I officially have more education than the President of the United States and the majority of his top advisors. Apparently a Bachelor’s degree goes much further these days than it used to, though I’m not quite celebrating what amounts to a pyrrhic victory at best. I’d rather not be more educated than the doctor performing a potentially life altering surgery on me—I don’t care how much money his or her daddy gave them.
But had I known I might qualify for one of the highest and most prestigious offices in the land, I would have ceased to leverage the majority of my life’s wages to bet on more education—education that, apparently, is completely unnecessary. In fact, competency defined by any traditionally agreed-upon measurement like education doesn’t seem matter all that much anymore; money and white-privilege are the only yardsticks in this game.
Compared to previous administrations, President Trump’s cabinet has shaped up to be the richest and whitest bunch of mostly-male college undergrads the world has ever seen. The former secretary of education under President Obama, John King Jr., has a B.A. from Harvard, a master’s degree and doctorate from Columbia, and a law degree from Yale; he’s being replaced by white billionaire Betsy DeVos, who holds a B.A. from Calvin College. She also has zero experience with the public education system. None. But if that isn’t enough to scare you, think about a really holy shit position of expertise—something you could never hope to understand by trying to fake it like that book you never read over summer vacation. Former secretaries of energy under President Obama, Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz, both hold a Ph.D in physics from Berkeley and Stanford, respectively—Chu is even a Noble Prize winner; they are being replaced by the former governor of Texas, Rick Perry, who managed to earn a B.S. in Animal Science with a transcript of C’s and D’s.
Making any reference to this alarming discrepancy in education sends Trump supporters into a tantrum of verbal vomit. They’ll shout through bloodshot eyes that education doesn’t matter, that a degree is simply a piece of paper, and that (somehow) cabinet members’ net worth alone is sufficient proof of competence. I can’t speak to the vexing equation that derives competence in policy and knowledge of public service from one’s wealth, but try asking Republicans for a higher wage and the world makes sense again; suddenly, education matters and you don’t deserve a better job or a cent more without it.
What once existed as a cleverly hidden bias towards the interests of the rich and privileged, has now become an open secret. Trump and the post-truth era have ushered in the death of meritocracy in full public view where the underlying message is clear: If you’re born white and rich, you’ve earned all the respect and credence needed for that shiny new job next to the president; if you’re not white or rich, you better get an education with the hope that someday you might earn enough to have a life beyond your student loans—like when you’re 50.
The Facts Don’t Matter, Belief Does.
We’ve all experienced what it’s like to watch a slacker colleague get away with doing a lot less work. Competency and reliability has always made you an easy target for doing more than your fair share. And sure, you silently cursed the ground that your lesser coworkers walked on, but what kept you going was knowing that being capable meant you were valued, that someday it would all pay off. Well, forget all that crap.
It appears as if the long-dreaded curse (and rewards) of competency may finally be over. No longer shall those more capable be bothered with work otherwise unfit for lazier and lesser qualified colleagues. Going forth, responsibility shall be trivialized, delegated without any true order of conceivable merit. In fact, judging from the recent trajectory of American society and its politics, the world may just as well leave be anyone who relies on science, facts, or even common sense.
Life now rings at a frequency on par with Whose Line, an improv comedy show where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. Yes, welcome the post-truth era: where the facts are made up and the truth doesn’t matter. No, the truth is like a police officer’s indictment for killing an unarmed black man—nowhere to be found.
That’s because in a post-truth era belief reigns supreme—not fact. More important than what actually happens are the fabricated narratives of convenience to which blind allegiance is sworn in pursuit of larger agendas. Clout is now garnered by spectacle and sensation, not experience and results. Facts and figures are the products of hope and tale-spin, not research and analysis. Integrity is substantiated by self-endorsement, where the candidate in question relies on a deluge of nameless nobodies and vague anecdotes posing as evidence.
This is precisely the atmosphere in which President Donald Trump has come to power. Yet what continues to astound those of sounder minds is not the lack of evidence in support of purported truths, but rather, that an overwhelming body of evidence to the contrary fails to derail even the most trivial of claims. Marco Rubio commented on the small size of The Donald’s hands during the presidential primaries. And Trump spent numerous public appearances defending himself: “Look at those hands. Are they small hands?…I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.” But there is a problem. Regardless of what Trump and his supporters believe, an investigative report uncovered hard evidence to conclude that he does have smaller than average hands.
Let me be clear here: what’s being discussed is not a dispute about WHICH facts are correct, it’s a complete disregard of objective reality altogether, a denial that facts even exist. CNN commentator Scott Nell Hughs famously admitted in one interview that, “There’s no such thing, unfortunatly, anymore as facts”.
So why do facts no longer matter? Why is it that what one chooses to believe holds greater sway than empirical reality? The answer is not quite so simple, but one thing is for sure: This post-truth era is frighteningly reminiscent of a darker age when religious rule, witch hunts, and an almost complete absence of scientific scrutiny shaped the narrative of events.
And yet, there’s a part of me that isn’t all that surprised. American society is well-known for its mastery in attributing ultimate power to the individual. In the United States, you alone shape your destiny to become whatever you want. No greater stretch of imagination is required to suggest that one also possess the power to shape reality and the very concept of truth.
The Catalysts and Stewards of Belief.
There’s an amazing book by Neil Postman called “Amusing Ourselves to Death” which talks about the death of the written word in the rising shadow of communication by images—mainly television at the time of its publication in 1985. What Postman uncovers is that the medium by which information is conveyed is equally important as its content. Mediums like television and the Internet teach audiences how to define truth not just by the content of their message, but by the presentation and emotions they invoke. In one interview about falling crime rates, Newt Gingrich said that, as a politician, he’d rather go with what people feel than with the facts.
And so sensationalism and high-shelf superlatives that evoke emotion have defined what’s real and what isn’t, even if just for the moment. Instant news and ad dollars have given rise to a new definition of truth under a reign of click-bait culture, where the integrity of the written word has crashed and burned in a rapid fire series of “gotcha” headlines. The result is a culture whose definition and delivery of truth mirrors the nature of its most ubiquitous mediums of communication. And because the nature of Internet and television require that messages and images be packaged as entertainment, information and truth become tools of amusement and provocation rather than tools of serious public discourse.
But what happens to truth when news becomes entertainment? Facts replaced by fabrications? What happens when meritocracy becomes nepotism? When democracy becomes theocracy? When a populist agenda becomes an agenda for the wealthy few? What happens when common sense values never seem to translate into sound policy? The most obvious result is exactly the fuel necessary to sustain the abolishment of base-reality in a post-truth era. Society and its participants disengage. Fooled too many times before, citizens recoil from the caustic danger of truth and refer to polished rhetoric of their adopted leadership, retreating to the safety of beliefs that provide an easy narrative. Objectivity abolished, belief transcends truth to become a haven against the inconvenience of facts.
The Everyday Impact of Reality by Belief.
The bizarre impact of a post-truth era became known to me while attempting to pee in a cup last week. Before being approved for a hefty life insurance policy through my job, I was required to schedule a health screening at my home. The screening itself was orchestrated through an outsourced health service comprised of Uber-like nurses racing around New Jersey with blood and urine piled up in their back seats.
I made my appointment with a woman name Patricia, who was to arrive at my home at 8:30am sharp on Monday, 12/19. On the morning of, I had roused at 8am to ensure that I would be ready to receive her. Upon checking my phone, I saw that Patrica had called at 7:30am, so I phoned her back.
“Hey Patricia, are we still on for this morning?” I asked.
“Oh… Matt, do you think we can reschedule? I called earlier and you didn’t pick up so I left the area.” She said.
“But we said 8:30am. I’m calling you at 8. That’s a full 30 minutes before our appointment. I’m a very punctual person, Patricia, and I really planned to get this done today.” I said pointedly.
“I know, but I didn’t think you would be up so I left the area.” She shot back.
“You didn’t think I would be awake? You called me a hour before. We agreed on 8:30am. I don’t understand.”
There is a parallel here to the current political climate, where a blatant disregard of evidence—or a lack there of—is exchanged for one’s personal belief. But unlike the triviality of my peeing in a cup, there’s a high price to be paid by a society which insists on trading reason and facts to build the foundation of its narrative upon the slippery slopes of belief.
Also published on Medium.