By Bruce Fein
The media brims with false, misleading or distorted news. But it is not primarily their fault. Their largely segmented audiences covet falsehoods or delusions to gratify ulterior motives for power, money, sex, fame, self-esteem, tribal pride, or creature comforts. But there is no remedy. Our DNA flees from the search for truth without ulterior motives to make power subservient to justice.
Assailing the media for reporting false, biased, or distorted news is like Cleopatra striking the messenger for reporting Anthony’s marriage to Octavia. The fault is not in the media, but in us. The media does not report the truth because we don’t want it.
Amour-propre causes us to think we are a cerebral rather than a hormonal species; that we are guided more by reason than by emotional or psychological cravings or gratifications. The reverse is true. We believe things for ulterior motives that operate independently of truth. In deciding what to believe and in scavenging the media for confirming assertions or opinions, we instinctively ask, “What’s in it for me?”
Socrates was the ultra-rare exception who proved the rule. He searched for truth without ulterior motives. But he was sentenced to death by the Athenian jury. That is a risk very few of us are willing to contemplate for no material benefit; and, very few words need be employed to dissuade us from the hazard.
Our primary ulterior motives are power, money, sex, fame, creature comforts, self-esteem, self-aggrandisement, or tribal identity. They make us exalt falsehoods as gospel.
Take several leaders of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution like Nikolai Bukharin. They confessed in the 1930s to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s concocted charges of espionage, sabotage, or plotting his assassination with western powers. They were psychologically unable to admit that the Revolution had proven worse than the Romanov disease — that their entire lives had been wasted.[ms-protect-content id=”544″]
Up until the moment they passed from the scene, they convinced themselves that the Bolshevik Revolution had marked a glorious advance for the proletariat and human decency of the human condition. They shut their eyes to conclusive ocular evidence to the contrary. Their self-esteem and lifetime sacrifices demanded that they believe that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was the vanguard of justice and progress.
The case of New York Times reporter Walter Duranty is similar. He secured a Pulitzer Prize for absurdly praising Stalin’s dystopia and gulag as a worker’s paradise and denying definitive evidence of the Ukrainian genocide through starvation — the Holodomor.
Many others in the west West, like Duranty, also blinded themselves to Stalin’s malevolence, paranoia, and megalomania. They indulged self-delusion because of emotional or psychological cravings to believe Marxism-Leninism and the USSR had rejected the rebarbative nationalisms that had ignited World War I in which more than 17 million died to gratify the adolescent thrill of domination or killing for their own sakes. The mindless slaughters that earmarked the Great War gave birth to visionary fantasies about driving evil from our sordid DNA as Jesus drove the money-changers from the temple. The Kellogg-Briand Pact to outlaw war was one fantasy. Believing the USSR was heaven on earth was another. Even the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and Soviet aggression against Finland, Poland, and Romania at the outset of World War II could not shake that counterfactual conviction.
Thereby hangs a more comprehensive tale.
The mind is infinitely inventive in finding excuses for unhappiness or distractions from reflecting on their (tense? Its or humanity’s?) congenital, hormonal sordidness of the species. It endlessly searches for simple but wrong answers to life’s philosophical conundrum of why we exist. The mind abhors indeterminateness or uncertainty; and covets absolutes and commandments that absolves oneself from thinking or moral responsibility. We shun the chiaroscuro (tenebrism?) of reality, and embrace the prime colours of falsehoods.
The mind abhors indeterminateness or uncertainty; and covets absolutes and commandments that absolves oneself from thinking or moral responsibility. We shun the chiaroscuro (tenebrism?) of reality, and embrace the prime colours of falsehoods.
The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation. They become true believers of anything or any person to fill a philosophical void: Communism, Fascism, National Socialism, Judaism, Christianity, Protestantism, Islam, Mao’s Little Red Book, the Divine Right of Kings, Lenin, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Ho Chi Minh, ad infinitum. But graveyards are filled with professedly indispensable men, and the trash can of history is filled with professedly infallible ideologies. But we refuse to accept these truths because of our acute emotional need to believe in simple answers to life’s complexities.
The 2016 presidential campaign in the United States is illustrative. A large segment of Hillary Clinton’s supporters were convinced that her election would mean the emancipation of women from male bondage or subjugation. The same thing had been said by African-Americans about themselves when Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, and had been proven false. The lives of African-Americans today may even be worse overall than when Mr. Obama entered the White House eight years ago. But the Obama lesson did not shake the convictions of Clinton’s flock. Neither were they disheartened by the fact that electing women to high office in other nations had not diminished gender discrimination, for example, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, or Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
But hopes no matter how baseless serve profound psychological needs, like always believing the grass is greener on the other side. Thus, Alexander Pope instructs in his Essay on Man, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” Ms. Clinton’s female boosters were emotionally excited by believing her election would be the magic elixir to bringing them success and happiness. The falsity of the belief did not diminish the mental or emotional rewards.
Additionally, there is a placebo effect on the mind induced by believing in false promises — even when they are proven to be false. Donald Trump has promised his crowds that he would end illegal immigration with a wall paid by Mexico; deport 2-3 million undocumented immigrants; deny all Muslims visas; maintain a registry of Muslim citizens; instantly destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) by employing, among other things, torture and murders of the families of suspected international terrorists; uplift ethnic minorities; slash taxes; make flag burning a crime punishable by deportation; hike defense and infrastructure spending simultaneously while cutting budget deficits; and, make America the respected locomotive of all mankind and the rest of the world the caboose.
The probability that President-elect Trump will fulfil any of these extravagant or legally dubious promises is slim to none. But the mere fact that he has told his crowds that he will succeed makes them feel better about themselves and the world. When he fails, they will predictably invent conspiracy theories to explain the failures on gremlins or demons. They have too much emotional and psychological investment in believing Trump is the answer to all their problems to believe he is as much a fraud as the Duke and the Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn.
Ms. Clinton’s supporters are like Trump’s but with different ulterior motives and different fantasies. Like the Old Bolsheviks of the Russian Revolution, they cannot emotionally accept that they are fundamentally flawed icons. She was probably the worst presidential candidate of a major party in American history. To acknowledge that truth would cast aspersion on their political judgment, and concede that their blood, sweat, and tears had been dedicated to an unworthy candidate. They insist on believing that Ms. Clinton was defeated by Trump because of the machinations of Russian President Vladimir Putin and FBI Director James Comey, not because she had occupied the highest levels of public life for decades with nothing to show except a fancy CV, and never formed an opinion until after she had consulted a focus group.
Friedrich Nietzsche also explained that we flee from truth to avoid slights to our vanity or interferences with our ambitions:
“[D]eception, flattering, lying and cheating, talking behind the back, posing, living in borrowed splendor, being masked, the disguise of convention, acting a role before others and before oneself—in short, the constant fluttering around the single flame of vanity is so much the rule and the law that almost nothing is more incomprehensible than how an honest and pure urge for truth could have arisen among men.”
The mainstream media publishes falsehoods at which their audiences rejoice or applaud in lieu of truth because their business is making money.
The mainstream media publishes falsehoods at which their audiences rejoice or applaud in lieu of truth because their business is making money. CBS’ executive chairman and CEO, Leslie Mooves, expressed this dynamic candidly. He unblushingly remarked about Mr. Trump’s predominantly fact-free, intellectually incoherent 2016 presidential campaign that excited every vice known to mankind: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
Even assuming there were both a demand for truth and a mainstream media willing to supply it, any endeavor to supply truth may be impossible. Distinguishing facts from subjective interpretations is routinely problematic. Nietzsche observed: “[F]acts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations.”
The statement is obviously too sweeping. The force of gravity is a fact. Newton’s laws of motions are facts. The heliocentric theory of the universe is a fact. Your body temperature is a fact. The speed of light is a fact. Life would be very unpleasant and miserable if these facts or “laws” were treated only as debatable interpretations. However, even in science, these “laws” merely tell us what happens, but not “why” it happens.
But in assigning motivations or causes of important events and drawing lessons from them, Nietzsche was right. The task is interpretive. It is not like an archeological expedition in search of artifacts. Consider reporting on the causes of the Glorious Revolution in Great Britain or the American, French, Chinese, or Russian Revolutions. Characterising these events as revolutions as opposed to evolutions involves interpretation, and enumerating their causes and effects even more so.
Interpretation is inevitable in reporting on the human narrative in a way that is comprehensible and possibly useful to the audience. And they will be strongly influenced by the ulterior motives of the interpreter. If you sympathise with the North in the American Civil War, you probably believe the conflict was over slavery. But if you sympathise with the South, you probably believe the war was over States’ rights.
This tour of the mind illustrates the pervasiveness of beliefs untethered to reality that are nevertheless ineradicable because they answer deep emotional or psychological needs. Individuals ordinarily live in their heads with delusions or false hopes. Truth is too great a cross to bear. Education has little bearing on the matter. The greatest catastrophes in human history have been fathered by the educated classes with delusions that they were chosen peoples.
There is no remedy for this sordid feature of human nature. To attempt to inculcate an ethos that celebrates the search for truth without ulterior motives to make power subservient to justice would be as quixotic as tilting at windmills or shouting at the weather. It would be noble to undertake the effort, but Polyannnish to believe in success, but far more noble and essential to the furtherance of the efforts of Socrates and those that followed.
In any event, you are safer if you know you are standing on ice than if you wrongly believe you are standing on firm ground.
Featured photo courtesy: Cameraman at the 2010 Winter Olympics © Leigh Righton[/ms-protect-content]
Bruce Fein is former associate deputy attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice and general counsel to the Federal Communications Commission under President Ronald Reagan; he was counsel to the Joint Congressional Committee on Covert Arms Sales to Iran; is author of American Empire Before The Fall and Constitutional Peril: The Life and Death Struggle for Our Constitution and Democracy; and, is a founding partner in Fein & DelValle PLLC in Washington, D.C.