Truth, Propaganda and Art

They say truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. But this doesn’t mean certain truths aren’t verifiable. Much depends on the granularity and scope of a statement. “That’s a dandelion,” and “God exists,” are two assertions of truth with wildly differing levels of verifiability. And some truths are indeed relative. I find one of the miseries of age is my ability to effectively argue either side of an issue.

But the relativity of truth isn’t new. Propaganda dates back centuries, but today is amplified and weaponized by new media technologies. To the extent we can verify it, a shared understanding of what is true is vital to our democracy’s survival but, sadly, truth is losing sway among those who gorge on the all-you-can-eat buffet of politicized news sources.

So, I turn to the arts and humanities to nourish my understanding of issues that transcend fact-checking. Only in a broad reading of pre-revolutionary Russian literature did I come to understand the forces behind the Russian Revolution and the roots of its collapse. Picasso’s Guernica, Aaron Copeland’s Quiet City, Carl Sandburg’s Chicago, Robert Frost’s Mending Fence, and Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange’s photographs helped me understand as much about the world I live in as decades of reading and listening to the respected journals and broadcasts of record.

We know why Hitler burned books, why autocrats ban certain music in favor of military marches and nationalistic folk mythology. Is this the same reason we spend more in America on military marching bands than on the National Endowment for the Arts, why our president wants to zero-out the budgets of both national endowments and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, or why he feels compelled to dismiss established and respected media sources as “fake news?”

The concept of absolute truth is elusive. We’re all blind to our implicit biases and to what we don’t know. But within us lies the ability to subject every “truth” we hear and read to critical scrutiny – from the granular scientific truths that support our understanding that we’re degrading our environment to the subtler truths we discover in the world of arts and letters.

We may prefer to pick and choose facts that support our self-referential view of the world, but unless we each pursue the broader more complicated truths we confront in our pantheon of great arts and letters – as the poet Yeats so elegantly stated – our center will not hold.

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