Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #114. First published in the St. Cloud Times Dec. 31, 2016; in print Jan. 1, 2017

Sunday, January 1, 2017.

This is an occasion for resolutions. Reminiscing about Auld Lang Syne. Urging people to “Start the New Year right,” as Bing Crosby crooned. A riff on Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

But I’m stuck. The reason is best expressed by my favorite New York Times columnist, Roger Cohen, who has condensed into a single sentence my dilemma (and the dilemma of the country): “We are in whatever territory lies beyond unknown unknowns.” Cohen brilliantly adds a fourth category to Donald Rumsfeld’s famous catalog from 2002: "Known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns." Until now, I thought those three covered everything.

Once upon a time, there was consensus that there are facts. There were disagreements about what they were, sure, but there was general agreement that the category of “fact” isn’t empty. Yet on Nov. 30, Trump devotee Scottie Nell Hughes, political editor at and CNN commentator, said this on live radio: "There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”

By the way, the whole conversation makes clear that she didn’t really mean “unfortunately.”

Once upon a time, there was consensus that there is truth. There were disagreements about what it is and isn’t, sure, but there was general agreement that the category of “truth” isn’t empty. While six-year-old George Washington’s “I cannot tell a lie” is a legend, the story reminds us of a time when lies were recognized as what they are — lies. But now, the president-elect can tweet that “millions” of votes were cast illegally, and he is given the benefit of a doubt by millions, including leaders in Congress.

In this through-the-looking-glass world, it’s hard to know how to write about national affairs.

Surveys show that people are generally more positive about their local scenes, though of course there is spillover. I’m anticipating that there will be uplifting things to celebrate in the greater St. Cloud area in 2017.

Public schools will advance, despite efforts of the new Secretary of Education to dismantle them. Two local districts, St. Cloud Area and Sartell-St. Stephen, will begin construction of new high schools — a commitment to the future and the common good by voters. Partner for Student Success will move ahead on its initiatives in Early Childhood and Career and Post-Secondary Readiness.

Local determination to expand renewable energy alternatives will proceed, despite headwinds from the new Secretary of Energy, who wants to eliminate the department.

And those of us who believe the new immigrants among us are a blessing will stand stalwart against those in our midst who advocate against them. We can show here that things the president-elect claims to be true about Muslims are, in fact, lies.

It is a fact, and it is true, that Donald Trump won the Electoral College—thanks to slim margins in three states. I wish it weren’t a fact and true (both the Electoral College itself, and his winning it), but my wishing has no effect, and I have to accept that he is my president. I understand, and sympathize with, those who declare they will never say those words, but their silence doesn’t make it so.

It is also a fact, and it is true, that Hillary Clinton received nearly 3 million more votes — votes that were legally cast by United States citizens — than Donald Trump. It is not merely opinion that Trump did not win a “landslide” — his Electoral College margin is 46th of 58 elections, and his popular vote (negative) margin is the third worst in American history. It is not merely opinion that he does not have a “mandate” to run roughshod over rules and customs that have served this nation well for more than two centuries.

I’m one of the majority who did not vote for him but know nevertheless that he is the president of all of us. He needs to pay attention to all of us, not just the aficionados of Breitbart News. I urge those who agree with me to keep saying this, over and over again — especially to U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer.

There are facts and there is truth. There is also, to be sure, opinion, but opinion is not all there is. We must make sure that public discourse in 2017 is not framed by what Ms. Hughes said in that radio interview when she says "everybody has a way of interpreting [facts] to be the truth or not true.” If everybody’s way of “interpreting” is given equal weight, we’re mired in the swamp of “false equivalency” journalism.

Yes, we’re in territory that lies beyond unknown unknowns. But facts and truth are the GPS to guide us through. We’ve got to keep navigation on at all times.