Post-Truth and the Real World
“It is what it is.” Of all the catch phrases of the 21st century, this is the most exasperating. Though it sometimes has a nice ring of Solomonic patience or tolerance, it often just sounds like a counsel of defeatism, a way to cope, a shrug.
It’s a go-to answer, for instance, for addressing the failures or excesses of the economy: “Free enterprise must remain free and unfettered, even if people are left behind and the economy turns cruel. It is what it is.”
For a long time, church consensus by the usual public channels had little to add to this conversation. In the anguished aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown – a loss of $22 trillion to the US economy – the lack of response from leading pulpits and religious commentators was striking. On a host of issues, it continues to be.
In 2016’s convulsive presidential election, economic pain was a factor in the rejection of Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump won pivotal states after saying he’d bring jobs back to America. Religious debate about economic reform was virtually nonexistent.
This diffidence might be the ripple effect of a theology of American exceptionalism: God blesses our enterprising spirit, despite occasional corruptions that nearly take down the whole system. Our faith says the system will correct itself, under God.
Or it reflects a variant of “Two Kingdoms” theology: The kingdom of this world is carnal, hopeless, and bound to fail; our salvation awaits in the next world, the eternal kingdom of heaven, not in building utopias here. Connected to this is a perennial American condition, the fierce focus on individualism: The battlefield of salvation is the individual soul, not unjust structures, social policies, or corporate practices.
In the meantime, economic problems morph and intensify decade after decade – income inequality, student debt, wage stagnation, flagrant tax loopholes, industrial pollution. Under the nose of non-stop news and political comment, nothing much gets fixed. It is what it is.
A Myth Under Stress
Economist Robert Reich says that’s not good enough. He questions one of the great myths of the era – the belief that the rhythms of the economy are as natural as air and water and they only fail when governments interfere with them. On the contrary, capitalism didn’t arrive fully formed from heaven. Free markets always depend on specific rules written by real people and framed by government, he argues – rules that govern monopolies, bankruptcy law, contracts, property, and the enforcement of these things.1 These rules were written into earthly existence, and they can be changed. In fact, lately they have been changed, for the worse.
In his latest book, Saving Capitalism, Reich says the free market has been reorganized in recent decades for the benefit of financial elites and their political footmen, to the exclusion of other people. The result has been greater concentrations of power that influence how the economy is run and how political institutions function. The majority of citizens are ignored, and the result is a dramatic deterioration of confidence in democracy and economic life.
A big cause of this, he argues, is the decline of local and national counterweights that challenge such power.
“ … Centers of countervailing power that between the 1930s and late 1970s enabled America’s middle and lower-middle classes to exert their own influence – labor unions, small business, small investors, and political parties anchored at the local and state levels – have withered,” he writes.2
“The consequence has been a market organized by those with great wealth for the purpose of further enhancing their wealth. This has resulted in ever-larger upward pre-distributions inside the market, from the middle class and poor to a minority at the top. Because these pre-distributions occur inside the market, they have largely escaped notice.”
Reich’s writings since the Great Recession attempt to open breathing space for reform, reminding us that citizens still have power to change the system. (An example: Change the bankruptcy code so that students are given more power to reorganize their debts under bankruptcy protection. As the law stands now, graduates with burdensome debt face “a stricter standard than bankruptcy courts apply to gamblers seeking to reduce their gambling debts,” Reich says.3) He wants to see a revival of countervailing power. Such power, I would add, should include the voices of congregations and denominations.
Up to now, the public conversation has been tongue-tied by social contradictions. The late sociologist Daniel Bell outlined three such contradictions 40 years ago – a clash of values embodied in our economics, politics, and culture.4 They are still fighting it out for dominance. The market economy honors efficiency, competition, relentless change, survival of the fittest. Yet our political system affirms equality, representation, opportunity, consensus. All the while, our cultural traditions embrace creativity, art, spiritual values of wisdom and depth, though Bell was already cautioning in 1976 that the cultural style was shifting to self-gratification, a new preeminence of the self.
These three forces – commerce, democracy, and spirit – aren’t easy to harmonize. Their competing values produce daily mixed signals and induce anxiety. By now, asymmetries are evident. Certain market values threaten to take over politics. Such values reward only those big-moneyed shareholders (donors and lobbyists) who invest in government influence, neglecting other citizen stakeholders. The customary government duty to protect the weak or represent the vast citizenry makes no sense to an ethic of running government like a business. Naturally the biggest investors in such a business want something for their money.
Fog of Alternative Facts
It’s as if the fall of Soviet communism proved to us that capitalism won the whole world, and our next move was to turn our well-honed anti-socialist instincts inward and purify ourselves of ideological enemies here. For a while in the post-Cold War 1990s, liberal Hollywood was a target of scorn, then the “gay lobby,” then any movement for a more progressive tax code. After 9/11 the suspicion shifted to Muslims. In the last decade, nostalgia for a lost national past turned against any underrepresented group that dared to inject itself into the public debate about the meaning of America.
Add to this a still-unfolding crisis of information and trust. A fog of disinformation makes it tougher to enact reforms if there’s no agreement on basic facts and evidence. “Post-truth,” “alternative facts” and “fake news” harden into clichés that define the moment, when no one believes in news or evidence unless it already fits their own cozy opinions and prejudices. Suddenly, nothing is what it is.
The social media revolution fuels the thrilling free fall. All consumers get to be their own gatekeepers, experts, editors, and curators of reality. The new existential condition seems to jibe perfectly with a postmodern hermeneutic of suspicion, 50 years in the making, which exposes all statements to ideological taint. And so conspiracy theories of the right and post-structural pronouncements of the left meet efficiently to erode the public space where we must reason together about our goals, security, and well-being.
A Russia-born writer has summed up our peculiar predicament: “There is no such thing as truth, only the battle of opinions proffered by different actors, each of whom strives to be the loudest.”5
The confusion suits the seats of power just fine. The accumulation of power doesn’t live in a post-truth world. It abides by precise facts and truths in order to consolidate its goals, line up votes, perfect its data bases, change regulatory laws, delete budget line items, block criticism, and get results.
The public space for grappling with truth in a democracy still exists, of course. It comes sponsored by a dignified word – citizenship. That honorable touchstone – which stirs pride, duty, protest, vigilance, Constitutional passion, patriotic virtue, resilience – carries a certain poignancy just now, as if the term is struggling for relevance, fighting for its life.
Taking a break from these politico-religio-economic strains recently, I turned to reading some poetry, especially W.H. Auden. It turns out Auden wasn’t a break from the real world but a way back into it.
Auden and Us
Englishman Auden emigrated to the US in 1939. As a gay man in his early 30s, he had found England stifling. And he was tired of being lionized there as his generation’s great prophet of left politics. His friends didn’t grasp his new thinking: After the Spanish Civil War and the reptilian rise of Nazism in civilized Germany, Auden realized evil could happen anywhere, among any people. No nation, political party, or individual is innocent and pure. He wanted a way to regard the real world of flesh and blood and violence and love without the delusions and slogans of ego and power.
The point of Christian belief, he came to see, was to challenge public lies and private self-pity and keep the focus on the only thing that matters – Jesus’ love command. Auden wrote: “For one thing, and one thing only, is serious: loving one’s neighbor as one’s self.”6
Christianity obliged believers to face the facts of this suffering world, not veer from them with gnostic ecstasies or cynical putdowns. Auden thought ecclesiastical jargon and religious nationalism were lethal distractions from real, everyday religion. Better to practice one’s faith than boast about it. He combined elements of Protestantism and Catholicism to fashion a rangy creation theology of his own. This included a heftier notion of citizenship. He believed in the infinite gap between Christian truth and all worldly values, but he also saw the body as holy. Ordinary life is incarnational. For him, a mature Christian faith takes the material world seriously.
By the 1950s, his views were aligning with those of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who had said, “It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.”7
Keeping It Real
In an illuminating character study of Auden’s faith, Edward Mendelson writes: “T.S. Eliot thought of religion as ‘the still point in the turning world,’ ‘the heart of light,’ ‘the crowned knot of fire,’ ‘the door we never opened” – something that remained inaccessible, perfect, and eternal, whether or not he or anyone else cared about it, something wholly unlike the sordid transience of human life. Auden thought of religion as derived from the commandment ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’ – an obligation to other human beings despite all their imperfections and his own, and an obligation to the inescapable reality of this world, not a visionary, inaccessible world that might or might not exist somewhere else.”8
The headlines these days give the impression that we aren’t taking the real world seriously enough or the neighbors we find in it. There is much talk now of the bubbles we live in. Robert Reich says this is a function of four mechanisms we use to avoid unpleasant facts – a denial of the problem, a desire to escape responsibility, an itch to scapegoat others, and cynicism about possible solutions.9 We need leaders who inspire people to overcome these four horsemen of unreality. The truth isn’t going away despite our mental acrobatics of evasion, Reich says: The US is in danger of losing its democratic instincts and becoming a plutocracy.
“To exercise true leadership, you also need to get out of your ideological bubble,” he writes. “If most of the people you talk with agree with you, you’re wasting your time. You need to engage with people who may disagree or who haven’t thought hard about the issues. … Find people who are willing to listen to the facts and who are open to arguments and ideas, regardless of the label they apply to themselves. We need them.”10
An incarnational theology that infuses present time and physical matter with divine intention is surely able to transform our economic arguments too.
- Robert Reich, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few (Knopf, 2015), pp. xiii-xiv, 4.
- Reich, p. xiv.
- Reich, p. 64.
- Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (Basic Books, 1976). See especially the Introduction.
- Masha Gessen, “Lessons from Russia: Verify Everything, Don’t Publish Rumors,” The New York Times, Jan. 15, 2017, Sunday Review section, p. 4.
- W.H. Auden, “Address on Henry James,” Prose Volume II: 1939-1948, edited by Edward Mendelson (Princeton, 2002), p. 302.
- Edward Mendelson, “Neighbor: W.H. Auden,” Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers (New York Review Books, 2015), p. 170.
- Mendelson, p. 145.
- Robert Reich, Beyond Outrage: What Has Gone Wrong with Our Economy and Our Democracy and How to Fix It (expanded edition, Vintage, 2012), p. 112.
- Reich, Beyond Outrage, pp. 112-113.
Ray Waddle is editor of Reflections. His most recent book is Undistorted God (Abingdon, 2014).