U G L Y T U T H
Back in the naiver climes of July 2016, just after the Republican National Convention, CNN published a brief article to explain the unexpected phenomenon of Donald TRUMP. More specifically: why is TRUMP popular and why now? In order to determine an answer, the article draws upon ‘a new intriguing idea’ from a recently published paper in the European Journal of Social Psychology. The paper’s researchers had conducted tests to measure if experimentally-induced boredom has an effect on an individual’s political opinions – and intriguingly, we are told, the results were positive. When questioned afterwards, test subjects who were given ‘boring tasks’ were more likely to exhibit far-right or far-left political opinions – indicating that boredom ‘may trigger people to gravitate towards more extreme political beliefs.’ CNN’s conclusion: TRUMP may have won the Republican nomination because a surprisingly big slice of the American populace is ‘totally bored’.
In the political world as depicted by CNN, the cause of this boredom is tautological, a closed circuit. Boredom is experienced by people whose minds are wired that way: a potential explanation for TRUMP’s political success, yes, but not the consequence of social decay, say, or the malaise of a population hungry for political agency. But then TRUMP himself was largely perceived to lack meaningful political agency at the time, at least in terms of his access to federal government. In the CNN piece TRUMP is presented as a parody of a real candidate, propped up by individuals with an innate propensity for ennui. He’s not the reflection of a very real and very politicized voter base – a big chunk of the US population, as has since become clear, feels re-invigorated by a man who embodies manifold forms of bigotry. Because caricature or not, TRUMP is now the 45th President of the USA. As Vladimir Nabokov said of Don Quixote: ‘The parody has become the paragon.’
While CNN isn’t keen on probing into the ugly reasons why America might be totally bored, the article does, to its credit, introduce an interesting idea: that boredom ‘can motivate people to change their circumstances and end their ennui.’ Boredom – it is implicitly suggested – compels creativity. It’s a fairly logical inference; life is beige and unrelenting for many people from a myriad of social backgrounds, TRUMP supporters or not, and it’s not surprising they might want to see it reinvented. Creativity and innovation are perceived as some of the most fundamental virtues of a flourishing society, yet our appetite for them may often be the expression of a jaded disengagement from reality. And most significantly, in the context of Trump and the political landscape of today, it’s this preoccupation with novelty that helps explain a discourse in which new and compelling narratives feel more vital than facts.
Let’s return to TRUMP‘s precursor, the original parody-turned-paragon. Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote is the story of Alonso Quixano, a second-rate nobleman in seventeenth-century Spain who is bored of being himself. Quixano prefers stories of medieval chivalry to the mercantilism of early modernity: a hostile and bureaucratic age that, the narrator tells us, ‘is so in need of joyful entertainment.’ Locked away in his library, Quixano has imbibed book after book of heady chivalric heroism – so much so that, to the horror of his household, he has rechristened himself ‘Don Quixote’ and has taken to marauding the countryside in a bid to become an authentic knight-errant. And to be a knight-errant, in the literary tradition that has so luridly intoxicated Quixote’s brain, he must swear devotion to a princess, a damsel of infinite refinement and beauty. Quixote elects a local peasant girl (whom he calls Dulcinea) as the object of his love. Dulcinea herself never makes an appearance in Don Quixote, but an idealised image of her is always fixed euphorically in Quixote’s deluded mind. Soon after leaving on his mission, he encounters a group of merchants on the road and, when they stop to chat, asks them to declare Duclinea the most ‘beauteous’ damsel on earth. The merchants have never met Dulcinea and reply that they’d obviously need to see her first. Quixote is outraged:
“If I were to show her to you,” replied Don Quixote, “where would the virtue be in your confessing so obvious a TRUTH? The significance lies in not seeing her and believing, confessing, affirming, swearing and defending that TRUTH.”
Should the merchants not confess Dulcinea’s supreme beauty, Quixote continues, he will gladly do battle with all six of them and destroy them, so empowered is he by his certainty in the splendour of his absent love. TRUTH for Don Quixote is made valuable by the absence of the evidence, by a kind of fervency of belief that cannot be fulfilled by facts. The imagination is more virtuous than the reality, whose ambassadors are the forgettable merchants and their tedious empirical pedantry.
The belief that TRUTH can and should operate independently of veridical facts isn’t just the preserve of a fake knight in a four-hundred-year-old novel. More recently, Arundhati Roy has made the political point for fiction’s primacy over the factual. Facts, she feels, are too frequently the fabrications of power:
Good fiction is the truest thing that ever there was. Facts are not necessarily the only TRUTHs. Facts can be fiddled with by economists and bankers. There are other kinds of TRUTH. It’s about telling the story.
Roy is neither unusual nor necessarily wrong to be suspicious of facts in political discourse – particularly in their presentation as statistics. You don’t have to look far for evidence that statistics are regularly doctored to suit the status quo, even by nominally independent institutions. Last year, a former worker at the Office for National Statistics revealed that staff had manipulated public expenditure figures to support the government’s austerity ‘narrative’. This involved reducing a public expenditure figure by £2 billion. The whistleblowing ONS worker’s assessment is unambiguous: ‘the economic statistical production system
Affirmations, stated or not, that are felt but not proved […] TRUTHs are what bind us, to ourselves, to the world around us, and to each other.
A politicised subject can’t scientifically prove the reasons why ‘one is always right to rebel’, to use the Committee’s own example of a TRUTH – but that’s precisely what makes TRUTHs potent and unifying, particularly compared to the clunky ideologies of the twentieth-century left. A certain degree of nebulousness makes a TRUTH creative: a helpful way to ‘construct a world’. As with Arundhati Roy and Don Quixote, pursuing TRUTH can and perhaps even should be a rebellion against facts.
It should be noted that we are discussing varied theories of TRUTH with different intentions and different applications. Moreover, neither Roy nor the Invisible Committee deny that reality exists; they have committed their intellectual lives to critiquing actually-existing injustices. Yet they share a similar comprehension of TRUTH as epiphany, as something beyond the lexicon of fact-based knowledge that must nonetheless become a guiding principle. The TRUTH arrives like the eschaton: a new narrative to engage the apathetic and to disturb the way things are.
If beauty TRUTH and TRUTH beauty, then we might consider ugliness to be reality. Ugly things communicate uncomfortable facts. A wrinkled and carbuncled body is purportedly ugly because it is a reminder that we are one day going to be wrinkled and carbuncled too. And as the embodiment of a political discourse that has cannibalised itself, TRUMP could be considered the ugly reality of TRUTH-speak. When some journalists mourn TRUTH’s absence in TRUMP‘s America, or suggest that we have transitioned to a political discourse after TRUTH, are they mourning the popular neglect of ugly facts? Or is TRUMP’s vulgar appropriation of their mode of TRUTH-telling too close to home? The apparatus of journalism (of any political orientation) has regularly prized a TRUTH-speak that’s not dissimilar to the rhetoric plundered by TRUMP . It’s the crisp TRUTH of the revelation, journalism as unfolding theatre, and the perpetual expectation that good writing must rip open the curtains and declare: “my TRUTH is brand new and much better than these previously held TRUTHs”. This essay is no different; I am attempting to present a novel way of thinking about common subjects of discussion (TRUMP, TRUTH, etc.) that implicitly claims to be more insightful than several previous discussions on the topic. The political plot rolls on, another wall is erected in the labyrinth, and what are often static situations are given renewed fluidity.
Wittingly or not, TRUMP’s admin-istration has manipulated this political narrative ingeniously. Each paroxysm of hate-policy that emerges from his crumpled face is quickly superseded by the next cynical exercise in bigotry and bombast. TRUMP has a cinematic sense of himself, and his media events build up to create a dynamic narrative with the thrill of the fictional. That’s partly why the demonstrable fraudulence of many of his claims during his election campaign, not to mention at least 15 accusations of sexual assault, did not deter his supporter base. For them TRUMP represents a truth that cannot be reduced to facts, however ugly and categorical those facts are. He is the political incarnation of a redemptive story, the binding agent of “forgotten” Americans.
If we accept that the ugliest things are deemed ugly because they make the worst aspects of reality manifest, it could be argued that we have an obligation to belligerently and repetitively reproduce them. The last fifteen years are full of ugly events that, while still ongoing, slip swiftly out of public consciousness. In vulgar terms, reality easily becomes boring. But reality does exist: vanishing villages beneath the brown water of tropical floods; tendrils of white phosphorous smoke falling over an occupied territory; an infant face down in the sand. Five thousand refugees drowned in the Mediterranean last year, a record figure. Can a compelling narrative ever be more real than those five thousand deaths?
Death tends to end stories rather than begin them. Such is the case in the final chapter of Don Quixote. Our hero has been defeated in battle and his punishment, according to the laws of chivalry, is that he must return to the confines of his village for at least a year. Quixote flirts with the notion that he could reinvent himself as a shepherd in the pastoral tradition, but doesn’t appear entirely convinced. At his arrival home he is weak of brain and body. He is taken ill to bed. The next morning – maybe from weariness, maybe from heartbreak – he wakes up a rational man. He shrugs off his delusions of knight-errantry and regrets his previous obsession with ‘detestable books of chivalry’. Quixote’s life is no longer lost in the ‘labyrinths’ of his profound madness – however he doesn’t appear to be capable of surviving outside of them. He has become Alonso Quixano again. He dictates his will stoically and dies two paragraphs later.
Jack Browne & Lauren Baldwin.