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Opinion Doesn’t Trump Fact, & Lies Are Killing America

March 23rd, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

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altercation-in-the-houseThe [American] Revolution of 1800

Thomas Jefferson became the third President of the United States after a contentious election in 1800 that narrowly avoided resolution by military action and the abrupt demise of constitutional government. Political passions were particularly high. Jefferson and his great antagonist Alexander Hamilton, both of whom served in George Washington’s first cabinet, had very different ideas about the meaning of the Revolution. Those who agreed with Hamilton’s vision, called Federalists, still held the reins of power as the election of 1800 approached. Those who agreed with Jefferson, Democratic-Republicans, believed the Federalists had betrayed the spirit of the Revolution and were on the road to creating a monarchy. Jefferson had resigned from the government and was agitating for another revolution. Hamilton and the Federalists viewed the Democratic-Republicans as threats to the nation. Both sides believed that power in the hands of the other group would be the death of the nation. The stakes seemed enormous.

During the campaign leading up to the election supporters of both sides hurled vicious media attacks at the other side’s candidate. In the spirit of the adversarial system basic to British politics, writers on both sides stretched the truth about themselves and their opposition to the breaking point. In fact much of the discourse that led up to the election was untrue. Using tactics we in the 21st century are painfully familiar with, the candidates and their supporters preyed on the fears and prejudices of the electorate. “Truth” was whatever the press proclaimed it to be, and if it was twisted to the point it could neither be confirmed nor even reasonably believed, so much the better. As Voltaire noted, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Few people know about the election of 1800 and its influence not only on US history but world history, which is symptomatic of Americans’ general lack of regard for factual knowledge in general and history in particular. For most people history is whatever they learned in school before college and whatever they last heard on the television or talk radio or internetkooks.com. When the election was resolved, Jefferson in his first inaugural address extolled the system of government that had (barely) worked in the election and even acknowledged a place for the falsehoods that had made the ordeal so fractious. He called for unity. “We are all Republicans,” he said, “we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”[1]

It is a remarkable statement, expressing a belief that “error of opinion” may be tolerated because “reason is left free to combat it.” It calls forth an optimism that, to use language much less eloquent than Jefferson’s, lies can’t hurt the commonwealth as long as the truth is readily available.

Now, I do not believe that the truth was any more readily apparent in 1800 than it is today. In fact, quite the opposite. If anything, we do not suffer from a dearth of information, but from information overload. For any question there are answers from almost every angle, and it matters little whether the answers conform to anything akin to fact. For every event there are as many variations in telling as there are tellers, with the same lack of devotion to facts. Yet, even given this, it takes only rudimentary skills and minimal effort to learn what is more likely to be true than not. The problem is not that reason is not left free to combat lies, it seems to be more that people prefer to construct their own imagined realities.

Again, I don’t think this is particularly characteristic of Americans, but when coupled with characteristic American anti-intellectualism, it becomes a cancer on the body politic. The idea that all people have an equal say in the way the nation should be run gives rise to the notion that everyone’s opinion is equally valid, whether based on serious consideration and research, or what I just read this morning on Facebook. We learned from the X Files that “the truth is out there,” but a large portion of today’s voters appear gleefully content to leave it “out there” if it doesn’t conform to whatever twisted vision of reality one wants to believe.

I am daily appalled and frightened to notice the preposterous things people put forward as certified facts. I am frightened because where the desire to know the truth is absent, even scorned, voters become participants in the destruction of their own liberty. American liberties have been fast disappearing since 9/11 and in the current election cycle fear mongering politicians have millions of angry people clamoring for even more restrictions. Keeping the people’s anger focused against each other based on false divisions keeps intact a system geared to feed more and more to the unquenchable hunger of corporate criminals and their puppets in government.

At a time when people in the United States were at least as polarized as today, Jefferson called for unity. We are all Republicans, he said. We are all Federalists. He believed, and I still believe, that we are united by our common love of liberty. We do not always agree on what that liberty entails or how it may best be preserved, but a commitment to truth, understanding, and civil discourse is the only path forward. The alternative is civil war. Jesus said (in quite a different context) “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)

But you must put forth the effort to know the truth before you can be freed by it.


[1] Thomas Jefferson, “Thomas Jefferson First Inaugural Address” (speech, Capitol, Washington, DC, March 4, 1801), accessed March 23, 2016, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/jefinau1.asp.

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