Today (November 22, 2016) is the 53rd anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It’s also the two-week anniversary of possibly the most bizarre election in recent American history, whose surprise result has caused a lot of pundits and ordinary people to bemoan the supposed fact that we live in an age where facts don’t matter much anymore. If you’re wondering what the JFK assassination has to do with our recent election–it has nothing whatsoever to do with Ted Cruz–consider this. It is a matter of historical fact that Lee Harvey Oswald, the gunman who murdered President Kennedy from the 6th floor of the Texas School Book Depository, acted alone and not in conjunction with any sort of conspiracy. The fact of Oswald’s guilt, and his sole guilt, is historically and even legally demonstrable, as proven by the late brilliant historian and lawyer Vincent Bugliosi in his book Reclaiming History. Yet something like 75% of the American public, by some polls, disbelieve this fact of history. Similarly, many supporters of the 2016 Republican candidate firmly believed things that are demonstrably false: that the federal deficit rose under Obama, that their guns were about to be taken away, or that climate change is not happening. It’s difficult to cut through the clutter of disbelief and misbelief surrounding basic facts.
Yet despite all of that, I utterly refuse to accept, as some pundits are telling us, that we live in some sort of “post-truth era” where facts simply don’t matter anymore. To throw up one’s hands and declare that fact, and the pursuit of it, has somehow become irrelevant in our society is profoundly unrealistic, irresponsible and indeed cowardly. The buzzings in the media about “post-truth” seem to me to be more about certain media outlets and their talking heads inventing excuses for their own reluctance to challenge very many of the egregious untruths that flew around this election season than any rational assessment of where we are as a society. You see, there’s a curious quality about truth and facts, a quality that lies, myths and morsels of misinformation don’t possess: facts exist regardless of who, or how many people, believe in them. Any rational navigation of the world, whether it’s in the realm of history, politics or science, must not only engage with what’s true, but must yield to it. That’s never changed throughout any era of human history, however “dark” or “backward,” and it certainly hasn’t changed in America in 2016.
In the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy built a political reputation upon fear and lies–untruths that went unchallenged for too long.
People do disagree on what facts are. It’s certainly the case that many members of the public either don’t care that much about factual accuracy, or set the bar too low in determining what is really factual. There are also some who swing too far in the opposite direction, who in their zeal to “question everything” sometimes, without ignorance or malice, refuse to accept facts that are proven and insist that re-litigating settled matters is the only way to avert some sort of intellectual surrender. (Most of the die-hard JFK conspiracy buffs fall into that camp). But just as sea levels will continue to rise whether 99% of the public or 1% believes that climate change is real, the great thing about facts is that they do have objective reality. In this sense it doesn’t matter what you believe about Kennedy’s assassination or whether you honestly think the deficit was larger now than when Obama took office. Facts are stubborn things. They may be difficult to prove in certain cases, but they unquestionably exist.
There are countless examples in history of people believing, and acting upon, lies and misrepresentations when the facts that challenged them failed to connect. In 1942, the Roosevelt administration egregiously violated the rights of Japanese-Americans by putting them in internment camps on overblown fears that there were saboteurs among them. In the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy destroyed countless lives and paralyzed American society by playing on the fear that Communists had infiltrated the highest levels of the government. In 2002-03, the administration of George W. Bush “sold” the case for war with Iraq on a threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, the evidence for which was flimsy at best. The fact was that Saddam had no such weapons. I see no meaningful difference between the consequences of these episodes of disbelief, and whatever has happened to us as a country in the last election cycle.
The Salem witch trials of 1692 are a profound example of superstition and untruth overriding reason and justice. We cannot let this happen again.
Yet look what happened in each of these instances of disbelief or misbelief: the truth eventually won out. The U.S. government apologized to Japanese-Americans and began paying their survivors reparations in 1988. McCarthy, humiliated by the Senate for his overreach, died a hopeless drunk and the word derived from his name, “McCarthyism,” is one of the dirty words of American history. The disastrous outcome of the Iraq War has demonstrated beyond all doubt how mistaken the premises of the invasion were and how foolish the American government and people were to have supported them. This certainly doesn’t fix the broken and destroyed lives that were the human cost of these public lies, but at least most people don’t believe these lies anymore. The truth has a way of asserting itself, and, if you’re playing the long game, in a struggle between truth and ideology, betting on ideology is a sure loser.
The struggle by some rational people to overcome the irrational and often harmful false beliefs of others goes back to the beginning of human society. Indeed the whole development of science, from ancient Greece to modern R&D labs, can be said to be a struggle to navigate what Carl Sagan famously called in his 1995 book “The Demon-Haunted World” of superstition and fear. The story of this struggle is not, and never was, about linear progress. The Library of Alexandria, the ancient world’s great repository of knowledge and learning, was burnt down by a fanatical mob. In 17th century Massachusetts, the community of Salem nearly destroyed itself over superstitious fears of witches and the Devil. In our own time, powerful economic interests have united to promote false doubt in the 100% proven science of anthropogenic climate change–a project of denial that significantly imperils the lives and well-being of every living thing on Earth. But what are we to do when these setbacks occur? Throw our hands up, declare “Well, it’s over! I guess we’ve lost,” and declare our efforts to make the world better place at a permanent end? I doubt this sounds realistic to anyone, including the very cable TV blabbers who invented this ridiculous and insulting term, “post-truth.”
Woodward and Bernstein, the reporters who broke the Watergate story and were portrayed in the 1976 film All The President’s Men, are excellent role models for any media pundits who think that getting to the bottom of what facts really are is not the role of the media.
Many things in our society badly need reform. The mass media, which is the source of this “post-truth” nonsense–as well as willing propagators of a lot that is not true–is certainly one of those institutions. I certainly wish the media would do their job by separating what’s true from what’s false a little more often, and it sure would be nice if more Americans, and people around the world, engaged in some more rigorous thought before accepting–and especially acting on–certain assertions. But I utterly reject, now and for all time, the ludicrous notion that somehow because of an election result this means we somehow have given up on truth. Perhaps the talking heads on cable news have given up. It’s easier that way, I guess, than actually doing their jobs. Their laziness can’t be my concern any longer. Nor should it be yours. And that’s the God’s honest truth as I know it.