“The truth is rarely pure and never simple…” – Oscar Wilde.
There are two competing ideas about truth reflected in the tense and unspoken contest between Maria Cuomo’s truth and Donald Trump’s truth, on display every day in their divergent press appearances.
What’s so compelling about their story is that it is our story. We have to make the same choices they have to make. Our lives depend on it.
One of the many things that are groundbreaking about this dread virus to me is that it is redefining truth, taking it out of the hands of political and media villains and bloviators and back into the lives of individual citizens.
For me, the issue is not whether President Trump and Governor Cuomo are good people or bad people. Neither one is a natural hero.
I’m not interested in that eternal quarrel.
The issue is about who is telling the truth. Because regardless of personal politics, the truth is what we most need. (And some luck.)
In my case, it’s just my opinion, in your case, it’s only yours. But we are all learning that truth is a sacred thing, and I, for one, want to find it and speak it.)
And wasn’t this how the country was born? Some truths are held to be self-evident.
There is really little question about the President’s credibility any longer. He’s losing it.
People are free, of course, to decide how important that is or isn’t to them. He failed the great and historic test of leadership – to guide his people and offer them comfort.
Today, lies are just about arguments. They can kill.
Governor Cuomo, for all of his controversies and quarrels, has risen to the moment. There is little doubt about the truth of that either.
Politicians and cable channels can lie all they want and try to shape reality, but this virus has a different idea, it pushes its truth in front of like a giant tidal wave.
I have no interest in political posturing or argument, but I need to seek and support and tell the truth, it’s never been more important at any time in my lifetime.
I’m going to try to do that here and every day. We can’t all get through this without a lot of truth and a deeper understanding of what it means.
It is reminding all of what a fact is and what truth means. Like most people, I am so weary of lies and conspiracies that I step back from the truth sometimes. It makes me complicit.
Already, we are beginning to look away from Fox News Or MSNBC – or politicians gassing off at podiums – to define reality for us. Suddenly, it seems that truth is not interested in their truth; it is washing over each us like a great wave.
I am no Pollyanna, but you can see this unfolding for yourself every day.
I watch Andrew Cuomo and Donald Trump advancing their visions almost every day of the week, but my truth is not an argument. My reality is facts. And there are facts.
And here are my facts:
I am not going out of the house for the next few weeks, because if I do, I could get very sick and die an awful death and, in the process, sicken my wife or other innocent people. I don’t care what politicians say.
I know what I need to do. There are no miracle medications out there to save me, no miracles looming on the horizon. I need to take care of myself and those I love.
I know where I am.
I don’t care what Sean Hannity or Rachel Meadow has to tell me right now either; I care about what I see and feel, and what is happening to me and my life and the lives of my family, friends, and neighbors. I care about Jean’s Place, and every business I patronize, and everything I know sustains life around me.
Speaking only for myself – I was a media critic and journalist – I believe the virus is beginning to undo our inability to find a universal truth. It is breaking down our constipated system of politics. The new one – the return of authenticity – is erupting in our homes and behind our masks and sanitizing lotions.
A long time blog reader wrote to chide me politely and gently for questioning the honesty of President Trump’s many conflicting pronouncements – some outrageously and provably false – about the virus. (I confess to thinking, if I listen to this man, it could kill me, and he doesn’t care.
“I think Donald Trump is doing a wonderful job,” she said. ” I don’t argue politics with anybody; typically, politics are not relevant to me. But I felt I needed to reply.
Listen, ” I wrote back, I am no Trump hater, I hope he does well. But you are wrong. He is not doing a wonderful job. It’s just the truth. It isn’t an argument,” I said, “it’s right there in the open.”
She didn’t respond. But I know what I see.
Modern media has destroyed the idea of a universal truth for a country as diverse and big as ours. People like Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow and politicians like Eisenhower and Kennedy – icons from a time far away and long ago – used to embody the idea of a universal truth that most people saw and accepted.
Most people watched the same thing, shared a common value system.
The Internet and hundreds of cable channels have shattered the idea of a single truth. Social media is all about finding our reality and sticking with it.
There are a million truths out there, you can pick whichever one you like, and you never need to hear any other point of view or idea. It is, to me, the death of the American Mind.
They call it brainwashing, and given the narrow range of opinion we are permitted to see and hear, it has worked – on me, on you.
No wonder we are so fragmented.
The “left” and the “right” have their pre-approved notions of truth, anyone challenging them is a heretic, yet to me, neither one of them quite makes the grade.
Fox News offers older white men – the average age of their viewer is 65 – one truth and MSNBC offers “progressives” a different reality, and neither truth ever seems to vary or evolve. To me, that is not the truth; it’s dogma, a digital kind of propaganda.
We all define our truth, and nothing much can shake us out of it. It’s the very opposite of free thought and individual thinking.
But the coronavirus is not fragmented, it is entirely unified and consistent. It spreads, it sickens, it kills, in every state, in almost every country in the world. It doesn’t debate or argue or prevaricate; it just keeps coming, in its way, at its own pace.
You can hide, but it seems you can’t run.
Propaganda is critically important in our world, says Hannah Arendt, it is the deliberate misinforming of the public to sway opinions en masse and achieve popular support. It is an epidemic in our country now.
There are so many different kinds of propaganda that no one seems able to dominate.
It’s hard to blame anyone for disbelieving everything they see or hear; so much of it is lies.
The left and the right both block truth because they both use propaganda to attain their goals. For me, that disqualifies them both as sources of real truth.
We call this polarization, and it is an awful kind of truth, it has divided and paralyzed our civic system and threatened our democracy.
Even this terrible virus has now become something of a left-right issue, “blue” states freaking out at the loss of business, “red” states unimpressed and defiant, governors reduced to feckless parrots while others sound the alarm and see the urgency.
Even a few years ago, it would have been difficult for me to imagine death as a partisan political issue. The truth then was that we all came together in a crisis and did what had to be done.
The “truth” now is that we all get reflexively divided in a crisis and argue ourselves to death and helplessness. We are offered no other choice, at least not until Cuomo started holding his press conferences, a potent mix of sermons and facts. His idea was to provide facts, not arguments or self-promotion.
It was a good idea, a modern idea.
It feels to me like this virus may just break open the dam of partisanship. That is the significance of the struggle of the Two Press Briefings. We have two clear visions of truth, right out there in the open, the choice is ours.
People often write to tell me proudly that they disagree with me, they don’t often realize that I love it when people disagree with me (or agree with me), it means that my mind is alive and theirs is also.
But as a former journalist who loved the idea of truth, I can almost feel it rising again. To me, it’s like some Greek God sleeping under a spell, suddenly awake and rising. I’m sick of hiding from my truth; I won’t do it any longer.
In Florida, the political leadership told this truth: no need to shelter in place or socially isolate, the virus was a plot by Democrats and journalists to ruin the President by shattering the economy. They were quite willing to sacrifice a bunch of older people in support of this mindless dogma and rationalizing.
In Texas, the lieutenant governor suggested that the elderly be sacrificed to preserve our booming economy. After all, they are old and usually sick anyway.
In Florida and elsewhere, this was a huge mistake. They are all now running like rodents for cover.
Lots of people believed these lies, especially the young, the alienated and the gullible, along with businesses, corporations and banks.
The governors in Florida and Georgia chose to lie about the truth to protect business.
The Governor and the President are almost eerily similar. Both are sometimes ruthless egomaniacs, both the sons of domineering, demanding fathers, both sometimes cutting or cruel in their political lives.
But Cuomo made a very different calculation, and it may make him President someday. He transcended the tarpit that is left and the right and ascended to the truth, no matter what.
The President keep insisting that this wasn’t a big deal, it wouldn’t last, the death toll wouldn’t be so high, miracle drugs would save us, and those magical (and still non-existent free tests).
Besides, we need to back to work so the booming economy – his most cherished achievement – could return.
Was there ever a case where our personal and national values were more clearly put on the line?
This was essentially the same lie the President was telling until the death tolls started to rise. In Florida, 450,000 people filed for unemployment last week, and most of them couldn’t get the state’s website to work.
Then, the virus arrived, as everyone but the governor and the President seemed to know it would.
The citizens saw a new truth, the real one. And it is pretty stunning. And they are angry. I suppose I am angry too. I believed those lies.
The governor and the President both folded quickly and hurriedly ordered everyone to stay inside. They then claimed they were planning this all along. This truth was no longer an argument; it was an indisputable fact.
All across the country, this is being repeated. Facts are winning again. They are now all many people have.
In New York, Governor Cuomo decided to lean on facts, not on ideology or feelings or hopes or partisan cant. He promised nothing but pain and sorrow and the hard details of preparation and self-preservation. He repeated the mantra that broke through; It is serious, it is real, we must prepare..
Every day, he offered a lesson in what I believe is the real “truth,” the factual one. He loves his chart of facts. I was taught about the sanctity of facts.
Every day the President offered a different and often conflicting truth. The problem wasn’t that he is evil. The problem is that he doesn’t know what he is talking about. I’m not sure which is worse right now.
He has retained most, if not all, of his followers: they share his idea of truth. That is their problem, but in this case, it became the problem of us all.
But Cuomo has attained something much more precious in politics – the high ground, the moral field.
This is not because he is St. Francis; it is mostly because truth became personal and visible – people began to see it and feel it themselves. They lost their jobs, they saw their friends lose their jobs, their restaurants, and local businesses close, people were getting sick, their mother and grandfathers dying.
The old dogma and politicking and bullshit just aren’t working now; lies are taking a beating everywhere; the virus is bigger than any lie.
So people began to love Andrew Cuomo’s truth; it matched their truth, the one we are all living. This was no two-week event, no hyped-up plot to overturn the President by Democrats and sissies.
I am sitting on a farm in New York; I have no way of knowing what the actual and complete truth is.
But when I listened to and watched Governor Cuomo – I really don’t know much about him and would not consider myself a follower or a fan – it was revelatory.
He was telling me the truth I was seeing for myself. There are so many people lying and dancing on the head of a pin out there that this was almost a spiritual experience.
I would feel a tingling in my spine; I cried once or twice. I stunned myself. Was hearing the truth so rare and powerful an experience that it made me cry? Have we come to that?
That is transformative because I am coming to see the coronavirus as a powerful truth-teller and shaper, as well as a plague. We don’t need to fuss over the lies Fox News tells or the ideological spin MSNBC puts on the news.
We are all in this together. We see the same things.
And when a politician like Cuomo decides to go with the truth, and it works, and millions of people starving for truth flock to it from all over the country, that is huge news, and not just about the virus.
In a genuine catastrophe, lies wear out pretty fast. It’s truth or die.
Yesterday, I went to drop a letter in the post office box, and a rabid Trump supporter (decals all over his truck) came up and waited politely in line behind me.
He talked to me about the virus: “This is bad,” he said, “I just got laid off, and my wife and son got laid off on the same day. I just went from being an independent contractor to a welfare recipient. God damn, this one is going to be just awful. Take care of yourself.”
There was no angry or defiant rhetoric. This man had become a truth-seeker.
He told me that he had watched Fox News for years, but stopped this week. “They say something different every night. They just are kissing ass. They are no help to me, and I need help. I’m in trouble. I have to watch the goddamn governor of New York figure out what is happening, the SOB who is always trying to take my guns away. I just need the truth…”
My new friend didn’t care much about what Trump or Cuomo was saying. An older man who had gone through open-heart surgery, he really couldn’t afford bullshit anymore.
His new truth was his own life, not some television windbag’s version of life.
The truth was about what he saw and felt and heard. I think that will be the new future of reality, perhaps even its rebirth. It takes a big shock.
An important thing had just happened, I realized while standing in line, something that seems to be happening all over the country. The left and right really won’t matter so much too much longer; we will have to think for ourselves.
And do we have a choice?
Governor Cuomo has made the right decision.
He’s skipping the never-ending argument and doing good, in the process transcending old cable news broadcasts and ideologues.
They suddenly seem to have nothing to say to us. I watched some of the cable pundits the other night, they reminded me of fish out of water, flopping along the shore, gasping for breath. The spell is breaking.
I believe the President – too often underestimated and appreciated – has made a monumental mistake. He keeps lying, shading, evading. He looks like a man who can’t see the forest for trees or somebody who is just too old and set in his ways to change.
We live in a new reality now; it will bring about significant change. If you think about it, you can feel it for yourself.
I am not writing this as a Trump-hater, but as a former journalist and media critic and TV producer. And a citizen.
Truth in America has been in intensive care for some time. It is bleeding and crying out for saviors. Andrew Cuomo is perhaps an unlikely savior, but that is what he is. He is saving the truth.
So is a 79-year-old public servant and doctor named Anthony Fauci. When I first met him years ago in San Francisco, I thought, as reporters sometimes do, “this guy doesn’t even know how to lie.” He doesn’t.
Truth is due for rebirth, so many lives and jobs and families depend on it.
Man is least himself when he talks in his own person, wrote Wilde. “Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
We are all getting our masks shortly, truth is no longer abstract, but an urgent and life-saving necessity – truth – has a ruthless and unlikely new ally in the coronavirus.
It has no patience for deception, or tolerance for lies.