When Facts Don't Matter

During the presidential debates, every time Republican candidate Donald Trump opened his mouth he lied, and Democrats had a field day presenting the screen-captures of a tweet he’d claimed never to have written, videos of him saying things he’d denied, photos of him chatting with shady characters he said he didn’t know.

What a delusional ignoramus, we thought, and wondered who would vote for such a buffoon who got caught in every fib like a three-year-old child who denied eating chocolate even though her face was smeared with the stuff. Likewise, who would get hung-up on the false kerfuffle over Clinton’s servers and emails when the story was debunked a dozen times a day?

As it turns out, the only delusional members of the American electorate were ones who believed that facts matter. Masha Gessen nailed the problem in her essay, “The Putin Paradigm,” in The New York Review of Books, in which she explains why fact-checking doesn’t work when dealing with tyrants like Trump, or his role model Putin, who repeatedly and enthusiastically lies in the face of hard evidence. Putin claimed, for instance, after invading Crimea and eastern Ukraine, that no troops were on the ground despite plentiful proof. Then later announced that, of course, there were. So what?


The thing to remember, Gessen writes, is that, “His subsequent shift to truthful statements were not admissions given under duress: they were proud, even boastful affirmatives made at his convenience. Together, they communicated a single message: Putin’s power lies in being able to say what he wants, when he wants, regardless of the facts. He is president of his country and king of reality.”

Gessen goes on to assert that when reality itself is under attack, the only solution for the opposition is to shift from fact-based arguments to finding “a way to tell the bigger story — the story about the lies rather than the story of the lies; and the story about power that the lies obscure.”

cogswell-facts-dont-matter-gessen-2016-12-22-gcn-copyShe admits that this is harder than it sounds, particularly for the American media which is all about reporting the facts, and doesn’t even like to report those unless they have been confirmed a dozen times.

For anybody who cares about democracy, this new embrace of the blatant lie is even more disturbing than Mike Pence’s hatred of women and queers, Trump’s obvious incompetence and greed, his surrealistic, nihilistic anti-appointments, his ties to white supremacists, and his explosions of rage that will soon be able to express themselves with nuclear launch codes.

American social progress, after all, has been built on facts and on reason. When Sojourner Truth cried out, “And ain’t I a woman?,” she wasn’t just tapping the sympathy of white women, but appealing to their brains –– and eyes –– to consider just what disqualified her from that category. LGBT arguments for legal equality are likewise just that: arguments. With reasons and facts and logic. Everything Trump rejects, and everything his presidency could unravel.

Post-fact, I feel 12 years old and confronted with an abusive mother who was never persuaded by them. Our arguments always sounded like dialogue from some absurdist play. I’d declare, “The earth is round,” and offer physics, math, proof, and she’d answer, “Cherry Jell-O.”

Like with Trump, it didn’t matter if she knew she was lying, or was psychotic and actually believed what she said. Either way, her stated and changeable beliefs governed my world. Ever since, I’ve struggled with just how much weight to give words. Why bother calling a chair a chair when somebody could call it a dog and insist I put a leash on it? This is why I sometimes abandon writing for visual art, and why I became an activist in the first place.

When language itself is debased by lies, when “signs” are tampered with, and words don’t persuade, we are left with the physical world, the act, the signified. Somebody, of course, has to concern themselves with the facts, and keep rebutting Trump’s factory of lies, but resistance now, more than ever, requires images, and gestures, also our irrefutable flesh. Stories can be made about that, too, but we can at least attempt to shape our own narrative even if we have to do it with an audience of six, or 12, or 20 passersby. And we can also try to control how our bodies appear in the media, continuing to release our own videos and press releases like the small Russian activist group, Pussy Riot, which really gets under Putin’s skin.

And as far as words go, when it comes to telling the larger political stories and finding ways to approach the truth, we can’t just offer alternative narratives, we have to find ways to demolish false ones, unmask Trump’s desire for total power, even go undercover to plant seeds of dissent in the echo chambers and chat rooms the fascistic and ascendant “alt-right” has constructed for itself.

We must also be willing to identify the ordinary people around us who can be brought to reason one by one by one.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.