Beware Of Alternatives Facts

There's been a lot of talk in the much-maligned media about truthiness, alternative truths, and warring narratives. It won't do simply to insist that the assertion of "alternative truths" is simply a fancy name for "falsehoods". It's a bit more complicated. The maddening thing is that people can summon lots of little truths in the service of a great lie. For example, you can claim that people cheat when it comes to entitlements and, because some do cheat, use that claim to discredit all social welfare legislation as part of a movement of creeping Socialism. They can even feel smug about it because, after all, helping people is bad for their character. Then there are climate change skeptics who have taken the errors in Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth to discredit -- wholesale -- the notion that human beings are involved in harming the planet. Yes, there are facts -- but facts don't stand alone. They have to be organized into some kind of narrative. The fact is that we can say true things falsely. We intuitively know this when we hear a politician, a preacher, an ideologue. All the words are true and yet we smell a rat. All the "facts" appear straightforward but there's something that doesn't quite gel.

Strangely the opposite can be true - we hear a politician speak and we're deeply moved. The words don't come out right but the pitch and the tone touch something deep within us. "This guy is speaking from the heart and reaching mine. I don't care if his words are out of whack, his message is reaching me where it matters. I'm angry and hurting and now I know why." So truth-telling involves two skills: the marshaling of facts and putting them together in the form of a story. We often call it "connecting the dots." And the dots can be connected to form very different pictures of the truth.

The early Church had a similar problem. One theologian complained that it was as if the orthodox had gathered all the colored stones to make a true likeness (a mosaic) of the head of Christ. Then the heretics came along, took all the same stones and made the head of a fox. History teaches us that human beings are masters at telling stories using the "facts" to suit their purpose. History is, in part, the story of the fight for power. which often involved denying others their humanity. Women, slaves, children weren't considered fully human, neither were indigenous peoples. This lack of full humanity was considered an obvious "fact."

Think of "The Declaration of the Rights of Toiling and Exploited People" promulgated in January 1918 by Lenin, the master manipulator of facts. The text identified "former people" - they were not quite human. Since they were "former people" they could be disposed of, slaughtered. They were people of the old regime and, therefore, were deficient in humanity and this lack became an excuse for terror. Lenin and his followers believed that some human groups had to be destroyed in order to realize the potential of humanity. Many found themselves bearing the stigma of being a former person! Imagine being looked at as someone who represented a humanity that had had its day! In recent history, the fact that one presidential candidate called some people "deplorables" gave the other candidate a chance to be their champion - someone who could set the story straight and win their hearts.

We all have our own peculiar ignorances and blindnesses. There were those who admired Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s. Mussolini was spoken well of by Will Rogers, Thomas Edison and Andrew Mellon. "If ever this country needed a Mussolini, it needs one now," said a senator for Pennsylvania. Walter Lippmann thought we needed a mild dictatorship in 1933 and told FDR so. What's interesting is not so much what people believe as to the way their beliefs function in the psyche as if they were objective "facts". The Civil War and the abolitionist movement were a seething mess of "beliefs/facts". On the one side was the romantic acceptance of the bloody violence of a John Brown whose soul, no doubt, goes marching on. Many saw the war on slavery as a cosmic event, connected with the Second Coming. Louisiana preacher Benjamin Morgan Palmer saw the abolitionists' "hate" as a world-rending event, a continuation of the rage against authority loosed on the world by the French Revolution. Palmer wrote: "In this great struggle, we defend the cause of God and religion. The abolitionist spirit is undeniably atheistic. The demons which erected its throne upon the guillotine in the days Robespierre and Marat, which abolished the Sabbath and worshiped reason in the person of a harlot... Among a people so generally religious as the Americans, a disguise must be worn; but it is the old threadbare disguise of the advocacy of human rights... Under this specious cry of reform, it demands that every evil shall be corrected or society become a wreck... [But] it pleases God to allow evils which check others that are greater... To the South the high position is assigned of defending before all nations, the cause of all religion and of all truth."

Some of this sounds eerily familiar. The irony is that the Civil War was not an Apocalypse. It didn't cleanse us - it ushered in the Gilded Age, an age of luxurious excesses and political corruption. We must struggle to tell the truth but the truth is deeper than a collection of facts which we can manipulate. Truth is related to trust. In one version of the human story, the world is a wedding. To be human is to be betrothed - betrothed to each other in covenant. There's no private trip. We're all in this together "for better for worse." In the old Prayer Book of 1662 the groom said to the bride, "and thereto, I plight thee my troth." I give you myself, my truth. Politicians take note of the story you're pushing in the name of truth. Be sure you're not only a master of the facts but also betrothed to the truth. Remember Emily Dickinson's poem:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--- Success in Circuit lies Too bright for our infirm Delight The Truth's superb surprise As Lightening to the Children eased With explanation kind The Truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind.