Point of View: Facts Matter


By Susan Lamontagne 

George Washington never chopped down his father’s cherry tree. It’s a myth, but more than 200 years later we recognize Washington as unfailingly honest and one of our greatest presidents; not necessarily for what he did during his presidency, but because he willingly stepped away from power at a time when it was just not done.

As beautifully recounted in Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton song “The Last Goodbye” (refrain: “Let’s teach them how to say goodbye”), Washington tells Hamilton he will not seek reelection to make way for someone else, thus demonstrating that our new system of government works. “People will say you’re weak,” Hamilton sings in Miranda’s lyrics from the Broadway show and Washington responds, “No, they will see we’re strong.”

These two could be arguing about Trump’s inauguration numbers or his immigration ban. The difference is while they might have had very different perspectives — and to be accurate the debates were more likely to be between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson — they would have at least agreed on the facts.

Today, however, we’re living in an era of “alternative facts.”

How did this happen? One could say it started with a dispute between the White House and the National Park Service about the number of people who attended Trump’s inaugural. That’s when Kellyanne Conway coined “alternative facts” as she argued about crowd size. But in truth it started long before that.

About thirty years ago, politicians started violating one of the most basic rules in marketing: be careful what you say about your opponent as it could reflect back on you. For example, when a plane crash occurs, competing airlines never say, “Fly us instead. We’re safer.” They understand that marketing strategy will undermine the industry as a whole. The last thing they want is for people to think that flying is not safe and, thus, stop flying.

But that’s exactly what politicians have done to governing. By questioning political opponents’ patriotism and birth certificates, by making wild accusations about motives and claims about “draining the swamp,” our leaders have become swamp monsters. And we’ve let them get away with it by buying into such hostile rhetoric.

Trump, however, has taken it to a whole new level. Outrageous and unreasonable attacks are no longer isolated to political opponents. He has called reporters “scum” and the “most dishonest people on earth”; he has attacked major media outlets as “false” and judges who have issued rulings with which he disagrees an “absolute disaster.” He has insulted Mexicans, women, Muslims, and our Intelligence – with a capital “I.”

But also telling is what Trump doesn’t say. He has yet to issue a statement of sympathy to the victims of the shooting — by a white supremacist — in Quebec. He has yet to make a statement or send FEMA aid to victims of tornadoes in Louisiana and Florida (two states that voted for Trump). And his statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day omitted Jews.

And then there’s the “Bowling Green Massacre” that never happened. Conway was at it again; this time she made up a terrorist attack to defend the president’s immigration ban that targets seven countries whose citizens have never — not once — committed a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. And the countries whose citizens did perpetrate 9/11 were not included in the ban.

Confused yet? Forget alternative facts. We’re in an alternative universe where something was indeed brutally murdered at Bowling Green and it was the truth.

But we can’t talk about Bowling Green anymore because Betsy DeVos was just confirmed as Education Secretary — someone with absolutely no experience in or commitment to public education. And a bill was just introduced in the House to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which works to ensure you have clean air and clean water. But regulations are bad and companies should be allowed to dump toxic waste wherever they please in the alternative universe. Except, that really happened when our local congressman, Rep. Lee Zeldin, voted to allow coal producers to dump their waste in rivers and streams. If it had been the Peconic Bay, maybe he would have voted differently. You see, in alternative universes, pollution doesn’t travel in streams and rivers. It stays exactly where it’s dumped.

And in an alternative universe you nominate a man to head the EPA who has spent his career suing the agency on behalf of industrial polluters. Only that really happened too, and his name is Scott Pruitt. Of course, eliminating the EPA would be one way to keep Pruitt from running it.

Maybe while we’re at it we should eliminate the White House. Perhaps we can at least agree on that alternative fact?