John Adams once said, “Facts are stubborn things,” and various people for various reasons have cited this over the years, even when they are guilty of ignoring the facts. As I often point out, context matters, and it’s worth going into the backstory of this quote just a bit.
On March 5, 1770, a group of British soldiers opened fire on a crowd of colonial civilians in what came to be know as, “The Boston Massacre.” This was one of several events and actions that turned Colonial Americans against the Crown, and it seemed obvious at the time that no True Patriot could possibly justify such criminal behavior. Nevertheless, John Adam’s took on the task of defending the soldiers; not out of a love for England or the King, but out of a sense of duty to the truth.
As Adams saw it, the shootings were a massacre, but it was not the fault of the soldiers that they were sent to Massachusetts in the first place, nor did they choose to murder anyone, as they had been charged for the five deaths that occurred. Adams presented evidence that the soldiers had been remarkably restrained as the mob escalated from yelling to throwing snowballs and stone to hitting the troops with clubs. At some point, the soldiers had a right to defend themselves, just as anyone else does, and they fired, dispersing the crowd out of fear, not malice. After presenting his case, Adams closed by saying:
“I will enlarge no more on the evidence, but submit it to you, gentlemen—Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence nor is the law less stable than the fact. If an assault was made to endanger their lives, the law is clear, they had right kill in their own defence.”
Adams defense of the soldiers stands out as one of those rare, profile in courage type moments we love to point to as a moral example, but rarely get to witness in real life. Not only was Adams particularly brave, so too were the jurors. Of the eight soldiers on trial, six were acquitted and the other two were found guilty of manslaughter, not murder. This is the kind of story we should be teaching our children, in the hopes they will emulate it. Unfortunately, what they are seeing and hearing everyday is something very different.
Most people, I hate to say it, go along with the tribe, with their emotions, with their short-term interests, and any number of things other than the facts. They employ their reasoning abilities only to selectively avoid the truth and pretend they are moral for doing so. But now, for the first time, we have a president who has elevated poor behavior to an art form and launched what has been dubbed a, “post-fact” era, from which I fear we might not recover. When, “fake news,” is anything you don’t like, and childish name calling, gaslighting, and outright fabrications are not only normalized but seen as presidential behavior, it certainly does not bode well for our future.
For the most part, Republicans and self-professed conservatives have simply gone alone with this decline, claiming that 2 + 2 = whatever Trump says it equals today. A horrifying case in point was the recent impeachment trial, where only one Republican Senator, Mitt Romney, was brave enough to point at the Emperor and say, “He has no clothes.” The rest fell in line and said, “Yes, Dear Leader, your extortion of a foreign leader for political gain was perfect.” But the Coronavirus has become a great example of why we cannot survive with dishonest and self-serving leadership at the helm and sycophants manning the other controls. COVID-19 does not exist in a post-fact world. It is completely immune to Trump’s lies and lackluster performance. It does not care how much his extremist base loves him. It stubbornly holds true to the scientific facts that govern reality, no matter how many people refuse to do so. The Coronavirus is a red flag alerting us to future problems that will similarly threaten the globe, irregardless of our partisan posturing and personal delusions. Future crisis, from nuclear proliferation to environmental degradation, will hold true to the same stubbornness exhibited by COVID-19, and they too will exact a cost for our willful ignorance measured in human lives.
From the outset, I was against the election of a Reality TV President, because real life requires substance, not showmanship. The Presidency of Donald Trump, however, is a sign of our times and a warning about the fragility of our republic. How the Coronavirus changes us will determine if this administration marks the beginning of the end of our story, or a new birth of reason. We can continue down the same old road, where both the left and the right favor partisan fallacies, propaganda and emotions over facts, or we can insist on something better. Unfortunately, profound change like this does not come from the top down. We can’t simply elect the right man or woman who will fix everything and call it a day. We need to demand more of ourselves. We have to look for ways to build bridges and find common ground, rather than enemies at every turn. We have to make the effort to be reasonably well informed and engaged. We have to live in the world of facts, where our problems live, regardless of whether or not those facts are things we like.
I know, it’s a tall order, but we have no other alternatives. The facts simply are what they are. We can face them head on or be blindsided by them; as we were by the Coronavirus. The choice is ours to make, because there is no post-fact world we can escape to.
To end this on a positive note, did you see that the Republican-led Senate review of the facts in the 2016 election found that the US Intelligence Community was right. The Russians did interfere and they did so to support Trump. It’s one small, but potentially foreshadowing, victory for the truth.