Sermon: Living With Integrity on a ‘Post-Truth’ Time

 

READINGS

From “1984” by George Orwell

“Doublethink lies at the very heart of (the state), since the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary.”

If Love Be There         by Robert T. Weston

This day,

Setting aside all that divides me from others;

This day,

Remembering that the world is beautiful

To him or her who is willing that it be so

And that into the open, eager heart

The beauty enters in

If love be there;

This day

I will make a part of the song of life

There may be grief, but if there be love it will be overcome.

There may be pain, but it can be borne with dignity and courage;

There may be difficulty, but it can be turned to strength.

Remembering that the word is beautiful

If I will let it be so for others who I meet,

This day

I will make a part of the song of life.

SERMON

         All this talk these days of “alternative facts” carries me back to a previous life when for 25 years I worked for daily newspapers. The press, I can assure you, was no more popular among political leaders than it is now. The difference was that back then when you caught some politician in a lie it generally elicited some measure of shame along with the predictable ranting and raving. And I must admit that it’s true: for many reporters there was nothing sweeter than a front-page story of yours catching a politician literally or metaphorically with his or her pants down.

               But of course the standard went both ways. There was no wiggle room on even the smallest details of your writing. Every reporter can recount interchanges with tyrannical editors who insisted on checking and double-checking every detail of a story. The poet David Tucker, a former city editor in Newark, New Jersey, sums it up in his poem, “City Editor Looking for News,” which begins:

What did Nick the Crumb say before he died?

What noise did his fist make when he begged Little Pete not to whack him with a power saw?

 Did it go thub like a biscuit against a wall or sklack like a seashell cracking open?

 Did he say his mother’s name?

Has anybody even talked to his friggin’ mother?

 Is she broke or sick or abandoned?

 Is she dying of a broken heart?

Do I have to think of these things all by myself?”

You get the picture. The gold standard in the business was the City News Bureau of Chicago, a cooperative news service that served all of Chicago’s dailies. Its motto was: “Your mother says she loves you? Check it out!”

But the City News Bureau closed in 1999 and with it went much reporting at that kind of granular level of detail. There remain a few newspapers with high standards. (Full disclosure, I am a daily subscriber to the New York time, and I consider it one of them.) But on balance many newspapers, with ad revenue tanking, couldn’t staff it, and much that has replaced it and them is an echo chamber of blogs, partisan politicking, and entertainment chatter.

Our new president is one of the most successful purveyors of that medium. From early in his career as a real estate developer he was charmed by the celebrity culture and insinuated himself into it.

In that culture, he learned that facts can be convenient things to use when they are to your advantage, but also convenient to ignore, deny, or repackage when they don’t. And, as far as he was concerned, exaggeration hurt nobody: biggest, best, greatest, whatever. Who was going to disprove you, or for that matter take the time to? Meanwhile, the dollars rolled in. Tony Schwartz, the co-author of his best-seller, “The Art of the Deal,” recalls Donald Trump coining the notion of “truthful hyperbole,” to describe his approach, calling it “an innocent form of exaggeration” and “a very effective form of promotion.”

So, is it any wonder that Susan Glasser, a former editor of “Politico,” reports that when she assigned a team of reporters to listen to every single word from Trump’s mouth during last year’s primary season, in her words, “he offered a lie, half-truth, or outright exaggeration approximately once every five minutes for an entire week.” By the general election season, she said, “Trump had progressed to fibs of various magnitudes just about once every three minutes.”

Given all that, it’s hardly surprising that days after the November election, the Oxford Dictionaries announced that it had chosen “post-truth” as the word of the year, offering as a definition:  “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Of course, lying in politics is nothing new, and rightful accusations can be made on both sides of the aisle. Yet, from my vantage we are experiencing something new in Mr. Trump’s practices. The fact is that there is something qualitatively different between bloviating about the Miss Universe contest and misrepresenting the influence of Russia hackers on the US election. Once elevated to the level of national policy lying becomes something more like propaganda.

 It can seem extreme to compare the Trump administration’s practices to those of dictators across history and around the world, even to those that George Orwell describes in “1984.” And yet, the echoes here are eerie.

Orwell invented the notion of what he called “doublethink” to describe the practice of knowingly deceiving others while maintaining a pose of “complete honesty,” denying reality while also secretly taking account of the reality that you’re denying. His protagonist, Winston Smith, worked in the Ministry of Truth (the state’s propaganda office), where he recomposed the record of history, creating, you might say, “alternative facts,” to fit the regime’s ideology.

OK, I really don’t want to carry this too far, but it is at least worth taking a moment for us to affirm that real facts matter. You know: truth, veracity, the real deal, the whole story. And that lying, falsifying, misrepresenting, dissembling is bad for us, a poison, really, that eats away at everything we care about.

There’s a reason why we as a religious people covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. It’s because we believe that our spiritual wholeness depends on confronting the real facts of our lives and the world we live in. We believe we can live free, awakened, and aware; we can be loving, compassionate, and kind; we can live into who we are and use our gifts to help save the world only in the presence of the truth. And from that truth we derive meaning.

 This brings me back to the Oxford Dictionaries’ definition of “post truth.” The term describes circumstances where appeals are made, not to facts, but “to emotion and personal belief.” For an ex-journalist like me, the most puzzling thing about Trump’s dissembling is that it doesn’t seem to matter to many people. And that makes me scratch my head: how could that be? How can it not matter that the president isn’t telling the truth?

What appears to be going on becomes clearer on listening to Trump’s speeches, which are offered not as arguments based on facts but as sales pitches centered on emotion. What he likes is “great, the best” and what he doesn’t is “bad, nasty, the worst.” He offers no evidence for those judgments because there is no apparent thought behind them. They are merely impulsive eruptions. All that he offers in support of them is his brand: “I’ve made lots of money, I own golf resorts, office towers and gaudy hotels – Believe me!”

It’s not the first time anyone has made such a pitch, but at a time when our culture measures success by the accumulation of goods it has powerful effect. “This guy’s hauling it in. He must know what he’s talking about.” Right? There’s no question he’s an accomplished salesman, but in just the first month or so of his administration the growing list of his blunders and misadventures make clear how troublesome that judgment can be. Governing, it turns out, is a radically different business than real estate development.

 So, here we are at this precarious time. How are we to respond in a way that is centered in integrity, in a way of living that is grounded in what is true and what is right? Several years ago I heard a presentation at a minister’s conference that stuck with me. The speaker argued that over the last century different memes embodying cultural ideas or practices have tended to prevail at the time.

For example, she said, in the 1960s the predominant mode of thinking centered on the notion of rights – who had them and how they would be protected. It was a powerful driver of all kinds of things, she said, but in time its importance faded to be replaced in the 1980s by a different idea, the rising notion that people shouldn’t look to others to make their way in the world, that we are responsible for our own destiny. She identified this with an acronym she gave as “Y-O-Y-O, YOYO” or “you’re on your own.”

She argued, however, that in this new century that old notion is beginning to fade and a new meme is rising that acknowledges more directly our interdependence on each other. It’s the recognition that while we are responsible for our individual lives, we can’t get by on our own. She described this with the acronym, “W-I-T-T, WITT” or “we’re in this together.”

I think that Donald Trump notwithstanding, WITT is the acronym of our age. It embodies the recognition that we are fundamentally bound to each other and the Earth across races, ethnicities, gender identities, economic status and nationality. Every person matters.

Our work, then, involves building ties to know each other better and exploring how to empower all people to live with purpose and meaning. It means widening our circles of concern to embrace all people, including those who today are marginalized. It is a powerful center of meaning grounded in the truth of the unity of humankind.

But it is challenging, too. It requires adapting ourselves to difference, stepping outside the echo chambers of the narrow silos of our lives. We do this through the choices we make in how we conduct our lives, about how we spend our time, who we associate with. Giving ourselves to this work is not easy, let’s be honest.

 Easy is living our quiet lives in our quiet circles. Hard is putting ourselves in places we’ve never been in the company of people different from us. It isn’t comfortable, and yet it puts us in touch with something so remarkable and compelling that it can astonish us when we first experience it. Annie Dillard describes it as the substrate that underlies everything else in our lives: “our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here.” The simplest word for it is love: an elemental truth so basic, so vital that it eludes our conscious minds, as Rumi puts it, like the water that fish swim in.

But it’s not enough just to name it: it must be summoned, it must be activated if we would know it. As the writer Scott Peck put it years ago, “love is as love does.” It is an act of will. “We do not have to love. We choose to love.” Choosing to love is speaking out when we see others demeaned, reaching out to neighbors when they are threatened, listening when another is in pain.

I’m afraid it’s a long slog ahead for us, folks. What’s going on in Washington stands to disrupt all of our lives for years to come and in many ways we can’t yet fathom.

That means we must learn to pace ourselves: attend to the good that’s in our power to affect and pay attention. Read your newspapers, stay informed, and look for ways to widen your circles.

               And let us say a blessing for the complexities of this world, all the imponderables that unhorse our prejudices and preconceptions, that force us to shake our heads and look again. Our human brains evolved to locate patterns and construct scenarios that distill complicated circumstances to a few simple elements. It’s a great boon to us, but it also gets us into trouble time and again when the messy world with all of its inconvenient truths trips us up.

               And so, thankfully, it forces us amid all our hubris to admit to a little humility. Ah, humility, that not-so-gentle reminder that to be human is to be fallible, requiring us to be open to correction, to learn tolerance, forbearance, and so be open to grace.

               We are reminded, as Robert Weston put it, that there will be grief and pain in our lives and those of our fellows, but they can be endured and even overcome if love be there. And in bringing that love, we, too, might make a part of the song of life.