“an important, provocative new book .”
Is all that matters in contemporary culture whether a line sounds good? That’s the thesis of an important, provocative new book, The Post-Truth Era, by Ralph Keyes. It’s Keyes’s thesis that in the current ethos, whether something is believed has become more important than whether it’s true. Keyes cites psychological research showing that people lie far more often than we’d like to think–constantly telling petty lies they think will never be detected and often telling whoppers, even to friends and loved ones. One study showed that 28 percent of conversations among friends contained conscious lies, and 77 percent of conversations between strangers did so. The lies were on matters of substance, not just “your column is good today” and the many similar prevarications intended to avoid hurt feelings.
So perhaps Americans are no longer outraged when politicians lie because we lie so often in our daily lives. Much everyday lying, Keyes says, concerns constructing attractive pasts for ourselves. “I was the quarterback on my high school football team” or “I have a master’s degree” or “I had lots of proposals of marriage” or many other claims along these lines are told both to impress others and to make ourselves feel our own pasts were richer or more accomplished. … Americans like and even admire personal mythmaking and thus don’t seem to object much when political figures lie to puff up their pasts. Lyndon Johnson, for example, constantly told audiences his grandfather died at the Alamo; his grandfather died at home in bed, but an Alamo myth made Texas voters more comfortable with LBJ. Jesse Ventura elaborately claimed to have been a Navy SEAL and to have fought in Vietnam. Keyes contends that neither claim was true–but the mythical Ventura had proven attractive to voters. LBJ and Ventura, it must be noted, came out ahead by presenting personal histories they wished were true.
There are many other examples, and The Post-Truth Era collects dozens, making it an invaluable compendium of the decline of respect for verity in modern culture. Today many would rather watch a docudrama, in which viewers have absolutely no idea what is historical and what is imaginary, than read carefully researched history. The made-up version is more interesting! Many would rather listen to Michael Moore or the Swift Boat guys–Moore on the left and the Swifties on the right being current exemplars of post-truth politics–since the sort of arguments in which it doesn’t matter what is true are more fun than tedious accuracy. The really disturbing trend, Keyes argues, is that so many figures in contemporary politics, literature, journalism, and other fields get away with so much lying about themselves. The public appears to prefer the post-truth version.
Keyes blames the decline of respect for truth partly on intellectual modernism and postmodernism. Intellectuals, he says, crusaded to convince people that there are no absolute truths, that everything is contingent or based on frames of reference. Calamity descended as people actually decided to believe this. Postmodernism’s worst idea has infected popular culture, and now millions of Americans and Europeans believe that nothing is really truth. … I commend to readers The Post-Truth Era as an antidote. Gregg Easterbrook