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The Age of Misrepresentations

Photo Source Daniele Grasso | CC BY 2.0

“What? Art thou mad? Is not the truth the truth?”

– Falstaff to Prince Hal, Henry IV, Part 1.

Falstaff, inveterate liar, throws this question at Prince Hal at the moment Hal is about to expose him as a liar. This Shakespearean liar who mocks disbelief in truth, a disbelief he himself owns, seems to me now a foreshadowing of our present age where no representation of what is true can stand unmocked or commonly acknowledged to be true.

About half the population would say that Falstaff’s duplicitous account of truth is now represented by one man, President Trump. Our present age of misrepresentations is neither without harbingers nor solely the creation of one man. We are and have been in an age in which we cannot represent anything to satisfy a shared understanding for some time, perhaps beginning with Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House. If we think Trump is an unexpected presence on a stage he himself created, we have forgotten what a recent Atlantic article reminds us of Gingrich: “He pioneered a style of partisan combat—replete with name-calling, conspiracy theories, and strategic obstructionism—that poisoned America’s political culture and plunged Washington into permanent dysfunction.” (Mackay Coppins, “The Man Who Broke Politics,” November, 2018)

But we can identify a long line of gravediggers after Nixon and Watergate of a pre-tribalistic politics, from Lee Atwater, the strategist of racism, Tom “the Hammer” Delay, Dick Armey, Tea Party founder, segregationist Trent Lott, Karl Rove’s playbook of strategic misrepresentations to Steve Bannon’s uber white power nationalism and Mitch McConnell’s use of Congress to nullify Obama’s executive power.

The undermining of the public’s confidence in the truth of any representation has proven to be a successful political strategy for winning elections. The price of course has been a collapse into the tribalism of illiberalism and a deep dysphoria in the American mass psyche.

Sometimes matters are deliberately misrepresented — the recent “grievance studies” hoax where 20 fake articles were not recognized as a hoax — and sometimes misrepresented due to an honest deficit in information, interpretive approach and understanding. In an age when one’s own representations cannot be indicted with nay success by anyone else’s, we now have a category of self-inflicted misrepresentations. Doubtlessly, the world has always been as it appears to us but what is new is the absence of any attempt to educate ourselves beyond that state and so in the course of a lifetime bring our representations of the world as close to what the world is as we possibly can.

Such a disposition is no longer on the stage of politics where it seems clear that if what a politician represents hits the target of your own personal representations then you’ve found a place to rest where there is no need to learn more.

Hitting the target of consumers’ preferences and priorities has always been the mission of marketing and advertising and those spin strategies have more decidedly infiltrated politics than a dialectics of resolvable debate. Whereas the supremacy of personal representations has been fertile ground for politics and marketing, this descent into the irrationalities of opinionating has made it very difficult for education and science, as examples, to do their thing.

Education does its thing by leading us from ignorance to erudition, from interpretation from “the gut” to a kind of interpretation by which we seek to discover the forces, conditions and happenstance which manage at the moment to represent words and events as sensible, as real, as true.

Science “does its thing” via the scientific method, a method which does its best to stifle the investigator’s personal inclinations and disposition in order to reach a point where something of the world can be rationally and empirically explained.

Right now, I find it difficult to imagine what any level of education is like in the U.S., that difficulty compounded by the fact that every pupil is now in possession of handheld agents of “smartness” which respond to the pupil’s own self-designing of the world, a self-designing always suited to what is of personal interest. Why anyone would be inclined to summon the discipline and patience required to interpret and understand what is outside their own interests and might be foreign or antithetical to those interests?

We know, however, that if such an attempt is not made, education is at an end.

The technology that we rush into education as its savior is in actuality a rush toward instantaneous, ubiquitous funneling of misrepresentations on social media, misrepresentations that are adopted but cannot be eradicated. I cite as an example of this, Facebook’s misrepresentations of Islam as a threat to Buddhism in Myanmar incited ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya

Everything is up for misrepresentation, a part of the human condition, but what is brand new on the stage of history is the total lack of trust or confidence that such misrepresentations can be exposed as such.

Tribal understandings do not share a sense of law and reason that transcends such tribal understandings. Thus, China, for instance, in President Trump’s view is as likely an interfering agent in the 2016 Presidential election as Russia, although all intelligence reports indict Russia and not China. “Rogue killers” are in the President’s view as likely responsible to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi as Prince bin Salman. And for those who do not swallow this “rogue killers” red herring, President Trump swears “severe punishment will follow if Saudi Arabia were proved to have killed Mr. Khashoggi.” That “severe punishment” might extend to a cancellation of a lucrative arms sale if, of course, there was any chance that anything could be proven and that proof accepted by all, including President Trump himself. Fat chance of that, as they say.

A DNA test proves that Elizabeth Warren has Native American ancestors but the President will only accept that representation if he conducts the DNA test himself. Again, this sounds absurd but to those who have no faith in any authority but rather question the representations of all authority in the manner of the President himself, there is no path to convincing proof. Political conspiracy and the anger of what McConnell’s calls “the mob” are behind every allegation of falsehood and every representation of truth.

The chances at the start of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford representing what Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh did to her being tagged as a sham account organized by Trump haters, “the mob,” were 100 %. How that total rejection of her account would have been carried forward if corroborating evidence and witness testimony had supported her is now impossible to say. But it seems clear that the success of the #MeToo movement in which accusations prove guilt was relied upon as sufficient in this case. It wasn’t and what we are left with is a victory for a due process in which innocence or guilt must be proven even though, ironically, we are not only unable to reach such proof but we also scorn any proof our own personal court of judgment rejects.

In short, Dr. Ford could never have put forward enough proof to satisfy enough people on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

So, at the very moment we are congratulating ourselves in bringing the sexual harassment of women to the light of day, #MeToo accusations can be dismissed as sham accounts as readily as, say, Robert Mueller’s report. What we can expect in our age of misrepresentations is that if Mueller’s report found cause regarding Trump’s collusion/conspiracy with the Russians, or obstruction of justice, or violation of the emoluments clause in The Constitution,or all of these that report would be denounced by half the country as misrepresenting the truth and upheld as the truth by the other half.

Alongside Mueller’s report, we also seem to be relying on a “blue wave” of victory for Democrats next month as if re-establishing Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House will also re-establish jointly accepted adjudication of all representations, including the President’s. Mitch McConnell in place as Senate Majority Leader, Twitter still functioning for the President and the sight of him at rallies angrily protesting how he is being cornered by Pelosi and the House are more than enough to assure that no representation on anything will not be indicted as a misrepresentation and no misrepresentation will ever be exposed as such.

While “Resistance Liberals and Progressives” trace the origin of our age of misrepresentations to President Trump and his flagrant reliance on misrepresentation, it is hardly possible to believe that he created the conditions leading to the success of his presence as president. Rather, what seems more plausible is that he was, to maliciously quote the Coen brothers’ description of the Dude in  The Big Lebowski:

“Sometimes there’s a man… I won’t say a hero, ’cause, what’s a hero? But sometimes, there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about the Dude here. Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s the Dude, in Los Angeles.”

Of course, the Dude would have been someone Trump at one of his Nuremberg-like rallied wanted punched in the face. Nevertheless we need to recognize that Trump has become the man for the moment, a man whose observations that reality is what a TV reality show massages it as, that truth is in words and words can also be massaged with impunity, a man for this time and place, a man concurrent with too many misrepresentations already installed in the American mass psyche before he ever took the stage.

The entire culture had to move to a place upon which Donald Trump could stand before he could be present and, astoundingly, president. When he asserts that he knows more about NATO than General Mattis, he is not saying something marked immediately as absurd given his background and the General’s but affirming his own personal understanding as impervious to any superior authority. And in this, he is in lockstep with too many Americans who reject and scorn of all representations incompatible or strange to their own.

Before any of the postmodernists began to speak of “narrative frames” which we construct and live within, marketers had already not only searched for those frames so they could make their profitable pitches, but they soon realized it would be easier to create these narrative frames. People live in stories of the world so why not create stories for them that push product and services?

All this is axiomatic in a pursuit of profit. What was a misrepresentation was not what was exposed as such but simply what disagreed with or offended the representations of one’s own framing of reality. A good part of this spinning of reality/narrative/story frames involved a kind of sleight of hand whereby what was profit prefabricated always appeared as one’s own personal construction.

Whether millions suddenly loved a Starbucks Zombie Frappuccino or a finger tattoo and so on, the choice was personal, a declaration of one’s uniqueness. The greater the number of choices, now easily represented as apps or Facebookfriends, the greater the domain of one’s autonomy and agency. Thus, the only misrepresentations that can be exposed are those that you yourself have not personally represented. Or, outside the confinement of such self-empowerment, what is a misrepresentation is what manipulated framings of reality — and politics and marketing are the masterful players here — say is a misrepresentation of truth, reality and the American way.

It’s probable that because the American mass psyche has always been wrapped up in dualities and duopolies, nurtured by the classic realism — good guy/bad guy — of Hollywood film, super hero video games and TV, our present severe divide between Blue State and Red State, personalized now as for Trump and against Trump, would stand as our two opposing narrative frames of reality.

You would think that some sort of “Save the planet from global warming!” or at least a “Let us mitigate global warming!” narrative would emerge as strong. But it does not, not because President Trump does not believe in human generated global warming but because neither politics nor marketing have any interest in fostering such reality frames. We have not been prepped by economics or politics or education to care.

This means that regardless of what last week’s IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Oct. 8, 2018) report tells us about moving fast to cut carbon pollution, the whole issue has negligible place in the American mass psyche because it has not been brought to any level of commanding representation.

What seems to be the case is that denial of this threat has a greater place in our representational frames than its recognition. In other words, our former ability to rationally weigh and adjudicate will have collapsed into a mosh pit of undecidability. This collapse seems absurd if one assumes that misrepresentations have over time and with due diligence been exposed and that reliable representations are still able to successfully argue their case.

Such is not the case. There is no way that the financial sector, the advance of globalized capitalism, is going to support a WWII type transition from fossil fuels to alternative energies. Nor will either Democrats or Republicans disrupt the axiomatic movement toward profit in order to plan a mitigation of global warming that will make the planet habitable for not just some in some places but for the whole human planetary populace.

I phrase the matter this way because dividend recipients in both parties find it easier to plan an escape narrative for themselves than take on the difficult politics of detaching politics from an economics directed axiomatically toward quick returns on investment.

It is sad that Trump’s supporters are misrepresented and that those supporters misrepresent those who resist Trump. How and to what degree Trump himself is misrepresented is as meaningless to me as the personalizing of determining conditions, which is our present mindless approach to everything. If we represent the actualities that bring Trump to presence, he vanishes.

Unfortunately, it is tragic that we no longer have the means or the will to determine objectively and rationally what are Blue/Red misrepresentations are. As long as the methods of determination remain within the confines of our personal representations and those remain not ours but the agents of profit and the preservation of profit we remain blind to how we misrepresent each other.

But while both economics and politics will transition as the conditions fueling such misrepresentations change as a new populace itself changes within such new conditions, our misrepresentation of our planet’s plight does indeed present existential dimensions of threat.

In short, we may not have another generation of humanity to experience new conditions and narratives of reality. This is an age of misrepresentations different and more frightening than any in the past but it is the one we must work our way out of as quickly as possible. The path is not divided here but one and clear if we can as Blake advises clear the lens of our perceptions.

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Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Travels of a New Gulliver.

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