What is Truth?

What is Truth? February 1, 2013

“It’s a slippery slope when a companies don’t deliver what they promise.”

Yes, “a companies.” That’s exactly how this garbled bit of wisdom, which comes from Stephen DeNittis, attorney for Burlington County in New Jersey, appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

One doesn’t know whether it is the attorney who is inept at speaking, or the copywriter who has failed to proofread; schools of law and journalism long ago ceased to be loci of literacy and thought, which is a fitting end for any organization that renounces the Oxford comma.

The slippery slope that concerns attorney DeNittis, however—that occupies his professional time, in fact, representing as he does the good taxpayers of Burlington County—is the sad reality that a number of local Subway stores have been accused of selling foot-long sandwiches that sometimes fall as much as an inch shy of the boast.

This should surprise no one acculturated to modern corporate parlance; we are inundated with baseless claims of world-class service, of exquisite styling, of dedicated customer service professionals standing by to help us.

Companies hurl words our way, and while their copyediting tends to be slightly superior to the average newspaper (they can afford to pay their editors more, after all, pocketing as they do the extra pennies on these eleven-inch foot-longs and exquisitely styled overcoats sewn by Malaysian nine-year-olds), we are no more likely to believe them than we are to believe that the attorney in Burlington County, New Jersey, makes prosecution decisions with the interests of the taxpayers in mind, rather than his own political career.

We are used to words not meaning anything, you see, and so who cares if foot-long is not supposed to mean eleven inches, that cheese is not supposed to be a vegetable oil and whey composite, that deli meat is not supposed to be shaved from animals shot through with growth hormones and antibiotics, and that salad dressing is not supposed to be a blend of high-fructose corn syrup and chemicals contrived (doubtless in New Jersey, food additive capital of the United States) to stimulate vague memories of how real things once tasted.

Don’t begin to describe for us the widening gap between the truth of words and what we want them to mean, because where would it end? Who wants to hear that universal health care has all sorts of exceptions, that the unemployment rate excludes thousands who’ve simply given up hope of finding work, that college study now means, according to national statistics, less than fifteen hours per week spent reading and writing?

Companies and governments lie to us because we lie to ourselves. We’d just as soon crucify anyone who tries to tell us that progress is gained through sacrifice, that someone has to produce what we all want to consume, that a diet of chemicals and electronica rots body and spirit.

To avoid the truth we must work a steady violence against words, and perhaps nowhere today is this more apparent than in recent news from Pennsylvania, where Penn State officials have ginned up a lawsuit against an insurer that is demanding repayment of legal bills it covered in the case of serial pedophile Jerry Sandusky. The insurer contends that its policies exclude intentional acts of malfeasance, and specifically abuse or molestation.

Those are just a few simple words, of course. That’s why we have attorneys: to circumnavigate troublesome words.

Penn State officials will likely claim that much of the legal bill is not directly because of child abuse, and this is only an order of magnitude greater than the lie held to by a wider American public, that the Sandusky atrocities were not abetted by a widespread avarice for college sports championships that infects a far greater number of higher education institutions than we dare admit.

Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett is conspiring with his lawyers, meanwhile, to sue the NCAA for antitrust violations in its leveling of massive sanctions against Penn State, including a sixty million dollar fine slated to fund child abuse prevention and victim assistance programs.

The NCAA, Corbett alleges, has damaged the Penn State brand, and opened the door for rival colleges to scoop up the team’s best players “like children looting a newly broken piñata.”

How fitting, that image of children. Fitting, but unfortunately placed, given that it was Corbett whose slow-footed grand jury took two years to indict Sandusky; Corbett whose gubernatorial administration approved millions in grants to the Sandusky-controlled children’s charity that provided the fodder for Sandusky’s crimes, and Corbett himself who agreed to the NCAA sanctions last year.

Ah, but what’s an agreement, when there are angry football boosters and campaign donors to be placated? What are words on a page, really?

Don’t answer. It’s a rhetorical question. When Pontius Pilate asked, “What is truth?” the last thing he wanted was an answer. He was giving himself an excuse to ignore the truth staring him in the face.

Pilate ignored the truth and the truth was led away and murdered and buried under stone, but the damning thing about truth is that it doesn’t stay buried, no matter how many lawyers and politicians and sophists pile rocks on its tomb.

The truth of the world doesn’t end, nor can we avoid the day when we, too, must look it in the face, must hear it without a response. Would that we were better at recognizing it now.

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