The State of Our Union – In Search of Truth

To what extent do we as a society value truth today – and when is escapism okay, and when does it undermine our need to square with reality? What is the state of our union when it comes to truth? In recent days, we have heard much hoopla about James Frey’s best-selling memoir A Little Million Pieces, in which he fabricated part of his personal story. Beyond the outcry, some people, like his publisher and Oprah Winfrey, have stood by the work.

Or, take the incredible proliferation of television realty shows, which now dominate air waves. Shows like “Extreme Makeover” suggest to us that anything goes – you can change your clothes, your hair, even your God-given features, all in an attempt to be someone you’re not.

It’s hard to even know nowadays what’s news and what’s opinion, with so-called “journalists” becoming more and more willing to mix their own views into broadcasts, hype stories for ratings, and preferring to talk about issues with a panel of fellow journalists rather than people those issues affect on a daily basis.

These examples, along with countless television ads, political campaigns and other efforts all routinely play on the edge of truth. They blur the lines between fact and fiction – and in doing so they cheapen our notion of the truth and diminish our ability to understand and reflect reality.

But don’t despair – not is all lost. There are examples of an alternative.

Take the potent news story by Kurt Eichenwald of The New York Times, who wrote back on Dec.19 about Justin Berry, then 18, and his drug use and pornographic Webcam business. For years, Berry had led a secret life of selling pictures of his sexual acts over the Internet. Eichenwald’s telling of this story was moving and insightful. Indeed, in print and online he walked readers through how he developed and reported the story, clearly illuminating the ethical dilemmas he faced and how he handled them. His goal: make as much of the murky truth transparent as possible.

All this leads me to the word “truthiness,” which the American Dialect Society dubbed word of the year for 2005. The word was popularized by former Daily Show correspondent Steven Colbert on his new show The Colbert Report. It refers to the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.

We search out truthiness when truthfulness cannot be found.

In my recent book, Hope Unraveled: The People’s Retreat and Our Way Back, I reported that people have retreated from politics and public life because they don’t feel their reality is reflected and that too often it is purposefully distorted by those seeking their own gain (such as the news media, political leaders, and others).

In this regard, we are all caught in a bind. On the one hand we want and need our reality to be reflected in order to feel that our concerns and aspirations are understood; so we can muster a sense of coherence over our fast-changing world; and so that it’s possible for society to try and take effective action on our concerns. On the other hand, increasingly we feel that our reality is distorted, so we find ourselves in search of ways to mitigate that frustration and give ourselves a sense of comfort.

So, along comes a new television reality series by ABC called “Miracle Workers.” Imagine this: seriously ill people who have neither the contacts nor the funds to get necessary medical care will be selected by ABC to work with a team of health care professionals.

But here is a dilemma for us. As we watch the small handful of people who get care, what about the 40 million Americans who remain without health care or the many more Americans who simply struggle day-to-day with high co-payments or drug costs? As we watch such programs, will we somehow come to believe that we as a society are really addressing our health care problems? Do such programs give us the sense that we’re off the hook, as such television programs neatly provide a nice resolution to the ills of these individuals? Will we believe that taking action within our society should be as easy as on the TV screen?

So what? Will we next create similar television programs (or even policy efforts) where we watch as individual public schools get “fixed;” or a handful of poor folks climb their way out of poverty; or a few aging baby boomers take on new civic roles after retirement, somehow suggesting that all baby boomers are doing their part?

In my crisscrossing the nation six times over the past fifteen years or so, I have found that we Americans yearn for something more honest, more truthful, and more representative of our reality. It doesn’t mean we don’t like gossip or great TV drama – we do. But there is more to our individual lives than that – and there is much more to our common public life. Indeed, there is a need to understand and reflect our reality even while we pursue our fantasies.

Tomorrow: the role our political leaders play in our state of the union.