Sunday, February 05, 2017

56 Theses on Trump and Truth

1. Understanding the power of how President Trump relates to the truth requires understanding how professional wrestling and reality television, the televisual forms in which he built his popularity with the everyman, appeal to their audiences.

2. If we don't understand what the rise of Mr. Trump to the presidency reveals about the way these these televisual forms shape their audiences' relationship to the truth, we won't understand how to effectively communicate with them.

3. These audiences know that what is being presented in these televisual forms as unscripted is in fact heavily scripted, yet not entirely scripted.

4. Pointing out to these audiences that a gap between presentation and reality makes a TV show "fake" does not lessen the appeal of these televisual forms for them.

5. By asking their audiences with a "wink" to suspend disbelief on the question of whether what is presented is fiction or non-fiction the producers of these televisual forms invite the audience into an interpretive game played with an unreliable narrator.

6. The audiences that enjoy professional wrestling and reality television enjoy it, not despite the fact that they are being "lied to," but because the gap between presentation and reality invites them to account for the mechanics of scripting a spectacle that resonates emotionally.

7. This gives the audiences a powerful sense of being "in the know" about stories over which they have little to no control.

8. These audiences can then play this interprative game with the rest of the media, media that is not "winking" as they present a story as fiction or non-fiction.

9. If fiction and non-fiction are on a spectrum, how much of non-fiction media is presented by unreliable narrators as real when in fact it is scripted? Answer: All of it, to some degree.

10. In reality television and professional wrestling, good and evil are not moral absolutes but plot devices used by unreliable narrators to ask their audiences' to suspend disbelief.

11. Sensationally good characters suspend disbelief just as well as sensationally evil characters. Only boring characters are wrong.

12. If something boring happens, the interprative game is no longer fun because the gap between presentation and reality collapses as the reality of the scripting process becomes evident in its failure to deliver a spectacle that resonates emotionally.

13. For the audiences of these televisual forms, the value proposition of most media on the non-fiction end of the spectrum comes across as, Give us your time and attention (making us money) in exchange for boring stories told by unreliable narrators who never "wink". At least the unreliable narrators of fiction media tell spectacular stories, even if their interprative game is less fun.

14. These audiences cannot evaluate the truth of professional wrestling or reality television based on whether the narrator is sincere in what they present as true or false, good or evil, but on whether the (always unreliable) narrator tells a story that is emotionally compelling while inviting them to consider how they scripted reality.

15. By inviting their audience to consider how they scripted reality, the unreliable narrator allows their audience to evaluate them based on whether the narrator's self-interest in telling the story aligns with the audience's interests in investing in it.

16. For the audiences of these televisual forms, earnestly presenting truth as Truth, not-truth as Not-truth, good as Good and evil as Evil is the sign of an unreliable narrator who either doesn't realize they are scripting reality according to their own interests or knows it and is keeping their audience from playing the interprative game by being inauthentic.

17. For the audiences of these televisual forms, what counts for truth is authenticity—telling a spectacular story they can resonate with and inviting them to evaluate your motives for having done so by "winking" at your unreliable narration.

18. Of course, there are those in the audiences of professional wrestling and reality television who believe everything they see is real and none of it scripted. They intensify the sense of interprative play for the rest of the audience who is in on the game.

19. In the metanarrative constructed by the audiences of these televisual forms in their interprative play, the true believers among them are just another part of reality being scripted by the unreliable narrator, in this case, using the spectacle to script the true believers.

20. This reinforces the audiences' sense of being behind the scenes of a story over which they actually have little to no control.

21. For the true believers, truth resides at the level of spectacle, where presentation and reality appear to merge.

22. For the rest of the audience, truth resides in the gap between presentation and reality where spectacle and motive combine: Lie to me, so I can see if our self-interests are aligned.

23. Those who present truth earnestly, in the view of these audiences, are obscuring how they've scripted reality so that they can obscure their motives to themselves or their audiences.

24. Those who present truth earnestly and appear to be scripting reality the least may limit the spectacular in their presentation by breaking up their story with alternative viewpoints, caveats about their own biases, and other nuances. They are boring.

25. Boring presentations of reality are not emotionally compelling, so the audiences of these televisual forms are apt to ignore them.

26. Boring presentations of reality do not help these audiences tell themselves a story about themselves that makes their lives feel spectacular, so there is no payoff for these audiences that alignes with their self-intersets in investing time and attention in media.

27. If a presentation of reality doesn't offer a story that can be evaluated in terms of these audiences' self-interests, it cannot be evaluated by them through interprative play for its truth content.

28. For the audiences of professional wrestling and reality television, boring, non-fiction media has even less truth value than earnest, non-fiction media (Donald Trump > Hannity > Fox News > CSPAN).

29. Boring presentations of reality also imply that acting based on ones interests is less important than understanding reality in all its complexities.

30. If reality is always being scripted by all media, it is meaningless to seek an understanding of it that goes beyond the interests of powerful actors.

31. The spectacular celebrates the act taken without regard to complexities, whether for good or evil, as that which compels an audience to invest time and attention in the story of the actor and find truth in its resonances with the story they tell themselves about themselves.

32. Because the story we tell ourselves about ourselves shapes and is informed by our self-interests, it is possible to influence the interests of audiences invested in a story by shaping their story about themselves.

33. The one who produces spectacular acts can influence the interests of these audiences by shaping they story they tell themselves about themselves through the metanarrative they tell themselves about the scripting of the spectacular. (The effect also works in reverse from audience to producer.)

34. Having given up on any truthful presentation of reality, the audiences of professional wrestling and reality television are not equipped to evaluate this shaping of the stories they tell themselves by any standard other than their interests as they are being shaped.

35. Pointing that that Mr. Trump is "fake," a more pervasive scripter of reality than ordinary politicians, and that his blatant disregard for the pretense of truthful presentation disqualifies him from being taken seriously does not lessen his appeal to these audiences because they do not believe that any presentation of reality can correspond well-enough to reality to discredit the story Mr. Trump is telling.

36. For the audiences of these televisual forms, Mr. Trump is telling the truth because he tells a story through spectacular speech acts that leave gaps between reality and presentation inviting them into a interprative game in which they tell themselves a story about how his interests align with their own.

37. Politicians are simultaneously narrators of the national story and actors in it.

38. Politicians who want their audiences to participate in their decisions about how to deal with the reality of Truth and un-Truth, Good and Evil, make earnest presentations—the more boring the presentation, the more reality their audience is able to participate in deciding about.

39. Mr. Trump does not want his audience to participate in decisions about reality, but instead asks his audience to trust that his own interests in scripting reality are aligned with theirs to the degree that his unreliable narration reveals that they are.

40. The more spectacularly Mr. Trump's speech acts as an unreliable narrator signal that he is aligned with the interests of his audience, the more truly his interests can be judged by his audience through interprative play to be aligned with their own.

41. The more spectacularly Mr. Trump's speech acts as an unreliable narrator signal that he is not aligned with those opposed to the interests of his audience, the more truly his own interests can be judged by his audience through interprative play to be aligned with their own.

42. For the purposes of creating spectacle, it does not matter whether Mr. Trump presents himself as good or evil.

43. Evocative presentations of Mr. Trump as evil heighten the spectacle for his audience.

44. Earnest presentations of Mr. Trump as evil that can be plausibly denied heighten the sense of unreliable narration from both Mr. Trump and the news media for his audience.

45. Nuanced presentations of Mr. Trump as one not aligned with the interests of his audience are boring to his audience, which causes them to question the motives of the presenter.

46. Science-fiction author Phillip K. Dick was correct when he said, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." (And he should know, because he had a mystical vision and then did a lot of perception altering drugs.)

47. Unfortunately, that kind of reality is so complex that by the time we realize it's not going away, it's too late to avoid trouble.

48. Those who wish to understand the reality of Mr. Trump and make decisions about it before it reaches the point where it doesn't go away are limited to the study of his actions in speech and deed.

49. As an unreliable narrator, Mr. Trump will continually create ambiguity as to how much of what he presents is Truth. You will rarely know enough about how big the gap between presentation and reality is before it's too late to respond.

50. Ask not what Mr. Trump's says but what his speech does and how it aligns with everything else he is doing.

51. When making decisions, account for how Mr. Trump's actions in speech and deed script reality for himself and his audience, shaping and responding to their mutual self-interests.

51. The study of Mr. Trump's speech as act requires detaching from the emotional resonance of his spectacular performance as national antihero.

52. To detach from Mr. Trump's spectacle, you must tell yourself a story about yourself that has more emotional resonance than the one Mr. Trump is narrating by replacing self-(interest)gratifying entertainment with spiritual practices.

53. To detach from Mr. Trump's spectacle, you must invest time and attention in boring presentations of reality by replacing 24-hour news cycles and social media with critical analysis of longform journalism and peer-reviewed research findings.

54. Reliable narrators who understand the reality of Mr. Trump's audience will not try to influence them with earnest appeals that require the audience to assume that the presenter is good, the presenter's opposition evil, and the presenter's self-interest, irrelevant.

55. Reliable narrators who understand the reality of Mr. Trump's audience know that talk is cheap and reality is expensive. They prove their good intentions with real investments in their audience that cannot be denied because they don't go away.

56. Reliable narrators who understand the reality of Mr. Trump's audience attempt to engage them with irony, Socratic dialogue, and illustrative stories that make nuanced presentations of reality an invitation to mutual discovery instead of a boring monologue.

Further (Boring) Reading

Monday, January 23, 2017

Polarization in American Politics: Whither Adventists?

As Americans move deeper into an era of relativistic political tribalism, where picking a team and embracing its biases increasingly counts for more than arriving at a truthful consensus, political disagreements threaten to divide American Adventists against their coreligionists.

This will require the church to either retreat even further from religiously informed political engagement or renew a distinctly Adventist political theology that can withstand the forces of polarization. I will argue that we cannot afford to abandon the political formation of Adventists to American political factions, because their fundamental political commitments are not religiously neutral and have religious implications.

To get that religious perspective, it is important to understand that much of the emotional energy
driving the left and right of American politics apart is derived from the Calvinist (or Reformed) impulse to transform society through an integrated relationship of church and state that came to these shores with the Puritan settlers of New England.

On the left, the Puritan "city on a hill" vision of "perfecting earthly civilization through social engineering, denial of self for the common good, and assimilation of outsiders" was secularized in liberal American churches and directed toward accomplishing social equality. Beginning in the 1950s, these WASPs, having been told by their preachers that they didn't need a particularly Christian God, or even any God at all, to accomplish that pluralistic vision gradually emptied out of their mainline Protestant churches and turned to left-wing politics as their ultimate good—the ultimate good being the highest source of meaning one can find in that which is greater than oneself. "In short, ecumenical Protestants embraced modernity, advancing the cause of Enlightenment while simultaneously becoming one of its casualties."

On the right, the neo-Puritan vision revolves around rolling back the sexual revolution by re-establishing, to some degree, the state sponsorship of Christianity as the ultimate good that existed in the Puritan colonies. Of course, other Christian traditions share the goal of reforming American sexual mores, but, crucially, differ on the question of how tightly church and state should be integrated to accomplish social reform. The recently published, Five Views on the Church and Politics, gives a good sense of the spectrum, all the way from separationist to integrationist: "Anabaptist (or Separationist), Lutheran (or Paradoxical), Black Church (or Prophetic), Reformed (or Transformationist), and Catholic (or Synthetic)." Calvinism—through the neo-Reformed movement—is the major intellectual force in White Evangelicalism today, but Russell Moore is trying to bring the Southern Baptists closer to their separationist Anabaptist/separationist roots via the English Dissenters.

It is those persecuted minority, dissenting groups, as my professor Nick Miller argues, that came to define the tradition on religiously informed politics to which Adventists belong. Adventists have no illusions of perfecting, much less transforming, society on this side of the Second Coming. We don't desire a privileged political position for ourselves (or any other group) to implement our conception of the ultimate good, because that will not be realized in the here and now. But we recognize that God has given us a democratic government to foster temporal goods based on consensus, including temporal goods based on sexual morality and social equality. While willing to work with others toward reforms in those and other areas, we're deeply skeptical of political agendas that sacrifice one for the sake of imposing the other.

Adventists cannot take sides in the political fight within the house of Puritanism—one camp secularized and focused on equality, the other religious and focused on sexual morality—without compromising both our commitment to the Second Coming as the only source of societal transformation and to the imperative of religious liberty with respect to ultimate goods in the meantime. Both kinds of Puritan could equally cast us into a cold Massachusetts winter, whether for being on the wrong side of the sexual revolution or for being the wrong kind of Christian.

Thankfully, the political theology of the dissenters, not the Puritans, made it's way into the First Amendment. The question is how long the promise of separationist religious liberty guaranteed on paper can last in a political environment dominated by religious and secular, political Calvinists.