Truth isn’t whatever you wish it to be
BY NEIL STEINBERG firstname.lastname@example.org February 28, 2013 3:22PM
The Abraham Lincoln hat in the collection of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
Updated: April 2, 2013 6:14AM
Moving on is what being a columnist is all about. If I heard Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount in Grant Park, I would get two, at most three, columns out of it. One — or maybe two — on the sermon itself, then a column of reaction and on to the next subject. That’s what people want. If a second sun pops in the sky, on Day One everybody demands to know about it: Where did it come from? What does it bode for our planet? A week later, however, we hardly give it a second glance. “Oh that? You mean the second sun? Omega 17, rogue blue dwarf star, drifted into our solar system last week. Old news. Scientists say we should be OK.”
Otherwise, it’s hobby-horsing, laziness or obsession, the journalistic equivalent of clonic rocking in a corner.
So after Wednesday, when I wrote about the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, and the top hat it paid millions of dollars for despite it being connected to Lincoln through a flimsy skein of supposition that wouldn’t convince anybody who didn’t already own it, the thing to do would be to move forward.
Which I awoke this morning ready to do. Sequestration! Gay marriage! The non-hat world is spread before us, ripe with promise.
But the hat ... that hat touches upon the central problem in American life today — the inability to set biases aside and ask: Is this true? Yes, it would be to my advantage if it were true. Yes, I want it to be true. But is it truly true, my wishes notwithstanding?
I don’t know whether doing that is getting harder for people, or if the Internet just reveals how deluded so many prefer to be. The first anniversary of the Trayvon Martin killing jammed my in-box with photos purporting to show the young man as a preening thug with tattoos on his face. Which a visit to Snopes.com revealed as the obvious fraud they are. But that isn’t the truly disappointing part. The truly disappointing part is that I immediately wrote back to a few of the readers who forwarded the manufactured slur and asked, “Aren’t you ashamed to credulously forward this lie? Does finding out it’s completely false give you pause at all?”
Stop the presses — it didn’t. They gave a moo and lurched on to the next non-truth that seems to validate what they’re determined to believe. Obama so distrusts the Marines he made them march in the inaugural parade without bolts in their rifles! Obama hates Marines! Never pausing to wonder if Marines generally parade with loaded rifles.
Yes, it’s naive optimism for me to expect people to break free of their biases. To think the Lincoln Library — having committed to blow $23 million for a collection of memorabilia featuring this dubious hat, which they wishfully value at $6.5 million, as the centerpiece — would view their decision now with the scholarly eye they supposedly command.
Instead they insist the hat is Lincoln’s. They have to. What else could they do?
I know what I would do if I belonged to a group supposedly dedicated to history and Lincoln. I would swallow hard, keep the hat as a centerpiece — no need to design a new logo — but acknowledge the buzzing cloud of questions around it. Here are the reasons suggesting it’s something a family just decided must belong to Lincoln. Here are other fakes and frauds with similar provenance. Here are the flimsy reasons our institution was gulled into buying the thing.
Then I would ask: Why do we care whether Lincoln touched it or not? What does he mean to our nation, then and now? What legacy does he leave?
Shouldn’t scholarship reach for that standard? True, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library is more Disneyland than Smithsonian — its museum was designed by people who make theme parks. But even Disney doesn’t go around insisting Mickey was an actual mouse, who lived on earth, dated Minnie and piloted a steamboat. I don’t think demanding that the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library hold itself to the same intellectual rigor as Disney World is too much.
True story. At the Republican State Convention in Decatur in May 1860, Lincoln’s cousin, John Hanks, paraded before the cheering delegates, hauling a pair of wooden rails that Lincoln had supposedly split years earlier on the frontier. The candidate was asked, then and there, whether these were the same rails he had personally hewn as a young man. Honest Abe looked at the wood and admitted it was impossible to tell whether they were the same rails but “whether they were or were not, he had mauled many better ones since he had grown to manhood.”
The truth is, if we placed the hat in Lincoln’s hands he might not know if it were his. The truth is, whether Lincoln owned the hat or not is a less interesting question than why we care. The library cares because it bought the thing. They would be better served not by clutching whatever slim argument shores up their view but by caring more about the truth than about saving face. As would we all.