In Defense of Memory
Michael T. Young
The Oxford Dictionary’s word for 2016 is “post-truth.” CNN commentator and Trump supporter Scottie Nell Hughes both claimed the absurd and grated my linguistic nerves when he said in an interview, “there’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.” And, as if he sprinkles pixie dust before the cameras with every appearance, Trump himself magically gets away with denying things he’s said or done and for which there are verifiable records. I find this atmosphere more frightening than the blatant hatefulness, racism, misogyny, and xenophobia of the incoming administration. It’s not because these other things are in any way acceptable but because in a world where truth and fact are flatly rejected, there is no basis for battling those other outrages to humanity.
The burden of proof is banished from the land and we are prisoners of a world where there is no narrative thread, no memory, and the only history is what those in power conjure. The enemy of this world is anyone daring enough to pursue reality, to insist on fact, to assert that there is truth.
In his Nobel lecture, the Polish poet Czeslaw Miłosz said, “whoever wields power is also able to control language and not only with the prohibitions of censorship, but also by changing the meaning of words.” That manipulation of meaning is precisely what we are witnessing in every action and word of Trump and those filling his cabinet. The American public is being forced to question its reality, to doubt its perception and understanding of facts. Miłosz, in that lecture, goes on to explain, “the language of a captive community acquires certain durable habits; whole zones of reality cease to exist simply because they have no name.” Our current situation suggests this by the ever-present assertion that we live in a “post-truth” world. How can “we hold these truths to be self-evident” in a “post-truth” world? Those rights outlined in our founding documents are now ungrounded; what were once rights assumed as self-evident truths, will need to be defended against denigration into mere free-floating mercies granted at the whim of those in power. I don’t mean to be alarmist; I intend only to make the most obvious connections between the language of the incoming administration and the language upon which our republic is founded. If such connections are eschewed, i.e., connections between their language and the language of our country’s principles, then there is no basis for governance. Silence regarding them would create a vacuum filled only by the wielding of power. And it isn’t a stretch to assert convincingly that the language of the incoming administration doesn’t mesh with a free republic. This is not a haphazard suggestion but is a reasonable consequence of what other writers have expressed about totalitarian states, writers such as Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky. Their writing, and that of others, their reflections on the oppressive worlds they experienced in the early and mid-20th century, stand as warnings.
Miłosz won the Nobel in 1980. In that Nobel lecture, he warned even then, that the world “with its fantastic proliferation of mass media, is witnessing a process that escapes definition, characterized by a refusal to remember.” That refusal to remember has been exacerbated by the internet and social media. Some have argued that social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, coupled with people’s susceptibility to the confirmation bias (a tendency to select information that confirms one’s preconceptions while ignoring evidence that contradicts them), is to a large degree responsible for Trump’s victory. People spread articles based on headlines that agree with their views, even if they are not verifiable and, once disseminated to millions of readers, even if debunked, those articles infect like an incurable plague. We repost a news article without checking it against multiple sources or digging into its reliability, or reflecting on how the information is worded to influence.
What Miłosz noticed in his day was the beginning of what we call “the information age.” It’s a term intended to describe the rise of certain technology, but it’s become the zeitgeist of modern culture. I would suggest that the term is dangerously general. Opinions and facts are both information, but not the same type, which is a distinction fewer and fewer seem to make. It no longer matters that scientific data shows a trend in the global climate getting warmer. What is seized by some and disseminated as truth is that a miniscule 3% of scientists don’t believe those facts prove global warming or believe it is caused by human activity. The other 97% of scientists worldwide that believe both these things are dismissed as expressing an opinion equal to the other 3%. The data confirming the trend is no longer important, only the data interpretation. Miłosz pointed out an equivalent absurdity in 1980, “The Los Angeles Times,” he wrote, “recently stated, the number of books in various languages which deny that the Holocaust ever took place, that it was invented by Jewish propaganda, has exceeded one hundred.” He then wonders, “If such an insanity is possible, is a complete loss of memory as a permanent state of mind improbable?” We seem to be witnessing that improbable occurrence with the election of Trump. Fake news may have had a large hand in Trump’s victory. More unnerving still, Trump’s behavior proves that what was recorded yesterday can be denied today and the denial spread throughout the internet at the speed of light, transforming the record into a mere allegation that dissipates in the endless informational noise. Before such a power to deny reality, the refusal to forget is an act of rebellion. One wonders if it will soon be an act of treason.
I once wrote, “When a poet or other artist makes something up it is for another kind of honesty, a truth that sometimes is concealed by fact.” The nuance of this point is a privilege of the poet or even, I would grant, the philosopher. But it has no place in the language of politics and policy, no seat at the table of government. Now that our incoming administration is taking the privilege of the poet as its own, it will be necessary for poets to assert the importance of fact. We must be like that shrewd man of letters, Samuel Johnson, who refuted George Berkeley’s assertion regarding the non-existence of matter by kicking a stone. Facts matter and language matters. Opinion and individual expression may play into a line of poetry or even a line of journalism, but they share a commitment to reality, one to emotional reality and the other to historical reality. However, a faithfulness to reality makes them allies against any denial of it. Miłosz also pointed out, “Only if we assume that a poet constantly strives to liberate himself from borrowed styles in search for reality, is he dangerous.” The wording of that sentence is quite important. Styles, opinions, expressions of individuality, can blind us to reality. They are a method. Trump’s style of campaigning was itself a series of denials of reality. But writers entering the “post-truth” age must choose to oppose that age and its administration in a relentless search for reality. Style must serve that search or be complicit in acts of erasure.
Murial Rukeyser said that we corrupt our consciousness when we replace what we do feel with what we are told to feel or what we think we should feel. This happens on a national scale as we replace what we know with what we are told to think about what we know. In a free republic, it is the responsibility of citizens to take information, interpret it and articulate their desires for governance to those in authority. In a tyranny, that order is reversed: a readymade interpretation of information is handed down to justify the decided methods of governance. Joseph Brodsky said as much in his essay on the subject, “A tyranny does just that: structures your life for you.” Wittingly or unwittingly, the more removed we are from interpreting the facts for ourselves, the closer we are to a totalitarian state. The redefining of our world as “post-truth” is a drive to restructure our national consciousness. It redefines the language of the public so it loses the capacity to articulate an opposition. Through manipulation of language, the potential to name and, therefore, perceive shared realties is curtailed. And I emphasize the point of “shared realities.” Isolating us through manipulation of language and the meaning of words, it is easier for authority to insinuate doubt regarding perceived realities. Because of our species susceptibility to the confirmation bias, the internet has only intensified this tendency. We cluster into virtual cliques according to pre-existing prejudices. This only makes us easier to herd. We need to counter this with a calculated, patient evaluation of all information that comes to us, especially that information we agree with. In the concluding words of Harold Pinter’s 2005 Nobel lecture, we need “unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies.”
George Oppen said, “Actualness is prosody, it is the purpose of prosody and its achievement, the instant of meaning, the achievement of meaning and of presence, the sequence of disclosure which comes from everywhere; life-style, angers, rebellions.” That actualness, its sequence of disclosure, its achievement of meaning, is being dismantled by Trump and his followers. It is what will make something as simple as narrative poetry or a poetry of witness, an accusation and criticism of the incoming administration because it denies the right of that administration to create its own reality. A sequence of disclosure implies a past, implies cause and effect, implies memory, which is the mother of the Muses. This responsibility to remember, to hold fast to perceived facts and then connect them to others will not be easy. It runs counter to our age’s culture, counter to its desultory, headline-skimming, virtual mentality. It will require being meticulous. We may be entering the days when it’s dangerous to be a poet that pursues meaningful cohesion, that records the world around him, that insists on remembering and bearing witness, that insists there are facts and there is a truth, that there is history and a consequence of actions and words. But if we shirk this responsibility, if we betray memory, we betray the mother of all poets, and, larger still, the primary weapon in defense of a free republic.
Michael T. Young’s fourth poetry collection, The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost, was published by Poets Wear Prada. He received a Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the Jean Pedrick Chapbook Award, and the Chaffin Poetry Award. His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in or are forthcoming numerous journals including The Ashville Review, Cimarron Review, The Cortland Review, Main Street Rag, Prick of the Spindle, and The Potomac Review.