Truth, lies, and ‘alternative facts’
Truth is often stranger than fiction. It is also an elusive quest because complete objectivity is beyond the ability of imperfect human minds. We are therefore reduced to trying to understand reality at the fringes, through our sparse ideas about it.
The British historian E.V. Carr, for instance, says personal bias is unavoidable in the writing of history because the very selection of facts from a mother lode of events would reflect a historian’s preference and point of view. Thus, because of its impact, “Julius Caesar’s crossing of that petty stream, the Rubicon, is (correctly evaluated) as a fact of history, whereas its crossing by millions of other people are not.”
This piece pertains only to human behavior in a political setting: We are all familiar with the Hindu fable of six blind men touching different parts of an elephant and coming up with six different descriptions of the animal. All of them offered only partial truth because all had only partial knowledge of the beast. But none of them lied; they were sincere and truthful in their accounts. Sadly, this is not the case in today’s world where outright lies and duplicity are often crudely presented as alternative narratives of real, easily confirmed events. This is what occurred at the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, when his press secretary’s bloated assessment of the crowd in attendance (which clearly paled in comparison to previous inaugural gatherings) was defended by his counselor, Kellyanne Connway, as an “alternative fact.”
Since we are not dealing here with a distant historical event or a complex sociopolitical phenomenon that both require scholarly research but a simple, easy to verify event under the full glare of TV and CCTV cameras, this kind of thinking is alarming, given the speed and range of today’s information media. Briefly, it means that a kind of Orwellian thought control has descended on us, a pervasive reality we have to vigilantly contend with in our everyday lives.
Alternative fact is a variant of “fake news” and the more sophisticated “post-truth” which gives more value to emotion and personal beliefs than to hard objective facts. Under the rubric of propaganda, all are deliberate lies disguised as truth. Consider the following laundering of events:
China’s violation of Philippine territorial integrity with its continued refusal to respect the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s recent decision which invalidated Beijing’s “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea. Citing “ancient historical records,” China justifies its squatting on waters, islands and features well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. That rationale is clearly fake news—indeed a gargantuan hoax—because prior to 1937, Chinese maps, treaties, constitutions, and official communication records identified Hainan island, a mere 20 miles from Guandong province, as China’s most southern territory.
The infamous burial of Ferdinand Marcos’ remains in the Libingan ng mga Bayani was justified by President Duterte by virtue of the dictator being “a president and a soldier,” thereby repudiating a people power revolt that unseated him because of his blatant human rights abuses and massive plunder of the economy. At considerable risk to his political and moral leadership, not to mention his legacy, Mr. Duterte made that controversial decision and clothed it in specious, legalistic terms.
The Philippines’ rebalancing of its foreign affairs in favor of China and Russia at the expense of its traditional ally, America. Mr. Duterte justified this envisaged paradigm shift citing America’s imperial record of exploitation and human rights abuses. He may have scored some points there, but by completely ignoring the graver crimes of China’s Mao Zedong and Russia’s Joseph Stalin, brutal communist dictatorships that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of their own people, he closed his eyes to unassailable historical facts.
These developments constitute a chilling “new normal” in our lives.
Narciso Reyes Jr. ([email protected]) is an international book author and former diplomat. He lived in Beijing in 1978-81 as bureau chief of the Philippine News Agency.
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