Fiction in the Post-truth Era

“Truth is stranger than fiction,” the saying goes, and this poses a real challenge for fiction writers. More so than ever today, in our post-truth era. Yet it’s a challenge that’s being met, often brilliantly.

Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley.
Post-truth and reality in a modern thriller. Photo: Post-Gazette.com.

Noah Hawley offers an excellent example. Not only is Hawley a gifted novelist—his latest, Before the Fall, made the New York Times 100 Notable Books list last year—he is a masterful screenwriter as well, as exemplified by the first two seasons of “Fargo” in particular.

Much of Before the Fall concerns the 24-hour news cycle and the ways in which appearance vies with reality. In fact, the novel’s denouement revolves around these issues. But the book is such a gripping, suspenseful read that you’re only concerned with turning the pages. The issues raised do resonate after you put the book down, though.

Fargo
“Fargo,” from FX. Photo: Backstage.com

The story (not the plot) is similar in “Fargo.” Set in the Upper Plains, the series contrasts the (mostly) polite and plain-spoken people who live there with the violent and chaotic spin of American social and political change. It does not do this overtly; both seasons are set in the past. Yet it’s there, and you become aware of it as you go along.

In both the book and the TV series, Hawley does what writers are supposed to do: dig inside his characters to present their truth. That’s one thing that has not changed in our current climate and it means that truth continues to have a bright future—at least in fiction and film.

Keep Control of Your Life

I voiced concern, in a recent post, that progressive Americans were exhibiting a strange passivity as the inauguration of Donald J. Trump approaches. This reluctance to engage with the profound transformation confronting the nation is understandable on one level—it’s painful. Yet resistance across a broad spectrum of American life is essential if the very worst is to be avoided. Mass surveillance is one of these areas. You can take a stand and help reduce its impact.

ProtonMail is free encrypted email.
ProtonMail is free encrypted email.

The NSA and other agencies have amassed enormous power in recent years and that power is likely to be more aggressively displayed after January 20. Too many people have displayed a resigned helplessness in the face of this sinister development for too long. American citizens are entitled to lead private lives. Don’t think, “If I’ve done nothing wrong, I have nothing to worry about.” You have plenty to worry about—we all do.

If you’re on Facebook, that part of your life is an open book, obviously. (Corporate power is on the verge of expanding exponentially as well.) If you send and receive your email as plain text or HTML, you can assume every word of every message you’ve ever sent or received is available to government investigators, along with any photos or other attachments in your email. Unless you take basic precautions, every website you visit can be listed against your name, along with the location you viewed it from and the date and time of the viewing.

Do you want everything you do online filed away in a government database? No? Then start taking some basic steps to resist mass surveillance. Do it now, before Trump takes office.

Email: You can encrypt your present email account using OpenPGP but this takes a degree of technical know-how. Choose a simpler path and open a free email account with ProtonMail, based in Switzerland and encrypted by default. Use it to email your friends, even if they don’t have a ProtonMail account. You can give them a passphrase so they can receive your encrypted email anyway. ProtonMail is encrypted end-to-end and on the server. The system is designed so that ProtonMail itself has no access to your data, and thus cannot turn it over to third parties like the NSA (plus, Swiss laws on privacy are much, much tougher than they are here).

Messaging: Use Signal, from Open Whisper Systems.

Browsing: If you must use a mainstream browser, use Firefox. It is open source and inherently more secure than the others. You can add to your security by using some key add-ons, such as uBlock Origin and Privacy Badger. If you want to be really secure, though, use Tor Browser.

The Tor Browser protects against surveillance.
The Tor Browser protects against surveillance.

These are the bare rudiments. If you care about keeping your life your own, do some research. The Surveillance Self-Defense project of the Electronic Frontier Foundation is a good place to start.

In order to resist the worst of what the Trump administration has in store, start by opting out of mass surveillance and encourage your friends to do the same. The more citizens who do this, the less likely we are to enter truly Orwellian territory under Trump.

What Are You Reading?

Are you reading at all? Too many Americans aren’t, at least where books are concerned. And that goes a long way toward explaining the current state of the country. After all, reading expands one’s mental horizons and encourages understanding and empathy, both of which are in short supply these days.

To underscore the need to read, the New York Public Library and others have launched a #ReadersUnite campaign on social media. You’re encouraged to post photos of the book(s) you’re currently reading, along with your thoughts on the importance of same.

I’m currently reading a novel called The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Australian writer Richard Flanagan.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan
Winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

It’s not directly related to our current situation, concerning as it does Australian POWs in WWII, but it certainly encourages empathy. It’s a well-written page-turner, as well.

I tend to organize my reading in lists, to try to keep things manageable (this doesn’t always work). The lists are divided into “Classic” (e.g., The Brothers Karamazov), “Current” (e.g., the book described above and other recent books, both fiction and non-fiction) and “Craft” (e.g., The Best American Short Stories series)— anything else goes into a free-floating catch-all category. I try to read at least a book a week and usually succeed.

Reading and writing go hand-in-hand — as an aspiring writer, I read a lot and as widely as I can. If you’d like to become more proficient than the average social media post at expressing your own thoughts and feelings, then pick up a book! Pick up many books and keep reading. You’ll be the richer for it.

Cassandra Watches the Ball Drop

Something I’ve been noticing lately, even among my brightest friends, is an eyes-averted tendency to focus on the narrow, the personal. The big picture is just too much to handle.

Yet celebrations are planned for the arrival of 2017. “Let’s forget our troubles and party” seems to be the attitude, and this is somewhat understandable. But only somewhat.

New Year's Eve, Times Square
New Year’s Eve, Times Square. Photo: Inside New York.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just consider what we’re carrying into the new year:

  • An arguably illegitimate presidential election.
  • A demonstrably unqualified President-elect.
  • A hostile attack by a foreign power (including, as reported today, alarming hacks on the American power grid).
  • A President-elect who consistently praises said foreign power.
  • A new Presidential Cabinet of zealots and incompetents which is dedicated to the destruction of every key government agency (let’s hope the incompetents remain incompetent).
  • Right-wing control of all three branches of the federal government (once Trump takes office and a new Supreme Court justice is confirmed).
  • Republican control of most states as well, and an enfeebled Democratic opposition.
  • An American public which has been sundered in two, with one half unable and/or unwilling to distinguish truth from falsehood.

And this is but a sampling of what’s in store. It doesn’t exactly make for a happy new year’s outlook, does it?

However, there is one New Year’s tradition worth preserving, and that is the New Year’s resolution.

Here’s my suggestion: resolve to resist.

Consider the Source

Yesterday, the House Intelligence Committee produced a 33-page report claiming that Edward Snowden is in contact with Russian intelligence services. The report also claimed that Snowden was a chronically disgruntled employee who acted out of personal pique.

The committee had released a three-page summary of its report in September to counter the premiere of Snowden, a movie by the director Oliver Stone that portrayed him as a heroic whistle-blower.

Edward Snowden
Photo by Laura Poitras / Praxis Films, CC BY 3.0, Link.

According to the New York Times, the full report was “not the result of an independent intelligence investigation by the committee. Rather, it was a review of the N.S.A.’s response to Mr. Snowden’s leaks and of the findings from an executive branch investigation. The committee said it did not conduct witness interviews, to avoid jeopardizing any future trial of Mr. Snowden.”

What’s more, key sections of the report remain redacted, including claims about Snowden’s contacts with Russian intelligence. As a result, today’s Times story notes, “the redactions made it hard to judge whether the report’s conclusions were merely a reiteration of the intelligence community’s contempt for Mr. Snowden or were based on new evidence.”

Considering that we’re talking about the current, Republican-dominated U. S. House of Representatives, a do-nothing body with obstructionist policies which have contributed mightily to the dystopian political landscape in store for us next year, I think the motivation for the report is obvious. While the summary was released to counter any positive effect from the Oliver Stone film, the full report is intended to argue against any possible pardon by President Obama before he leaves office (something that seemed unlikely anyway).

The post-truth machine is operating at full force here.

On the Brink

As I write this (on Monday, December 19), Donald Trump has just surpassed the 270 Electoral College votes he needs to become President. This, despite the news of Russian interference to tilt the election in his favor. This, despite the fact that his opponent had a popular vote margin of more than two and a half million.

Plenty has already been written and said about both factors. The fact that the popular vote winner has lost the presidency is nothing new; we only have to go back to 2000 and George W. Bush for another example. The Russian hacking is new, though, and it is highly disturbing for anyone who genuinely cares about American democracy. But not disturbing enough to make a difference, apparently.

The Russian connection, like Trump himself, has already been “normalized” with “Saturday Night Live” skits and jokes around the office. All the talking heads are still talking, and irony is still frequently called upon. The seriousness of the situation continues to escape most of us, most of the time.

Is America’s political nightmare so horrifying that, like death itself, we find it difficult to view straight on? Is it only possible to avert our eyes and twitter (pun intended) nervously at stupid skits and jokes? If so, things are about to get a whole lot worse.

A Work in Progress

Here’s a draft version of something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

“Symphony no. 8”

When we talk about the “Mighty Nine”
We could be talking about almost anything.
Maybe it’s baseball, the ’27 Yankees.
Maybe the Supreme Court, or a video game.
There aren’t many music classes
Left in the schools these days.

Suppose you do encounter Beethoven, though.
Suppose you listen to each and every symphony
And hear them all more than once.
Which would you then say
Moved you the most?
The “Eroica”? The Fifth? The Mighty Ninth?

For me it would be a different choice,
A work not played as often as the others.
A fiery work, but somehow also cold and isolated.
I’m referring to the glittering, self-contained Eighth:
A work that pierces ice-blue skies
To no applause on earth.

—Thomas Pletcher

Sneak Preview: 2017 TV Season

Big Changes Are in Store for Your Favorite Shows!

Writeside.com has learned that the Trump Administration has negotiated major changes with America’s TV networks and cable companies—plus streaming providers Netflix, Hulu and Amazon—to “bring prime time TV programs into closer accord with America’s values.”

Virtually every prime time program will reflect these changes. Here, for example, are some of the changes planned for the well-regarded FX series “The Americans.”

"The Americans"
“The Americans” title card © FX.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Rather than being set in the early 1980s during the Cold War, the upcoming fifth season will take place in present-day America.
  • Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two Soviet KGB officers posing as an American married couple living in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., will come out of hiding and join their neighbor Stan Beeman at the FBI.
  • Paige Jennings, who had intended to follow in her parents’ footsteps, becomes an intern at the Trump White House.
  • Elizabeth and Philip join Stan in combating un-American bureaucrats at the CIA, who are alleging that America’s close ally Russia interfered with the 2016 election. Certain members of Congress who prove susceptible to these claims also become FBI targets.
  • Vladimir Putin will make a cameo guest appearance mid-season.
  • John McCain, who had been spearheading efforts to prove Russian interference in the election, is poisoned with polonium-210, a radioactive isotope. Elizabeth and Philip are seen hovering near his hospital bed.
  • At a news conference in the season’s final episode, President Trump makes his own cameo guest appearance. He is asked if Russia is responsible for the McCain poisoning. “That’s ridiculous,” the President replies. “Besides, I like senators who haven’t been poisoned with polonium-210.”

President Trump has announced that he will serve as executive producer for “The Americans” next year, along with “The Apprentice.” The President also referred to some “fabulous” changes in store next year for “PBS News Hour.”

“We’re going to bring back that fantastic two-woman anchor team,” the President said, alluding to the duo of Judy Woodruff and the late Gwen Ifill. The program’s new 2017 anchors will be Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Palin.

Jump for Trump

What follows is an excerpt from my recently completed NaNoWriMo novel draft, The Divide. The story takes place in the days immediately before and after the 2016 presidential election, and the national zeitgeist certainly seeps into the plot. However, the story is not about the election per se. It portrays a number of different people on both sides of the widening national divide, and the ways their lives are affected by change and growing instability.

Here, without further ado, is chapter 15 (of 37 chapters in the first draft). The book’s chapters are numbered rather than titled but if you’re a fan of heavily underscored irony, you could call this one “Jump for Trump.”

—Thomas Pletcher

Continue reading “Jump for Trump”

The Post-truth Era

If you had any doubts about what’s ahead in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, an alarming story in today’s papers—archaic media which attempt to purvey “facts”—should provide some clues as to what’s coming.

So should the Oxford English Dictionary’s international word of the year: post-truth.

The post-truth item in question: a persistent story on social media claiming that Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant in northwest Washington, was harboring young children as sex slaves as part of a child-abuse ring led by Hillary Clinton.

Post-truth at the pizzeria
Unbelievably ignorant. Photo: Sathi Soma, via Associated Press

Believing the Hillary Clinton-led pedophile pizza story to be true, an incredibly ill-informed young man drove six hours from North Carolina to D. C. with his rifle to conduct a “self-investigation.” He managed to get off a shot before he was arrested.

 

As scary (and to me, unbelievable) as this story is, here’s something even scarier: Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, President-elect Trump’s choice for national security adviser, has been promoting the supposed Hillary Clinton-pedophilia connection on Twitter. His son and advisor, Mike Flynn Jr., continues to do so, even claiming that Edgar Welch, the deluded North Carolina man who drove to Washington to “investigate,” was a plant to discredit fake news websites. As though fake news sites needed discrediting.

I don’t want to live in a post-truth world. If you don’t either, then join me in standing up for the facts whenever and wherever you can.

Update: Mike Flynn Jr. has apparently been dismissed from the Trump transition team. As of this writing, his father remains on board.