Horrid Facts, Stubborn Facts

September 11.

Two words. Powerful emotions. Searing memories. Evocative stories. Fifteen years.

Fifteen years ago, on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was sitting in front of a Bloomberg terminal when the first, cryptic hints about trouble at the World Trade Center crawled across the bottom of my screens (I think). I had been scheduled to fly to New York the day before and had reservations at the Marriott World Trade Center (3 WTC), which would be destroyed when the Twin Towers collapsed. Instead, I decided to stay home and go to a “Back to School Night” presentation at my kids’ school. As the day’s events unfolded, I recalled having been on the Merrill Lynch fixed income trading floor at the World Financial Center doing a STRIPS trade when I heard and felt the February 26, 1993 World Trade Center bombing. I was really glad I didn’t get on that plane to New York.

My little, not so evocative story is insignificant within the context of the tragic losses, horrible evil and incredible heroism of the “American epic” to which that day bore inexorable witness. But it is what happened to me. It provides context and a framing device to help me remember and think about what transpired and what it means. It is emotional to think about still. But many other stories are far more important.

The image reproduced below is central to several other converging stories from that dreadful day.

9-11-1

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Trumping Truth with Stories

trackingtrump

One of the few consistencies of a wild 2016 presidential campaign thus far is that Republican frontrunner Donald Trump is willing to spin, obfuscate, exaggerate, misdirect, deflect, lie outright and double-down when called out for having done so. And, so far at least, it’s working. Truth – literal factual accuracy – just doesn’t seem to matter to him or to his supporters (who recently shouted “Sieg Heil” and “Light him on fire” at a black protestor in Las Vegas). If it feels right to them and fits into their favored narratives, from their perspective it is deemed true. What actually happened could not be less relevant.

This post-truth worldview isn’t a new-found tactic now that the Donald has entered the political world. For him, it has been a consistent way of life designed to benefit the Trump “brand.” He has thus routinely inflated his supposed net worth, often by billions of dollars, to make himself appear far more financially successful than he actually is. And he keeps claiming that his campaign is self-funded (because he’s really rich, donchaknow) when it demonstrably isn’t. But his Pinocchio-like behavior hasn’t been limited to things that, if believed, offer an obvious benefit to the Donald. Continue reading

It Can’t Be Wrong When It Feels So Right

“What ails the truth is that it is mainly uncomfortable, and often dull. The human mind seeks something more amusing, and more caressing.”

H. L. Mencken

Hooray for our sideDebby Boone released “You Light Up My Life” in 1977 and it became a #1 hit, the most successful single of the 1970s and won her a Grammy. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Anyway, at the song’s climax, she proclaims her love for the unnamed object of her desire and earnestly intones that “it can’t be wrong when it feels so right.”

Any parent of teenagers recognizes how dangerous such a claim can be and anyone who ever was a teenager and has the slightest bit of self-awareness can recognize that the claim is utterly false. Lots of things feel really, really right at the time but are really, really wrong. Yet no matter how ludicrous the claim obviously is and how clearly we see its falsity in moments of sanity, we follow its dictates time and again. As John Junor famously expressed it, “an ounce of emotion is equal to a ton of facts.”

On our better days, when wearing the right sort of spectacles and by tilting our heads just so, we can be observant, efficient, loyal, assertive truth-tellers. However, on most days, much of the time, we’re delusional, lazy, partisan, arrogant confabulators. The problem is what Stephen Colbert (who began his new late-night television venture this week) described as “truthiness” on his first episode of The Colbert Report a decade ago (watch it here). It’s the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if it’s not necessarily true or perhaps false.

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Beguiled By Narrative

Thomas Hoepker (Magnum Photos)

Thomas Hoepker (Magnum Photos)

The photograph above, taken at the Brooklyn waterfront on the afternoon of September 11, 2001 by German photographer Thomas Hoepker, is now one of the iconic images of that horrible day. In fact, the Observer New Review (London) republished it in 2011 as the 9/11 photograph. In Hoepker’s words, he saw “an almost idyllic scene near a restaurant — flowers, cypress trees, a group of young people sitting in the bright sunshine of this splendid late summer day while the dark, thick plume of smoke was rising in the background.” By his reckoning, even though he had paused but for a moment and didn’t speak to anyone in the picture, Hoepker was concerned that the people in the photo “were not stirred” by the events at the World Trade Center — they “didn’t seem to care.” Hoepker published many images from that day, but he withheld this picture for over four years because, in his view, it “did not reflect at all what had transpired on that day.”

In 2006, the image was finally published in David Friend’s book, Watching the World Change. Frank Rich wrote a 9.11 fifth anniversary column in The New York Times, framed by the photo, which he called “shocking.” Continue reading

The Narrative Opportunity

Regular readers of this site know that I reference and write about what Nassim Taleb calls the narrative fallacy often.  It is our tendency to look backward and create a pattern to fit events and to construct a story that explains what happened along with what caused it to happen.  We all like to think that our decision-making is a rationally based process — that we examine the evidence and only after careful evaluation come to a reasoned conclusion as to what the evidence suggests or shows.

But we don’t. Continue reading