Thursday, June 02, 2011

Spinning Gold into Straw

 With what frequency are the things we believe to be true compatible with the actual truth?

Isn't it weird how ideas seem to come at you in bundles? How your brain can be chugging away at a nugget of information so much that you are now able to connect it to so many other thoughts and images? Maybe it's kind of like when you get a new car---suddenly everywhere you look you see that same car even though you'd swear that no one had that model before you did. But you were wrong. They were out there. You just didn't see them, but now your eyes are open and searching. And so, like magic those copycat cars appear.

So anyway, yes the above tweet wormed its way into my head last week at girls' night when my friend Eva--who is from China--was telling me about a book her dad was reading called The Man on Mao's Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square, My Life Inside China's Foreign Ministry.  Ms. Eva was livid about many of the details laid out in the book because as a young Chinese student, she'd heard an entirely different story growing up. And not just that some facts had been stretched or distorted, but that outright lies had been told or complete events wiped from the history books. Apparently, she and her Canadian husband got into a big debate over her belief that the Korean War was only about those cowboy Americans picking on China's friend Korea and his version of a United Nations supported proxy war. The internet is a great tool in such instances, isn't it?

And I know what you're thinking now--well that's China for you. But it happens everywhere. Every country spins the truth to its own favor. Nationalism. Somehow that translates into rarely admitting mistakes or missteps and always having to be the good guy--even when you're not.  

And it isn't just the government, it's corporations and industry that twist and mangle the truth to their advantage. For instance, shortly after that dinner with Eva, I read an article in Rolling Stone titled: The People vs. Goldman Sachs in which author Matt Taibbi lays out his argument for why the Justice Department should bring criminal charges against Goldman. I know it's a long article, but it really is worth the read--or skip to page 3 which highlights some particularly disturbing evidence. Essentially, Taibbi outlines how the bank dumped its soon to falter mortgage-related securities on trusting clients assuring them that it was a wise and sound investment while simultaneously betting $10 billion against them. This quote sums it up nicely I think:
Goldman was like a car dealership that realized it had a whole lot full of cars with faulty brakes. Instead of announcing a recall, it surged ahead with a two-fold plan to make a fortune: first, by dumping the dangerous products on other people, and second, by taking out life insurance against the fools who bought the deadly cars.  
And the spinning can be done closer to home too--our own families can build fantasy lands around the truth.   Just last night, I sat down with my Marie Claire magazine looking for a little mindless escape, but instead I found this article called Will Money Destroy Your Marriage?: Secret bank accounts, hidden documents, foreclosure notices--women across the country are uncovering shocking signs of financial infidelity which told in true tabloid fashion the stories of women who thought they were living one life only to wake up to find themselves in an entirely different one when the truth of their husbands' actions came out. And while these stories are sensationalized, there remains the fact that family members regularly tell untruths over things as small as taking out the trash and as large as having an entirely different identity.

But it doesn't stop there either--our own brains lie to us. The following quote came from the article: The Problem with Eyewitness Testimony a talk by Barbara Tversky, Professor of Psychology and George Fisher, Professor of Law by Laura Englehardt:
Memory is affected by retelling, and we rarely tell a story in a neutral fashion. By tailoring our stories to our listeners, our bias distorts the very formation of memory—even without the introduction of misinformation by a third party.

Which means that we spin the truth inside our own minds, too. So how are we to ever be sure that what we believe to be true is the actual truth and not some contorted version there of?  I don't know, but I do think it starts with questioning. Others. Ourselves. Being willing to look at the possibility that what we've always known to be true was, in fact, never true at all.


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