On the utility of truth

Over at Goodreports I just posted my thoughts on Timothy Snyder’s little book On Tyranny. While I sympathize with a lot of what Snyder says, I think things are more complex than he makes them out to be (something I think he would agree with, as the book is meant only as a primer). One point in particular has to do with his warning about entering a post-truth era.

10: Believe in truth.

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis on which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case. This renunciation of reality can feel natural and pleasant, but the result is your demise as an individual — and thus the collapse of any political system that depends upon individualism.

We have heard a lot about this in recent years: the rise of “truthiness,” the rejection of the “reality-based community,” the branding of any story one doesn’t agree with as “fake news.” And I agree with Snyder about the dangers of giving up on truth. What I’ve found myself wondering about more recently however is the utilitarian value of the truth for many people. For example: it’s widely accepted that man-made climate change is real. To be a climate-change denier is to reject the truth. But I’ve known such people and whenever I engage with them I come away thinking that believing in climate change is something that is of no use to them. It does them no good at all. I’m not talking about oil company executive or coal miners here either. These are just regular people for whom the truth is of no value. Or, if anything, it’s a negative. This isn’t to deny Snyder’s broader point, but it does highlight the difficulty in doing anything about it.

There’s a saying, I’m not sure of its origin, that when the facts turn against us we turn against the facts. More and more when I find myself talking with people who can’t believe the ignorance or stubborn resistance to “what is actually the case” among those they disagree with I find myself asking them why they think such holdouts would even want to believe the truth. We like to think of the truth as being its own reward, an objective good, something that will set us free. This may be overstating its worth.

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On trial

Joseph K. Before the fall.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve posted my notes on two film versions of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. The first is the Orson Welles film from 1962. It’s not my favourite Welles, but he manages the text well and really makes it his own. The second is a far more literal adaptation, directed by David Jones, which came out in 1993. I didn’t like it nearly as much, but it’s still worth seeing if you’re a fan of the book.

Holmes on film

I’ve updated a few times on this site with links to my notes over at Alex on Film on various movies featuring Sherlock Holmes. Mostly I’ve been talking about the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce series that ran through the late 1930s and early ’40s. If you’re interested, this is an up-to-date master list. If I review any more Holmes movies I’ll just add them here.

The Copper Beeches (1912)
Le Trsor des Musgraves (1912)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)
Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)
Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)
The Spider Woman (1943)
The Scarlet Claw (1943)
The Pearl of Death (1944)
The House of Fear (1945)
The Woman in Green (1945)
Pursuit to Algiers (1945)
Dressed to Kill (1946)
Murder by Decree (1979)
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

What did we do to deserve this?

Not as bad as the other one?

The rise of populist leaders and parties in many Western democracies has led to much hand-wringing over the fate of democracy itself. There may be grounds for concern, but it seems to me that another point, one which all sides might agree on, is being ignored. The quality of our leaders has gone into the toilet.

The 2016 presidential election in the U.S. was a negative affair. What I mean is that it was decided by people who were voting not for but against a particular candidate. Donald Trump (after clearing out the entire leading rank of the Republican party, who proved to be imbeciles) and Hillary Clinton (who simply bought the Democratic party wholesale) entered the campaign with the highest negative poll ratings of any candidates in history. Neither one should have had any chance of winning. Unfortunately, one of them had to.

I was reminded of this with the election of Doug Ford as head of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party heading into the upcoming provincial election. By any normal reckoning, or at any other time, I think this would be considered a disastrous choice. The supposedly smart Ford has the public persona of a loud-mouthed, ignorant boor. He is often compared to Donald Trump, and the comparisons are not all to his advantage. The idea of him being premier makes no sense. But opposing him is Kathleen Wynne, not just one of the most hated politicians in Canada but a thoroughly incompetent one as well. The only reason she is still in power is because her last opponent was Tim Hudak, who campaigned as an utter moron. Hudak was then replaced by Patrick Brown, who may be innocent of the charges of sexual harassment leveled against him but who still proved to be a complete idiot in thinking that he was going to come back and lead the party after they ran him out on a rail.

What did we do to deserve this? How did politics reach the point where such creatures have risen to the highest offices in the land? Presumably the provincial election will play out along what are becoming disturbingly familiar lines: with citizens voting against the candidate they find the most reprehensible rather than for anyone or anything in particular. Something has clearly gone wrong with democracy. That doesn’t mean that it’s doomed, but it does mean that things are moving in a bad direction.

Checking privilege

There’s recently been a bit of fuss in the news over a series of poster campaigns in British Columbia and Ontario challenging the notion of certain groups having a special social privilege. If you are male, able-bodied (“physically and mentally,” though I’m not sure what being mentally able-bodied means), Christian, a Canadian citizen at birth, heterosexual, or (most damning of all) white, then you are privileged, defined as having “unearned access to social power based on membership in a dominant social group.” For some reason being rich or coming from a wealthy family isn’t included, though I would have thought it mattered more than the rest of the markers combined. In any event, to become aware of your own level of privilege is considered a good thing, not because it becomes a source of shame or guilt, as unavoidable as that seems, but because it will lead to awareness and allow you to join in building “a more just and inclusive world.”

I’m a member of almost all of the aforementioned “dominant social groups.” And I’m aware of the fact that I’m better off in many (though not all) ways for being so. But what of it? I didn’t choose being any of these things, and I couldn’t not be any of them now without extreme difficulty. So what follows from this awareness?

In one poster a picture of Superintendent of Schools Teresa Downs appears alongside a quote: “I have unfairly benefitted from the colour of my skin. White privilege is unacceptable.” If this isn’t just empty virtue signaling, then what is Teresa Downs going to do about the unfair and unacceptable benefits she has received? Is she going to resign? Or does building a more just and inclusive world only mean getting other people to make restitution for your sins? I think it’s safe to assume the latter.

Luckily, this kind of rhetoric tends to go through cycles. Tom Wolfe satirized it in a pair of essays in 1970, later collected in Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. In the mid-1990s radical chic became political correctness and hit another peak. It then went into remission but has since come back again. I’ve written about this before here, and my own sense is that we’ve entered into the late, silly stage of the current phase, which has resulted in the rise of such prominent anti-PC warriors as Donald Trump and Jordan Peterson. It seems the two sides depend on one another. Whatever results from all the sound and fury, I doubt it will be a more just and inclusive world.