By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
Truth is commonly defined as that which is in accordance with reality. But as the comedy troupe Firesign Theatre asked on their album Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, what is reality?
Reality is commonly defined as the world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them.
But if you believe an idealistic or notional idea is reality and therefore true, does that make it so?
In a society, truth depends on a common acceptance that something is so. Our nation’s Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
I certainly believe humans have those rights, simply because they feel right (as in good, decent, positive and beneficial to all). But one of the “truths” in the Declaration cites the existence of a Creator, presumably one that created humans in His own image, as justification.
I don’t believe such a Creator exists. I’ve seen no evidence. I can certainly see the idea to be very comforting for explaining the complex mysteries of existence and what happens in life, but experience has shown me that humans engage in a lot of wishful projection in many things. I also find the gender designation “His” to be absurd as well as the notion of an all-powerful deity that spends its time meddling in our lives and getting its knickers in a raging, vindictive knot when we don’t do what it wants. Whatever that is. People report, you decide.
The Bible and other religious texts are presented as proof of the Creator and his desires, but those texts were written by humans who claimed to know the truth. We all make the choice to believe it or not. Working as an editor and writer for 30-plus years taught me how easily words can be selected or changed to promote an argument or an agenda and be perceived in different ways by different people.
So I’m comfortable living with my reality: I may never find out why all of this exists. One of my favorite lyrics is from a song by the rock band UFO: “I don't care what it’s all about. I don’t need to know.”
In any case, truth has become an American battleground of tremendous consequence. During Alex Jones’ recent trial for defaming the families of Sandy Hook shooting victims, a judge scolded him saying, “You believe everything you say is true, but your beliefs do not make something true. Just because you claim to think something is true does not make it true. It does not protect you. It is not allowed. You’re under oath. That means things must actually be true when you say them.”
Whether Jones actually believes what he says is true doesn’t matter. He’s made millions of dollars spouting baseless charges and conspiracy theories. Millions of people believe whatever Jones says, just as they believe Donald Trump, who has done the same and wields great political power because of it. People believe Jones and Trump because they want to, evidence or lack thereof be damned.
The Republican Party has harnessed this desire into a movement that will quite likely take full control of our government in 2024. Never mind that there still isn’t a shred of legally recognized proof that the 2020 election was determined by fraud. A legion of GOP candidates is out there running on what is called The Big Lie and it is helping their chances in many cases. Downplaying the Jan. 6 siege of the Capitol, witnessed by millions on TV, as a hoax, a tourist visit or “legitimate political discourse” is perfectly acceptable to a whole helluva lot of Americans.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell obviously realizes that naked hypocrisy is not a liability, it’s a valuable tool for achieving his party’s agenda. Just look at his rationale for denying President Obama a Supreme Court nomination and giving President Trump the chance to put Amy Coney Barrett on the bench. Fellow Republicans Lindsay Graham and Kevin McCarthy have also become woke to the fact that lying carries no cost in a world of alternative facts and highly subjective truth. Refusing to lie can result in an officeholder being primaried and replaced by a candidate who will.
I find great irony in the fact (believe it or not) that conservatives spent decades raging about the mainstream media’s liberal bias, so they created their own media colossus that has an even more overt bias in their favor, to the point that it peddles obvious misinformation. That this media’s standard-bearer, Fox News, uses the slogan “Fair and Balanced” is particularly rich. So is the name of Donald Trump’s social media platform: Truth Social.
It doesn’t matter that Trump contradicts himself almost every time he opens his mouth. You can’t convince his followers that anything he says is false. For one thing, a fierce tribalism prevents them from acknowledging the merit in any opposing argument. To do so is to be attacked and be “primaried” as politicians are: disowned as a traitor by peers and even one’s friends and family. The same phenomenon exists to a lesser extent on the left, but no matter where humans dwell on the political spectrum, they usually loathe admitting they are wrong about something, especially to others.
And how do you prove anything is true? I will never forget arguing — in great, exasperating futility — with a co-worker, a man in his 70s, who had recently decided that the Earth is flat and the Holocaust was a hoax. There were no photos, videos or books I could show him that would change his views. Those materials as well as documents and concentration camp tattoos can be faked or accused of being fake without any evidence or proof that they are. All you need is the desire for it to be so.
“Just give me some truth,” John Lennon famously sang. “All I want is the truth.”
Good luck getting it in this world.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.