Tag Archives: truth

Post*factua!ly is Coming To Our Post-Truth World

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You may well have noticed that my writing schedule here at theDiagonal has become a little more sporadic of late. Yes. I’ve been distracted by the needs of my post-truth project — Post*factua!ly.

The Oxford Dictionary recently made “post-truth” the word of the year, for 2016. A timely addition. They define post-truth as follows:

“Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective  facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals  to emotion and personal belief.”

I do agree. But, for 2017 I suspect we’ll need an even more important collection of related words: post-factual and postfactually. My definition goes as follows:

“Describing circumstances where only lies matter and all fact is meaningless.”

Please stay tuned for this important post-truth, post-factual project; and, normal service at theDiagonal will resume shortly.

 

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The Conspiracy of Disbelief

Faux news and hoaxes are a staple of our culture. I suspect that disinformation, fabrications and lies have been around since our ancestors first learned to walk on their hind legs. Researchers know that lying provides a critical personal and social function; white lies help hide discomfort and often strengthen support with partners and peers. Broader and deeper lies are often used to build and maintain power and project strength over others. Indeed, some nations rise and fall based on the quality of their falsehoods and propaganda.

The rise of the internet and social media over the last couple of decades has amplified the issue to such an extent that it becomes ever more challenging to decipher fact from fiction. Indeed entire highly profitable industries are built on feeding misinformation and disseminating hoaxes. But while many of us laugh at and dismiss the front page headlines of the National Enquirer proclaiming “aliens abducted my neighbor“, other forms of fiction are much more sinister. One example is the Sandy Hook mass shooting, where a significant number of paranoid and skeptical conspiracy theorists continue to maintain to this day — almost 4 years on — that the massacre of 20 elementary school children and 6 adults was and is a well-fabricated hoax.

From NY Magazine:

On December 14, 2012, Lenny Pozner dropped off his three children, Sophia, Arielle, and Noah, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Noah had recently turned 6, and on the drive over they listened to his favorite song, “Gangnam Style,” for what turned out to be the last time. Half an hour later, while Sophia and Arielle hid nearby, Adam Lanza walked into Noah’s first-grade class with an AR-15 rifle. Noah was the youngest of the 20 children and seven adults killed in one of the deadliest shootings in American history. When the medical examiner found Noah lying face up in a Batman sweatshirt, his jaw had been blown off. Lenny and his wife, Veronique, raced to the school as soon as they heard the news, but had to wait for hours alongside other parents to learn their son’s fate.

It didn’t take much longer for Pozner to find out that many people didn’t believe his son had died or even that he had lived at all. Days after the rampage, a man walked around Newtown filming a video in which he declared that the massacre had been staged by “some sort of New World Order global elitists” intent on taking away our guns and our liberty. A week later, James Tracy, a professor at Florida Atlantic University, wrote a blog post expressing doubts about the massacre. By January, a 30-minute YouTube video, titled “The Sandy Hook Shooting — Fully Exposed,” which asked questions like “Wouldn’t frantic kids be a difficult target to hit?,” had been viewed more than 10 million times.

As the families grieved, conspiracy theorists began to press their case in ways that Newtown couldn’t avoid. State officials received anonymous phone calls at their homes, late at night, demanding answers: Why were there no trauma helicopters? What happened to the initial reports of a second shooter? A Virginia man stole playground signs memorializing two of the victims, then called their parents to say that the burglary shouldn’t affect them, since their children had never existed. At one point, Lenny Pozner was checking into a hotel out of town when the clerk looked up from the address on his driver’s license and said, “Oh, Sandy Hook — the government did that.” Pozner had tried his best to ignore the conspiracies, but eventually they disrupted his grieving process so much that he could no longer turn a blind eye. “Conspiracy theorists erase the human aspect of history,” Pozner said this summer. “My child — who lived, who was a real person — is basically going to be erased.”

Read the entire disturbing story here.

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Clicks or Truth

The internet is a tremendous resource for learning, entertainment and communication. It’s also a vast, accreting blob of misinformation, lies, rumor, exaggeration and just plain bulls**t.

So, is there any hope for those of us who care about fact and truth over truthiness? Well, the process of combating conspiracies and mythology is likely to remain a difficult and continuous one for the foreseeable future.

But, there are small pockets on the internet where the important daily fight against disinformation thrives. As managing editor Brooke Binkowski at the fact-checking site Snopes.com puts it, “In cases where clickability and virality trump fact, we feel that knowledge is the best antidote to fear.”

From Washington Post:

In a famous xkcd cartoon, “Duty Calls,” a man’s partner beckons him to bed as he sits alone at his computer. “I can’t. This is important,” he demurs, pecking furiously at the keyboard. “What?” comes the reply. His answer: “Someone is wrong on the Internet.”

His nighttime frustration is my day job. I work at Snopes.com, the fact-checking site pledged to running down rumors, debunking cant and calling out liars. Just this past week, for instance, we wrestled with a mysterious lump on Hillary Clinton’s back that turned out to be a mic pack (not the defibrillator some had alleged). It’s a noble and worthwhile calling, but it’s also a Sisyphean one. On the Internet, no matter how many facts you marshal, someone is always wrong.

Every day, the battle against error begins with email. At Snopes, which is supported entirely by advertising, our staff of about a dozen writers and editors plows through some 1,000 messages that have accumulated overnight, which helps us get a feel for what our readers want to know about this morning. Unfortunately, it also means a healthy helping of venom, racism and fury. A Boston-based email specialist on staff helps sort the wheat (real questions we could answer) from the vituperative chaff.

Out in the physical world (where we rarely get to venture during the election season, unless it’s to investigate yet another rumor about Pokémon Go), our interactions with the site’s readers are always positive. But in the virtual world, anonymous communication emboldens the disaffected to treat us as if we were agents of whatever they’re perturbed by today. The writers of these missives, who often send the same message over and over, think they’re on to us: We’re shills for big government, big pharma, the Department of Defense or any number of other prominent, arguably shadowy organizations. You have lost all credibility! they tell us. They never consider that the actual truth is what’s on our website — that we’re completely independent.

Read the entire article here.

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How to Tell the Difference Between a Liar and a Bulls**t Artist

In this age of media-fueled online vitriol, denigration, falsehood, and shamelessness — elevated to an art form by the Republican nominee for President — it’s critically important for us to understand the difference between a liar and a bulls**t artist.

The liar is interested in the truth, deep down, but she prefers to hide it behind a veil. The liar often has knowledge or expertise about the truth, but hides it. The bulls**t artist, on the other hand, is an entirely different animal. He is detached from reality caring not for truth or lies; he only cares for his desired effect on his intended audience. The absence of knowledge or expertise is required.

I’ll let you determine to which group Mr.Trump belongs. But, if you need help, check out CNN’s Fareed Zakaria reminding us about Mr.Trump’s unabashed ignorance and bulls**t-artistry.

From the Guardian:

As the past few decades have shown, the trolling mindset is awesomely well adapted to a digital age. It ignores rational argument. It ignores evidence. It misreads, deliberately. It uses anything and everything somebody says against them. To argue with trolls is to lose – to give them what they want. A troll is interested in impact to the exclusion of all else.

Trolls themselves are hairy Nordic creatures who live under bridges, but trolling doesn’t take its name from them. It comes from the Old French verb troller, meaning to hunt by wandering around in the hope of stumbling upon prey. The word made its way into English as a description of similar fishing tactics: slowly towing a lure in hope of a bite.

Then, in the early 1990s, a Usenet group took up the term to describe some users’ gleeful baiting of the naive: posting provocative comments in hope of attracting an outraged “bite”, then winding up their unwitting victim as thoroughly as possible.

In this, trolling is a form of bullshit art. “The essence of bullshit,” argues the philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his 2005 book of the same name, “is not that it is false but that it is phony”.

Both a liar and an honest person are interested in the truth – they’re playing on opposite sides in the same game. A bullshitter, however, has no such constraint. As Frankfurt puts it, a bullshitter “is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false … He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose”.

Once again, impact is all. The total absence of knowledge or expertise is no barrier to bullshit. In fact, it helps. The artistry lies in knowing your audience, and saying whatever is needed in order to achieve a desired effect.

Read the entire article here.

Video courtesy of CNN.

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Psychic Media Watch

Watching the media is one of my favorite amateur pursuits. It’s a continuous source of paradox, infotainment, hypocrisy, truthiness (Stephen Colbert, 2005), loud-mouthery (me, 2015) and hence, enjoyment. So, when two opposing headlines collide mid-way across the Atlantic it’s hard for me to resist highlighting the dissonance. I snapped both these stories on the same day, August 28, 2015. The headlines read:

New York Times:

Psychic-news-28Aug2015-NYTApparently, fortunetelling is “a scam”, according to convicted New York psychic, Celia Mitchell.

The Independent:

Psychic-news-28Aug2015-Independent

Yet, in the UK, the College of Policing recommends using psychics to find missing persons.

Enjoy.

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Facts, Fiction and Foxtion

Foxtion. fox·tion. noun \ fäks-sh?n \

New stories about people and events that are not real: literature that tells stories which are imagined by the writer and presenter, and presented earnestly and authoritatively by self-proclaimed experts, repeated over and over until audience accepts as written-in-stone truth. 

Fox News is the gift that just keeps on giving — to comedians, satirists, seekers of truth and, generally, people with reasonably intact grey matter. This time Fox has reconnected with so-called terrorism expert, Steven Emerson. Seems like a nice chap, but, as the British Prime Minister recently remarked, he’s “an idiot”.

From the Guardian:

Steven Emerson, a man whose job title of terrorism expert will henceforth always attract quotation marks, provoked a lot of mirth with his claim, made during a Fox News interview, that Birmingham was a Muslim-only city where “non-Muslims simply just don’t go in”. He was forced to apologise, and the prime minister called him an idiot, all within the space of 24 hours.

This was just one of the many deeply odd things Emerson said in the course of the interview, although it was perhaps the most instantly refutable: Birmingham census figures are easy to come by. His claim that London was full of “actual religious police that actually beat and actually wound seriously anyone who doesn’t dress according to religious Muslim attire” is harder to disprove; just because I live in London and I’ve never seen them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. But they’re not exactly thick on the ground. I blame the cuts.

Emerson also made reference to the “no-go zones” of France, where the government doesn’t “exercise any sovereignty”. “On the French official website it says there are,” he said. “It actually has a map of them.”

How could the French government make the basic blunder of publicising its inability to exercise sovereignty, and on the “French official website” of all places?

After a bit of Googling – which appears to be how Emerson gets his information – I think I know what he’s on about. He appears to be referring to The 751 No-Go Zones of France, the title of a widely disseminated, nine-year-old blogpost originating on the website of Daniel Pipes, another terrorism expert, or “anti-Arab propagandist”.

“They go by the euphemistic term Zones Urbaines Sensibles, or sensitive urban zones,” wrote Pipes, referring to them as “places in France that the French state does not fully control”. And it’s true: you can find them all listed on the French government’s website. Never mind that they were introduced in 1996, or that the ZUS distinction actually denotes an impoverished area targeted for economic and social intervention, not abandonment of sovereignty. For people like Emerson they are officially sanctioned caliphates, where cops and non-Muslims dare not tread.

Yet seven years after he first exposed the No-Go Zones of France, Pipes actually managed to visit several banlieues around Paris. In an update posted in 2013, his disappointment was palpable.

“For a visiting American, these areas are very mild, even dull,” he wrote. “We who know the Bronx and Detroit expect urban hell in Europe too, but there things look fine.

“I regret having called these areas no-go zones.”

Read the entire story here.

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Leadership and the Tyranny of Big Data

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”, goes the adage popularized by author Mark Twain.

Most people take for granted that numbers can be persuasive — just take a look at your bank balance. Also, most accept the notion that data can be used, misused, misinterpreted, re-interpreted and distorted to support or counter almost any argument. Just listen to a politician quote polling numbers and then hear an opposing politician make a contrary argument using the very same statistics. Or, better still, familiarize yourself with pseudo-science of economics.

Authors Kenneth Cukier (data editor for The Economist) and Viktor Mayer-Schönberger (professor of Internet governance) examine this phenomenon in their book Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think. They eloquently present the example of Robert McNamara, U.S. defense secretary during the Vietnam war, who in(famously) used his detailed spreadsheets — including daily body count — to manage and measure progress. Following the end of the war, many U.S. generals later described this over-reliance on numbers as misguided dictatorship that led many to make ill-informed decisions — based solely on numbers — and to fudge their figures.

This classic example leads them to a timely and important caution: as the range and scale of big data becomes ever greater, and while it may offer us great benefits, it can and will be used to mislead.

From Technology review:

Big data is poised to transform society, from how we diagnose illness to how we educate children, even making it possible for a car to drive itself. Information is emerging as a new economic input, a vital resource. Companies, governments, and even individuals will be measuring and optimizing everything possible.

But there is a dark side. Big data erodes privacy. And when it is used to make predictions about what we are likely to do but haven’t yet done, it threatens freedom as well. Yet big data also exacerbates a very old problem: relying on the numbers when they are far more fallible than we think. Nothing underscores the consequences of data analysis gone awry more than the story of Robert McNamara.

McNamara was a numbers guy. Appointed the U.S. secretary of defense when tensions in Vietnam rose in the early 1960s, he insisted on getting data on everything he could. Only by applying statistical rigor, he believed, could decision makers understand a complex situation and make the right choices. The world in his view was a mass of unruly information that—if delineated, denoted, demarcated, and quantified—could be tamed by human hand and fall under human will. McNamara sought Truth, and that Truth could be found in data. Among the numbers that came back to him was the “body count.”

McNamara developed his love of numbers as a student at Harvard Business School and then as its youngest assistant professor at age 24. He applied this rigor during the Second World War as part of an elite Pentagon team called Statistical Control, which brought data-driven decision making to one of the world’s largest bureaucracies. Before this, the military was blind. It didn’t know, for instance, the type, quantity, or location of spare airplane parts. Data came to the rescue. Just making armament procurement more efficient saved $3.6 billion in 1943. Modern war demanded the efficient allocation of resources; the team’s work was a stunning success.

At war’s end, the members of this group offered their skills to corporate America. The Ford Motor Company was floundering, and a desperate Henry Ford II handed them the reins. Just as they knew nothing about the military when they helped win the war, so too were they clueless about making cars. Still, the so-called “Whiz Kids” turned the company around.

McNamara rose swiftly up the ranks, trotting out a data point for every situation. Harried factory managers produced the figures he demanded—whether they were correct or not. When an edict came down that all inventory from one car model must be used before a new model could begin production, exasperated line managers simply dumped excess parts into a nearby river. The joke at the factory was that a fellow could walk on water—atop rusted pieces of 1950 and 1951 cars.

McNamara epitomized the hyper-rational executive who relied on numbers rather than sentiments, and who could apply his quantitative skills to any industry he turned them to. In 1960 he was named president of Ford, a position he held for only a few weeks before being tapped to join President Kennedy’s cabinet as secretary of defense.

As the Vietnam conflict escalated and the United States sent more troops, it became clear that this was a war of wills, not of territory. America’s strategy was to pound the Viet Cong to the negotiation table. The way to measure progress, therefore, was by the number of enemy killed. The body count was published daily in the newspapers. To the war’s supporters it was proof of progress; to critics, evidence of its immorality. The body count was the data point that defined an era.

McNamara relied on the figures, fetishized them. With his perfectly combed-back hair and his flawlessly knotted tie, McNamara felt he could comprehend what was happening on the ground only by staring at a spreadsheet—at all those orderly rows and columns, calculations and charts, whose mastery seemed to bring him one standard deviation closer to God.

In 1977, two years after the last helicopter lifted off the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, a retired Army general, Douglas Kinnard, published a landmark survey called The War Managers that revealed the quagmire of quantification. A mere 2 percent of America’s generals considered the body count a valid way to measure progress. “A fake—totally worthless,” wrote one general in his comments. “Often blatant lies,” wrote another. “They were grossly exaggerated by many units primarily because of the incredible interest shown by people like McNamara,” said a third.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: Robert McNamara at a cabinet meeting, 22 Nov 1967. Courtesy of Wikipedia / Public domain.

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Orwell Lives On

George Orwell passed away on January 21, 1950 — an untimely death. He was only 46 years old. The anniversary of his death leads some to wonder what the great author would be doing if he were still alive. Some believe that he would be a food / restaurant critic. Or perhaps he would still, at the age of 109, be writing about injustice, falsehood and hypocrisy. One suspects that he might still be speaking truth to power as he did back in the 1940s, the difference being that this time power is in private hands versus the public sector. Corporate Big Brother is now watching you.

From the Guardian:

What if George Orwell hadn’t died of tuberculosis in 1950? What if, instead of expiring aged 46 in University College hospital, he had climbed from his sick-bed, taken the fishing rod a friend had brought him for his convalescence and checked out? What if today he was alive and well (perhaps after a period in cryogenic storage – the details aren’t important now)? What would he think of 2013? What, if anything, would he be writing about?

In many respects Orwell is ubiquitous and more relevant than ever. His once-visionary keywords have grotesque afterlives: Big Brother is a TV franchise to make celebrities of nobodies and Room 101 a light-entertainment show on BBC2 currently hosted by Frank Skinner for celebrities to witter about stuff that gets their goat. Meanwhile, Orwellian is the second-most-overused literary-generated adjective (after Kafkaesque). And now St Vince of Cable has been busted down from visionary analyst of recession to turncoat enabler of George Osborne’s austerity measures. Orwell is the go-to thinker to account for our present woes – even though he is 63 years dead. Which, in the Newspeak of 1984, is doubleplusgood.

As we celebrate the first Orwell Day this week, it’s irresistible to play the game of “what if”? If Orwell was fighting in a war akin to the Spanish civil war in 2012, where would he be – Syria? Would he write Homage to Aleppo, perhaps? Or would he have written Homage to Zuccotti Park or Tottenham? If he was writing Down and Out in Paris and London today would it be very different – and, if so, how? If he took a journey to Wigan pier in 2013, what would he find that would resemble the original trip and what would be different? Would there still be a full chamber pot under his hosts’ breakfast table? Let’s hope not.

Would he be working in a call centre rather than going down a mine? Would he feel as patriotic as he did in some of his essays? Would the man born Eric Arthur Blair have spent much of the past decade tilting at the man born Anthony Charles Lynton Blair? The answers to the last three questions are, you’d hope: yes, probably not, and oh, please God, yes.

“It’s almost impossible to imagine,” says Orwell’s biographer, the novelist and critic DJ Taylor. “One of his closest friends, the novelist Anthony Powell, suggested in his journals that Orwell’s politics would have drifted rightwards. He would have been anti-CND, in favour of the Falklands war, disapproved of the miners’ strikes. Powell was a high Tory right winger, but he was very close to Orwell and so those possibilities of what he would have been like had he lived on shouldn’t be dismissed.”

Adam Stock, an Orwell scholar at Newcastle University who did his PhD on mid-20th-century dystopian fiction and political thought, says: “If he were alive today, then Orwell would surely be writing about many of the sorts of areas you identify, bringing to light inequalities, injustices and arguing for what he termed ‘democratic socialism’, and I would like to think – though this may be projection on my part – that at this moment he would be writing specifically in defence of the welfare state.”

You’d hope. But Stock reckons that in 2013 Orwell would also be writing about the politics of food. “Orwell’s novels are marked by their rich detailing of taste, touch and especially smell. Tinned and processed food is a recurring image in his fiction, and it often represents a smoothing out of difference and individuality, a process which mirrors political attempts to make people conform to certain ideological visions of the world in the 1930s and 1940s,” says Stock.

Indeed, during last week’s horsemeat scandal, Stock says a passage from Orwell’s 1939 novel Coming Up for Air came to mind. The character George Bowling bites into a frankfurter he has bought in an milk bar decorated in chrome and mirrors: “The thing burst in my mouth like a rotten pear. A sort of horrible soft stuff was oozing all over my tongue. But the taste! For a moment I just couldn’t believe it. Then I rolled my tongue round it again and had another try. It was fish! A sausage, a thing calling itself a frankfurter, filled with fish! I got up and walked straight out without touching my coffee. God knows what that might have tasted of.”

What’s the present-day significance of that? “The point, I think, is that appearances mask quite different realities in the milk-bar modernity of mirrors in which the character is sitting, trapped between endless reflections,” says Stock. “Orwell had an abiding interest in the countryside, rural life and growing his own food. One thing I suspect he would be campaigning vociferously about in our time is issues surrounding big agribusiness and the provenance of our food, the biological commons, and particularly the patenting of GM crops.”

Read more after the jump.

Image: George Orwell. Courtesy of the BBC.

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QTWTAIN: Are there Nazis living on the moon?

QTWTAIN is a Twitterspeak acronym for a Question To Which The Answer Is No.

QTWTAINs are a relatively recent journalistic phenomenon. They are often used as headlines to great effect by media organizations to grab a reader’s attention. But importantly, QTWTAINs imply that something ridiculous is true — by posing a headline as a question no evidence seems to be required. Here’s an example of a recent headline:

“Europe: Are there Nazis living on the moon?”

Author and journalist John Rentoul has done all connoisseurs of QTWTAINs a great service by collecting an outstanding selection from hundreds of his favorites into a new book, Questions to Which the Answer is No. Rentoul tells us his story, excerpted, below.

From the Independent:

I have an unusual hobby. I collect headlines in the form of questions to which the answer is no. This is a specialist art form that has long been a staple of “prepare to be amazed” journalism. Such questions allow newspapers, television programmes and websites to imply that something preposterous is true without having to provide the evidence.

If you see a question mark after a headline, ask yourself why it is not expressed as a statement, such as “Church of England threatened by excess of cellulite” or “Revealed: Marlene Dietrich plotted to murder Hitler” or, “This penguin is a communist”.

My collection started with a bishop, a grudge against Marks & Spencer and a theft in broad daylight. The theft was carried out by me: I had been inspired by Oliver Kamm, a friend and hero of mine, who wrote about Great Historical Questions to Which the Answer is No on his blog. Then I came across this long headline in Britain’s second-best-selling newspaper three years ago: “He’s the outcast bishop who denies the Holocaust – yet has been welcomed back by the Pope. But are Bishop Williamson’s repugnant views the result of a festering grudge against Marks & Spencer?” Thus was an internet meme born.

Since then readers of The Independent blog and people on Twitter with nothing better to do have supplied me with a constant stream of QTWTAIN. If this game had a serious purpose, which it does not, it would be to make fun of conspiracy theories. After a while, a few themes recurred: flying saucers, yetis, Jesus, the murder of John F Kennedy, the death of Marilyn Monroe and reincarnation.

An enterprising PhD student could use my series as raw material for a thesis entitled: “A Typology of Popular Irrationalism in Early 21st-Century Media”. But that would be to take it too seriously. The proper use of the series is as a drinking game, to be followed by a rousing chorus of “Jerusalem”, which consists largely of questions to which the answer is no.

My only rule in compiling the series is that the author or publisher of the question has to imply that the answer is yes (“Does Nick Clegg Really Expect Us to Accept His Apology?” for example, would be ruled out of order). So far I have collected 841 of them, and the best have been selected for a book published this week. I hope you like them.

Is the Loch Ness monster on Google Earth?

Daily Telegraph, 26 August 2009

A picture of something that actually looked like a giant squid had been spotted by a security guard as he browsed the digital planet. A similar question had been asked by the Telegraph six months earlier, on 19 February, about a different picture: “Has the Loch Ness Monster emigrated to Borneo?”

Would Boudicca have been a Liberal Democrat?

This one is cheating, because Paul Richards, who asked it in an article in Progress magazine, 12 March 2010, did not imply that the answer was yes. He was actually making a point about the misuse of historical conjecture, comparing Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP, who suggested that the Levellers were early Tories, to the spiritualist interviewed by The Sun in 1992, who was asked how Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, Karl Marx and Chairman Mao would have voted (Churchill was for John Major; the rest for Neil Kinnock, naturally).

Is Tony Blair a Mossad agent?

A question asked by Peza, who appears to be a cat, on an internet forum on 9 April 2010. One reader had a good reply: “Peza, are you drinking that vodka-flavoured milk?”

Could Angelina Jolie be the first female US President?

Daily Express, 24 June 2009

An awkward one this, because one of my early QTWTAIN was “Is the Express a newspaper?” I had formulated an arbitrary rule that its headlines did not count. But what are rules for, if not for changing?

Read the entire article after the jump?

Book Cover: Questions to Which the Answer is No, by John Rentoul. Courtesy of the Independent / John Rentoul.

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What is the True Power of Photography?

Hint. The answer is not shameless self-promotion or exploitative voyeurism; images used in this way may scratch a personal itch, but rarely influence fundamental societal or political behavior. Importantly, photography has given us a rich, nuanced and lasting medium for artistic expression since cameras and film were first invented. However, the principal answer is lies in photography’s ability to tell truth about and to power.

Michael Glover reminds us of this critical role through the works of a dozen of the most influential photographers from the 1960s and 1970s. Their collective works are on display at a new exhibit at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, which runs until mid-January 2013.

From the Independent:

Photography has become so thoroughly prostituted as a means of visual exchange, available to all or none for every purpose under the sun (or none worthy of the name), that it is easy to forget that until relatively recently one of the most important consequences of fearless photographic practice was to tell the truth about power.

This group show at the Barbican focuses on the work of 12 photographers from around the world, including Vietnam, India, the US, Mexico, Japan, China, Ukraine, Germany, Mali, Japan and South Africa, examining their photographic practice in relation to the particular historical moments through which they lived. The covert eye of the camera often shows us what the authorities do not want us to see: the bleak injustice of life lived under apartheid; the scarring aftermath of the allied bombing and occupation of Japan; the brutish day-to-day realities of the Vietnam war.

Photography, it has often been said, documents the world. This suggests that the photographer might be a dispassionate observer of neutral spaces, more machine than emotive being. Nonsense. Using a camera is the photographer’s own way of discovering his or her own particular angle of view. It is a point of intersection between self and world. There is no such thing as a neutral landscape; there is only ever a personal landscape, cropped by the ever quizzical human eye. The good photographer, in the words of Bruce Davidson, the man (well represented in this show) who tirelessly and fearlessly chronicled the fight for civil rights in America in the early 1960s, seeks out the “emotional truth” of a situation.

For more than half a century, David Goldblatt, born in the mining town of Randfontein of Lithuanian Jewish parentage, has been chronicling the social divisions of South Africa. Goldblatt’s images are stark, forensic and pitiless, from the matchbox houses in the dusty, treeless streets of 1970s Soweto, to the lean man in the hat who is caught wearily and systematically butchering the coal-merchant’s dead horse for food in a bleak scrubland of wrecked cars. Goldblatt captures the day-to-day life of the Afrikaners: their narrowness of view; that tenacious conviction of rightness; the visceral bond with the soil. There is nothing demonstrative or rhetorical about his work. It is utterly, monochromatically sober, and quite subtly focused on the job in hand, as if he wishes to say to the onlooker that reality is quite stark enough.

Boris Mikhailov, wild, impish and contrarian in spirit, turns photography into a self-consciously subversive art form. Born in Kharkov in Ukraine under communism, his photographic montages represent a ferociously energetic fight-back against the grinding dullness, drabness and tedium of accepted notions of conformity. He frames a sugary image of a Kremlin tower in a circlet of slabs of raw meat. He reduces accepted ideas of beauty to kitsch. Underwear swings gaily in the air beside a receding railway track. He mercilessly lampoons the fact that the authorities forbade the photographing of nudity. This is the not-so-gentle art of blowing red raspberries.

Shomei Tomatsu has been preoccupied all his life by a single theme that he circles around obsessively: the American occupation of Japan in the aftermath of its humiliating military capitulation. Born in 1930, he still lives in Okinawa, the island from which the Americans launched their B52s during the Vietnam war. His angle of view suggests a mixture of abhorrence with the invasion of an utterly alien culture and a fascination with its practical consequences: a Japanese child blows a huge chewing gum bubble beside a street sign that reads “Bar Oasis”. The image of the child is distorted in the bubble.

But this show is not all about cocking a snook at authority. It is also about aesthetic issues: the use of colour as a way of shaping a different kind of reality, for example. William Eggleston made his series of photographic portraits of ordinary people from Memphis, Tennessee, often at night, in the 1970s. These are seemingly casual and immediate moments of intimate engagement between photographer and subject. Until this moment, colour had often been used by the camera (and especially the movie camera), not to particularise but to glamorise. Not so here. Eggleston is especially good at registering the lonely decrepitude of objects – a jukebox on a Memphis wall; the reptilian patina of a rusting street light; the resonance of an empty room in Las Vegas.

Read the entire article following the jump.

Image courtesy of “Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s”, Barbican Art Gallery. Copyright Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos.

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Corporations As People And the Threat to Truth

In 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations can be treated as people, assigning companies First Amendment rights under the Constitution. So, it’s probably only a matter of time before a real person legally marries (and divorces) a corporation. And, we’re probably not too far from a future where an American corporate CEO can take the life of competing company’s boss and “rightfully” declare that it was in competitive self-defense.

In the meantime, the growing, and much needed, debate over corporate power, corporate responsibility and corporate consciousness rolls on. A timely opinion by Gary Gutting over at the New York Times, gives us more on which to chew.

From the New York Times:

The Occupy Wall Street protest movement has raised serious questions about the role of capitalist institutions, particularly corporations, in our society.   Well before the first protester set foot in Zucotti Park, a heckler urged Mitt Romney to tax corporations rather than people.  Romney’s response — “Corporations are people” — stirred a brief but intense controversy.  Now thousands of demonstrators have in effect joined the heckler, denouncing corporations as ”enemies of the people.”

Who’s right? Thinking pedantically, we can see ways in which Romney was literally correct; for example, corporations are nothing other than the people who own, run and work for them, and they are recognized as “persons” in some technical legal sense.  But it is also obvious that corporations are not people in a full moral sense: they cannot, for example, fall in love, write poetry or be depressed.

Far more important than questions about what corporations are (ontological questions, as philosophers say) is the question of what attitude we should have toward them.  Should we, as corporate public relations statements often suggest, think of them as friends (if we buy and are satisfied with their products) or as family (if we work for them)?  Does it make sense to be loyal to a corporation as either a customer or as an employee?  More generally, even granted that corporations are not fully persons in the way that individuals are, do they have some important moral standing in our society?

My answer to all these questions is no, because corporations have no core dedication to fundamental human values.  (To be clear, I am speaking primarily of large, for-profit, publicly owned corporations.)  Such corporations exist as instruments of profit for their shareholders.  This does not mean that they are inevitably evil or that they do not make essential economic contributions to society.  But it does mean that their moral and social value is entirely instrumental.   There are ways we can use corporations as means to achieve fundamental human values, but corporations do not of themselves work for these values. In fact, left to themselves, they can be serious threats to human values that conflict with the goal of corporate profit.

Corporations are a particular threat to truth, a value essential in a democracy, which places a premium on the informed decisions of individual citizens.  The corporate threat is most apparent in advertising, which explicitly aims at convincing us to prefer a product regardless of its actual merit.

Read more here.

Time Saving Truth from Falsehood and Envy by François Lemoyne. Image courtesy of Wikipedia / Wallace Collection, London.

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