Posts Tagged ‘truth’

I’ve been thinking about a movie I saw recently: Source Code, starring Jake Gyllenthaal. This science fiction cum action thriller (with a dash of romance) had a fair amount going for it: stellar cast, great special effects, tight plot; even the requisite happy ending.

I liked it. A lot. But then again, I’m a sucker for films that posit such an optimistic view of the brain’s power to transcend any and all physical limitations.

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I love celebrating Independence Day. I’m grateful to live in this country, grateful for the freedoms we often take for granted. I plant my Independence Day petunias (red white and purple but who’s quibbling?)  and stick a little flag in the flower pot by my front door.  My husband and I used to ride our bikes to the town center to watch the parade and later, the fireworks; now my sister and I continue the tradition. If I’m not invited to a barbecue–and my next door neighbors often oblige–I hold one and pull together various permanent and temporary singles in my neighborhood.

I like to display the flag on special occasions; I’m very mindful of the proper way to fold a full-sized flag and how to treat it in bad weather, which is to bring it in. I wouldn’t dream of cutting or burning a flag or turning it into a shirt or a summer dress. I also know what a flag is and what it isn’t: a symbol of pride but not of ostentatiousness, an act of  commemoration perhaps but not an act of defiance.

At various times, and perhaps never more in my lifetime than after 9/11, the flag has been something of a catch-all: a symbol of patriotism and also xenophobia, a badge of honor but also a judgment–you’re either with us or against us. Obama was called out for not wearing a flag pin during his campaign and so was I for not displaying the American flag following my husband’s death on 9/11. You of all people, I was told; but I couldn’t see hoisting a flag that had become so freighted with anger, fear, expectation, judgment and, at times, yes, hypocrisy–an excuse to stifle freedom of speech or throw around accusations of treason or paste a decal on the back of a gas-guzzling SUV and call it sacrifice. Frankly, I was too tired.

Divisions in our fair land remain as do claims that we are or should be divided into patriots and pretenders. For one thing, patriots–or so the patriots would have you believe–are God-fearing. I don’t fear any possible supreme being as much as I fear closed-minded rhetoric and the absolute certainty that permits mere humans to assume not that they’re in search of the Truth but that they’ve found it. Another post here has bravely tackled the subject of whether the United States is truly a Christian nation or simply a nation with a Christian majority by suggesting that we as a nation fall short of following true Christian  principles. While I can scarcely lay claim to direct knowledge of how Christianity or any other religion defines good,  I agree that we sometimes fall short. On the other hand, we hold these United States of America to a different standard, as well we should because somehow, in some exceptional manner, we have proven to be pretty darned successful at integrating and allowing a huge and hugely diverse constituency to express themselves without fear.

No one should be starving here and some are; no one should be struggling either, and too many are. The marketplace has produced some impressive innovations and an oppressive focus on short-term gains; we all want a piece of the pie and so sometimes lose site of the common good.

But while I don’t claim to be able to know with the admirable certainty displayed by others the minds of the Founding Fathers, I’m impressed  that they (our Fathers) managed to jump-start a nation so durable that it could survive several examples of internal strife  and countless examples of external struggles and still grow, not just stronger but also wiser. They had faith in our country and so do I. We are too slow for some (me, most days) but growth is evident; even when we slide temporarily backwards, we manage to pull ourselves forward.

Thus, complaints, criticisms and concerns about my president, my representatives, my judiciary and my fellow citizens will resume next week; we’ve got much to discuss. Meanwhile, I’m celebrating, beginning with this invocation: may good continue to bless America.  Happy birthday and pass me that sparkler.

images credited to: www.flagsbay.com; Mike Keefe, The Denver Post; www.mudpreacher.com; www.elizabethperry.com

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One of my favorite Saturday Night Live characters was Tommy Flanagan, Pathological Liar. Flanagan, created and played with gusto by Jon Lovitz during SNL’s late-eighties seasons, never Lovitz met a fact he couldn’t embellish, exaggerate and outright twist. He’d start small (“I belong to Pathological Liars anonymous; in fact, I’m the president. Yeah, that’s right.”) and build up steam  by piling on lie after lie, interrupting himself as he came up with new outlandish claims, until he’d topped himself by throwing out the biggest whopper imaginable: he’d come back from the dead to meet his wife Morgan Fairchild and was now on the cover of Newsweek Magazine every day.) Satisfied, he’d rub his hands together and declare, “Yeah, that’s the ticket.”

Of course no one is likely to be quite so obvious but we’ve had some truth issues hit the news lately in spectacular fashion. At four-liars first there was a great deal of denial, from John Edwards denying adultery to Floyd Landis denying drug use. Now it’s commission, not omission; the addition of military service to the resume,  Dick Blumenthal and Mark Kirk being the latest twin online obsessions.

Lying isn’t exactly new to our culture; it’s been the default position of corporations and politicians for some time now. But the liars are being taken to task, thanks to the ubiquitous online “checkers” who thrive on outing them. Knowing how relentless bloggers can be and thus how tough-minded mainstream media is forced to be, why would anyone take a chance on lying? We can all check on each other online. Why pad the resume, fib to the significant other, make false claims to clients, or forge a document? Your chances of getting caught are pretty high even without hiring a private detective.

And yet we all lie: we obscure, omit, embellish, exaggerate, fib, fudge, add, subtract and otherwise modify the outlines of our personal and professional lives in ways large and small. Lies seem to roll so much more easily off the tongue. Storytellers arefingerscrossed aware that what a story might lose in “truthiness” it could gain in entertainment value if just one little fact is obscured or slightly altered. There are the small lies we think will harm no one: “I can’t imagine how that taillight got broken.” “No, I don’t know where that last piece of cake went.” There are the big lies, too, about weapons of mass destruction or having sex with that woman or never, ever cutting corners when it comes to drilling for oil or supporting our troops.

Maybe we just can’t handle the truth. Even as we’ve become superficially more self-righteous about Truth, with many of us insisting on our version as without a doubt the right one; we’ve also become artful, one might say dodgy, in the ways in which we communicate who we are and what we’re doing.

Chronic liars, it seems to me, are oblivious to the possibility of being caught; others are oblivious to the possibility that the lies can do so much damage. Still others may have negotiated forpinnochio themselves a separate moral contract, wherein whatever they’re claiming ought to be theirs to claim. Most of us have probably been caught up in the lies of a close friend or relative. I have, more that once; the mortification I felt–not only because I was unprepared to go along with an altered truth, but also because I was so profoundly embarrassed for the liar–was excruciating.

Setting aside the notion that we are a nation of Tommy Flanagans (I don’t believe we are), the truth is: most of us want to look good or at least not look bad. We want to puff ourselves up, win the admiration of a would-be friend, impress the boss, ease the spouse’s worries, get the job; get the girl. Right now, looking good for politicians seems to be all about identifying with the vets. Maybe Mr. Blumenthal and Mr. Kirk got swept up in the moment; maybe (as one of them claimed) they almost believed they had served.  I don’t know that most vets have asked or expected every supportive politician to have faced combat; what they want is the support and the clout it means in terms of attention and resources focused on their needs. As one vet told me, “If you direct money to us, I don’t care if you’re a pacifist.”

That last line, by the way, is untrue; that is, no vet ever spoke those words to me, although it sounds plausible and makes for an excellent closer to the paragraph. Journalists and citizen reporters alike are constantly tempted to inject a little “I was there” or “I knew him personally” into their reports because it seems to add credibility to their words. And after all, what’s the harm? Without editorial insight, as the retired deputy editor of the Providence Journal pointed out in a letter to the New York Times, any blogger can claim to be a reporter. May he’s recycling another’s reporting and claiming it as his own; maybe she’s adding the personal touch by “remembering” an encounter with the subject that never took place. Either way, it’s false.

That doesn’t mean I believe in so-called brutal honesty.  Nothing ticks me off more than meanness masquerading as truth-telling; it cheapens the very idea of truthfulness. “I’ve just trying to be honest” too often follows an unnecessarily cruel statement: “Look Rose, the truth is; I never loved you;” “Honey, face facts: you’re just not as smart as the other kids;” “You’re likely to be alone for a long time.”

On the other hand, some sort of up front honesty, some admission that you were the one who screwed up the [take your pick: marriage/war/negotiation/test/project/child-rearing/accounting/sentencing/oil spill, some offer to make it right pronounced right up front could save us all a lot of money, heartache, humiliation and time. The only problem is, we might not have the series, “The Good Wife.” Then again, we can alwaysGoodWife make something up; let’s see: a fictitious situation in which a woman whose husband cheated may have told her the truth about some of his escapades but not others and she’s meanwhile lying to herself about her feelings for her boss. Maybe we’ll call it “The Great Wife.” Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Image credits: SNL archives, TPMDC, aupairmom, Disney, Inc, CBS Television

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A  series of billboards in Georgia are linking abortion with supposed “efforts” by various groups to reduce or limit the size of the black population. The ads first surfaced at the beginning of February, in time for Black History Month and have gradually been reported in the mainstream press. The most recent story appeared on March 1st in the Los Angeles Times.

The billboards are the brainchild of Ryan Bomberger, founder of Georgia-based group “Radiance.” Bomberger, who is adopted, claims to be the son of a white woman raped by a black man.  He believes data that shows a much higher percentage of black women seeking abortions, as well as the number of Planned Parenthood offices in urban areas, is “evidence” of racial targeting, a claim several minority women’s groups denounce as offensive, condescending, and dangerous nonsense.  They concede the high number of abortions among black women in Georgia, but point to other socio-economic factors, such as limited access to birth control and family planning information as well as inadequate insurance coverage.

But the anti-choice forces are jumping on the bandwagon. The Georgia Right to Life organization has partnered with Radiance on the eighty or so ads, which will be displayed at least through March.  Alveda King, the niece of Martin Luther King, Jr., experienced a religious conversion after two abortions and now sits on the board of Georgia’s Right to Life organization. She claims to know absolutely that abortionists are targeting the black community for ethnic cleansing.

As a staunchly pro-choice supporter, I am nevertheless deeply sympathetic to those who are deeply distressed by abortion. In truth, all of us are; as one  advocate put it: “Pro-choice doesn’t mean pro-abortion.” No one I have ever met, including those who’ve had abortions, has ever been the least bit cavalier about the procedure, which is why I hope that a measure of common ground can someday be found — say, in efforts to expand information about birth control and family planning.

But I’m also deeply offended by  deliberately provocative and highly misleading advertising that attempts to shame and terrorize women who need and deserve support in making decisions about their reproductive health.  Moreover, I’m infuriated by yet another attempt to use words to drive people further apart on one issue  – abortion – by raising a red flag about another – racism.  I’m afraid – truly afraid – we haven’t seen the end of these billboards.

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While we recover from the fallout of New York’s Senate appointment, while we try to change channels faster than Illinois Governor Ron Blagojevich can appear on them, while we wait for the President’s new cabinet appointees (and the Senator from Minnesota) to be confirmed and seated, while we curse the snow and sleet, the higher property taxes, the cuts in service and mid-winter misery in general, let us now stop to sing the praises of science.

I wasn’t a science kid. I didn’t watch Mr. Wizard on Saturday mornings or beg my folks for a home chemistry set. I preferred language and music to theorems and equations. A generally good student, my only truly bad grade was in freshman college earth science. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I began to realize just how much I value the process by which science and scientists seek to learn what is true.

“The scientific method is something all of us use all of the time. In fact, engaging in the basic activities that make up the scientific method — being curious, asking questions, seeking answers — is a natural part of being human.” So says the author of an article on the subject on a wonderful site called “How Stuff Works.”  Put in such accessible terms, it makes sense. Yet in the last decade, science has been regarded in certain circles as an authoritarian, unyielding,  unfeeling practice that stubbornly asserts it has incontrovertible answers to everything. One reason may be related to a widespread misunderstanding about the word “theory”.  As Wikipedia  points out,  “In everyday language a theory means a hunch or speculation… In science, the word theory refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature supported by facts gathered over time.”  By mixing up the two meanings and by ignoring the process by which scientific theories are developed, it’s easy to decide science is guesswork dressed up to look like fact.

The fact is , good science – like good thinking – is open-minded. Sure, we might say we know something for certain, based on provable and testable information; for example, we’re pretty sure the world is round at this point. But the value of science isn’t in its insistence it has every answer, only that it has a method for looking and a willingness to reconsider earlier positions. As Dennis Overbye pointed out in the Science section of yesterday’s New York Times,“Science is not a monument of received Truth but something people do to look for truth.” Overbye went on to point out the parallels between science and democracy, both of them “willing to embrace debate and respect one another…”

How cool is that?

I doubt I’ll ever memorize the periodic tables or the geological ages of the earth but I have taken to reading more articles about earth science, life sciences and physical sciences. I’m interested in whether science finds a cure for cancer or arthritis or whether certain foods can positively alter brain chemistry, especially in the dead of winter. Mostly, though, I say hooray for President Obama’s promise to restore science to its rightful place. I certainly want to support debate, discussion, and inquiry – in short, any process that celebrates the pursuit of answers rather than the certainty anyone has them all.

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Many members of what they used to call the “chattering classes” (pundits, bloggers, political junkies, talking heads and the like) are yakking about Scott McClellan’s new book “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.” Talk about trying to turn an old story into an exciting new headline; then again, with the primaries stretching out into what feels like a far-off future (although they’re actually over soon..right?), it might seem like fun to stir the pot. Frankly, I can’t get excited about a book with the clumsiest title I’ve run across in a long time. I mean, read the title and watch one of Mr. McClellan’s talk show appearances and you’ve got the gist of it: Washington bad, Administration bad, me, innocent and betrayed. Yeah, well, welcome to the club, Scott.

I’ve gone ahead and plunged into my summer reading, which, I admit, is usually part of my winter, fall and spring reading too, which is to say novels of intrigue, either local or international. Girly-girl though I often am, when it comes to escapism, I’m more “Iron Man” than “Sex and the City”, less Candace Bushnell than Frederick Forsyth. I like to learn while I’m having fun and I prefer the complications of conducting a spy operations in a foreign desert to the confusions of juggling men and careers in an urban jungle.

My latest read is “The Whole Truth” by David Baldacci, a DC lawyer turned novelist whose books have been what I guess you’d call political thrillers, mostly centered inside the Beltway. This new one takes him across Europe and into cyberspace. It’s a first-rate, fast-paced thriller with a scary new twist on an age-old premise: you can fool an awful lot of the people an awful lot of the time, often with very dangerous consequences. In this book, an event nearly results in World War III but the event is fake – made up and sold by a firm specializing in something called “perception management.” Things escalate very quickly; governments are threatened, lives are lost, superpowers act and react. This being a novel, one man, along with one smart and capable woman manage to bring things under some semblance of control.

Note that the term “perception management” originated with the Department of Defense and has entered the public lexicon as a synonym for persuasion. However, as noted military author and military affairs specialist Emily Goldman has written, “falsehood and deception [are] important ingredients of perception management; the purpose is to get the other side to believe what one wishes it to believe, whatever the truth may be.”

Scott McClellan’s book appears to be about truth, lies, betrayal, perception and manipulation. Go ahead and read it if you think it will surprise you. But for jaw-dropping “what ifs” or “could it be happening?” check out “The Whole Truth.” I imagine it’s a faster read and I suspect it’s going to make a far better movie.

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