We all say that we believe in truth, and we all say that we want truth to be our guide. However, much of what passes as truth is at best opinion and at worst unattached to any proven fact. Add to that mixture the fact that many people like to assert their “truth” at 180 decibels, convinced maybe that shouting or raving adds to the likelihood of persuasion.
The 6th century BCE Greek author Aeschylus, deemed to be the father of Greek tragedy, said that “In war, truth is the first casualty.” In the cultural and political wars going on in our great country today, truth is often not just a casualty but it gets buried in an unmarked grave. As a people, in the current state of affairs, we are not likely to get very far doing things this way. We are more likely to just keep digging deeper into the hole we’re in.
Truth is at bottom very simple: it’s an actual event in time and space. Americans rebelled against the British Empire in 1776 and won, we ended slavery in 1865, we saved the world three times in the 20th century - from European imperialism, Fascism, and Communism, and we created a system of world order and trade that multiplied global wealth by 10 times between 1945 and 2019.
That is a pretty good record. The United States has been a force for progress in the world since we said for the first time in all of history that every human being is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
If we said it perfectly and we did wonderful things for the world, back here at home we still did not do all that we could have done and should have done for our own fellow Americans. Slavery began in English speaking North America in 1619. Slave labor contributed mightily to the growth of wealth in the U.S., but the descendants of those slaves have not seen the fruits of their labor. Median white wealth is about ten times that of Blacks. We promised equal protection of the law and due process to our freed Black citizens, but we gave up on that promise for 100 years. Jim Crow, suppression and vigilante terrorism reigned for decades. Believe it or not, the Nazis copied laws from the Southern states to construct their anti-Semitic theology and law. We passed laws to help Americans buy houses, earn an honest wage, and receive Social Security, but we left out our Black neighbors. Black Americans in general are more poor, more vulnerable in jobs and health, have a higher percentage of their population behind bars, and face more obstacles in moving ahead than do white Americans.
Making laws to prohibit teachers from teaching this truth drives us deeper into darkness. Truth makes it possible to recognize these wrongs, to acknowledge that they happened and more importantly to recognize that these actions had consequences that last down to right now, this moment. With those consequences before us in plain sight, we can work to right wrongs and reconcile ourselves to go forward together - as a community of every color to a better tomorrow. “Just do it,” says Nike. “Just do it,” repeat our better angels.
Will we do this? President Biden has singled out systemic racism and called on Americans of every color to step up, to be bold, and write the next chapter in the American story. When our days are over, he said, will our children say that we gave our best?
We have now, right now, the greatest opportunity since the Civil Rights triumphs of the 1960’s to achieve breakthroughs against racism. This is the Third Reconstruction in American History. Each Reconstruction before us made progress and each time the national society that first welcomed progress tired of the struggle. Those who pushed back against progress wanted us to believe that history was over. They said and still say that we do not have to know about or act on the need for more.
Martin Luther King, Jr, never thought that way. He never understood why wrong should stand and right should be an aspiration instead of a reality. Time and again, he called on ordinary Americans of every color and origin to become engaged. He knew that justice is never given voluntarily by those who are satisfied with injustice. He knew the power that comes from those who demand change, highlight hypocrisy and never give up. John Lewis told us to “make good trouble.” Are we prepared to stand where he stood, to do what he did, to make good trouble so fairness and justice would see the light of day? In this situation, can we ask ourselves what Dr. King asked us, what John Lewis asked us, can we press now, not tomorrow or sometime, but now for the change that will ensure equal justice?
Amanda Gorman, the nation’s Youth Poet Laureate, spoke to this challenge at the Inauguration,
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid,
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
if only we’re brave enough to be it
Do we have the courage that others have offered? It’s there for us to step up and go forward if we wish to do so. Do we? That is the question, and it will remain the question until the work is finished.
by Bob Pearson
During his long diplomatic career, W. Robert Pearson, 77, was an innovative diplomat, leader and crisis manager at the top levels of the U.S. government. He was U.S. ambassador to Turkey and completed a 30-year career in 2006 with the Department of State as Director General of the Foreign Service. He is a frequent writer and speaker on diplomacy, foreign policy, Turkey, NGOs and development. Pearson served under six presidents (four Republican and two Democratic) and 11 secretaries of state. Retirement brought him to Chatham County; he lives in Fearrington Village with his wife of 45 years, Maggie. A native of Tennessee, Pearson traces his Southern lineage back more than 300 years, with ancestors who fought in the American Revolution and the Civil War. Two great-grandfathers were at Bennett Place in Durham in 1865 in the last surrender of a major Confederate army.