Skip to content

Facts, Truth, and Myth

January 22nd, 2017

Richard Marker

Yes, reader, another politically oriented post.

I don’t remember very much from what is now called Middle School, nee Junior High School. Except….

If memory serves, it was a time when we studied Greek Mythology for the first time. And in the Quaker school, I attended, we also studied the Bible as literature. One of the lessons that I remember from middle school is that we learned the important difference between Truth and Fact. It is, one would hope, one of the abiding lessons of school and of life… and maybe, as we are now learning, even politics.

Few today would argue that the stories of Olympus are factually true, but few would dismiss that they contribute to our understanding of the human condition, human interrelationships, and even the mysteries of life that can only be understood in metaphoric or mythic language. We learned that they are True even if they are not facts.

Similarly, in my religious tradition, we point to an event at Sinai as a defining moment in the creation of the religion we now call Judaism. We don’t know exactly what happened there, end even the Bible itself leaves us in a cloud about that transformative moment. That mystery underwrites our understanding of the human condition, of our relationship to the physical world, to fellow human beings, and much more. The facts of that event matter little but its Truth is abiding for those in our Tradition. This distinction is not restricted to moderns; it was anticipated by theologians a full millennium ago.

In the case of these two religious traditions, the defining myths are built on truths that don’t depend on the facts. We cannot know what the facts are or were, but indeed they matter less than our understanding behind them. They have provided transcendent meanings to centuries of readers in diverse cultures.

But what if we do know the facts and despite that demonstrable reality, refuse to accept them? Or aver just the opposite? That seems to be the case with our newly inaugurated president and his spokespeople regarding the attendance numbers at his inauguration. How can it be that every single independent photo of the event shows one reality, and he insists on another? Or the unequivocal recordings of persistent maligning of the intelligence communities… and yet when holding a sham presentation to them, he alleges that he has always been their greatest advocate – and any misperception is purely the manipulation of the press? Or insisting that millions of illegals voted and therefore the real numbers who voted for HRC were not what everyone else says they are – with not a shred of evidence even from within his own political circles? There are too many more examples, as we know, since they have been accumulating over the last year.

Is he simply Lyin’ Donald? Sure. That is an easy answer and the “facts” would be hard to refute. He is.

Yet, I suspect that the answer is more complex. I suspect that the newly inaugurated president must have slept through middle school and never learned the difference between fact and truth. It appears that when facts, easily demonstrable facts, don’t align with what he wants them to be, or when they don’t align with his own Truth, he simply denies the facts.

As we saw above, in studying religious texts or Greek mythology, it doesn’t matter much to the rest of the world when we derive truths that are independent of the facts. Most of us have learned to distinguish between them. But what if we don’t understand the difference and the demonstrable facts simply are at odds with our own version of the truth? Not the healthiest way to live life but not such a big deal if it is only our own life experience. But when we accuse others of not telling the truth when they don’t share our own version of the Truth, that creates a problem. And it is inexcusable, and profoundly immoral, when we try to impose our Truth on others, especially when that Truth is based on denial of demonstrable facts.

So here we are: with an administration that confuses its own preferred and self-authenticated mythic Truth with facts. We, citizens, press, observers all, have an obligation to remember our middle school education and to remember the difference. And we, citizens, press, observers all, have an obligation to the constitution and our own civic well-being to continue to be vigilant in making sure that we all insist on the difference.

In the USA, we have a separation of faith and state. Truth without facts is faith. Let the president and his press spokespeople believe whatever they wish – in the confines of their private spaces. But the rest of us deserve to have a society where observable facts define our well-being. The public square, our public square, is not where our leaders should work out and act out their private beliefs and mmyths.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS