I have been thinking a lot about truth lately, no doubt encouraged in my reflections by the controversies and investigations raging in Washington, DC, but also astonished at the incidents of corruption revealed in a number of recent corporate and business scandals.
This time in our national and global life has reminded me that the pursuit of and commitment to truth creates the very foundation of a community, nation, or world's moral and ethical spirit, commitment, and development.
In contrast, the slow, steady eclipse of integrity and truth mark the beginning of a descent into chaos, misinformation, confusion, cynicism, and distrust. If successful, the purveyors of misinformation and deceit have the capacity to dismantle and destroy the foundation and confidence and legitimacy of civic society.
We need, therefore, to pay attention right now to the pursuit and defense of truth. Actually, paying attention might not be enough: we have to commit to making our lives an open and humble pursuit of truth and knowledge.
You might for instance know that a major American bank recently admitted that 5,300 employees, in the words of The New York Times, "knowingly opened millions of unauthorized accounts in the names of their customers, thereby collecting and robbing $2.6 million for the benefit of the bank." Such fees covered the unauthorized opening of deposit accounts and unauthorized credit card applications. Supervisors at the bank encouraged and pressured these workers to excel in the art of cross selling (which means selling more and more products to the same customers) -- employees that met their targets received bonuses; those who did not risked losing their jobs. And the customers? Well, they invisibly and quietly had their money deducted from their accounts.
The scheme worked because we trust our banks; we trust them when they say they will protect and grow (modestly these days) our money. We might remember the first time we opened a checking account, received a credit card or ATM card. It was in many ways our introduction to civic life, savings, investments for the future. Our bank, we believed, would save our money, increase our funds, and provide needed cash and investment for mortgages and projects within the local or state community. The bank was our partner, our representative, our civic neighbor.
And apparently, the bank in question knew all this, realized the trust we felt, the assumptions we had, the inattention to detail this could lead to. And who would notice, who would really check for a series of deductions for services we never needed or even realized we had?
Or consider a global automobile company with designs on surpassing the sales figures of their major competitors. They recently admitted that over 11 million of its vehicles were specifically equipped with software designed to cheat and evade emission tests. With the benefit of such software, the car company could promise customers a remarkably fuel efficient car while actually emitting ten times the permitted levels of nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere. The company sold the car, marketed the car as one uniquely responsive to the global environmental movement. In one of its ads, engineers working on the car sprouted angels' wings.
No one, this company's executives must have thought, would ever know about the lies and the deceit at the heart of their relationship with their customer base or with their nation or the world. No one would notice the hypocrisy of declaring and enacting an environmental ethic while really polluting the air in a reckless and illegal way. Here was a perfect plan to use technology to pretend to be responsible, all the while saving money and defying emissions standards levels. The software sensed exactly when an emissions test was coming and enabled the car to pass as something it clearly was not. The company this morning announced it would pay ten states $157 million for its violation of environmental regulations -- Delaware is among the states to receive this money to settle environmental lawsuits.
Of course, the problem with such incidents is that they not only reflect on the values, integrity of those particular companies; these violations when magnified by scandal and corruption in government, law enforcement, religious institutions, and in education also completely erode trust; they make us wonder if anything is authentic, legitimate, trustworthy. The incidents demonstrate that human intelligence and ingenuity can easily be distorted and lead to damaging violations of our civic life. Maybe, we think, no one can be trusted; maybe, we realize, it really is every man, woman, and organization for itself. Maybe, the center of integrity, grace, and honesty no longer applies, no longer holds, no longer exists, if it ever did.
Time Magazine this week published a stark cover and cover story written by Michael Scherer titled "Is Truth Dead?" The accompanying article describes a number of times when the President and his Press Secretary made statements that are not true. As these statements multiply and impugn the integrity of public officials and vital leadership organizations within the democracy, we begin to worry whether the pursuit and articulation of truth in America will be drowned out by competing claims, narratives, and accusations.There are forces in the world eager to exploit our inattention and confusion.
For example, yesterday in a remarkable Senate Intelligence Hearing, we learned both the strategy and effect of Russian interference in both the primary and general election, actions that ultimately sought, at the very least, to undermine and threaten the sense of legitimacy, honesty, and integrity of our democratic values and traditions. False news led to personal destruction, confusion, and chaos. The Russian plan took advantage of American polarities, social media consumption. It sought to tease to life prejudices, fears, and divisions to create a false narrative, package it for consumption directly into a state or group of voters where false news could prosper, and wait for the poison to spread.
The Russian strategy shows expertise in the use of twitter to make fraudulent stories trend, in studying the concerns and values of voters in swing states to spread false narratives. Clint Watts, former FBI agent and now a fellow at George Washington's Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, said yesterday that until we in the United States reestablish trust and integrity in our definition and defense and articulation of truth, we will continue to be vulnerable to the new power of those who peddle false news to create fear, instability, and suspicion of all sacred institutions. Our loss of faith in our own institution, in our own belief in truth, will only encourage outside forces to prey on our carelessness.
Our defense against false news and misinformation is a deliberate commitment to the truth here at home. You as students, we as citizens are going to need all our powers of analytical skills and analysis to discern the difference between fact and dangerous and destabilizing fiction.
Therefore, Time Magazine got it all wrong. The truth by definition is never dead. It may be denied, distorted, buried, mangled, or threatened, but it has this amazing way of coming to life again: truth in the end prevails and liberates us from suffering and blindness. It provides opportunities for communication, understanding, reconciliation, and forgiveness.
Now, of course, that uncovering of truth, that dismantling of artifice and deception does not occur through the natural order of goodness in the world. Those who search for truth, speak the truth, honor the truth, usually pay a price for their assertions, but only through an insistence on finding and identifying and revealing the truth, does anything evil, fraudulent, deceptive, and destructive ever change. Yesterday, Watts, for example explained what the consequences would be for him as a result of his exposure of Russian cyber manipulation and distortion: "I'm going to walk out here today. I'm going to be cyber attacked. I'm going to be discredited by trolls."
We see this principle at work not only in the business and political worlds, but even more importantly, in the moral and ethical and spiritual imperative St. Andrew's as a school values so much: the human rights of all people.
In her essay, The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning, Pomona College professor and writer Claudia Rankine reminds us of the commitment to the truth demonstrated by Emmett Till's mother after her son was murdered and lynched for the transgression in 1955 of speaking with a white girl.
Rankine wrote the essay after the terrorist Dylann Roof murdered three men and six women in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and she returned to a consideration of the life and suffering and death of Emmett Till to remind us of the reality she and other citizens of color still live with in America today. To some, the evil embedded by Roof was random. Rankine's truth was that Roof was simply the latest white supremacist to inflict terrorism on people of color in America.
The truth that Mamie Till Mobley sought to share was the reality of murder, lynching, hatred, contempt for law, justice, and human rights -- based on racism. Here is Rankine's brilliant description and analysis of that decision:
In 1955, when Emmett Till's mutilated and bloated body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River and placed for burial in a nailed-shut pine box, his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, demanded his body be transported from Mississippi, where Till had been visiting relatives, to his home in Chicago. Once the Chicago funeral home received the body, she made a decision that would create a new pathway for how to think about a lynched body. She requested an open coffin and allowed photographs to be taken and published of her dead son's disfigured body.
Mobley's refusal to keep private grief private allowed a body that meant nothing to the criminal-justice system to stand as evidence. By placing both herself and her son's corpse in positions of refusal relative to the etiquette of grief, she "disidentified" with the tradition of the lynched figure left out in public view as a warning to the black community, thereby using the lynching tradition against itself. The spectacle of the black body, in her hands, publicized the injustice mapped onto her son's corpse. "Let the people see what I see," she said, adding, "I believe that the whole United States is mourning with me.
Let's pause and study exactly what Mobley in her grief heroically accomplished in fidelity to the truth.Rankin reminds us that the lynched black body was in fact a threat , a violent and atrocious assertion of contempt and power. Comply, keep your eyes down, remain silent, accept your lot in life- or die at the hands of a lynching party.
In her sadness and outrage, Mobley resisted and redefined this madness and issued her own message, calling Americans to a defense and assertion of humanity. Her son's body, she declared , belonged not to the killers and racists ; it belonged to the family, to the truth, and justice. And so his death began to redeem the suffering he and others experienced .And as I pointed out at school meeting this winter the full revelation of truth only completed its voyage in 2017, as the white girl who testified in court against Emmett Till finally admitted she was lying all along about her interaction with him that fateful day.
The poet Elizabeth Alexander captures the tragedy and heroism in her poem "Narrative: Ali," she speaks in the voice of Muhammad Ali:
of Emmett Till,
Born my year,
On my birthday.
One, he's smiling,
Happy, and the other one
Is after. His mother
Did the bold thing.
Kept the casket open,
Made the thousands look upon
His bulging eyes
His twisted neck,
Her lynched black boy.
I couldn't sleep
Alexander suggests the seamless connection between Ali and Till (born my year on my birthday) and she captures the vitality and happiness and promise of youth (smiling, happy) until that tragic pause and the new image full of pain, disfigurement. We feel a mother's anguish and the nightmare (her lynched black boy) that haunts the powerful Ali. The bold thing was to tell the truth, share the violence, disfigurement, and Christ like laceration.
She implies that truth inspired Ali's own life of courage and triumph.
"Is Truth Dead?" Time Magazine asks. No, it is not -- it is facing, as it has always faced, those who seek to create chaos, confusion, and disorientation. The truth finds itself in battles with human greed, human cynicism.
This is not news; this is, in large part, the story of humanity, full both of atrocity and love over and over and over again. We need to relearn and re-experience what it means to create trust, what it means to create civic organizations that honor our best aspirations, what it means to hate, to maim, to destroy, to erase the other, what it means to spread rumors, indulge in the art of personal destruction.
This is really how diversity work, and honor work, and academic work, and residential work, and artistic and dramatic work, and service, come together in powerful ways here. You may not know it at first, but your habits of kindness, allyship, grace, and humility -- your commitment to telling the truth and opposing forces that undermine school and human integrity -- create a statement, a worldview, a commitment to allow truth to shine brightly, showing us a new and promising way.