing to seek the truth even when they have been handed unprecedented access to information, then why should the state not exercise its power to produce a self-serving truth of its own devising that is as valid as any other?

Powerlessness in the face of overwhelming information leads to another insidious form of untruth, the conspiracy theory. No event in American history has been more subject to the false narrative than the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the 50th anniversary of which has just been observed with recapitulations of the many absurd alternative explanations that have surrounded it. Unlike a deliberate official lie, the conspiracy theory is often more stubbornly rooted in the public consciousness. The official lie does not ordinarily survive the regime that produced it, but the conspiracy theory, once it has been transported through the circulatory system of public discourse, is nearly impossible to dislodge. By being incorporated into the beliefs of many people, the non-historical narrative takes on the same characteristics as all other beliefs that have no basis in fact. Implausibility does not prevent them from serving valuable purposes: providing comfort and solace, eliminating fear and anxiety, and making sense out of seemingness senseless events.

Freedom of thought can
never be absolute because
it is self-regulating.

The assassination of Kennedy was senseless in a way that the assassination of President Lincoln a century earlier was not, and hence more vulnerable to the conspiracy phenomenon. Lincoln was murdered by a Confederate patriot seething with hatred toward the Union, an easily appreciated motive. But if Americans accepted that Kennedy's murderer acted alone, then they would have to accept that the President was killed for no good reason at all. Lincoln seemed a martyr for a cause, Kennedy a common victim of irrational violence. At the time, and for many years after, many clearly found it impossible to accept that one disturbed individual could be responsible for so large and consequential a crime. We have been forced to confront the idea, over and over again in the ensuing decades, that lone gunmen with no motive other than their own derangement can indeed wreak havoc on the world around us. We have witnessed the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the attempted assassinations of Presidents Ford and Reagan, the killings of many other renowned individuals, and countless acts of murder and mass murder of those known previously only to their friends and loved ones. And yet we still have not let go of the need to place the blame on something larger than a mentally ill individual and the voices in his or her head. Instead we have institutionalized our reaction to painful events: we blame "the system", or loose political rhetoric, or squawk radio, or the deterioration of social mores. We find our own truths in the narratives that upset us the least.

Where to Now, Seekers of Truth?

The internet has granted immortality to more bad ideas than the JFK conspiracy theorists could have ever dreamed of. The font of human wisdom that the internet's founders and proponents have imagined is in stark contrast to the cesspit of malignancy that much of cyberspace has become. America's now perpetual state of war against extremists, coinciding with the digital explosion, has made the truth an even more precious commodity than it might otherwise have become. It has also further diminished the public's already meager trust in any official word. We have fallen into a kind of truth fatigue, despairing of the possibility that disparate ideas might coalesce into truths that most reasonable people could embrace. Walling ourselves off from the truths of others is a self-perpetuating death spiral for reality, one in which we reject out of hand any notion that does not conform to something we already believe strongly, and consequently lose our ability to apply the brakes to even the most outrageous and implausible notions. Kennedy was probably the last President who could change his mind, like any adult who is open to the world around him, and not be accused of weakness. Since then, politicians have been forced to cling to a once-stated truth for dear life, or drown in the righteous hysteria of factionalism. It does not matter on what foundation of facts the truth rests. Its only value is its currency.

Kennedy's death was one of a chain of dreadful events that characterized the decade that followed it, a period of confusion and change that shook our faith in a collective narrative. The idealism of the early 1960s gave way with astonishing speed to its total opposite: the dissolution of consensus. Subsequent events — war, political strife, social upheaval, waves of frightening violence — have increasingly split us along regional, political, economic, religious and racial lines. We have taken our individual truths with us, and abandoned the common ground to the depredations of those with the compulsion to advance whatever truth of the moment they find comforting or expedient. There have always been divisions and strife, and periods of greater disparity than we are experiencing now. But with such forces arrayed against the opening of minds, it is hard to imagine how this state of affairs will change. No one easily or willingly sheds the precious but ungrounded truths upon which they have predicated their lives. Since man first started telling stories around the communal fire, expecting people to think for themselves has always been a lot to ask.


November 24, 2013


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All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.