Hindsight No. 27: The Truthifier

Hindsight for July 18, 2022

IT HAD been a nightmare to create, but was—save for the occasional brownout—a dream to operate. The “Truthifier,” as the machine was called, occupied almost the entire fourth floor of the old Doña Salvacion Building on the northwest corner of Plaza Regina in the city’s warehouse district. Most other people would have insisted on a sleek, postmodern structure—or perhaps even an underground vault—somewhere in BGC, among the banks and condos that tried to outdo each other in smartness and attitude, but Arsenio would have none of that. He was a brilliant engineer who understood algorithms, quantum computing, event horizons, The Singularity, and all the other buzzwords that sci-fi junkies more than the scientists themselves loved to spout. But Arsenio was firmly old-school, with a prewar Pelikan 100 in his breast pocket and oxford brogues that he made sure were polished every day, even if he was headed nowhere else but the Factory.

The Factory was where he had built the Truthifier over seven years from the ground up, scrutinizing the assembly of every panel, bolt, nut, wheel, gear, vacuum tube, insulator, switch, dial, and the thousands of other parts that went into the machine, some of them turned out on a lathe by Arsenio himself, following his own blueprints. Arsenio was well aware that he could have programmed a computer the size of a pizza box to do his bidding, but Arsenio disdained software, which could be hacked. He believed in finely designed and intricately crafted machines that made noises like “ding!” and “zzzt!,” whose diodes glowed orange in intense concentration, then spat out text from a teletype printer at the far end.

The Truthifier had one basic purpose: to turn ugly statements, even lies, into something that sounded like the velvety truth, better than most people could. There were probably a few professors out there who could do the same thing, but like all people, professors could be distracted, they could forget, they could be bought, and they could refuse. They also lied. And they died. The Truthifier, being made of brass, wood, glass, ceramic, and copper wire, could do none of that. Arsenio had to acknowledge that he did recruit his old friend Dr. Lucas Tagbanua, retired Professor of Linguistics and Philology at the University of Wurzburg and most recently Chief Librarian at Dagupan City College, to assist him in setting up the tree of linguistic arguments which he would convert to mechanical and electronic pathways. They made history when, in their fifth year, Arsenio typed this carefully on the front-end keyboard: “I murdered my father.” After a few minutes of gears turning and bulbs flickering, Lucas received a message on the other end: “I sent my father to a better place.” It was all still very simple and unsophisticated, but the two men cheered and celebrated. And then, four months later, Dr. Tagbanua died after being hit by a truck delivering action-figure toys.

That, Arsenio sighed, was the problem with humans; they were organic. But he had gotten the fundamental logic down, and he pursued the project to the point that he now had a dial that offered Simple, Moderate, and Extreme options, where “I sent my father to a better place” (Simple) became “I relieved my father of the unbearable burden of life” (Moderate) and then “Against all my filial instincts, I decided to return my father—he of my own flesh and blood—to the source and the end of all human aspirations, to the trackless void of eternal peace and silence” (Extreme). 

“Does it bother you,” Dr. Tagbanua had asked just a week before he died, and after they had achieved success to the Moderate level, “that the Truthifier isn’t really saying the truth, but something that just sounds like it—maybe even a lie?”

“No,” Arsenio said impatiently, making miniscule adjustments on a master valve that regulated adjectives, comparatives, and superlatives. “What we’re doing is giving people a version of the truth that they will want to believe. What’s the use of the truth if you can’t believe it?”

There were many, he was certain, who would pay for Extreme, which would go a long way toward recovering his R&D costs and even make him a tidy profit. He had happily spent all the money he had won from the lottery on his project, so he was beholden to no one, but now that he had accomplished proof-of-concept, he looked forward to some payback, so he could indulge other fantasies like riding a Vespa around Rome with a footloose princess.

Sometimes, just for fun, he fed the machine outrageous fibs like “Jose Rizal was bisexual,” for which he received this Extreme result: “While Jose Rizal had many recorded relationships with women, his sexual preferences were likely as broad as his mind, and his natural curiosity would have encouraged him to explore novel possibilities with his cohort of male friends.”

As soon as word of the Truthifier got around, the clients came to the Factory, in a discreet but steady stream of cars and SUVs with dark-tinted windows whose occupants slipped into a service elevator large enough for a marching band, although they always came alone. A general wanted to explain why he had so many people executed without trial; a priest wanted to introduce his three children to one another; a woman wanted to tell her sister something about her husband. But mostly they were politicians looking for better ways to say the most mundane things, like “I will serve you” or “My opponent is a pedophile.” They paid just enough to keep the Truthifier running and re-oiled every three months.

One day a Rolls-Royce drove up to the Factory and out stepped a man in a gray three-piece suit and top hat, wielding a cane. He looked like a boy who had aged all of a sudden, his long hair hanging in graying strings. 

“How can I help you?” Arsenio asked, barely looking up from a console that monitored temperature levels within the machine. 

The man took off his hat and put it beside him on the couch. “My father was a crook. For a very long time. But I’d rather forget that. And while I’m at it, I’d rather that everyone forgot, as well. I hear your machine can help.”

“That’s—complicated,” Arsenio said, after figuring out how many propositions the statement involved. “It will cost you some.”

“You must be a very busy man, so I won’t waste your time,” said the customer, glancing at his rose-gold Nemo. “How much for the Truthifier?” With a finger, he drew a horizontal circle in the air. “The whole thing.”

Stunned speechless, Arsenio sized up his visitor, who had crossed his legs and draped his arm on the backrest, like he had all the time in the world. Despite his agitation, Arsenio began thinking of Audrey Hepburn hugging his waist, her perfume curling up his nose as their scooter drove past the Colosseum. 

(Image from videohive.net)

Hindsight No. 13: The Imperfect Good

Hindsight for Monday, April 11, 2022

The Good and Evil Angels 1795-?c. 1805 William Blake

I’VE RECENTLY come across a number of posts online by people complaining about the “self-righteousness” of campaigners for a certain candidate to explain why they might, or will, vote for the other guy—yep, the tax evader, debate dodger, academic cipher, political under-performer, and, if the surveys are to be believed, our next President. 

Now, I can understand their irritation. Nobody likes to be told they’re wrong to their faces, or have the truth shoved down their throats. 

I can just hear someone muttering: “How can you be so sure of your manok? Don’t you know she’s an airhead, lost in space, a Bar flunker, an unwitting decoy for the (choose your color—Reds or Yellows)? There may not be much I can say for my bet—and okay, I’ll admit I don’t really know or care what he thinks because he’s not telling—but I prefer him to your insufferable assumption that you and your 137,000 friends are torchbearers for the good, the right, and the just. (And you’re such a hypocrite, because I know what you pay your maids, which isn’t more than what I pay mine, but at least I don’t pretend to be some crusading reformer.) To be honest, it’s you I can’t stand, not since you put on that silly all-pink wardrobe and plastered your gate and walls with pink posters. But guess what—you’ll lose! All the polls say so, and I can’t wait to see you crying your eyes out on May 10.”

Whichever side of the political fence you’re on, I’ll bet my favorite socks (which I haven’t worn for the past two years) that you know someone on the other side who’s thought of or verbalized what I just wrote. The forthcoming election has become a test not just of friendships, but of how far some of us are willing to pretend that all politicians are the same, all opinions are equal and should be equally respected, XXX number of people can’t be wrong, and that whoever wins, democracy will, as well.

This presumes a parity of political, financial, and moral power that just doesn’t exist and probably never did, at least in this country. The playing field is far from even. It’s been horribly distorted by disinformation, vote-buying, intimidation, and who else knows what can happen between now and May 9 (and the days of the vote count, after). The dizzying game of musical chairs that preceded the final submission of candidacies to the Comelec last October (resulting, ridiculously, in the ruling party being frozen out of serious contention for the top two slots) was but a preview of the seeming unpredictability of Elections Ver. 2022. I say “seeming” because there may be outfits like the former Cambridge Analytica that will presume to be able to game everything out and bring a method to the madness that will ensure victory for their clients.

What we know is that this will be the first presidential election, at least in recent memory, where the presumptive frontrunner refuses to be questioned about important issues, faces legal liabilities that would crush anyone less powerful, campaigns on little more than a vapid slogan, ignores China’s encroachment into Philippine territory, claims to know next to nothing about his parents’ excesses, and takes no responsibility for them. Even more alarmingly, his lead in the polls suggests that these issues don’t matter to many voters, thanks to miseducation and disinformation. 

So, no, not all politicians are the same, and not even all elections are the same. But for all its surface complications, May 9 truly and inevitably comes down to a simple choice: that between good and evil—between those who stand for truth, freedom, justice, and the public interest and those who side with falsehood, dictatorship, oppression, and corruption. If you can’t distinguish between the two, or refuse to, or prefer to obfuscate the matter by repackaging it into, say, a war between families or between winners and losers, then you have a problem. 

This isn’t just self-righteousness; it’s righteousness, period. You can’t justify preferring evil because of some perceived shortcoming in the good. It’s in the nature of things that “the good” will forever be imperfect, forever a work-in-progress. It can be clumsy, patchy, plodding, long drawn out, and sometimes, if not often, it will lose skirmishes and battles to the enemy; fighting for it can be wearying and dispiriting. On the other hand, evil is well thought-out, comprehensive, well-funded, and efficient; it can attract hordes to its ranks, and promise quick victory and material rewards. Evil is often more fascinating and mediagenic, from Milton’s Lucifer to Hitler and this century’s despots. But none of that will still make it the right choice. 

Commentators have pointed out that Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s embattled president, may not be the shining hero that the media has served him up to be, because he had repressed his enemies before the Russian invasion and had established links with neo-Nazi groups. Now that may well be true, although it will be hard to believe that the Zelensky that emerges out of this crisis—if he does—will be the same man he was before.

But none of that excuses Vladimir Putin’s murderous rampage, nor elevates his moral standing, nor permits us to turn our eyes away from the carnage in the smoking rubble. The “Western media” and “Big Tech”—the favorite targets of despots, denialists, and conspiracists—may have their problematic biases, but only the radically lobotomized will accept the alternative, which is the Chinese, Russian, and North Korean interpretation of what constitutes journalism, and of an Internet within a net. 

We cannot let the imperfections or even the failures of the good lead us to believe that evil is better and acceptable. You don’t even have to be saintly to be good. If you’ve led a life of poor decisions, making the right one this time could be your redemption. There are far worse and darker crimes than self-righteousness in others.

Hindsight No. 4: Denial and Dissonance

Hindsight for Monday, February 7, 2022

(Image from contemplativestudies.org)

I FIRST heard the phrase “cognitive dissonance” fifty years ago in UP from my friend Jose “Oying” Rimon, then a Mass Comm major just grasping the mechanics of social behavior. Oying would go on to become a population expert and close adviser to Bill and Melinda Gates on public health, capacities in which he had many occasions to see cognitive dissonance at work in shaping people’s attitudes and responses to development policy. 

I’m not a psychologist, so I’m going to have a real one, Dr. Sam Mcleod, explain what the concept means: “Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance…. When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance.” 

The examples that usually turn up in the literature are fairly simple: you smoke, but know that smoking is bad for you; you know you need more exercise, but put it off for tomorrow, citing the workload on your desk.

Why is this relevant to our present situation? I’ll get to that in a minute. First, let me quote from an article by Dr. Eddie Harmon-Jones in Psychology Today wondering why so many Christian Americans still voted for and supported Donald Trump despite his patently un-Christian behaviors, such as adultery. “As president, he has engaged in many actions that seem immoral. How do so many still support him? Surely they must experience dissonance over this. How do they reduce this dissonance?” (For that matter, why did so many conservative Fil-Ams vote for Trump on the excuse that he was supposedly “pro-life,” ignoring his many other moral infirmities?)

Why do people believe what they want to believe, regardless of the hard facts and figures in front of them? How do they reconcile these contradictions in their minds to feel like they’re doing the right thing and to feel better about themselves? (The science suggests that we humans have a natural impulse toward feeling good.)

This is what the psychologists call reducing or resolving dissonance—accepting or acknowledging what the more logical part of your brain is saying, but then coming up with a rationalization or justification for sticking to your original belief anyway; or, with much more effort, you find a reason to cross over to the other side. Sure, smoking is bad for me, but so is anxiety; sure, maybe vaccines work for other people, but I’m not like other people—I haven’t been sick in twenty years; sure, I lied on my tax declaration—but haven’t bigger people done much worse?

Dissonance is a shade different from denial, which is the outright rejection of proven or provable fact. Holocaust deniers will insist it never happened; other neo-Nazis will say it did, but that the Jews brought it upon themselves, or that Hitler wasn’t to blame for the genocide. 

This is the stuff that conspiracies and conspiracy theories are made of—a little truth here and a little truth there, interwoven by threads of fanciful fabrications to create some semblance of alternative logic. Spun imaginatively and cast widely enough, this web of lies can begin to acquire the sheen of truth, or what passes for it among its believers.

Are those believers stupid or crazy? Not necessarily. An interesting paper by the psychologist Andrea Kohn Maikovich argues that terrorists aren’t simply the hate-filled loonies they’re often pictured to be. Rather, recruits go through a radicalization process during which they negotiate between their personal predisposition not to commit violence and the collective pressure to do more than carry placards on the street. When the dissonance hits its peak, some leave; those who stay have found a way to convince themselves that violence is good and necessary.

Writing for the Atlantic Monthly on “The Role of Cognitive Dissonance in the Pandemic,” Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris note that “When people feel a strong connection to a political party, leader, ideology, or belief, they are more likely to let that allegiance do their thinking for them and distort or ignore the evidence that challenges those loyalties. The social psychologist Lee Ross, in laboratory experiments designed to find ways to reduce the bitter conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, took peace proposals created by Israeli negotiators, labeled them as Palestinian proposals, and asked Israeli citizens to judge them. ‘The Israelis liked the Palestinian proposal attributed to Israel more than they liked the Israeli proposal attributed to the Palestinians,’ he told us.”

In this context, it isn’t hard to see why pro-Marcos narratives can seem so compelling to many Filipinos, despite the clear and documented evidence of ill-gotten wealth (let’s say it plainly: theft), brutality, deception, and other abuses of power during the martial law years. They’re rich and powerful—which we all want to be—so they must have done something right.

People who are already rich don’t steal; it wasn’t FM Sr. who committed martial law’s excesses, but his administrators; EDSA 1 was nothing but a CIA operation; Imelda was never imprisoned, so she can’t be guilty of any charges thrown at her; the younger Marcoses knew nothing about what was going on, and so will be different from their parents; if the Marcoses were bad, the Aquinos and Lopezes are worse; et cetera. If you feel comfortable with any of these ideas, then you’ve made your own kind of sense of the past, even if you may not even have been there.

Of course, I have my own set of stubborn core beliefs and dissonances as well. I keep holding on to the idea that Filipinos are worth dying for, only to be disappointed by the way many of us choose our leaders. I believe in democracy, but I feel frustrated when it’s gamed by people who obviously don’t care much about it. 

According to cognitive dissonance theory, something has to give: your cherished notions, or the hard truth. It seems much easier just to give up hope, but there’s no real comfort nor resolution in that, either.

Penman No. 390: Faulkner in Manila

Penman for Monday, June 22, 2020

 

A FEW weeks ago, I wrote about the visit to Manila in 1951 of the American writer Wallace Stegner, mentioning that ten years earlier, he had been preceded by the even more celebrated Ernest Hemingway. I also said that they were followed in August 1955 by yet another titan of American literature, the 1949 Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner—a visit I’d first learned about by staring at a small poster from that event on the wall of the old Creative Writing Center in UP back in the 1980s.

That poster, wall, and center sadly burned down with the Faculty Center fire four years ago, but I’ve always been intrigued by what brought these big-name authors over to our shores, and what they possibly could have told their local counterparts (there’s a picture somewhere of a very young and very short NVM Gonzalez getting the autograph of a hulking Hemingway).

Hemingway was stopping over on his way to China; Stegner was brought over by the Rockefeller Foundation; and—thanks to a clipping and other materials sent by my Washington, DC-based friend, Dr. Erwin Tiongson—we know now that Faulkner came here courtesy of the US Department of State, which sent their prize author on a tour of Asia, presumably to foster peace and goodwill during the Cold War. (Interestingly, Faulkner’s wife Estelle had visited Manila the year before, and would write:  “The artificially induced gaiety of the Far East is very pronounced here—a feverish clutching at nothing that is little short of terrifying—As I sit here now, looking out on Manila Bay with its warships and carriers—every one of them ready for instant action—I feel insecurity verging on panic.”)

William Faulkner may have been a giant in his time, but to young readers today weaned on Gaiman and Murakami, he might as well be as remote a figure as W. Somerset Maugham or Henry James. Some may have come across his classic short story “A Rose for Emily,” and a luckier few his novels The Sound and the FuryAs I Lay Dying, and Light in August. As a fictionist, he was chiefly known for his use of the “stream of consciousness” technique that gave even his lowliest characters an ability to articulate their deepest and most complex thoughts and emotions.

But what did Faulkner have to say to his Filipino audience? I found the answer by locating the book Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner 1926-1962 (New York: Random House, 1968, edited by James Meriwether and Michael Milgate), which has a whole chapter on “Faulkner in Manila,” based on transcripts of Faulkner’s talks published earlier by the Philippine Writers League. 

There’s a short but charming documentary on YouTube  where you can see him at home in Oxford, Mississippi in 1952 and listen to his soft, somewhat cigar-burnt voice, and you can imagine yourself sitting in the audience in Manila in 1955, as he imparts these notions, among many others:

“I think that there is a great deal of beauty in any national language, national literature. But that tradition of literature must still be furthered more so that it can meet and can give and take from other national literary traditions. But by all means develop one’s own because there is a certain portion in the legends, the customs of any people, that are valuable, and the best way to get them into a universal literature is to bring them first into a national literature…. Nobody should turn his back on his own tradition, his own language, his own culture, to assume a foreign one. Let his own and the foreign meet and produce a universal one.”

“The writer must believe always in people, in freedom; he must believe that man must be free in order to create the art; and art is in my opinion one of the most important factors in human life because it has been art, literature, folklore, music, painting which have been the record of man’s rise from his beginnings. It is the writer’s duty to show that man has an immortal soul…. A writer’s job is not simply to get books printed but to find the truth, the fundamental truth…. I think that the setting of a novel is just incidental, that the novelist is writing about truth. I mean by truth the things that are true to all people, which are love, friendship, courage, fear, greed; that he writes in the tongue which he knows, which happens to be the tongue of his own native land…. I write about American Mississippi simply because that is what I know best.”

“There is a responsibility that goes with the privilege of saying what one thinks. One must have integrity to know the truth, to believe the truth, to speak the truth, for the sake of truth, not for the sake of aggrandizement or profit or policy, but the truth because it is true.”

Faulkner2