Is Fake News vs. Truth a case of Goliath vs. David?

Once we knew one truth

Over forty years ago, Rab­bi Richard N. Levy wrote a para­graph that entered the Gates of Prayer Sid­dur. I quot­ed from it in a ser­mon dur­ing the Clin­ton impeach­ment hear­ings that dealt with “what is truth”.

Once we learned one truth, and it was cher­ished or dis­card­ed, but it was one. Now we are told that the world can be per­ceived by many truths; now, in the real­i­ty all of us encounter, some find lessons that oth­ers deny. Once we learned one kind of life, and one real­i­ty; it too we either adopt­ed or scorned. But right was always right and wrong was always wrong. Now we are told that there are many rights, that what is wrong may well be wrong for you but right for me.

I have been think­ing about this text along with a num­ber of oth­ers that have been part of my per­son­al anthol­o­gy as our aware­ness of fake news sto­ries has grown.

We live in a world remark­ably dif­fer­ent from the one that exist­ed through most of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. We are still reel­ing from Albert Einstein’s dis­cov­er­ies of a cen­tu­ry ago. They marked a turn­ing point in how we have under­stood our world ever since. Ein­stein tru­ly con­vinced us that every­thing is rel­a­tive on the phys­i­cal plane, and from that we’ve gen­er­al­ized to the eth­i­cal and moral plane in our “post mod­ern” world. Now we talk about “sit­u­a­tion­al ethics,” and are puz­zled when “we are told that what is wrong may well be wrong for you but right for me.”

Among the ear­li­est songs I learned was:

I’m Proud To Be Me, by Hy Zaret (which is includ­ed in the Songs for [Girl] Scouts Web page)

I’m proud to be me but I also see;
you’re just as proud to be you.

We might look at things a bit dif­fer­ent­ly,
but lots of good peo­ple do.

It’s just human nature,
so why should I hate you for being as human as I.

We’ll get as we give, and we live and let live
and we’ll all get along, If we try.

I’m proud to be me but I also see,
you’re just as proud to be you.

It’s true, you’re just as proud to be you!

Click the link to lis­ten: I’m Proud To Be Me The song will open in a new page.

I also grew up with the sto­ry of the Churk­endoose. The sto­ry was intend­ed to teach tol­er­ance of var­i­ous peo­ple. A strange egg was found in the hen house. No one knew whose egg it was so they each took turns sit­ting on it. Even­tu­al­ly, the egg cracked and out stepped the strangest crea­ture they’d ever seen: part chick­en, turkey, duck, and goose: they called it the Churk­endoose. When every­one was shocked to see what a strange being it was, the Churk­endoose broke into song:

It depends on how you look at things,
It depends on how you look at things,
Is the baby chim­panzee any pret­ti­er than me
It all depends upon, begins and ends upon,
It all depends on how you look at things.

Of course, the con­cept of being aware of dif­fer­ent facts based on our per­cep­tion long pre­dates mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry children’s lit­er­a­ture. Even before Einstein’s rel­a­tiv­i­ty John God­frey Saxe intro­duced the West­ern world to the con­cept of mul­ti­ple pos­si­ble truths when he appro­pri­at­ed Indi­an sub-con­ti­nent tra­di­tions to write his poem “The Blind Men and the Ele­phant”:

It was six men of Indostan
To learn­ing much inclined,
Who went to see the Ele­phant
(Thought all of them were blind).
That each by obser­va­tion
Might sat­is­fy his mind

maybe, gray, warm, or…

Even though so much of our world is shaped by com­put­ers that func­tion by com­bin­ing only ones and zeros, we know that we should not be con­strict­ed by false bina­ries. The world is not only

  • One/Zero
  • Yes/No
  • On/Off
  • Black/White
  • Hot/Cold
  • True/False

When you mix enough ones and zeros togeth­er, you can cre­ate a near-infi­nite num­ber of shades of gray and oth­er col­ors. As my sis­ter has taught me to think, we don’t need to say: “yes, but” instead, we can say: “yes, and”. The for­mer clos­es off pos­si­bil­i­ties, while the lat­ter opens us to more.

So, does that mean that there is no such thing as fake news? Is any­thing any­one says equal­ly valid? No. Some things are facts and oth­ers are not. Cer­tain state­ments are true and oth­ers are false. You can­not choose whether or not some­thing is a fact. Facts sim­ply exist.

In my opinion, that’s a fact.

Our father used to say, quot­ing one of his clients in jest: “In my opin­ion, that’s a fact.” How­ev­er, opin­ions and facts are of two dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories. As Daniel Patrick Moyni­han said: “You are enti­tled to your opin­ion. But you are not enti­tled to your own facts.” Amaz­ing­ly enough approx­i­mate­ly ten years after our father died, Lan­ny J. Davis used the exact phrase our father quot­ed, but in all seri­ous­ness. In the chap­ter “The View From The White House” in the book The Clin­ton Pres­i­den­cy and the Con­sti­tu­tion­al Sys­tem, he wrote:

There was no legit­i­mate basis to impeach Pres­i­dent Clin­ton on per­jury. In my opin­ion, that’s a fact.

Odd­ly enough the phrase turns up every now and then, as though peo­ple have dif­fi­cul­ty dis­tin­guish­ing between facts and opin­ions.

But there’s a dif­fer­ence between devel­op­ing var­i­ous opin­ions based on per­ceiv­ing con­trast­ing facts about an ele­phant and believ­ing that ele­phants can fly based on a fic­tion or an image that some­one has cre­at­ed.

Our drift from acknowl­edg­ing fact to believ­ing fic­tion has hap­pened over at least the past 16 years. Stephen Col­bert was among the first to make note of the sub­sti­tu­tion of opin­ion for fact to a mass audi­ence when he coined the wordTruthi­ness”.

Yes, well,” he huffed. “You can prove anything with facts, can’t you?”

Actu­al­ly the sit­u­a­tion goes deep­er and fur­ther back than the begin­ning of this mil­len­ni­um, at least as ear­ly as 1992. The issue is not sim­ply Truthi­ness, but “post-truth”. It appears as though a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of our fel­low cit­i­zens are will­ing to live in a world in which facts are not real. While Amer­i­cans have joked about Truthi­ness, among the Russ­ian polit­i­cal elite, a dif­fer­ent idea has grown. The con­cept of “post-truth pol­i­tics”.

The British news­pa­per The Guardian described the phe­nom­e­non in March of 2015 (rec­og­niz­ing this as a prob­lem even before Trump announced his can­di­da­cy on June 16, 2015): The Guardian view on Russ­ian pro­pa­gan­da: the truth is out there

It is a tac­tic straight out of Mr Putin’s KGB play­book from the 1970s. Gen­er­ate a plu­ral­i­ty of nar­ra­tives, so the truth can be obscured. In such cir­cum­stances, the very idea that there is such a thing as “the truth” can itself be called into ques­tion. “There is no objec­tiv­i­ty – only approx­i­ma­tions of the truth by as many dif­fer­ent voic­es as pos­si­ble” is how Mar­gari­ta Simonyan, the edi­tor-in-chief of state-backed Rus­sia Today, puts it. This is weaponised rel­a­tivism [empha­sis mine, MH].

One of the fore­most ring­mas­ters of this post­mod­ern author­i­tar­i­an­ism is Putin advis­er and trendy for­mer TV exec­u­tive Vladislav Surkov; he is as com­fort­able talk­ing about per­for­mance art and rap music as he is about con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics. For him, all news is com­ment, all truth lit­tle more than opin­ion. There is the BBC view. The Fox News view. The Rus­sia Today view. All are expres­sions of spe­cial inter­ests, not so much attempts at the truth as indi­vid­ual per­spec­tives and localised nar­ra­tives.

Mr Surkov grasps that all this chimes close­ly with the idea, famil­iar in the west, that any and every per­spec­tive can be legit­imised as a mat­ter of indi­vid­ual opin­ion. On the basis of this lazy phi­los­o­phy, the idea that one view is right and anoth­er wrong can be made to sound like some unwar­rant­ed impo­si­tion of author­i­ty. You can already hear the objec­tion to the asser­tion of truth: “Who is to say who is right?”

Fly­ing seem­ing­ly under the radar, even The New York Times wrote about the process before @realDonaldTrump per­fect­ed its use in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. In an OpEd col­umn pub­lished in Decem­ber of 2014, Peter Pomer­ant­sevdec wrote Russia’s Ide­ol­o­gy: There Is No Truth:

The Kremlin’s goal is to con­trol all nar­ra­tives, so that pol­i­tics becomes one great script­ed real­i­ty show. [empha­sis mine; sound famil­iar? MH] The way it wields pow­er illus­trates and rein­forces this psy­chol­o­gy. Take Vladislav Y. Surkov, an advis­er to Pres­i­dent Vladimir V. Putin who is said to man­age, among oth­er things, the pub­lic image of the Russ­ian-speak­ing sep­a­ratist lead­ers in east­ern Ukraine. He helped invent a new strain of author­i­tar­i­an­ism based not on crush­ing oppo­si­tion from above, but on climb­ing into dif­fer­ent inter­est groups and manip­u­lat­ing them from the inside. On his desk in the Krem­lin, Mr. Surkov had phones bear­ing the names of lead­ers of sup­pos­ed­ly inde­pen­dent par­ties. Nation­al­ist lead­ers like Vladimir V. Zhiri­novsky would play the right-wing buf­foon to make Mr. Putin look mod­er­ate by con­trast.

With one hand Mr. Surkov sup­port­ed human rights groups made up of for­mer dis­si­dents; with the oth­er he orga­nized pro-Krem­lin youth groups like Nashi, which accused human rights lead­ers of being tools of the West. In a nov­el pre­sumed to be writ­ten by Mr. Surkov, who is also an art-lov­ing bohemi­an when not wag­ing covert wars, he cel­e­brates the tri­umphant cyn­i­cism of a post-Sovi­et gen­er­a­tion that has seen through the illu­sions of belief in any val­ues or ide­ol­o­gy.

Create Two, Three, Many Fires

Don­ald Trump seems to have learned a les­son from both Vladislav Surkov and Che Gue­vara. Instead of many Viet­nams that Gue­vara called for in Octo­ber 1967, Trump starts two, three, many fires that keep all of us off guard. In the words of one of his sur­ro­gates Scot­tie Nell Hugh­es on Novem­ber 30 at 10:28 AM: “Every­body has a way of inter­pret­ing them [facts] to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfor­tu­nate­ly, any­more as facts.” As The New York­er sum­ma­rized at the end of Novem­ber:

It nonethe­less war­rants remem­ber­ing that there is noth­ing nor­mal about what we are wit­ness­ing. In the past two weeks, the Pres­i­dent-elect has set­tled a fraud law­suit over Trump Uni­ver­si­ty and assailed the cast of “Hamil­ton” on Twit­ter, while the neo-Nazi Nation­al Pol­i­cy Insti­tute held a gath­er­ing in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., at which some of its atten­dees offered the Nazi salute in praise of Trump. The U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um has issued a state­ment remind­ing Amer­i­cans that the Holo­caust “did not begin with killing; it began with words.” Two years ago, any one of these events would have been seen as extra­or­di­nary. In the cur­rent crush of the absurd, they come dan­ger­ous­ly close to blend­ing into the back­ground in the way that police sirens can become ambi­ent noise in New York City.

Many of the fires Trump starts are nui­sances in garbage cans. With enough of them burn­ing, they have the abil­i­ty to dis­tract us from larg­er poten­tial con­fla­gra­tions smol­der­ing near­by. And, as hard as it is for many of us to accept, huge swaths of the Amer­i­can pub­lic accept the lies that the Pres­i­dent-Elect tells.

I’ll have some Flynn Jr. on mine

It feels almost as though Trump decid­ed to make Michael J. Fly­nn, Jr. a scape­goat because of “Piz­za­gate” to take don­wn one fake news sto­ry so that many oth­ers could con­tin­ue to spread.


Yet, why do some (so many) peo­ple con­tin­ue to believe false­hoods, despite the exis­tence of con­tra­ven­ing facts that I, and so many of the peo­ple I know, accept as fact? Accord­ing to an arti­cle in Alter­net: An Insider’s View: The Dark Rigid­i­ty of Fun­da­men­tal­ist Rur­al Amer­i­ca; In deep-red white Amer­i­ca, the white Chris­t­ian God is king.

Edu­ca­tion is the ene­my of fun­da­men­tal­ism because fun­da­men­tal­ism, by its very nature, is not built on facts. The fun­da­men­tal­ists I grew up around aren’t anti-edu­ca­tion. They want their kids to know how to read and write. They are anti-qual­i­ty, in-depth, broad, spe­cial­ized edu­ca­tion. Learn­ing is only val­ued up to the cer­tain point.

A Pew Research Cen­ter exam­i­na­tion of the exit polls from the 2016 elec­tion indi­cates the widest gap between col­lege-edu­cat­ed vot­ers and non-col­lege-edu­cat­ed vot­ers since 1980. It is amaz­ing to see Trump vot­ers explain them­selves and the world they encounter. (Yes, I wrote “them” and “they”. I feel as though we inhab­it dif­fer­ent realms.)

In fact, stud­ies indi­cate that many peo­ple like myself also believe fake news sto­ries.

And, as hard as this may be to accept, they have believed such sto­ries for years… which may be one of the rea­sons that Hillary Clin­ton lost the elec­tion.

When does fake news become a big lie?

We Jews have seen this before, the rep­e­ti­tion of big lies to con­vince a pub­lic of some­thing that is bla­tant­ly false. We need to sup­port all those who will shine light on the false­hoods and their per­pe­tra­tors. There are tools already avail­able to us. Among them, we need to sup­port seri­ous jour­nal­ism… even though we know that these insti­tu­tions have their own bias­es. And, because so many of us receive our updates of what hap­pens in the world from social media, we need to be more dis­cern­ing about what we share. Tools have recent­ly been devel­oped to help sift and sort what is real from fake. Among them, if you use Google’s Chrome brows­er are Daniel Sieradski’s B.S.Detector or FiB, a tool devel­oped by four und­grads. In addi­tion, if you have any ques­tion about the verac­i­ty of a sto­ry, you can always check, Poli­ti­Fact, or We can also take a les­son from Tim O’Reilly who wrote recent­ly about how we can detect fake news (using our own brains and encour­ag­ing tech com­pa­nies to devel­op the appro­pri­ate algo­rithms). For, as visu­al jour­nal­ist Fred Ritchin has writ­ten:

Demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­eties can­not sur­vive with­out the abil­i­ty to have rea­son­able con­ver­sa­tions on issues and events, and these can­not occur with­out agreed-upon sources of infor­ma­tion.

We need to recon­gize fake news as a tool, or instru­ment of destruc­tion of a “post-fac­tu­al” world and tell the emporor that he is naked. Those who deny that actu­al facts exist should be remind­ed that there are actu­al dif­fer­ences: that fire burns and rods beat as expressed in Avicenna’s law of non-con­tra­di­tion:

Any­one who denies the law of non-con­tra­dic­tion should be beat­en and burned until he admits that to be beat­en is not the same as not to be beat­en, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.


Today’s date offers a tie-in to a time when news seemed sim­pler when Wal­ter Cronkite held forth on CBS while Chet Hunt­ley and David Brink­ley host­ed the news on NBC. Today, Decem­ber 10, hap­pens to be the birth­date of Chet Hunt­ley. Every evening, as they end­ed their broad­cast, they would say to each oth­er:

Good­night, David.
Good­night, Chet.

Their salu­a­tion became such a stan­dard phrase in Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture that when the 1967 Six Days War in Israel end­ed some­one was saavy enough to have a but­ton pro­duced (made in Japan of all places) and dis­trib­uted here in the Unit­ed States.

As we approach the dark­est days of the year, may the light of truth slay the big lies that loom large around us.

Good­night, David” “Good­night Goliath”

Date: 1967
Size: 4.6
Pin Form: straight
Print Method: litho
Text “Good­night,

your lapel buttons

Many peo­ple have lapel but­tons. They may be attached to a favorite hat or jack­et you no longer wear, or poked into a cork-board on your wall. If you have any lay­ing around that you do not feel emo­tion­al­ly attached to, please let me know. I pre­serve these for the Jew­ish peo­ple. At some point they will all go to an appro­pri­ate muse­um. You can see all the but­tons shared to date.

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