President Joe Biden stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and spoke seven words Americans desperately need to hear: “There is truth and there are lies.”
Freshly inaugurated, facing a period of sickness and division unmatched in modern American history, the new president spoke of unity and other collective aspirations in his Wednesday address, but nothing was more important to the repairing of our nation than that one sentence: There is truth and there are lies.
The dividing line between fact and fiction has been eroding for some time, but the failed, divisive charlatan Biden replaces walloped that line, leaving even reasonable Americans unsure of what was real or fake and, in too many cases, making it effortless for people to choose their own reality.
Earlier this month, as the U.S. Capitol was stormed by Americans deceived by baseless propaganda and stoked to violence by opportunists, we saw the chaos that comes when you don’t have truth to keep madness at bay.
It was tragically predictable. Families across the country have effectively lost loved ones to a thinly veiled white-nationalist cause and to various unhinged conspiracy theories like QAnon, which posits the previous president was battling a liberal cabal of satanic pedophiles.
There is truth and there are lies. Not knowing the difference destroys minds.
Biden spoke with passion about unity. Many of us, regardless of political views, want that. But unity comes only with a recognition that facts matter, and that facts aren’t fluid things that conform to whatever vessel holds them.
The new, duly elected president of the United States is Joseph R. Biden. That’s a fact. It’s provable, quantifiable. There was no grand conspiracy, the election was not rigged. To say otherwise at this point is to cross that eroded boundary from the reality we have into the reality you want.
If we are to come together, we must invite back the people who crossed that boundary. But to get back, they have to acknowledge they bought into lies. They have to accept they were conned. That’s not a toll, it’s an intellectual necessity. You can’t return to reality without first recognizing you’ve been living somewhere else.
This doesn’t mean we all have to agree on everything, or even on most things. Biden acknowledged that “the forces that divide us are deep and real.”
But there’s a mammoth difference between disagreeing on issues relating to immigration or the economy and disagreeing on whether Biden is a secret communist about to let Chinese troops storm the country.
There’s a difference between examining factual evidence and mindlessly adopting the rhetoric of someone you hear on the radio or watch on TV.
There’s a difference between baselessly hating people because you were told they’re evil and feeling angry at people because they’re unwilling to separate truth from lies.
Unity is an inspiring and necessary goal, but you don’t just go there. It requires something of those trying to unify.
In the case of this American moment, those who went down the “rigged election” rabbit hole, intentionally or through the trickery of propaganda, have to admit they were wrong.
Democrats, Republicans and others who embraced reality from the start must be willing to accept the admissions of those who chased the lies, then let them back in and try to move forward.
That’s how you get to unity. You can’t just say “Oh, well. No biggie!” to an insurrection. You can’t join hands when the person whose hand you’re holding doesn’t believe in objective reality.
“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal,” Biden said.
That’s aspirational, to be sure. Ideological divides aren’t easy to bridge.
But the divide doing the greatest damage to this country is the one between reality and utter nonsense. And that’s the one we stand a better chance of fixing, particularly right now, as visions of the previous president swooping in to arrest Biden and retake the White House fall like a house of cheap casino cards. As conspiracy theories crumble into rhetorical rubble. As the warnings of evil to come reveal themselves to be fearmongering babble from chiselers and crooks.
Facts have to matter again. It is, without hyperbole, a matter of national importance.
We have to get to a point where we have at least a baseline agreement that there is truth and there are lies, and facts alone decide which is which.
As Biden said in his address: “If we do this, then when our days are through, our children and our children’s children will say of us: They gave their best, they did their duty, they healed a broken land.”
I hope, truly, that the blurred border bet-ween reality and ideological fantasy can come back into focus. And I hope some—at the very least, some—make it back over to this side.
Rex Huppke is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.