As midterms are concluding, I got a chance to watch the recent film Don’t Look Up. And I found myself simultaneously horrified and giggling maniacally. For those who haven’t seen it, the gist is that there is a comet approaching earth that will kill every human being. Two scientists discover it only to be mocked and harassed by a morass of unworthy leadership more concerned with how they look on social media. The oncoming disaster is quickly politicized and the circus that results ends up in botching the attempts to divert, thereby ending humanity. It sort of jumped its own satirical shark about midway through the film, but then again our culture has jumped the shark mid-film, too, so touche.
But it was either funny/horrifying because it was true, or it was true because it was funny/horrifying; either way, the fact that either arrangement makes sense reveals that the word “true” is truly an endangered species, at least the way I grew up understanding it. I used to assume there was some pith underneath me, some consensus to fall back on when giant hurricanes headed towards the shores, fires burned whole counties, diseases swallowed whole communities. But the ground has been consumed by a world based in social media, where truth is determined like the election of a prom queen, where facts are “true” based on presentation, where the marketing of real has become god over the real itself. Ernest Hemingway once wrote that expression was simple, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. The truest sentence that you know.” I think he might have a hard time winning a Pulitzer in 2022.
As a human being, I see this inevitable decay and laugh like it’s the end of Cat’s Cradle; as a teacher and a parent, I will fight it like it’s death and never stop– and those two modes are irreconcilable. If I surrender my young people entirely to Kindles and Playstations and Instagrams and Netflix and SMS and cell phones and Youtube, and THC, I know I will be surrendering them to madness. Perhaps I am delusional to believe in the truth, failure to keep with the times, the changing of the mediums, the evolving consciousness of humanity– more like a kaleidoscope in its vision than a linear projection. But “true” truth is the only thing I’ve known– I’ve spent most of my life with the words of Thoreau echoing in the cavity of my head: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” It was never going to be easy, but now it’s a farce.
What’s truly bizarre to me is that the world knows it. I find in the evidence in the Superbowl commercials from this last year: they all featured the run-down versions of stars from the past: Eugene Levy? Larry David? Arnold Schwarzenegger? And the top it off they with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre as the halftime show? The fact is, nothing true has been produced since “The Next Episode” and Terminator 2, and commercial culture embracing these geriatrics is an acknowledgement of that. Today features a remix of a remix of a remix, and it’s so watered down by the time it hits the lips that water tastes better. I could normally dismiss this as the these “damn young whippersnappers these days” sentiments that naturally arise in middle age, only it’s the actual elderly who are being harnessed; that’s the irony I can’t get past.
And yet I must. For many three young faces look up at me, and I can’t afford to believe myself a phony. I have to make breakfast and take them to school and dress them and at least pretend it all has a purpose. Just write one true sentence… the truest sentence that you know. In a world of ruthless politicization of the truth, of polarization of ‘alternative facts’, perhaps that’s all one can do on this hurtling ball of protoplasm.
Ultimately, the Protagonists of Don’t Look up die peacefully, eating a family dinner, talking about all the reasons for gratitude, all the memories and little appreciations. Their lives end suddenly with one more sip of their favorite coffee, one more calm pat on the shoulder of a son, one more smile and meaningful look across the table. I’ve never been able to stare that comet in the face, to live in the moment several seconds before tsunamis of water collapse the walls and bring their obliteration. But perhaps that’s now where true truth has arrived, and I won’t see it again till I meet it there.