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Truth, facts: What the difference means for democracy

Bill Roberts

Who knew epistemology could get a standing ovation? Then again, when was the last time anyone left a play thinking that it should be required viewing in middle schools?

Such was my response to the Merely Players production of “Lifespan of a Fact” on March 10 in Durango. It was an extraordinarily thought-provoking piece, in spite of – or perhaps because of – the simplicity of its plot.

A writer, played by Stephen Bower, submits a piece to a magazine about the Las Vegas suicide of a teenager. An editor for the magazine, played by Melanie McLean, hires a young intern, the role of Connor Sheehan, to check the accuracy of the work. And for about 90 minutes, those three are part of an intense – and sometimes quite funny –argument that touches on much of what is currently happening in American public life.

At issue was the writer’s propensity to play fast and loose with the facts. The fact-checker pointed out where he thought the author erred – and they were off, taking the audience along for the ride.

It was intriguingly hard to know who was right. At times, it seemed the fact-checker was being overly picky. Other times the writer’s use of bogus “facts” were infuriating. And more than once, one had to wonder why the editor did not simply bang their heads together.

All that was enhanced by the knowledge that the story was based on actual events, that the writer and fact-checker were real people and that the play itself was based on a book the two had co-authored.

I loved director Mona Wood-Patterson’s production on all levels. I should point out, however, that while the two men in the play are unfamiliar to me, my wife and I are friends of Melanie and I have known her husband for decades. Far from unbiased, I am an unabashed fan.

As such, I lack both the training and the objectivity to be a theater critic. What I can speak to, however, are the play’s central questions.

In my time with The Durango Herald, I often said that the editorial page has it over the news side: Reporters have to stick to the facts; on the Opinion page, writers can speak the truth. (Not an original thought, I just cannot remember where I stole it.)

But that gets to the point of the play – and to what it means to our times. What is the difference between the facts and the truth? Does one require or imply the other? How do we know either? Can we? And how do we get along without even asking those questions?

How can we manage a globe-spanning empire when many of us are willing to follow a character who proudly proclaims that reality is whatever he says it is? How do we run a democracy when too many of us apparently do not know truth from fantasy or even care? What do we do about all that?

In my youth, the state of California required eighth-grade students to pass a test on the Constitution before moving on to high school. Such a thing may not even be possible today, but why not try? We could begin with a middle-school production of “Lifespan” and the questions it raises.

We might have to cut out a few of the f-bombs for parents’ sake (because 13-year-olds have never heard that word), but at that age, kids are ripe for the discussion that could ensue. And who knows, we might encourage a whole new take on democracy.

Bill Roberts was a former Opinion editor for The Durango Herald from 1990 to 2017.