Friday, November 05, 2004

Truth and Consequences

Amid the predictable storm of post-election letters to the editor in the Minneapolis Star-tribune, one local woman wondered in exasperation if this election would finally help Democrats wake up and stop parading around superstars, spreading hate and spewing biased news—typical conservative echo-chamber chatter—but then she added curtly as a period to her point; “I want truth.”


This election, like no other, has made me question my understanding of “truth.” Without delving into the galaxy of analysis around the concept of truth with a capital “T,” I always made the assumption that on the level of simple human interaction, “the truth” was something provable, factual and the opposite of that which could not be proven. If I’ve stolen my sister’s diary and have it hidden in my sock drawer and she asks me if I took it and I roll my eyes and say, “no,” that is a lie, the opposite of the truth. If I cringe in fear and sputter, “yes,” that is telling the truth. And the “truth” of the matter is that I stole the diary.

But somewhere along the line, somewhere between “Leave it to Beaver” and “Sex in the City,” the idea of truth morphed in America into a much more subjective concept, one less defined by that which is provable than by ideology. Now I know that throughout human history, truth has always been framed by ideology, but what is frustrating is that this country was founded on many of the best concepts to arise out the Enlightenment—rationality, reason and the idea that humans will progress through science and an understanding of ourselves. Our growth as a nation was energized by our ability to look to science and education as the cornerstones of progress. Public education was created to give all Americans the opportunity to learn, discover and explore ideas other than those espoused by their parents or the village minister. Now, however, in 2005, the village minister, in his $2000 suits and electronic pulpit, is wresting control back from the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, John Dewey, the schools and the experts, and gathering his flock under the umbrella of superstition and willful ignorance.

There is no longer any common definition of what the truth is in America, and I don’t know what “truth” means to the letter writer. If it doesn’t bother her that the Bush administration has lied to the American people so many times, then I honestly don’t know how she defines the truth. I don’t know how red-staters understand what a lie is and isn’t. When I see a photo of the President’s back during the debates and there is a bulge evident, but Bush says there is nothing there, what am I to make of that? Bush is obviously lying, an act which I thought was wrong, but which now seems to be acceptable.

So now truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Americans are divided in many ways, with a common understanding of truth being only one. But I have to wonder how this country can ever be united with two such opposing views of reality living within common boundaries. How do we tell our kids it’s bad to lie, when lying is an acceptable part of public discourse? Of course, we all lie from time to time. It’s a natural human survival skill to respond, “No, Dear. Of course you’re not fat.” But when we are caught lying, we normally expect some type of negative consequence. In the new world order of the Bushites, lying is not a stopgap measure used only as a last resort, but a useful communication tool that is judged solely on whether it works or doesn’t work, not whether it is right or wrong.

Our nation survived the Civil War, but many of the views that divided us then continue to divide us today—rural versus urban, tradition versus progress, religion versus rationality. Despite our common borders, there are different world-views between red- and blue-staters, different understandings of what America stands for and different perspectives on truth. For the past 228 years, we have been able to keep the cloth stitched together by all agreeing to live under the label “Americans,” but the strain on the fabric of our society has increased dramatically over the past few decades, and will continue to as our common agreements of reality grow farther and farther apart. If, as a society, we can’t agree on such basic issues as what is true and what is not, what is a lie and what is not, we are in danger of eventually splitting apart at the seams, and watching the American experiment unravel completely.

It doesn’t bode well that the letter writer wants the truth, I want the truth, but we both want different things.

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