In my former life as a journalist, a newspaper reporter, a Knight Errant of the most chivalrous of professions, I was eager to do battle with the Dragons of the Realm of Falsehoods, the firedrakes that were the scourge of honest citizens and principled civilizations. Unfortunately, the monsters would not emerge from their lairs and fight.
Most often I covered and reported on mundane meetings of city councils, county supervisors, and school boards and was seldom called upon to don my armor, strap on my sword, heft my lance, mount my charger and sally forth to combat evil and injustice in the world. Occasionally there was a dragon to fight, but not often.
I suspect that’s how it is for most journalists and most writers. We set out with grand intentions and lofty ideals, passionate about universal truths and eternal virtues, taking the long view of the human drama and applying our convictions to the here-and-now whenever we can.
During our careers we learn that evil is, for the most part, banal. We learn the validity of the journalist’s mantra: “Never attribute to malice a misdeed that is probably the result of incompetence and ignorance.” Most office holders, people in leadership positions both public and private, intend to do good, but incompetence and ignorance, augmented by greed and vanity, obscure their sense of goodness and their integrity. This is the recurring theme of the human tragedy.
The course of history is not a parade toward rightness and morality, and the procession of current events through which we now stumble is especially wayward and directionless. We march under the banners of our ignorance, and we seem proud of our incompetence. We proclaim this madness to be “The Truth.”
The publisher who hired me for my first newspaper job told me, “We report facts here. If you want to write ‘the truth,’ you’re in the wrong profession. You should be a novelist, not a news reporter.” Over the course of a 40-year career in journalism and public relations, I learned that accurate reporting is based on facts, figures, data, information, causes and effects, motivations and purposes, intentions and objectives. These are the basis of good reporting, good decision-making, and the antithesis of ignorance and incompetence.
Sadly, we now have few news reporters and many news commentators. We have a lot of “news” people ranting about their “truths” and few that report facts, figures, data, information, causes and effects, motivations and purposes, intentions and objectives. Sadly, we have a citizenry that does not comprehend the difference, that is proud of its ignorance, proud of its incompetence.
This does not bode well for a nation that depends on democracy as its ethos and egalitarianism in its day-to-day functions.
America has always had more than its share of nativists, Know-Nothings, anti-intellectuals, science deniers, populists, and religious fanatics. They all have two things in common: they are ignorant of (or deny) facts and data, and they know “the truth.”
This was brought home to me when one of my reporters in West Texas wrote a story about an alleged UFO sighting. “About one in three people believe UFOs are invaders from outer space,” she said. I thought she was joking, but surveys conducted by reputable researchers such as the Gallup organization and the Smithsonian Institution reveal:
34 percent of Americans believe in UFOs.
55 percent say they believe in angels.
34 percent say they believe in ghosts.
Only 39 percent say they accept the concept of evolution.
Only 36 percent believe global warming is partly anthropogenic.
And according to the U.S. government’s National Institute of Science: “Surveys conducted in the United States and Europe reveal that many citizens do not have a firm grasp of basic scientific facts and concepts, nor do they have an understanding of the scientific process. In addition, belief in pseudoscience (an indicator of scientific illiteracy) seems to be widespread among Americans and Europeans.”
Frighteningly, it seems that many of those scientifically illiterate people are elected officials.
This will not have a happy ending. When facts collide with “the truth,” the result is almost always fatal. During the 20th century, about 100 million people died when the world was caught in the maelstrom of “the truth” of fascism, communism, capitalism, colonialism, nationalism, and a dozen different religious dogmas. In this century, more than 3 million people have already died because coronavirus is “a hoax.”
But I do understand the disillusionment with evolution. Through our 200,000 years of evolving, more than 10,000 generations, homo sapiens should have become much more intelligent. We didn’t.
To read more essays and stories about life in the North Country, visit the Author Page where my books are listed for sale in paperback or e-book format.