On Being Lied to

Attention TCT Readers in the Washington D.C. area: FRI President Robert Royal and FRI Senior Research Fellow Mary Eberstadt will be at the D. C. Catholic Information Center at 6 PM on Monday (October 2) commenting on a new book by Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P., “The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism.” Fr. White is a professor at the Dominican House of Studies and director of the Thomistic Institute there. He will be making a brief presentation and also be available to sign books. For information about registering for this event, click here.

Perhaps gentle reader has been told a tall tale. Or maybe it was a joke. Could have been a parable, or some other story, never meant to be taken “literally.”

I put that last word in quotes because I have used it in our indefensibly quaint, post-modern way. Of course a tall tale is literal. Every word is intended, and no detail of the plot is unnecessary, if the tale is well told. The same with a good joke, et cetera. The word actually means “letter by letter,” or by extension, “step by step.”

Long before the Internet was invented, newspapers were doing terrible harm to our sense for reality. They were reducing truth to disembodied “facts.” (That word also constantly misused.) Every day, and in every way, they separate the soul from the body of truth, as it were. And they discard the soul part.

Not even their “literalism” was or is literal: so I aver. As a (despised) guest lecturer in a journalism school, I once had the experience of trying to explain why the “inverted pyramid” way of telling a story (important “facts” first, then less and less important trailing off) will misrepresent anything. It is the opposite of the classical précis, in which logical order must be maintained in concision. It is the reduction of any report to hype; and then a “headline” (no mere heading) exaggerates the implicit exaggeration.

I am not writing about “fake news.” I am thinking of journalism, and all public speech, in which the “facts” presented might be reasonably accurate in themselves, but the selection, omission, and order all lie. Moreover, I say most of this dishonesty is unconscious, or “unintentional” – bad habit – the result of bad living, as my old Latin teacher would say.

The “man in the street” is, of course, an abstraction, though taken by journalists as if he were real. He is neither amorphous nor particular. To know any man, we must separate him from the crowd, and find the patience to study him as a man. Christianity once prepared us for this; “democracy” has undone it.

The great majority of men and women today could hardly tell us what is a lie. On most questions of emotional significance, they cannot mean what is untrue; rather, what they dislike, for vague reasons. “Lies” are what are uttered by “liars.” We decide who the liars are, in advance of their lies. Almost all guilt is assigned by association.

R.F. Outcault’s Yellow Kid, c. 1895 (whence: “yellow journalism”)

And this, if gentle reader has borne with me, is the terrible result not of years nor decades, but centuries through which journalism has been replacing all other forms of story-telling so that, as Mary McCarthy said of Lillian Hellman, “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘a’ and ‘the’.”

What I say pertains to all reports that are not written chastely. That chastity should be at the moral root of logic, and reason may itself occasion some surprise. But it is not possible even to begin seeing things as they are, without access to this virtue.

It will not do to be governed by our hatreds. (A key “Judaeo-Christian” notion.) Unless we grasp that liars (including the Devil himself) sometimes tell the truth, and the truthful sometimes lie – with or without discernible motives – we must just sling mud.

Poets have a better understanding of “fact.” At the heart of poetical description is miraculous truth, pared to its essentials. The music beneath cacophony is revealed; the beauty that went unseen through confusion. At the heart of the Creation – of the mysterious reality in which we participate – is something euphonious. We know that or do not.

One might even say that our lives depend on the discernment of this euphony; on our capacity to harmonize with this chord beneath the superficial clutter of sound light and feeling. This is necessarily lost in all journalistic descriptions, for accurate or not, they are concerned only with movement in the clutter.

Truth is not a set of “facts.” Deep in Scripture we find the denial of “statistical validities.” We find a definition of Truth embodied in the very person of Jesus Christ; and are told, only Christ is the portal of salvation.

To the worldly this is “news” so strange that none can make sense of it. The analogies that the “literal” (in the glib sense) call up are all false analogies.

It is impossible to step back and consider such “truth claims” on their philosophical merits, in the absence of the necessary equipment. “What is Christ?” is a good question. “Who is Christ?” is an even better. And, what is at the root of our being?

The answers to such questions cannot come from the clutter. Rather they require us to clear the clutter away. Which is why poetry can approach truth, journalism cannot.

Dichtung und Wahrheit, was Goethe’s magical title, for an enthralling account of his own development, to the age of twenty-six. “Poetry and Truth” is the conventional translation, but in German, Dichtung can also mean “fiction,” so that the irony in the title is on plain public view. But there is a further irony within the irony: that the poetical fiction may approach the truth from angles otherwise blocked. The book might be taken as a meditation upon the “factitious,” in life and art.

My particular grief, at the present day, is that I am lied to, as a matter of course, through all the media of communication. I am told things that cannot be true, because the spirit of the truth has not been embodied. Instead, I am sprayed with inconsequential “facts” – in a spirit indifferent to what is real and immutable.

I am not even told the truth about the Catholic Church – of what she is, and what she is not – by her own current authorities in Rome. This is hard on Catholics.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.