Newmann: A collision of truths
“I cannot tell a lie … I cut it with my hatchet.” — 6-year-old George Washington purportedly confessing to his father that he damaged his father’s cherry tree.
The tale of young Washington and the cherry tree is an American staple. The story highlights the youngster’s honesty, integrity and courage (traits that certainly characterized Washington as an adult). The only problem with the story is … it never happened.
Washington died in 1799 and, in 1800, an admirer of Washington — a fellow named Mason Locke Weems — published a biography of the first president. The fifth edition of the book, in 1806, included the cherry tree story — which Weems invented to add an even greater dimension to the already great man. And the myth has persisted for the last 200-plus years.
The story of the cherry tree — and its enduring place in American culture — is an example of what’s known as the illusory truth effect: that false information, if repeated often enough, is thought to be true (even if one initially knows it’s really false).
The Washington story is charming — and is also a tale of upstanding virtue. But not all aspects of illusory truth are so benign.
Ads, which we’re all subjected to in every form of media, are rampant. And many of their claims, as we all know, are totally absurd. But say it long enough and loud enough, and folks can start to believe in their miraculous messages — and buy into their products. Is State Farm really like a good neighbor? Does using ultra-soft Charmin really change your disposition?
The news media — well, illusory goes without saying. And especially television “news.” Tune in to many of the networks, and you get a steady stream of, for lack of a better word, propaganda. Climate change, the virus, current affairs — how can the same story have so many different versions? Folks can just switch on their favorite storytellers and hear pretty much what they want to hear. Over and over and over.
But the current favorite on the illusory front has to be that time-honored icon: politics. Boy, these folks really know how to spin fiction into some strange sort of reality. And, amazingly, almost all politicians — and their respective parties — are masters of the art of false repetition (though some are much, much better than others).
The last election — also known by some as “The Steal” — is an award winner. Almost a year and a half before the actual election, one of the candidates mentioned that, if he lost, the process would surely have been “rigged.” Talk about setting the stage for upheaval. The rest, as they say, is history (with a rather ominous tone for the future).
We also had a long-echoed promise of “Build Back Better,” which seemed like a pretty interesting strategy — until it wasn’t. Who on Earth would want to pay $2 trillion for measures to mitigate climate crisis, as well as for child care initiatives and expanded Medicaid and home health care? What a waste! Talk about bamboozling at its finest, especially when we all should know that the future will obviously take care of itself. Until, somehow, it doesn’t.
The illusory list goes on. And on.
But the major issue with illusory truths is that, sometimes, reality can become totally tangled in the web of those illusions.
Tom Newmann splits his time between Edwards and Queenstown, New Zealand. He has been going winter-to-winter since 1986. He was also a journalist in Missoula, Montana, at the Missoulian for quite a few years. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.