Since the US presidential elections there is much talk about post-truth in politics. This confusing terminology refers to a political approach that relies on a narratives without regards to facts. A time where social opinion is shaped using ‘fake-news’, ‘conspiracies’ and ‘propaganda’. There is nothing new to this approach; many historical events have been driven by a narrative with little regards to fact, even in the US (think of Iraq or Vietnam). What is new is the extent to which society is becoming self-aware of the influential powers of journalist and politicians. Examining objectivity raises philosophical questions to try to delimit Truth, and conversely, isolate Fiction.
Sometimes Fiction becomes reality, or so it seems. In The Fiction Factory published in 1912 William Wallace Cook tells a striking story about one of his popular fictional pamphlets The Fatal Hand. Here is part of the fictional story that originally circulated in The Detroit Free Press in the 1890s:
“I happened to be in town one evening and stepped into a gambling hall. Burton, a friend of mine, was playing poker with a miner and two professional gamblers. I stopped beside the table and watched the game.
Cards had just been drawn. Burton, as soon as he had looked at his hand, calmly shoved the cards together, laid them face-downward in front of him, removed a notebook from his pocket and scribbled something on a blank leaf. “Read that” said he, “when you get back to your hotel tonight.”
The play proceeded. Presently the miner detected one of the professional gamblers in the act of cheating. Words were passed, the lie given. All the players leaped to their feet. Burton, in Attempting to keep the miner from shooting, received the gambler`s bullet and fell dead upon the scattered cards.
An hour later, when I reached my hotel, I thought of the note Burton had handed me. It read: ‘I have drawn two red sevens. I now hold jacks full on red sevens. It is a fatal hand and I shall never leave this table alive.’”
M. Cook describes two ‘none’ fiction articles appearing in daily papers two months after his fictional story. The first appeared in a Chicago paper where a poker player died of ‘Heart disease’ after being dealt three jacks and two red sevens. The second in The New York Recorder where it was said that a Texas man was shot at a gaming table, and after examination, it was found that he was dealt the same fatal hand.
Finding explanations for these ‘highly unlikely’ events is not the point. In fact, if you try to find a logical explanation to these events, either as ‘fake news’ or ‘coincidences’, your are playing a narrative game, because clearly you cannot have the facts to ascertain your explanation. What is of greater interest, is that fiction somehow slipped into reality. Reality may seem like the wrong word, but is meant, in this case, to represent people’s subjective reality. I would define this reality as the intersection between Fiction and Truths. What lies in this intersection are not empirical facts but some emotional truths. As William Cook said “Fiction hath in it a higher end then fact.”
This blurry distinction between reality and fiction has been the subject of much literature, taking from my own reading list I can think of Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle and Ubik, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaugther House five and Tim O’Brian’s Going After Cacciato.
Fiction is powerful. I often go with my children to storytelling at the local library. I am always amazed how easily the crowd falls into a trance with the storyteller, adults and children alike. The same can be said when one goes to stand-up comedy show. The crowd is enthralled by the simplicity in which the comedian relates the complex world.
The talented comedian finds the right narrative to reveal how our everyday lives are funny. The novelist does the same, finding a thread that relates events into some comprehensible entity that people can relate to or extract meaning.
My main professional work seems to be at the opposite spectrum of fiction. I am an empirical economist, trying to understand the world with empirical data. But these numbers are themselves the results of storylines. The questions on surveys, or opinions expressed in surveys are the result of a given narrative. Even something as dry as data for GDP estimate are the results of a storyline (or call it a theory) about economic growth and how to measure it. When I think about my work I sense that the fiction I write holds more truth then these ‘hard facts’.
I believe that Truth is too large for any of us to grasp. What most call facts are nothing more but outputs of a particular narrative. This brings us to the pragmatic problem; what can be done in this post-truth era, where facts cannot save us.
Maybe our only choice is to find the right storyline, the one that feels right. A story of fiction that appeals to the majority. A story of hope, equality, and tolerance. Does such a story exist, and can it slip into reality? We can believe this, as much as believing we have been dealt a hand of jacks full with two red sevens.