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Go Forth As If There Were Answers

The guy who ran my graduate writing program, The Perfessor, once said to all of us that at some point writers should sit down and write a statement for themselves about what they believe. I was attracted to the notion, but of course I never did it. None of us did. The Perfessor was a great one for suggesting things none of us ever paid any attention to.

The thing is, there's a certain amount of discovering what you believe by way of your writing. That is, what you really believe eventually emerges from what you write about, and how you write about it, so I'm not sure that sitting down and writing a statement about what you believe will get you much more than a statement of what you wish you believed.

I think I was imagining the Perfessor wanted some sort of Overarching Manifesto -- a document that encompassed everything that I believe. That's part of why I never did it, I think. I don't know at any given moment what I believe about everything. Nobody does.


Yesterday afternoon I was listening to NPR's "All Things Considered" and I heard a piece from a series they are now running called "This I Believe". This seems more like the ticket. From the one example I heard, you got your one guy picking one thing that he believes in and then he talks about that. He's only got three minutes, after all. I could probably do something like that. What's the most important thing I believe? Or, put another way, if I only had three minutes to get across what I believe, what would I write about, and what would I say about it?

Of course, I'm still not going to do it. Not here. Not right now. Maybe later. What I'm going to do now, instead, is point you to what the guy had to say yesterday. His name is Errol Morris and you might just recognize his name as the guy who made the documentaries The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War. Here's how his "statement" begins:

I believe in truth. And in the pursuit of truth.

When I was 10 years old, I asked a neighborhood kid who was older than me, "Which city is further west: Reno, Nev., or Los Angeles?" The correct answer is Reno, Nev. But he was convinced it was the other way around.

He was so convinced that Los Angeles was west of Reno that he was willing to bet me two bucks. So I went into the house to get my Rand McNally Atlas. The kid looked at the atlas and said, "The map is drawn funny." It wasn't. Was his argument that the map didn't preserve east, west, north and south? What kind of map would that be? I showed him if you trace down the 120-degree west line of longitude -- which runs almost directly through Reno, Nev. -- you end up in the Pacific Ocean, somewhere west of Los Angeles.

He replied that lines of longitude don't cross the ocean.

What? I told him that the lines of longitude were there to indicate how far west or east some location was, regardless of whether it was on land or on sea.

There was one insurmountable problem, however. He was bigger than me.

Now... what I like about this -- apart from the simple value of the story itself -- is how precisely it captures the relationship many of us have to the Bush Administration and its toadying right-wing media machines.

You show them the map. Here -- right on the map -- you point out that, for example, the line of longitude that goes through their reasons for starting a war in Iraq is way to the west of Reno. Their answer? Lines of longitude don't go out into the ocean.

But... but...

Shut up. My assertions are fact. And besides, I'm bigger than you are.

But what I like even more is the rest of Morris's story.

Almost 15 years ago, I stumbled on a story about an innocent man, a man who had been sentenced to die in the Huntsville, Texas, electric chair. And through hard work, luck and a certain amount of pathological obsession, I was able to make the movie The Thin Blue Line and to help get him out of prison.

What kept me going was the belief that there had to be answers to the questions "Did he do it?", "Was he guilty or innocent?", "If he didn't do it, who did?" and that I could find an answer to these questions through investigating.

It's not that we find truth with a big "T." We investigate and sometimes we find things out and sometimes we don't. There's no way to know in advance. It's just that we have to proceed as though there are answers to questions. We must proceed as though, in principle, we can find things out -- even if we can't. The alternative is unacceptable.

Yo. American news media? Pay attention for a minute, here. Read the above again. It's pretty simple, really. Let me point out the really important part for you:

"It's just that we have to proceed as though there are answers to questions. We must proceed as though, in principle, we can find things out -- even if we can't."

Okay? Get it, you irredeemably stupid and lazy fuckers? Here, let me boost the pith-value for you even more: "Keep asking questions until you get past the bullshit."

This guy Errol Morris? He did that, pretty simple really, and he ended up saving an innocent man from being executed by the State of Texas. That's pretty important, don't you think? Maybe you could spend more time asking questions that get you past the bullshit? It's kind of important, you know.

Maybe this is the difference between Morris and most of the rest of the American news media: when he figured out that the kid on the playground was bigger than him, it didn't scare him away from the notion of proceeding as though there were answers to questions. He grew up to be a guy who went out and kept asking questions, bravely, no matter what line of bullshit the playground bullies kept trying to feed him, and he ended up saving an innocent guy's life.

Oh, wait. I accidentally arrived at something I believe: Not every arrival at the truth is profound, but every search for the truth has to matter.

Nobody's saying it isn't hard work. Ask Morris if the work was hard, saving that guy's life. The point isn't the amount of screen time you get as a reporter. The point isn't the number of front-page column inches you get. The point is the hard work of asking questions as if there were answers. Why? Because it's that sort of hard work that gets you -- and us, the rest of the country -- to places that actually matter.


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When I get home from work I'm going to link to this from my infrequently updated livejournal acct, 'kay?
You SO rule.

I encounter this in litigation all of the time. People don't seem to understand. If there are two opposing versions of a single "fact," and we're actually talking about the fact itself rather than the implications or inferences that should be drawn from the fact, one version is wrong, and it's almost certainly possible to figure out which.

If you have your own version, and others' version differs, then it is an opinion. You don't get to have an opinion, however, on whether or not I am five foot five inches tall. You don't get to have an opinion on whether or not my son was born in August. And you don't get to have an opinion on whether or not we found WMD in Iraq after invading. If it is a question subject to empirical investigation, then find the answer.

This post actually reminds me of the Daily Show segment that you posted about previously. You don't get to make up empirical facts, and JOURNALISTS are supposed to be the ones who point out when the empirical facts are really just, well, lies.

Thanks again. You should put all these together in a little book, "Things D.'s mom is going to make him read, just as soon as he gets back from 5th grade camp."

Please link to me. I live for being linked to. For a while I wanted to be rich & famous and to save the world, but now I live for being linked to. I'm not real sure this blogging thing has exactly improved my character.

It's funny you would mention that this reminds you of the Daily Show post. I thought afterwards that I should have linked to that thingie as a Prime Example of what I was talking about. This thing where the CNN "anchor" just fills up her three minutes of screen time without actually, you know, giving a crap about the truth is the Exact Thing.

If you want D. to get anything out of what I write, you should probably hide it someplace where he supposedly can't find it? If you give it to him as an assignment, he'll probably hate me.

You and Xopher are my two biggest fans. Thank you. I love it.

Well, I am one of Xopher's biggest fans, too, I'll bet. So I think we are all in good company.

D. is not yet old enough to rebel against things we want him to read. And since we keep the censorship to the barest minimum (a fact which has brought me SO MANY mother-drive-bys over the years based on his intense fannishness regarding NIN and Green Day and, really, his own dad's music), he doesn't really do the "Mom says I shouldn't so I should," thing too much, except of course with dangerous physical things like climbing to the top of forty foot pine trees.

Plus, you use just enough profanity to keep him profoundly interested long enough to get the message. That must sound just horrible, but you know, he REALLY likes the Daily Show. Sometimes he watches it when it re-airs in the early evening. And sometimes that raises a bunch of questions, usually of the "What is he talking about? He's talking about sex, isn't he?" variety.

But what really fascinates him about Jon Stewart and the rest of the daily show cast is, in my opinion, the willingness to challenge the POWER on the air in an outraged way. It never fails to crack him up. And he loves it when he can tell that the bleeped out word is "fuck."

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