A Final Thought: The Post-truth World


By Mitch Allen

There is much talk these days about the “post-truth era” in which we live, where facts are threatened by conspiracy theories that find eager audiences online, and where science is brought into question in the name of freedom of expression.

“If I believe the world is flat,” the flat earthers argue, “you cannot disagree with me, otherwise you’re tramping on my right to free speech. My opinion is just as valid as yours.”

Uh, no it’s not.

I’m an English major, not a scientist, but until you’ve subjected your hypothesis to experimentation using the scientific method and the results are shown to be repeatable, then, again, no.

The world is, of course, round and always has been; but it has also always been a post-truth world. Making up stuff isn’t something new brought on by the internet. For millennia, cultures have been held together by the glue of storytelling and mythology, and these stories often have little basis in history.

Growing up in the 1960s, I knew many unarguable stories about the founding of United States of America: how Columbus discovered it in 1492 while setting out to prove the world was round; how the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and enjoyed the first Thanksgiving in 1621 to celebrate a bountiful harvest with help from the Wampanoag tribe, particularly a dude named Squanto; how George Washington confessed to cutting down the cherry tree because he could not tell a lie.

Well, virtually none of this is “true.” In 1492 it was already generally accepted that the Earth was round. Columbus was actually searching for a direct water route from Europe to Asia, and he didn’t “discover” America because he never set foot in America. During four different voyages, he explored the Caribbean Islands and the coasts of Central and South America, where he terrorized native people and Spanish colonists who were already there.

Plymouth was an existing Native American settlement when the Pilgrims landed, and in 1614—before the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620—Squanto was captured and enslaved by the English. He spent several years in Spain and England before returning to Plymouth in 1619 where he met the Pilgrims two years later, his fellow villagers already wiped out by smallpox, courtesy of European settlers. He did, however, translate for the Pilgrims and helped them learn to plant and where to fish. We got that one right!

I should mention here that my wife is a descendant of two Mayflower passengers—Stephen Hopkins and his daughter, Candice. But Stephen was no Pilgrim fleeing religious persecution; he was in it for the cash. On a previous voyage he had been shipwrecked on Bermuda where he led a mutiny against the captain. Once rescued, he was returned to England to face trial. Although sentenced to death, he managed to plead for mercy then hightailed it to Plymouth on the Mayflower to seek his fortune.

By the way, Shakespeare heard about the shipwreck and based his play The Tempest on the episode. Many scholars agree that Stephen Hopkins served as the bard’s inspiration for the character Stephano (who stayed drunk for much of the play).

While George Washington may have been a man of integrity, the story of his chopping down the cherry tree was concocted by the biographer Mason Locke Weems, whose The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington didn’t feature the story until fifth edition in 1806, seven years after Washington died.

Part of becoming an adult is letting go of childhood mythologies and embracing the idea that the world is far more complicated than we think, with nearly as many viewpoints are there are people. This process often begins when we discover the reality behind Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, and it continues for our entire lives, all the way to the point when we learn that our ancestor was not a Pilgrim, but a mutineer, and there is no such thing as a good gluten-free pizza crust.

On my first day of college in my very first class at 8:00 a.m., the history professor took the lectern and before even introducing himself declared, “George Washington was an a**hole.” It was his way of waking up our high school minds with a little shock therapy. I was 17—too young to vote or buy a beer—and I was indeed shocked, not because I thought Washington was a great guy, but because I didn’t know teachers could cuss.


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