(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, October 22, 2016)
KAMPALA, UGANDA – It’s hard to know what to make of it somedays, what to make of these remarkable matters like belief and truth and monsters.
I mean, when I was a young reporter I wrote about a monster that nobody believed in, and even that caused a stir. It was the so-called Lake Erie Monster, affectionately known as LEM.
According to a supermarket tabloid, he (or she?) flipped a sailboat and nearly drowned its poor passengers, Americans just wanting to get out for a summer afternoon.
My newspaper employer sent me to investigate. News, apparently, was slow.
I tried to locate survivors from Chicago. I talked to the US Coast Guard. I rang up the tabloid, The Weekly World News, in Florida. Pictured on its front page, the attacking monster looked more like some brontosaurus from the Triassic Age.
I talked to locals in Port Stanley. Its chamber of commerce, for fun, had put a $250,000 bounty on LEM’s hide. I interviewed a paranormal psychologist, plus an animal rights activist outraged about any bounty on legitimate biological marine life.
Finally, with another reporter, I went to Erie’s north shore. But a sea monster, angry or otherwise, was nowhere to be seen.
It all would have ended there with my off-beat stories, but for my efforts I was later sent with a tuxedo and train ticket to Toronto. At a swanky hotel with some of the finest media gathered from across Canada, I was then given an oversized steak and a $2,000 prize. It was all something.
Yes, people appreciate the entertainment value in their news. Look at America’s election circus, with all its acts and trickery and that unabashed Lord of the Lies, Donald J. Trump.
I realize that some people would argue that journalists don’t have a pristine relationship with the truth any more than politicians. And there’s something to this. We’re all stuck in a world where things are easily broken and bruised, the truth being chief among them.
Still, there’s lying and then there’s lying. When a Nazi knocks on your door looking for Jews, you lie because you, in fact, value a larger truth.
“Truth is like a diamond,” is how I’ve put it to students. “Light comes in it and through it and from it from different directions. You need to move around to see it better.”
You let the evidence or lack of evidence of a monster or anything else speak for itself. Strong democracies have built safeguards into this unearthing process, strong media and courts and scientific communities among them. Fortunate societies have been served well by these.
But things are now becoming an awful mess. It’s not only that your neighbour’s hairdresser on social media somehow has as much authority as The New York Times. Or that conspiracy theories in every colour of the rainbow lurk behind every naturally produced shadow. Or that western culture has this growing propensity to amuse itself to death. There’s more.
It’s this trendy view, as old as Eden, really, that truth itself doesn’t exist. Truth, say the new academics, is simply a construct. A power play. A narrative told by those in charge. Change the narrative and change the truth. Deconstruct it. (Deconstructionists, of course, can easily create their own slithering power plays.)
Any politician or spin doctor in America or anywhere knows this, just as any Communist or Nazi would. Referring to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi’s short-in-stature propaganda minster, my father recalls his own father saying, “Remember, lies have short legs.”
Even short legs, though, can move people somewhere. Even liars (especially liars) can make desperate people feel better about themselves. This too has been part of America’s disturbing 2016 election race.
We’ll all be blessed, even imperfectly, if it finally ends Nov. 8 with the loss, if you believe the polls, of Mr. Trump. But even this will leave an aftertaste.
For one, a certain brand, a scowling and hollow worldview, has been validated enough to bring Mr. Trump so surprisingly close to running the world’s most influential nation. For two, other liars in less-stable countries aren’t any less emboldened to continue their own ways of demagogue rule.
I know. I’m writing from a continent that has seen enough of them.