Hampton Sides | Longreads | June 2017 | 13 minutes (3,083 words)
Hampton Sides, historian and author of bestselling books including Ghost Soldiers and In the Kingdom of Ice, gave the following commencement address to graduating students of Colorado College on May 22, 2017. Our thanks to the author for allowing Longreads to reprint it here.
Warm greetings to the Class of 2017! It’s such a tremendous honor to be here today, to wish you well as you begin your life’s adventures. I’ve taught some of you, I’ve read your work in the college publications, I’ve rooted for you on the soccer fields. I’ve even tested my hand-eye coordination skills with some of you in the exacting sport . . . . of beer pong. I’ve greatly enjoyed my experience teaching here at this most unique and authentic school set at the foot of Rockies, a school that has perfected the fine art, the almost forgotten art, of doing one thing at a time.
I don’t know about you, but I’m a big fan of the sayings of Yogi Berra, the late great catcher for the New York Yankees who later became a manager and a coach. Yogi Berra was famous for uttering pithy, off-the-cuff malapropisms, little witticisms that were seemingly contradictory, but also somehow wise. His sayings, known as “Yogi-isms,” made no sense, and yet they made perfect sense. “The future ain’t what it used to be,” he famously said. Or, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” Or, “No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” One sportswriter has defined Yogi-isms as “distilled bits of wisdom which, like good country songs, get to the truth in a hurry.” A few other classic Yogi-isms:
“Never answer an anonymous letter.”
“Always go to other people’s funerals. Otherwise, they won’t come to yours.”
And this one, which perhaps carries a special resonance in our current world: “Even Napoleon had his Watergate.”
I’m going to try really hard to avoid the subject of politics today, but with all that’s been happening in the news, it’s hard to avoid it altogether. No doubt like many of you, I’ve become riveted to the news over the past few months—alternately fascinated and horrified, sometimes repulsed, sometimes entertained. In the end, I guess I’ve become addicted. I need my daily fix, my hourly dose, my half-hourly hit. This maddening dependency on the news has affected my sleep, my disposition, my ability to focus, and probably my sanity.
Well, it turns out that neuroscientists have recently identified a new hormone produced by the brain, a substance, like dopamine or seratonin, with its own networks of receptors. A hormone that when it surges within us leads directly to these symptoms of manic restlessness, and is apparently reactivated each time we turn on the news or consult our iPhones. The researchers have just given this new substance an official scientific name. It’s called . . . Trumpamine.
Today I want to talk about something that, while perhaps related to Trumpamine, is a little bigger, a little more serious, and a little more urgent. Something that as a journalist, and as a historian, is of enormous concern to me, and something that should be of enormous concern to anyone who cares about the health of our democracy and the prospect for civility in our public life. What I want to talk about today is . . . Truth.
It’s been said that we live in an age of “truth decay.” That we inhabit a post-factual world. A world of Fake News and alternative facts. A world in which every story is tainted, the product of leaks and hacks, black ops and active measures, propaganda and disinformation—spread by trolls, replicated by internet bots, amplified in echo chambers deep in the dungeons of the web. The noun “truth,” it seems, has morphed into something far squishier, what Stephen Colbert used to call “truthiness.”
We see that serious journalism has been all but replaced by the infoscape, the blogosphere, the social network, the Twitterverse. That stories have become merely content, news organizations have become merely platforms, the long narrative has been pecked to death by tiny newsfeeds crawling across the bottom of the screen. We see that the democratization of information, combined with the shrinking of our attention spans and our fast-twitching fingers, has led to a Tower of Babel that threatens to make all of us not only unintelligible to each other, but also, often, insufferable.
Last year the Oxford English Dictionary proclaimed “post-truth” the Word of the Year for 2016. “Post truth. Adj: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Some have said that not only is truth under siege, but also the standards and protocols by which we determine truth—the processes we use to sift and strain it, deem it and declare it. It’s a problem at the root of the crises we’ve seen in journalism, and in politics. But it also speaks to something deeper, something perhaps existential. Ultimately, it works its way down to the level of epistemology: What do we know? And how do we know that we know it? Who did the fact-checking? How does your truth compete with my truth? And how does it make me feel?
Someone who’s written brilliantly and thought deeply about this subject is University of Connecticut philosopher Michael P. Lynch, the author of The Internet of Us. Lynch writes: “Without a common background of standards against which we measure what counts as reliable information, or a reliable method of inquiry, and what doesn’t, we won’t be able to agree on the facts, let alone values. Indeed, this is precisely the situation we seem to be headed toward in the United States.”
This syndrome was acutely on display in the recent election, but it’s a phenomenon that took years and even decades to come about. The real problem, I think, is not that there’s no such thing as truth anymore. Rather, it’s that there are multiplicities of truth, multiplexes of reality. We are drowned in so much information, swamped by such oceans of data, that we can’t process it. The idea of shared facts—facts that we can all pretty much trust and agree on—seems to have gone the way of the great CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, who used to sign off every night with the tagline: “And that’s the way it is.” Who could get away with that today? Today there is no IT, and there is no IS.
Instead, the world has become minutely fractured. There are CNN facts, and Fox facts. Blue facts and red facts. Huffington facts and Breitbart facts. Climate change believer facts and climate change denier facts. We select the wavelength of truth that suits us and we park our sensibilities there, marinating our minds in sauces we already think we like. We create bubbles of information, silos of opinion, and we tune out all that is extraneous or disagreeable. And increasingly, it seems, we can simply get away with denying facts that are inconvenient to our chosen world—just blot them out, as though they don’t exist, or never happened.
The other problem that’s led to this phenomenon, of course, is the incredible speed and ease with which information travels today. Never in the history of the world has so much knowledge been so instantaneously available at our fingertips—and for free. Yet ironically never before have we been so disdainful of facts: Because they are so easy to come by, they are no longer precious. Why do we need to be smart, when we have smartphones? Why do we need an appetite for knowledge when we can just get the app? Why do we need to know when we can Google-know?
But if information travels fast and furious, so of course does misinformation: Errors and innuendoes, hoaxes and wholesale fictions. Winston Churchill said that a lie “gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Today a lie circumnavigates the globe before we can even locate our pants. We’ve seen the rise of Fake News—not just false stories, but also whole websites and news outlets expressly designed to spread them. The massive chemical disaster that ISIS orchestrated recently in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana . . . didn’t happen. Remember that terrible terrorist attack in Sweden? Remember that horrible massacre in Bowling Green?
The real problem with this sort of story is not the falsehood itself but the subtle ways in which it begins to erode the very foundations of truth. According to the authors of a recent Rand Corporation study on “truth decay,” the real goal of Fake News “is not to make people believe the lie. It is to make them doubt all news.” The chess genius Garry Kasparov said it even better: “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda,” he said. “It is to exhaust your critical thinking. It is to annihilate truth.”
Some writers have begun to postulate that the constant, compulsive use of the internet and its related devices has changed the way we think, altered our processes of cognition, and possibly even changed the way the wiring in our brain fires. While that may be far fetched, it’s safe to say that it has caused many of us to be more distracted, more disjointed, and more restless in our hot pursuit of information. We go farther faster, but we don’t necessarily go deeper. We know more, but we don’t understand.
Nicholas Carr, in his acclaimed book about this phenomenon, The Shallows, warns that our overreliance on the internet has caused us in effect to outsource human intelligence to distant machines and algorithms. We’ve become more facile at gathering facts, while seldom grasping the deeper meanings of complex and interrelated ideas. Carr, who like most of us uses the internet a hundred times a day, confesses that he thinks it is, as he puts it, “chipping away at my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
In The Shallows, Carr talks about a kind of observational experiment that the great author Nathaniel Hawthorne undertook one morning, in Concord, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1844. He went out to a place called Sleepy Hollow, not far from his house. He sat down in the grass, and then took copious notes on everything he saw and heard and felt and smelled around him. In a sense, Hawthorne was being a kind of investigative journalist of the pastoral, documenting every twisting leaf, every squirrel and bird, the call of farmers working in distant fields, the ebb and flow of all these quiet stirrings. He was conducting a romantic and mildly radical experiment—mind you, this was well before his colleague Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden Pond. In that rustic clearing at Sleepy Hollow, Hawthorne fell into a kind of a rapturous reverie, a spell.
Then, all at once, he was startled by the shrill sound of something so completely at odds with the world he was describing, a newly invented machine invading in the garden. It was a train, chuffing through the countryside—a technology so completely disruptive that it changed everything. “But hark!” Hawthorne writes. “There is the whistle of the locomotive—the long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness, for the space of a mile cannot mollify it into harmony. It tells a story of busy men, citizens, from the hot street, who have come to spend a day in a country village, men of business; in short of all unquietness; and no wonder that it gives such a startling shriek, since it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slumberous peace.”
Carr believes that the internet is akin to that locomotive, that machine in the garden. It is an invention that we must be grateful for—there is nothing like it in the history of the planet, bringing the entire world, or at least a digital approximation of it, right into our lives. But it is a gift we should be extremely wary of—this a loud, brash interloper that, if we’re not careful, can drag all of us out of our Sleepy Hollows forever, whether we like it or not.
So…are we really living in a Post Truth Society? Are we really living in a world of alternative facts? Are all the clocks striking 13? Is Trumpamine coursing through our veins? If this is the world today, then what do we do with it? How do we navigate it? And what advice do I have for you, who are about to embark upon it?
My first piece of advice is, please please please don’t give up on the truth. It may be under assault but it’s still alive and kicking, and it will never go out of style. Truth may not be a thing that we can always absolutely, objectively prove, but it is a thing we can aspire to. A thing we must aspire to. In our journalism, in our government, in our courts, in our businesses, in our personal lives, and in our very souls. I’ve built my life and livelihood on chasing the truth, in trying to get the facts right. I haven’t always succeeded. Sometimes I’ve failed completely. But it’s always seemed an eminently worthy cause.
The second thing I would say is, trust your instincts to get at the truth. That’s what the critical thinking that comes with a liberal arts education is all about. You’ve spent the last four years honing your skills of judgment and discernment, learning to weigh the evidence and question everything. You’ve spent the last four years assessing, observing, and listening with an open but also skeptical mind—developing, as Wordsworth put it, “a heart that watches and receives.” Those critical skills may not seem directly marketable to you right now, but you will find they put you on very solid ground as you go through life. And they are skills that have never been more important to our society.
Another thing I would say is Nil desperandum. Do not despair. I firmly believe this trend of truth decay is, in many ways, a temporary phase. It is a tear in our social fabric caused by the many far-ranging dislocations brought on by the bewildering advent of worldwide electronic interconnectivity and the cacophony of all our little devices. From the standpoint of human evolution, this is all still so new to us, and we’re just beginning to figure it out. We are like infants playing with strange new toys. Some of these toys are extremely cool and helpful. Some of them are, often simultaneously, very dangerous—like poisonous berries that our hunter-gatherer ancestors learned not to eat a long time ago. Some of our inventions, in the guise of easy, fast communication, are actually retarding our ability to say anything eloquent or meaningful. They are distorting our sense of reality and creating a toxic environment for us all. But I believe we’ll find a way to ameliorate the most harmful effects of our new devices and technologies. As a journalist I’m a zealot for the 1st Amendment, and so I’m not talking about censorship here. On the other hand, I would be all for a Constitutional Amendment preventing any sitting U.S. President from having a Twitter account. It is an absurd and deeply dangerous idea to think that matters of statecraft can be conducted in 140 characters.
And another thing, while we’re on the subject of those toys: Whatever you do, wherever you go, I want to encourage you to seek out an authentic experience. There’s far too much secondary living, virtual living, simulated living, going on these days. As we’ve been discussing, too often life comes to us mediated through earbuds and screens and viewfinders. I don’t mean to sound like a Luddite here—you are coming of age in a fascinating and truly revolutionary era of technological innovation that has nearly limitless possibilities. There’s no retreating now from the digital age. But don’t let the gadgets distract you from the true pulse of life. My advice to you is, whatever you do, seek out something gritty and challenging and raw. Experience real love and real pain in real places with real people, face to face, heart to heart. Your life will be happier and richer in direct proportion to its authenticity.
And so: Every now and then, but with some regularity, Unplug! You’ve heard it a thousand times but it’s true. Whether it’s one hour a day, one day a week, or one week a year, I believe the best way to prevent truth decay is to seek truth outside our echo chambers of instantaneous communication. Tune out, shut up, sign off, power down.
Better yet, escape to the mountains. Get yourself on a trout stream. Be a ski bum for awhile. Go off grid. Find your church. Quit your machines, and return to the garden.
Living at the edge of these extraordinary mountains, at a school that takes every advantage of the great landscapes of the West, this is something most of you already know, deep in your bones: That the nature of truth can often best be found in the truth of nature. For wilderness doesn’t lie—and it has much to teach. To me, it’s a source of comfort to be swallowed up in places that remind us that we homo not so sapiens, and all our inventions, are mere spore-specks in the record of time. It’s one of life’s great paradoxes: Nothing makes us feel grander than to feel small, that nothing makes us wiser than to know we know nothing at all. This, I think, is what Wordsworth was referring to, in his great poem “The Tables Turned,” when he said:
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.
Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
To the Class of 2017: Be well, and stay true. I wish you happiness and fulfillment on your life’s journey, wherever it may lead. I hope you will enjoy every twist and every turn. But just remember: When you come to the fork in the road, take it.