Ain’t It the Truth?
Here’s how I first heard it:
“This is the transcript of a radio conversation of a US naval ship with Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland in October, 1995. Radio conversation released by Chief of Naval Operations 10–10–95.
Americans: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.
Canadians: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.
Americans: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.
Canadians: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.
Americans: This is the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States’ Atlantic Fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers and numerous support vessels. I demand that YOU change your course 15 degrees north, that’s one five degrees north, or countermeasures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship.
Canadians: This is a lighthouse. Your call.”
Okay, okay — turns out that this is, although entertaining, an “urban legend” — a story repeated so often that it “has to be the truth.” But it isn’t.
We’ve been living in a storm of lies begun 4 years ago with, as I recall, claims about the size of the President’s crowd at his inauguration, followed by uncertainties about the size of his hand and other sizes. We’ve been drenched in lies so regularly, and for so long, the lies have morphed into urban legend, and urban legends have filled the news cycle as if they’re facts.
Admittedly, how truth gets defined depends heavily on who’s reporting it. I trust MSNBC and CNN. I distrust Fox News. Social media offers the chance for vast connectedness; that’s a gift. But it is also stuffed with nonsense and ungrounded claims. It feels like we’re all just making it up.
Well, doctors Tony Fauci and Mike Saag aren’t making it up. They give us the facts about, for example, COVID-19’s source and symptoms. They confront the realities: 300,000 dead, and counting. They promise that vaccines are safe and we believe them because they’re truth-tellers.
Then there’s “mother’s truth.” Act responsibly. Don’t seduce. Admit your errors. Don’t lie. My mother thought truth was more than words. Misbehaving with my friends and saying nothing about it when I got home was, as she described it, “living a lie.” Mother wanted truth-actors.
Some truth is hard. News of a global environment melting in front of our eyes strikes me as hard truth. The escalating suicide rate of young Americans is a hard truth. I remember the voices of two doctors, separated by a decade, who checked my test results and began their conversations with me, “I’m sorry, Mary….” Truth isn’t always easy or comfortable.
Some truth is embarrassing. I was raised Republican. I checked every Republican box and keynoted a Republican convention. Republican “leaders” now saying nothing of Trump’s delusions are — thank you, mother — living a lie. They’re gagged by the fear that a Trump loyalist will jump into their next primary. They’d rather live a lie than risk his wrath. Apart from, believe it or not, Mitt Romney, they are an embarrassment.
I’ve wondered lately, Why didn’t we stop Trump’s incessant lying? I think the answer is, We didn’t know how. We were unprepared as a nation to have our White House so brutally violated that we stood by in shock, paralyzed by our own inability to find a common American voice that would tell the truth and have people believe it. If we ever again get a Liar in Chief, I think folks wiser (and younger) than I will be ready to act. They’ll be less intimidated by a bully’s tactics. They’ll not suffer our paralysis. Pollyanna thinking? Maybe…but maybe not.
And I’m encouraged to believe that the truth matters more than ever when I read about the Kansas City Star’s self-assessment. This grand old paper that “prides itself on holding power to account” spent months analyzing decades of its own coverage of Kansas City’s Black community. In the end the paper’s editor wrote that his “reporters were frequently sickened by what they found — decades of coverage that depicted Black Kansas [citizens] as criminals living in a crime-laden world. They felt shame at what was missing: the achievements, aspirations and milestones of an entire population routinely overlooked, as if Black people were invisible.” His conclusion: The Star, like many newspapers we read, was a “white newspaper produced by white reporters and editors for white readers and advertisers.”
These are hard truths told as baby steps toward addressing systemic racism. I laud the Star for its apology and for its commitment to concrete recommendations that will add up to change. It makes me hopeful, and brings to mind the words of that old spiritual, “His truth is marching on.” Maybe, after all, it is.