WITS Voices: An Alternative to Alternative Facts
By Jeanine Walker, WITS Writer-in-Residence
By the time this post is published, we will have endured several tens of other injustices, threats on our freedoms, and evasions from the new presidential administration, and the idea of “alternative facts” will, I imagine, be filed under the Folder of Growing Insanities—which is to say, not quite forgotten but deemed equal or less than other anxiety-inducing assertions and legislation we will have to face.
However, I also think this is a term that will stick. Because it bears striking resemblance to the now-known-as-prophetic 1984’s “doublethink,” the claim two weekends ago by Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway to “alternative facts” rings a certain alarming bell, awakening in us the apocalyptic literature in which many of us found ourselves engrossed for the purpose of high school English class but able, then, to read as pure fiction. The fact that a story we once dreaded in its fictitious form is now becoming more and more true makes the experience of the present moment even more striking, terrifying. There is something crucially painful in having lost the comfort that came with believing a dystopian world such as the one Orwell depicts was not possible for us. We were duped. What once existed inside of us as metaphor and figure emerges as a wolf with a hundred times as ferocious a snarl—because we are not experiencing it just once now but twice as we simultaneously endure the transformation of a beloved metaphorical world into a frightening, almost unbearable, reality.
In this artful paragraph, Orwell describes—while the main character is engaged in mandated morning exercises—the concept of “doublethink,” the method by which the ruling party holds dominion over its citizens: “Winston sank his arms to his sides and slowly refilled his lungs with air. His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself—that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink” (32-3).
One line, for me, reverberates the most when considering this newly-introduced idea of “alternative facts,” so I’ll repeat it: “to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies.”
Teaching in the schools as a WITS writer has many built-in beauties: reading surprising lines from young students who at first didn’t believe they liked poetry at all; working within an expectation to craft and teach each lesson with a mind for creativity; and, partnering with hard-working public school teachers who hold their students to high standards and, so, introduce these young people to me as already-formed thinkers who are endlessly willing to write—this is one of the main benefits of the work.
I feel extremely lucky with my teaching partners, all of them supportive and welcoming believers in the value of poetry. One such partner is Julie Calkins, a 5th grade teacher at Alki Elementary School whom I taught with both last school year and this one. I love working in Julie’s classroom. Because her students are so capable and so willing to try anything—and because throughout their education at Alki they’ve had excellent writing teachers to bring them to a high level of thinking by the time they are on the brink of middle school—my creativity and inspiration towards new lessons flourished when I taught in her classes. It didn’t stop when the residency ended, either; when “alternative facts” were introduced by Conway during an interview with Chuck Todd on the Meet the Press of January 22, Julie and I engaged in a Facebook conversation that resulted in a poetry lesson.
Here is the conversation:
In an email a few days later, Julie told me that she had, in fact, worked on this lesson with her 5th graders. She gave two approaches: one, students could brainstorm facts and write, with hyperbole, about the matching “alternative facts”; two, students could choose to write an extremely hyperbolic autobiography. The results are fun to read and telling, too. Here are some of the fun parts: sloths are fast; cheetahs are slow; the sky is green or brown; my cat is blue; I am the smartest person ever and can prove that by my knowledge of 2+2; this poem is not a poem, it’s an essay; hippos fly instead of swim, higher than an airplane; oh, and by the way, there is no moon!
What’s telling, though, is that 10 or 11 year olds so readily able to come up with this litany of non-facts when presented with the idea of “alternative facts” means, again alarmingly, that they are clearly picking up on the rhetoric of our new president and how often he asserts something is true when it is not—such as the number of attendees at his inauguration, clearly disproven by aerial photographs, and that there is widespread voter fraud, when no experts have found evidence to back this claim, and more recently, that any poll that shows a negative response to Trump’s policies is a fake. The rhetoric is out there, and these young people are absorbing it.
The fact, though, that these same students can poke fun at “alternative facts” is heartening. It means, to me, and likely to Ms. Calkins, too, that these are young thinkers who will grow up able to discern fact from fiction; that they are becoming attuned early on to the differences between rhetorical strategies employed to gather followers and the opposite—which is, often, simply the truth. I didn’t pick up much about political rhetoric until I was in high school and reading 1984, and I don’t think a lot of it really sunk in for me until college; perhaps one of the hidden silver linings of this administration is that, with strong teachers presenting creative lessons that push back against the establishment’s “truth,” America’s youth will learn much earlier on how to read a text and determine for themselves where the facts live.
One moment of the past few weeks that still stands out to me is the image of hundreds of thousands of protesters flooding airports to resist Trump’s ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, contrasted almost simultaneously with a video of Trump’s claiming that this executive order was “working out very nicely.” To reflect our current climate of “alternative facts,” I’ll leave you with this poem by fifth-grader Sidney Sullivan who here—and I say this without irony—captures the sentiment perfectly.
The World Is Perfect
The world is perfect.
The world is so
perfect that if
someone makes a
mistake they are
banished to space
for the rest of their
lives to watch the
The world is so
perfect that in
school there is only
one grade, A+.
The world is so perfect
that only the leaders
of the world can say
or write the word mistake.
The world is so perfect
that global warming and
pollution are not known of
to any human being because
it ended so long
The world is full
of laughter and
There is peace and
everyone has food, clothes,
clean water, and perfect
The world is so perfect
that I am writing this
perfect poem, for my perfect
teacher, in my perfect
school, in a perfect city, in a
perfect state, in a perfect
country, on a perfect continent,
in a perfect world, in a perfect
solar system, in a perfect galaxy.
Because the world is the
perfectest thing in the
Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., 1949.
Jeanine Walker is a poet who holds a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Cimarron Review, Cream City Review, Gulf Coast, Narrative, PageBoy, and Web Conjunctions. She has performed at many venues around town and is the host of the popular reading series Cheap Wine & Poetry.