A thing is what it is, Part 1: Truthiness

by Wolf Pascoe on May 7, 2012


“I should be content
to look at a mountain
for what it is
and not as a comment
on my life.”

― David Ignatow

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David Ignatow’s little poem has always worried me. When I think I’m writing about someone else, say my son, am I really writing about myself? If I take action to solve a problem, have I seen the actual problem or only an aspect of myself?

In a passage I’m fond of quoting, the Talmud puts it this way:

You don’t see things as they are. You see things as you are.

A PROBLEM IN THE O.R.

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Many years ago I was giving anesthesia to a patient when the nurse from the operating room next door hurried in with a worried look.

“Dr. Pascoe, could you come in and help Dr. M?” she said.

It’s not customary for an anesthesiologist to leave a patient unattended during an operation, but the nurse’s tone told me I should make an exception, at least long enough to have a look.

My patient was healthy and medically stable. The case was uncomplicated. I told the circulating nurse in my room to watch the monitors and call me if anything changed. I accompanied the nurse back to her room a few feet away.

The surgeon was in a panic.

“Wolf, the blood’s dark,” he said.

So were the patient’s fingernails.

“I can’t see the problem,” said the anesthesiologist, Dr. M. “The ventilator’s working and the patient’s intubated.”

I was going through my mental checklist when I noticed something abnormal about the way the ventilator was functioning. The bellows didn’t seem to be filling properly. Then I saw that the conduit from the anesthesia machine to the ventilator—a rubber tube carrying all the anesthetic gasses, including oxygen—had become disconnected.

Everything resolved in my mind. I re-connected the ventilator, whispered to Dr. M. what the problem had been, and returned to my room. Dr. M’s patient still had a strong heartbeat and would soon be fine. My patient was unchanged. The whole trip had taken less than a minute.

I tell this story because of its I came, I saw the problem, I corrected it essence. Probably you have a similar story—you walked in as the baby was about to put a piece of broken glass in its mouth, you stopped it. It’s the way problems should be solved. It’s the paradigm, the mythos, for solving problems that holds place in the psyche. And it works—on a small scale, a micro scale.

The difficulties come when the problems are large.

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TRUTHINESS

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Along with everyone else, I was fascinated when Ira Glass released the “Retraction” show last month on This American Life. This was the episode where Glass revealed that Mike Daisey, a theatrical monologuist, had lied to him about what happened on his visit to the Foxconn factory in China, where Apple products are made.

Daisy tells the story of his China visit in a one-man stage show, excerpts of which had previously aired on This American Life as “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.” Daisy told Glass that the events he reports in the stage show were true—they really happened to him.

But they didn’t. Daisey had made them up.

It’s fine to make things up in the theatre. More problematic in radio journalism. Daisey did himself no credit when he later claimed that his report on working conditions at the Foxconn factory contained a higher, metaphorical truth.

What his reporting really contained, as Stephen Colbert would say, was “truthiness.”

GLORY

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Glass was right to devote a whole show to his retraction, but he was also aware that he hadn’t exactly covered himself in glory by airing “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” in the first place. This is because part of Glass’s job is to verify facts before he broadcasts them.

Fans know that normally Glass signs off every This American Life episode with a fake quote making fun of his boss, Tory Malatia. “Retraction” ended with Glass in this glum state of mind:

“WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Tory Malatea . . . And . . . I think this is a week I am just not in the mood for an extra quote here from Tory.”

If there was a hero in this business it was Marketplace’s China correspondent, Rob Schmitz. Like many reporters in China who heard “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” Schmitz felt it didn’t ring true. Unlike all the other reporters, he set out to learn what had really happened on Daisy’s trip.

Schmitz  found the Chinese translator who had accompanied Daisey on his tour, a woman named Cathy, and gave her a tape of “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” to listen to.

“Not true,” said Cathy.

So began the unraveling.

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THE MAP IS NOT THE TERRITORY

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Of the many things that may be said about the rippling effects of Mike Daisey’s trip to China, one stands out to me above all else: we’re a long way from I came, I saw the problem, I corrected it.

Some people credit Daisey with shining a light, however diffused, on something important. Here is one comment I found amid the media firestorm:

No doubt about it – telling lies and misrepresenting fiction as fact are flat wrong. So is publishing unverified reports as though they were documented facts. Still, from such multiple “wrongs” it seems something “right” m[a]y have emerged. We consumers have been inspired by Daisey and other[s] to take a good hard look at ourselves and ask if saving a few bucks on a device is worth the moral cost of engagement with the most murderous regime that’s ever existed on the planet.

The guy had me until that last line. The leap to hyperbole is stunning. Most murderous regime ever? Really? It might even be true if you’re thinking of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which was 40 years ago. Of course, it leaves out villains like the Nazis. In any case, it seems a long way from Foxconn.

Nearly three-quarters of a century ago, S.I. Hayakawa wrote a passage called “The Word is Not the Thing” in a book that should still be required reading for every high school student. Hayakawa meant that people should be careful what they talk about, because the act of talking begins a process of abstraction that leads away from the thing itself. No matter how good the map is, it isn’t the territory.

Mike Daisey is a map seller. So is the guy I quoted above who defended him. Like the map? Pass it around. Like it on Facebook! Start a discussion!

One trouble with a virtual culture is nobody’s on the ground. Everybody is in a map in their head. The exact nature of a problem, to say nothing of what to do about it, gets pushed further and further away.

It’s better to wander alone in uncharted territory than to have a map made by tourists. — African proverb.

I admire Rob Schmitz, the Marketplace reporter above, because he sniffed out a problem with the tourist map and and wandered around by himself on the ground.

HOW TO FIX AN ANESTHESIA MACHINE

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When I walked into the OR and fixed that machine, I wasn’t exactly a tourist. I had a pretty good map, surely a better one than Mike Daisy’s map of China. But was it really?

A few years after the incident with the ventilator, manufacturers of anesthesia machines changed the connectors to make it less likely for them to come apart. That was some map they were working with.

I had thought the problem was that Dr. M. hadn’t paid enough attention to what he was doing. But somebody else looked more thoroughly, and saw a deeper problem: connections needed to be fail-safe.

Perhaps someday a fail-safe connector will fail. Then a deeper problem will have been uncovered.

The fundamental difficulty with talking about the world is that there is no world. There is only what someone is looking at, and how she’s looking.

RELATED POSTS:

A thing is what it is will conclude in two weeks with: Appearances

What we leave behind

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YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:

Fabulous Journalism by Felix Salmon

EXPRESS YOURSELF!

What’s your take? Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Barbara May 7, 2012 at 6:51 am

One problem with false reports like the one you mentioned is that they make us doubt the veracity of other reports that might well be true. I’ve never believed ‘the end justifies the means’ anyway.
I’m so glad you spotted that disconnected tube. I’m sure the other doctor and the patient are, too!
Barbara recently posted..Vintage Airports, Engaged Couples, Dark-Eyed Juncos, and other Sweet!s of the Week

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Wolf Pascoe May 7, 2012 at 8:10 am

I’m not an “end justifies the means” sort of guy either. There never seems to be an end.

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Kristen @ Motherese May 7, 2012 at 9:55 am

I read this post on my iPhone, but felt guilty about it so I’m now commenting from my PC laptop. (Because I’m sure that Samsung would never associate with “the most murderous regime that’s ever existed on the planet.”)

I’m going to think about this post all day, and about this idea especially: “[P]eople should be careful what they talk about, because the act of talking begins a process of abstraction that leads away from the thing itself. No matter how good the map is, it isn’t the territory.”

Thanks, as always, for the food for thought.
Kristen @ Motherese recently posted..Date Night

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Wolf Pascoe May 8, 2012 at 1:26 am

Not original with me, but definitely food for thought. I think you’d like Hayakawa’s book!

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Kate May 7, 2012 at 10:49 am

Realizing that you can only see through your own eyes – and that when we use words they add meaning to the reality – these are a good start. But where do we go from here?

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Wolf Pascoe May 8, 2012 at 1:27 am

Ah, Kate, I will be pondering this.

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shelley May 7, 2012 at 11:32 am

For me, it’s all about your conclusion. Brilliant! Thank you.

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Wolf Pascoe May 8, 2012 at 1:25 am

Hi, Shelley. There is no world! Boo!

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david May 7, 2012 at 12:23 pm

“I should be content
to look at a mountain
for what it is
and not as a comment
on my life.”
― David Ignatow

“You don’t see things as they are. You see things as you are.”
– the Talmud

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…”
– Sigmund Freud

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Wolf Pascoe May 8, 2012 at 12:46 am

That Freud never got anywhere a poet hadn’t arrived at first.

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BigLittleWolf May 7, 2012 at 2:45 pm

You touch on so many vital issues – “truthiness” in our everyday lives, the perspectives we take as holistic (when they are anything but), not to mention the ways in which journalism and expertise have both shifted… for the worse.

I hope you don’t mind – my own concerns about authenticity and credibility are aired here – regarding vetting (or not). Even with vetting and the best of intentions, our loss of the processes (and time and integrity) result in a lesser degree of accuracy in what we read. (As I recall, this was a post you liked.)

All that said, what first came to mind as I read through this wonderful piece: René Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe.
BigLittleWolf recently posted..Breaking the Rules

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Wolf Pascoe May 8, 2012 at 12:50 am

I love that post of yours. I think I left you my longest comment there.
Ceci n’est pas une pipe, yes.
Ce n’est pas le monde!

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Privilege of Parenting May 7, 2012 at 10:03 pm

In our culture of fame and followers, of controversy and metrics on success, perhaps we have collectively reinforced novelty, sensation and scandal so severely that the “Truth” (i.e. what simply is) is like the mountain, the cloud, the light and the river. What just is is not famous, nor is it controversial, it may or may not be possible to vet the Truth, but it is true whether or not anyone vets it or pays attention.

Less profound than Truth, but very important to human relating, is trust; trust is difficult to build and easy to destroy. Thus we are really talking as much about honesty as we are about Truth. This is where your apt Taludic quote proves so important, as sometimes we bend or distort what we claim as true for reasons such as getting attention, impressing others, etc. Then there is the self-delusion where we come to believe what we have stated, not wanting to see ourselves as liars, we no longer see ourselves in the mirror, but a stranger (perhaps beautiful, perhaps duplicitous, perhaps both or neither) and this strikes me as the root structure of our narcissistic culture of cluelessness, misery and unenlightened competitive “self” interest.

My hope is that we are in process of awakening to our collective Self, one where lying falls apart due to increasing transparency and a trend toward caring and compassion may be born of the realization that we’re not just “in it together,” we are together in actually being the sum of all our parts (differentiated like tubes and ventilators and patients, nurses and doctors; and yet integrated in something whole that none of us can individually conceive).

I’m rambling, sorry—but this post is lovely and honest and provocative and full of giving a crap about our world and our profound risks when the tubes of our inter-being are not connected via love, attention and compassion.

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Wolf Pascoe May 8, 2012 at 12:52 am

Thank you. Let it be writ down I am full of giving a crap!

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Sirena May 8, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Yes, it’s all an illusion. Nothing is the world or a pipe or a cigar. So you do what you can, like fix the ventilator (always check that your appliances are plugged in FIRST). A thought-provoking post!

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Wolf Pascoe May 9, 2012 at 12:38 am

An illusion it is, but one hell of an illusion.

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pamela May 9, 2012 at 2:30 pm

This was so great for me to read because I am such a judgemental person. A blamer. The quote about the map made me laugh. But really, this post made me think – about right and wrong and about truth and what really happened. A professor of mine liked to say that the world was in the word and the word was the world. Basically, we create both. Thank you Wolf! I have been humbled in the best possible way.

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pamela May 9, 2012 at 2:42 pm

PS I just finished reading Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy Town before I read this post. Go Flossy, Go!! Thank you for the reminder of how nice it is to have little kids. xoxo

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Wolf Pascoe May 9, 2012 at 4:36 pm

Thanks, Pamela. It’s dark and lonely work, but somebody has to do it.

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Kyle Bradford May 12, 2012 at 8:01 am

I don’t buy Ignatow’s quote. I actually look at life the exact opposite. Take especially pain, loss, and sorrow. If I didn’t believe it was either teaching me something or telling me something about myself, I’d probably do crazy.

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Wolf Pascoe May 12, 2012 at 10:18 am

I believe it’s my job to respond in workable fashion to whatever happens to be in front of me at the moment, and what’s in front of me are the lessons I have to learn. Pain, loss, and sorrow especially. But if I happen to be looking at a mountain, maybe the lesson is just to look.

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Rockinon Ldn June 26, 2013 at 6:03 am

Your piece brings to mind Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I feel very lucky to have found your blog.

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Wolf Pascoe June 26, 2013 at 7:52 pm

Thanks for visiting. I’m ashamed to say I never read that book. It now rises on my “to be read” list.

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