November 01, 2020

Revolutionary Acts

“In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

– George Orwell


There is nothing new about “fake news” or “alternative facts.” 

Nearly a century ago, the Soviet propaganda mill became expert at obscuring truths by pumping out lies and half-truths, which, because they came from “official” sources, were harder to dispute. It took decades of tireless work by dissidents, academics, and journalists to cut through the fog and get at the truth of what was really going on inside the USSR.

And even before the Soviets, there was a long history in the West of “yellow journalism” and media gossip mongering that used sensationalism and lies to drive political agendas and publishing profits.

Today we have a far muddier situation, because the internet has not just lowered the bar, it has removed it. Anyone can be a publisher, and very few outlets employ fact checkers or citations. In fact, with enough likes or cash for targeted online ads, there are no limits on someone’s ability to manufacture reality, disseminate lies, slander opponents, or just grind their axe.

The problem, of course, is that we all suffer. When truth becomes relative and no one feels that there are trustworthy sources of information, political and social engagement falter, social trust wanes, and public discourse and common decency melt away.

As the stories for this issue coalesced, I realized that all of our long feature stories were actually about the same thing: the power of language and the elusiveness of truth. They sit on a continuum. At one end we have the Munchausens, who fabricate stories to glorify their non-existent exploits in order to gain attention, notoriety, and profits. At the other we have a humble, self-appointed historian who mines objective, public sources of information to capture the truth of what happened in his village, only to find that his fellow villagers prefer a less complicated reality. And then, somewhere in the middle, we have the brave women who are wielding language to battle against centuries of falsehoods and oppression.

And it is at this point that I issue a warning: truth is not always pretty and often it can cause discomfort. If you are sensitive to reading the names of human body parts in print, you may want to skip reading our story on feminism. And if you would rather not be reminded of how horrific humans can be to one another, maybe skip the story of the village historian.

We will never apologize for sharing true stories, in real, unsensational language. Our approach, our stories are not for everyone. Yet I will note that the horribleness of 2020 has led me to question if we are doing all that we can. Yes, we are just a little magazine trying to tell interesting stories about a very large, complex, fascinating place. But I feel that in future we need to be bolder with our stories, more revolutionary. In the Orwellian sense, of course.

Enjoy the issue.

The End. Or just the beginning?

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Tags: journalism

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