After a morning of reading pieces about Paul Ryan’s Lies and Paul Ryan’s Distortions and Paul Ryan’s Distorted Lies, I am impressed and alarmed at the depth of scrutiny and vigorous insistence on literal truth in every phrase. I wish these fact-checkers had been around for history’s great speeches, when we could have gotten some really prime commentary.
Franklin Roosevelt: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
FACT: False! We have many things to fear, including ebola, Spanish influenza and the rise of Hitler.
Martin Luther King Jr.: “I have a dream that the brotherhood of man will become a reality in this age!”
FACT: False! Is that a dream, Dr. King? Isn’t it more of an aspiration that you have? If you are dreaming, why aren’t you in REM sleep now?
Declaration of Independence: King George has “ plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”
FACT: I mean, has he, though? There have been some seriously barbarous ages, during which human sacrifice was common.
Barack Obama: “ Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.”
FACT: Well. . .
Abraham Lincoln: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
FACT: Expert housebuilders have repeatedly testified that, if divided against itself using sound architectural principles, a house can indeed stand and provide a family with many years of comfort and security.
William Jennings Bryan: “You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold!”
FACT: Even the most dedicated partisans of the gold standard have never advocated anything like this.
John F. Kennedy: “I am a Berliner.”
FACT: No, you aren’t.
Winston Churchill: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”
FACT: No, it hasn’t.
Queen Elizabeth I: “ I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England, too.”
FACT: No, you don’t.
Look, I’m all for facts, but it is cruel to force them into such an alien environment as the political speech. It’s like going to a cookout and complaining that no one was using the correct fork. Well, yes, technically incorrect, but —
When did we become such sticklers for literal truth?
Just because someone tells you different facts than you remember from when you were there watching the event happen doesn’t mean that he is lying. It may just mean that he is trying to be elected to something.
Besides, there is literal truth and story truth and narrative truth and speech truth, and, of the four, literal truth most seldom gets invited to parties. Conversation as we know it would end. Politics consists of assembling a convincing story about events out of the facts at your disposal and seeing how many people prefer your story to your opponent’s. We all start with the same fabric of fact, but a lot of art goes into the draping. There are lies, damned lies, statistics and Things Your Opponent Did to Grandma.
So the sudden onslaught of fact-finding gave me pause. Surely we ought to begin the process more gently, say, by kindly noting that “if everyone talked that way about Medicare reform, we wouldn’t have Medicare reform at all,” or “Are you sure that was an official debt commission recommendation? Are you sure that wasn’t nothing?”
And fact-checkers, as the Romney campaign noted, have their own biases. Then again, so does the Romney campaign. People only lack bias to the extent that they do not care, and those are never the kind of people who go into politics or fact-checking.
There are many ways of telling the truth, and there are many ways of lying. Everyone has a different bar for where one ends and one begins. There are sins of omission and commission.
It is possible to say true things in a misleading way. You can fly to Argentina for a week to meet your secret lover, and when your wife asks, tell her: “I stopped in Newark for business.” This is true: Your flight was out of Newark, and you needed to visit the restroom at the airport.
“You lied!” Luke Skywalker exclaims to Obi Wan in “Return of the Jedi.”
Obi Wan sighs. “Luke,” he says, “you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”
Told from one perspective, Darth Vader is the man who killed your father. Told from another, he is your father. Either way, best not to cut Medicare.
Regardless, political speeches are a strange place to start as a prospector for literal truth. They are not the richest of veins. If they were, America would be entirely carpeted in log cabins.