Sunday, January 29, 2006

With a rewrite of “1984” George Orwell might transform his Ministry of Truth, which controlled the news about everything, into the Ministry of Truthiness. Truthiness is far more powerful than mere truth. Orwell’s Ministry of Truth grew out of his disenchantment with communism, his “God that failed.” But truth was mere conspiracy; truthiness is consensus.

Truthiness is the amorphous cultural control that seeps into the public consciousness without anyone actually knowing or recognizing what’s happening. The word “truthiness” was coined by the mock pundit Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central, and the word was designated by the American Dialect Society as the “word of the year,” best reflecting the zeitgeist of 2005. It works as a word for reasons that go to the heart of the comic’s definition. In his telling, “truthiness” is what right-thinkers conclude with their hearts, not their heads. Rhetoric is driven by emotion, not fact.

The comic coined “truthiness” to poke fun at the president, who often speaks of knowing another person’s heart, but he stumbled on to something more profound than he knew, popularizing a word for the culture wars. Much that passes for fact in textbooks and in the media is really about truthiness, not truth. It starts with politics.

A new academic study uses magnetic resonance imaging to plumb the working of the brain during fierce ideological arguments. When a group of committed Republicans and Democrats discussed their differences, the centers of the brain bearing on the emotions “lit up,” driving each group to opposite conclusions.

“We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” says Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University, who led the study. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up.” Opinions were shaped by emotional impact rather than logic or analysis. The circuits for cognitive reasoning were not engaged.

This won’t surprise anybody who lives in political Washington (or political Hollywood) where it’s rare for thoughtful reasoning to persuade anybody of anything. Where you start is where you finish. We use colors to describe red states as Republican, blue states as Democratic, and purple as undecided. But only a fool or a hopeless naif would set out to build a political base where the color is purple.

“These days, political ideologies are almost genetic,” says pollster John Zogby. “We are exposed to political messages meant to provoke a specific emotional reaction, designed to make you want to ‘buy’ politics, like a car or toothpaste.” When the media presents opposing points of view, it’s less to persuade than to confirm strongly held beliefs.

Thus truthiness becomes the coin of the realm, fitting the facts into preconceived emotional attitudes. Politicians have known this forever, of course, but truthiness has become the operating process for historians and academics who we used to believe were seekers of truth.

In a symposium on the culture wars, the editors of New Criterion magazine asked several scholars to describe their confrontation with truthiness. Columbus Day celebrations, for example, once were occasions for celebrating the achievements of Christopher Columbus, but it has become the venue to indoctrinate impressionable students, telling them how much better the world would have been if Chris had not sailed that Ocean Blue.

“Since the 1970s, the dominant voices within academic history have worked to generate a widespread cynicism about the nature of Western democracies, with the aim of questioning their moral and political legitimacy,” says Keith Windschuttle, an Australian historian who wrote “The Killing of History.” In “American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World,” historian David Stannard casts Columbus as a prime mover for unprecedented horror: “The road to Auschwitz led straight through the heart of the Americas.”

In his book, “The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy,” historian Kirkpatrick Sale accuses Columbus of inflicting environmental abuse likely to lead to the very destruction of the earth. (We hold this truthiness to be self-evident.) Such ideological history can be the result of sloppy research and a dependence on questionable secondary sources, but more to the point, it derives from politically correct manipulation that replaces the disinterested search for truth with emotional appeals to denigrate and deconstruct the legacy of Western culture.

At the Ministry of Truthiness, facts don’t matter. Attitude is everything. As the emotion centers of our brains are lighting up like pinball machines, Descartes becomes dated, too. If he were alive today, he would have to write, “I feel, therefore I am.” Such is the triumph of truthiness.

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