Truth and Exiles (Reading 05)

The official court ruling that allowed Boeing to fire the whistleblowing employees argues that existing statutes only protect leaks to authority, not the media. I cannot offer a case against that judgement, but as I consider the logic behind it, it seems increasingly difficult to extricate these agents of media and authority. It’s no secret that our faith in the government has reached a nadir, with a president that probably doesn’t even have the attention span to consider the careful criticisms made against him. Still, the growing influence of that hateful rhetoric has been fundamentally linked to a changing media landscape. Dave Chapelle said, during the first SNL monologue after the election, “We’ve officially elected an internet troll.” He’s right: the evasive, inflammatory rhetoric, filled with high impact lines that simmer out in any reasonable person’s ear, are all characteristic of the speech that carries furthest across internet forums. Increasingly we are seeing shadowy corners of the web emerging into the light of day, emboldened by their political victory. They feel validated and free to spread the kind of hateful, perverse speech that at one point only found an outlet in the writings of Marquis de Sade, from prison. As Pasolini wanted to show in his adaptation of ‘120 Days of Sodom,’ set in Salò under fascist ruling, those perversions became a reality during the fascist regimes of WWII, and something similar might be bubbling up in today’s turbulent politics.

I’ve set a rather ominous tone, but my larger point is that information holds more power, and has become more volatile, than any authority can control. Anyone who has followed politics knows that leaks have long been a surreptitious political move, one effective measure in an environment that has never had much to do with ideas and debates. Foucault once said that truths are congealed falsehoods; power, and not reasoning, establishes what we take as true. That does not mean political influence established Aristotle’s syllogisms, but in modern times we are somehow at a remove from the facts. The information we digest can pass through countless inflections of contingent wills and sentiments, leaving us to contemplate a garbled message with unclear intentions. What can a single entity do to exert influence in such a distributed and chaotic environment. The New York Times has published many articles on the widespread political and social influence Facebook now holds, sounding a bit like the wise, indignant Jacob watching his brutish brother Esau fumble into power. Facebook holds incredible influence, but with no unified authority behind it. The contingencies of their software, open to any means the users find to communicate, cannot be consolidated into one central mission. Now they are struggling to eradicate hateful, pointed speech that no one would have envisioned for their platform, but some obscure coagulation in the web spewed it out.

I appreciated the inclusion of an Ibsen play on our reading list. It clearly bears on the moral problem of whistleblowing, for Dr. Stockmann discovers a contamination in the bathhouse waters, and every personal interest would persuade him against that revelation. His commitment to truth leads him to expose his findings and essentially become an exile from his community. James Joyce, who underwent a self-imposed exile from Ireland, once wrote a letter to Ibsen, wanting to tell him, “how your willful resolution to wrest the secret from life gave me heart and how in your absolute indifference to public canons of art, friends and shibboleths you walked in the light of your inward heroism.” Joyce admires his searching after an inward truth, a way of flying past the nets of social demands and complacencies to discover his own calling. Chelsea Manning, the intelligence analyst who leaked classified videos, faced her own exile for exposing what she saw as urgent material. Whether her actions made for a better world I cannot say, but I would not dare to judge her for them. I am struck by the prescience of Ibsen’s image, where Dr. Stockmann called attention to a tainted stream that would be the lifeblood of his town. In today’s information society, we must draw upon so many corrupted channels everyday. They would be repulsive if someone only cast the proper light on them.

Teenage James Joyce’s Beautiful Letter to Ibsen, His Great Hero