When Jack Nicholson ad-libbed, “You can’t handle the truth” in that 1992 movie it became one of those phrases that assumed a life of its own, used long after in contexts far removed from the original plot. The Nicholson character’s truth proved to be irrelevant, part of a strident defence that did not prevent his arrest in a military courtroom. Of course the object of the blast of rhetoric, Tom Cruise’s character, was going to win.
“Truth” can seem so clear a concept – at first glance. At second glance, like anything else closely examined, there is more to think about.
Now, with all of America the audience, a confrontation as dramatic as any movie script was rolled out Thursday on TV screens. “Without clear planning and implementation of the steps that I and other experts have outlined, 2020 will be darkest winter in modern history.” Wow. Scientist Rick Bright has a way with words.
“I don’t know the so-called Whistleblower Rick Bright, never met him or even heard of him, but to me he is a disgruntled employee, not liked or respected by people I spoke to and who, with his attitude, should no longer be working for our government!” Characteristic Trump. Massive retaliation.
Yet mere words from both men. Words don’t kill people, at least directly. Who will Tom Cruise play in the inevitable scripted replay? A president who seems to believe he must push hard for re-openings, perhaps to help his re-election, or to be generous, perhaps because he feels to do otherwise would lead to some kind of societal collapse amid the wreckage of a ruined economy?
Will Cruise play the government scientist, pushed out of his job overseeing pandemic preparedness, who goes before Congress to say lives were lost, particularly those of nurses and doctors, because of tardy and disorganised follow up. Or was it more because of too much caution by his superiors, many layers of government below the Oval Office? Or was it because the president had signalled the medical bureaucracy not to rock the boat. It will all blow over. Or was it an ossified system, left to harden itself against action, suppressing the fears of Bright and many others like him who didn’t get courageous enough to squeal to Congress until it was too late.
In this case “truth” is a particularly scary topic. It’s actually closer to “truthiness,” a concept born of the old Colbert Report. It’s scary because the entire burden of discerning “truth” is on us. No one – not the president, not scientist Bright, knows what will be the truth, and right now no one knows what is the truth. That is, will premature re-openings create unnecessary additional deaths? Will all the needless delays of the past cause additional deaths? That seems plausible knowing the virus is as infectious as ever.
In a morning MSNBC broadcast, however, ex-FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said he is surprised that so far the earliest re-openers, Georgia and Florida, are still seeing fewer and fewer virus cases. Perhaps there is a seasonal effect dampening the spread, he speculated.
Of course, given the incubation period of the virus, re-openings from last week and this week won’t show up at the ventilators for another week or three. So many judgments have to be tentative.
President Trump is not a virologist, an epidemiologist, a doctor and his many enemies don’t regard him as much of a president either – but he could turn out to be correct. The net benefits of premature re-openings might turn out to outweigh the safety inherent in staying at home. Or not.
He calls Dr. Bright “disgruntled” but Trump can’t know whether the scientist is right about future unnecessary deaths, about the cost of delay. Yet it’s a real-time decision to go to the re-opened bar or restaurant or nail salon, a decision we are making today with possible real life-and-death consequences in a couple of weeks.
If life was a true-or-false game, we’d still be huddling in a cave, wondering what will eat us if we leave. If we could judge infallibly who best to follow, Charles Ponzi, Bernie Madoff and the Reverend Jim Jones would probably not have their own Wiki entries.
One of the signs held by a demonstrator in Michigan earlier today said, “We’re people, not sheep.” Exactly. Sheep can’t do a lot of planning ahead, assessing risks, thinking for themselves.
The sign holder meant his governor can’t treat him like an animal. He, the human, is using his brain to tell him not to wear a mask, to ignore medical advice and make a statement that he’s free to choose for himself whether to re-socialise at close range. In Wisconsin, the perfectly legitimate governmental process, giving the state Supreme Court the last word, opened the doors of the bars. People packed in despite what the governor thought would save lives.
For the future, any “truth” is premature. The “truth” looks backward. Did someone ignore the warnings about the need for masks, about the danger of unsupervised distribution of hydroxychloroquine? That’s true or false.
“We’ve had tremendous response to hydroxychloroquine.” That statement during the day by President Trump is true or false.
“Could be the testing’s frankly overrated. We have more cases than anyone in the world. Why? Because we do more testing.” That statement by the president earlier in the day is also either true or false.
But again, no one can know what has yet to happen this fall, or this winter. Or in three weeks.
The burden is on us to create the future with our decisions right now on how much to re-socialise, how often, under what conditions, with or without masks. Or we can rely on our tribal instincts and go with the flow.
And that’s the…you know. Now do it.