Tag Archives: truth

Cynic-In-Chief

Many of us are familiar with the definition of a cynic. Disillusioned by “politics as usual,” cynical Americans don’t trust Washington insiders to work for the common good.

This is not how the Ancient Greeks defined the term. According to Robin Hard, translator of Diogenes the Cynic: Sayings and Anecdotes (2012), the word is attributed to a philosopher named Diogenes who lived from approximately 412 to 323 BC. “Cynic” roughly translated means “dog.”

Diogenes gave up his possessions for the life of a beggar to show that true happiness is possible only when humans satisfy their basic needs in simple ways. Material wealth, he argued while shamelessly displaying his half-naked body in public, bankrupts the soul.

The father of the contemporary performance artist, Diogenes strived for the virtuous life, challenging social conventions by shocking citizens out of their stupor. He famously carried a lit lamp through Athens in the middle of the afternoon, looking for (but never finding) a man committed to the truth. In an act of civil disobedience, he walked into the theater as crowds poured out, forging his own path against the herd.

In the final chapter of Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity (2014), Maurizio Lazzarato discusses Michel Foucault’s belief in the revolutionary potential of the original Cynics’ way of life. Foucault valorizes the Ancient Greek principle of parrhesia, or truth-telling. A citizen who stood up in the assembly to speak difficult truths risked his credibility, his very life, in the name of democracy. Cynics risked their lives every day in the streets to save the souls of their misguided brothers and sisters.

What is the status of truth in the era of alternative facts? Conservatives have accused liberals of championing relativism for decades, but when philosophers argue that Truth is socially constructed they aren’t suggesting that nothing is true anymore.

Today a Republican president and his inner circle are flat out lying.

An important story the liberal media refuses to report: Diogenes’ top adviser, Kellyannopoulos of Jersey, spoke to supporters outside the assembly shortly after his death and said that the number of people who attended his funeral was twice the amount of those who mourned the death of Socrates.

“Amazing crowds, tremendous crowds,” she said.

Too bad we don’t have aerial shots—or any shots—of the ceremony.

The Reign of Trump begs for spectacular displays of outrage. I agree with Lazzarato that we need to cultivate new ways of being in the world as economic forces beyond our control condemn more and more global citizens to a sub-human existence.

But how do we overcome cynicism to summon the moral strength of the Cynics? How can we be sure that images of our dissent won’t be co-opted and sold as prepackaged lifestyle choices?

“He will not divide us. He will not divide us.” Actor Shia LaBeouf and his comrades have been chanting this slogan outside the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens since the day Trump took office. They plan to have at least one person repeat the refrain into a webcam all day every day for the next four years. Is this the start of a movement bigger than ourselves? A call to arms for brave truth-tellers to stand up and follow each other on social media?

Will the revolution be live-streamed across all compatible devices?

I admire Lazzarato’s poetic sensibilities, but is romanticizing the archetype of the eccentric street prophet all we have left? Am I entitled only to an esoteric, navel-gazing revolution in my corner of the internet because collective political action is no longer possible? Does holding up clever signs or publishing obscure blogs challenge the constitutionality of Trump’s hastily produced executive orders?

He wasn’t on Facebook but Diogenes had a huge public profile. He’s seen as the first cosmopolitan philosopher, a mystic roaming from city to city in the hustle and bustle of daily life, shouting his worldview at people more interested in Ancient Memes than ethics.

What if Diogenes believed he was really more dog than man?

To “figure out what the hell is going on,” Trump has banned all pagans and pantheists from entering America against the flow of the crowd. Diogenes wasn’t Christian after all.

The president doesn’t really want to be president. He wants to build walls and promote the “bigly-ness” of his brand name. He wants to stir the passions of God-fearing Americans longing for a sense of security that no longer exists. He would rather pout over perceived personal slights than listen to the so-called expertise of five-star generals.

Anointed by the Resentful, Maligned and Dispossessed, the leader of the free world doesn’t believe in the rule of law. He disrespects federal judges on Twitter and insults congressional leaders of his own party (also on Twitter).

Donald J. Trump is the democratically selected winner of the Cynic-in-Chief sweepstakes. Against the common good, he’s the executive seducer of a reality-show circus in which his hubris is the main attraction for a mass of cynics who require more and more spectacle to conceal the truth of their (political) impotence.

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The Secret Time Won’t Tell

I’ve written many times about our inability to know the world, to understand and tame its restless energies. Often in this thought I’ve assumed a pessimistic tone, arguing that trying to know anything is futile. But that’s the coward’s way out. There are truths we can grasp; that most of the world remains unknowable does not mean nothing matters in the end.

This week I’ve been reading The Specter of the Absurd: Sources and Criticisms of Modern Nihilism, published in 1988 by Donald A. Crosby. Among the many facets of nihilism that Crosby examines, is the nihilist’s contention that nothing is certain and thus life is absurd and meaningless. Crosby concludes much of what I mentioned above, and he finds the nihilist’s perspective regarding the impossibility of knowing anything as shortsighted and dangerous.

Crosby discusses God a lot. He writes that, at least in the Christian tradition, people assign limitless knowledge to God. Humans are destined to search and search for answers, but we’re fundamentally incapable of finding everlasting truths. To illustrate why this realization need not lead us to despair, Crosby includes an insightful passage attributed to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing:

If God held all truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left the persistent striving for the truth, and while warning me against eternal error, should say, Choose! I should humbly bow before his left hand, and say, “Father, give thy gift; the pure truth is for thee alone.”

Say we suddenly knew everything. The Quest would end. There’d be nothing left to ponder. No mysteries to uncover.

The Truth is clever, elusive. Although silence is often the answer to my calling out, in my persistent striving I’ll keep listening for the Secret time won’t tell.

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Breaking News

An event, especially a painful experience, feels most intense to the person or people directly involved in it. Hearing about something that happened to someone else can be troubling, but pales in comparison to the discomfort the sufferer endures.

Say I break my leg. As news of my accident spreads to people in my immediate circle, the impact of the event carries weight, but its magnitude decreases as the story passes through the grapevine and filters out away from me. I matter to a small group of family and friends, but beyond them my suffering means little, save for the doctors and nurses who treat my injury.

But what happens when Harrison Ford breaks his leg, as he did earlier this month on the set of the new Star Wars film? The media pick up the story, turning coverage of the event into an event in itself. First it’s reported he broke his ankle; it matters not that a few days later we learn it’s his leg. As word spreads, the truth of Ford’s experience undergoes profound shifts. Our attention quickly turns to questions like: How does this affect filming? Will this delay the film’s release? What scene was he shooting? What more might I learn about this blockbuster-in-waiting?

I break news of my mishap on Twitter and Facebook or look for sympathy on my blog. I post a video of me falling, the snapping of the bone ready at the click of “play.” The personal is public. A lot less people care about my misfortunes than Ford’s fans do about his, but strangers whom I’ll never meet find out that I’m in pain thanks to the gospel of gossip: social media.

As information accelerates—as we share and overshare detail after detail—the lived experience of individual events gets discounted, forgotten, displaced. My truth, as it passes from person to person—and Ford’s truth, as it cycles from news outlet to news outlet—gathers false details and suffers from serious omissions, such that appearances trump the Real. But nobody cares about the truth; we simply need to know everything all the time without considering sources or fussing over facts.

It’s like saying “orange” over and over in a short span to the point of exhaustion. The tongue turns “orange” inside out, perverting its sound, stretching it into nonsense. The media repeat (reproduce) stories many times over, draining them of substance, erasing all traces of human suffering. Lost in the business of its global display, tragedy becomes spectacle. Remember: we’re only considering a famous actor’s broken leg; what might we say about America’s recent reentry into Iraq or the VA scandal that resulted in the deaths of veterans waiting for medical care?

Every accident becomes spectacle. Pain becomes mundane. When everything’s covered, when no moment escapes the watchful eye of real-time “expert analysis,” the spectacle itself is breaking news.

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No Ledge

I was reading a philosophy book recently and stumbled upon a random line break. The word “knowledge” jumped to another page, splitting into “know-ledge.” This led me to “no ledge,” a metaphor expressing the essence of knowing as I’ve approached it since college.

Pragmatic people see education as building a foundation of facts and figures, a baseline for measuring objective truths. They think that learning enhances mastery over the world, that it’s a tool used to increase confidence and stability.

But dynamic thinking is all about vertigo and disorientation. It’s a shock to your system. Searching for a different angle, you look out the window of your high-rise apartment and find there is no ledge. How far will you stick your neck out to glimpse what lies below?

Most people venturing into the unknown have a fallback plan that maintains the status quo. If things get too scary, they retreat to their comfort zones. Thoughtful people ask serious questions with no clear solutions. Excited by the prospects of deeper truths, we devote our lives to following ideas wherever they lead. Sometimes we have to catch ourselves before tumbling all the way down.

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The Truth Of The Matter

I had a professor back in the day who told me some twisted folks think ideas are more important than people. For some, furthering a cause means everything, even if it requires killing (often innocent) people in the process.

We don’t know exactly why the Boston bombers chose to blow up people (we may never find out), but it’s clear that as they carried out their “mission” the brothers believed (thanks to God, no doubt) in the validity of their own truths.

All of us maintain beliefs that are not rooted in reality-at-large. Most of us, though, don’t kill people to prove our points.

If I believe in a cause and you believe in an opposing cause, whose truth is closer to the Truth? Can’t anyone with a strong set of beliefs and an ax to grind simply start shooting and bombing at will?

We’re still not sure if the Boston bombers acted alone or if they had outside help (beyond learning online how to make pressure cooker bombs). The questions raised above focus on individual attackers. What does it mean when governments and religious groups and political organizations kill people to further a cause?

What does it mean that America is no different?

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Another Ironic Poem

UNTITLED ANGRY PIECE

I shadowbox the truth
begging for a fight
high on inferiority
we take our places
all made up for the show
every word matters
flung from my soul
abstract boomerangs
never returned
my anger is implied
find it deep in thought
content to sabotage
my best laid plans
courage?
need a pill to get it up
can’t wine you
can’t dine you
dates keep passing by
alone on Sunday morn
you praying to gods
I’ll make it through
thick and thin
my insides and my act together
if there is a conductor
he’s drunk
and out of tune
everyone playing
a shattered instrument
nobody hears

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The Education of Chris Truman

Below is an excerpt from a true story I’ve been working on lately. It is intended to entertain and educate its readers, some of whom may see themselves in my text. Enjoy!

A fruitful life required structure, routine, discipline–a steady diet of predictability, but Chris Truman, like a sick but stubborn child, refused to take his medicine. As a schoolboy, he took comfort in the scattering of materials–books, papers, folders, pencils, all the tools of learning–across his desk. Order left a foul taste in his mouth–he craved the Random, the Haphazard, the Mess. Clutter, lack of form–he could manage. Organization, submission to form–over these stifling forces Truman had little control.

But was this really the case? Did Chris Truman–that tireless Seeker of Truth–find pleasure in his failure to cope with the complexities of life? As he grew older, his obsessive-compulsive nature suggested not. The desire to control his tiny universe, by the age of twenty-nine, would overwhelm him, to point where holding a job rendered Truman a nervous wreck.

In truth, Chris Truman’s adult life reeked of over-control, over-thought, over-preparation. When driving, he desired to know, well in advance–for the sake of his sanity–if the lane he occupied was closed for construction further down the road. He feared having to change his position at the last second, as if all at once he’d forget how to operate his vehicle, and cause an accident!

But life, at any age, is full of accidents, mistakes, missteps. Still, that Truman was fallible–like every other human being in the world–frightened him. He demanded to be “perfect,” when “perfection” was throughout human history the only non-option. When each one in an endless succession of psychoanalysts explained that “many perfectionists succeed only in perfecting their Depression,” he heard but never listened.

Controlling the Uncontrollable–this was Chris Truman’s futile, self-made mission in life. Even as a schoolboy, he had created the disarray on his desk–he was in control of the chaos, admired it up close, like curious commuters crawling past a horrific highway crash–if only for a moment. In reality, he loathed–to his core–disorder of any sort, and thus produced many fruitless years trying to prevent imperfection, to squash his innate humanness, to deny himself true experience. Armed with this knowledge, one was expected to press on and make a living.

But deep thinkers abhor shallow answers. Neither a Big-Bang-believing scientist nor Genesis-professing priest, Chris Truman was simply a poet desperate for material. He laid Science next to Religion, and found faults in both. Each discipline failed to explain why he was mired in the stuff of life, and how he might survive his short time on earth.

Theories attempt to explain things but end up confusing real people staggering through real life. Abstract thought crumbles under the massive weight of concrete experience. Despite this conclusion, cold abstraction remained his most loyal friend, and friends would much rather play than work.

Thus far Truman’s philosophies had held him back from himself. Thought protected him from action. Staying in his head meant his sensitive ego was safe from the grim realities of life. Drowning in big ideas, one thought he knew something about living until he looked closer, and knew the thought wrong. Truman was a riddle he couldn’t solve–of this truth he was certain.

An interesting but tragic paradox had emerged–Truman, in becoming an adult, had strived so hard for Order that his entire life had spun out of control, to the point that he had reverted to childhood, and lacked tolerance for responsibility. The scared adult, shrinking from life, had fostered the rebirth of the needy child. He accumulated years but not maturity.

Any satisfaction derived from this realization was short-lived, however, for the poet still lacked a profession. When would Chris Truman, in dire need of income and stability, finally succumb to the system? When would he find–and keep–a job?

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