"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, July 24, 2020

Fibs, Lies, And Whoppers–When Facts Are Simply Not Enough

Ezra Wilde was the patriarch of a family which prided itself on facts.  There was no room for fiction, and anyone diverging from hard, practical, verifiable, unquestionable reality was called out, reprimanded, and  scolded.  “The world was certainly not created in six days”, he said.  “Do apples ever fall up?”. 

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His absolute, inflexible interpretation of the truth was as stern, judgmental, and sure as that of any Salem deacon.  His prosecution of any wavering in the face of facts was almost Biblical in proportion.  He was larger than life and as harsh, punitive, and retributive as any of the Old Testament prophets.  He was unsparing in his adjudication of doctrine, articles of faith, and belief.

There was something majestic about this harsh, impervious man.  He never conceded a judgement, an argument, or a position when he saw fissures in the logic or that ineluctable drift to the side of the straight and narrow.  Things were as they were, and no amount of persuasion, fantastical interpretation, or emotional distress could change them.

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Of course he was as subjective and indifferent as anyone about facts which didn’t suit him; but to acknowledge  this contradiction would have been to deny his being.  He saw his logical, factual precision as much a part of his nature as his freckles, red hair, and pigeon toes.  He could no sooner be hippy-dippy than he could become blonde or walk straight.  

There was only one way of going from here to there; only one price to pay for this or that; and only one conclusion to be made from any text.  Exegesis was simple for a man like Ezra Wilde.  He was as as originalist in his approach as the most conservative theologians of the Early Church.  Antonin Scalia, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and an originalist par excellence.  The Constitution was absolutely, unequivocally clear about the intentions of the Founding Fathers; and Scalia was impatient and intolerant of those jurists on the court who disagreed with him and who insisted on some vague, personal interpretation of the words of the framers.

Ezra came into his own in the Age of Trump, a man, he said, who defied every principle of Aquinas, Abelard, Hegel, Newman, or Leibniz, a man as intellectually corrupted and compromised as a failed comedian.  He not the media was the source of fake news, a spewing spigot of lies, distortions, and fabulist creations. 

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He became apoplectic whenever Trump’s name was mentioned, when he caught a glimpse of him on television, or when he happened to read something he had said.  He was not the evil incarnation that progressives claimed, but a man who, by defying objectivity and logical analysis had turned God’s miracle of intelligence into bad joke.  There was no one who epitomized the flaccidity of modern thinking than Donald Trump. 

Once Ezra had realized the true nature of Trump’s distortions – nothing less than Biblical apostasy – he became a madman, as hysterical as those who wanted the President burned at the stake for his moral ignorance, his dismissal of righteous principles, and his destructive, self-serving greed.  As politically conservative as Ezra was – an early follower of Barry Goldwater, Milton Friedman, William F Buckley, and Ronald Reagan – he found himself a strange bedfellow of the most intemperate, hysterical progressives.  He hated the unholy alliance, but common hate bonded them inseparably.

This strange obsession of Ezra Wilde took its toll on his children who could not avoid his injunctions, insistence, and holy wrath.  None of them, however, were as logical as he.  As much as they tried, little bits and pieces of personal whim crept into their supposedly logical exposition.  His eldest daughter, Marva, who loved him best and tried to follow in his every footstep but who was the least intellectually endowed of the children, could only imitate his logical rigor; but such imitations always came out wrong.  She insisted on facts which she supposed were true, which had a logical ring to them and the kind of ‘essentiality’ that her father understood, but which were far-fetched.  To avoid getting caught in her creative assumptions, she learned the principle of The Kernel of Truth – the notion that if an idea were plausible, it would be accepted as fact.

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Like most people who feel overwhelmed by the likes of her father, Marva Wilde used his insistence as a defense.  Whenever someone posited a theory, a reasoned opinion, or considered conclusion, she would talk over them, extricating from the tangle of remembered happenings, bits and pieces of news items, college exam questions, and impressive, selective misquotes, her own opinion. In this electronic, mediated age, it was easy to fact-check her, but few ever did.  Her stubborn insistence was enough either to convince them or dismiss her.  In either case, no one put the brakes on her marvelously inventive subjectivity.

It is perhaps too harsh a judgment to conclude that she was not worth listening to; especially because when a conversation finally turned to her favor – facts and figures in her wheelhouse – she was focused and reasonable.  She was a good conversationalist if you didn’t push her, accepted her notions, and let her be.

Ezra’s other daughter, Athena, was equally influenced by her father.  She was smart, ambitious, and talented, but her talents were dramatic and artistic.  They didn’t jibe with her fathers terrible logic.  The combination of father-love and dramatic soul created a fabulist.  She told stories about herself, her past, and her life which were totally invented.  She chose her audiences carefully and made sure that they never met or mixed, for the tales she told to one were never the same as she told another.  Taken as a whole – a body of fabulist work – she had been an impresario, a philanthropist, an entrepreneur, a Wall Street player, a social icon, and a beauty queen.  Once she got going, she simply couldn’t stop, and her tall tales were something to behold.  No romance novel could match her melodrama, no heroic tale came even close to the exploits she recounted.  No epic poetry so emotive and passionate.

When challenged – anyone paying attention and adding things up even by hand could see the cracks in her narrative – she did not become angry and defiant like her sister, but was wounded.  Friendship and love depended on accepting her stories, accepting her as she intended it to be not as it was.  If one could do that, Athena was charming, engaging, and beautiful.  The embroidery of her stories was intricate, the filigree delicate and finely woven, the dramatic tension irresistible.  Who cared if she added a bit here and there? Or polished a rough edge?  She was Athena Wilde, take her or leave her.

Of course no philosopher, theologian, or logician has ever figured out what reality consists of or whether there really is such a thing.  Bishop Berkeley and other phenomenologists assumed that if a tree fell in the forest and there was no one there to hear it, it did not make a sound; and if it made no sound, it did not exist. There have been relativists like Tolstoy who saw that everything was determined by everything that came before.  Napoleon’s defeat at Borodino was because of cold he caught because of the negligence of his valet who had forgotten to bring his gum boots on a stormy day.  We might be not creations of God but only his imaginings, or fictional comic book characters made up in the mind of a superior intelligence in some faraway galaxy.

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So perhaps Marva and Athena Wilde were not aberrations but the most perceptive.  They knew that fantasy, imagination, creativity, narrative, and grand guignol trumped facts all the time.

Poor Ezra never survived the Trump era.  He had a fatal heart attack in late 2020 just before the election; and many said it was a good thing because he would have been a very, very unhappy man during Trump’s second term.  Most said that his heart attack was because of Donald Trump, adding more fuel to the Hate Trump movement.  In any case his daughters did well if not thrived.  It all goes to show that the law of unintended consequences is alive and well and as permanent as any logical principle of old Ezra’s.

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