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Half-truths combine to form sometimes uncomfortable truths

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Long before 24-hour cable news channels started having panelists yell at each other, I presume in order to boost ratings, every now and then, a local station would foreshadow the conflict yet to come.

When I was a high school freshman, local and very abrasive talk show host Joe Pyne hosted some atheist one night and the two got into a heated argument on air over the national anthem.

The atheist insisted that the “Star Spangled Banner” was an old English drinking song.

Pyne, highly offended at the thought, insisted that it was a patriotic poem written by lawyer Francis Scott Key to honor a victory in the War of 1812.

The two men spent half an hour, the whole show, each insisting they knew the truth and calling the other an idiot, a communist and worse.

I spent the time laughing harder and harder as they almost came to blows because I knew one important thing from a history class.

They were both right.

The lyrics of the national anthem were written in 1814 as a poem, “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” by Key after he watched the battle while held on board a British warship nearby. After a night of bombardment, the American fort held out, the lone U.S. flag still flying at daybreak inspiring Key to jot down his tribute. It was later printed in newspapers.

Pyne was right.

At some point, the poem was set to music — a popular English drinking song called “To Anacreon in Heaven” by composer John Stafford Smith. People began calling the song “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The atheist was right.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson announced it should be played at all official events. It was adopted as the national anthem in 1931.

It is debatable whether that is right. For many people, including me, the our militaristic national anthem is so hard to sing it might drive you to drink — and I suspect some of the modern celebrities who have butchered the song probably did lubricate themselves before singing. I personally wish “America the Beautiful” had been selected as our anthem. I prefer the words and the tune.

My point, which I’ve seen illustrated many more times since, is that too often we can start fighting each other — even over the most trivial things — with the highest level of indignation and the lowest level of information. Sometimes two rights do make a wrong.

Truth is truth, not negotiable — something happened or it didn’t; something exists or it doesn’t. A fact is true; a lie is not an alternative fact, it is a lie.

I am not saying that truth is relative. Philosophy has an axiom used often in religious arguments — two opposites can’t both be right unless there is some third factor intervening.

Good historians know that the facts of history don’t change if they’re true, but our understanding of those facts can change as we add more facts. And our attitudes can change as our understanding grows.

The #MeToo movement offers a good example. Bill Cosby is a talented comedian who could make us laugh until it hurt. Fact one. Fact two, if we believe the 30 or so women who say he sexually assaulted them, is that Bill Cosby abused women over the years. As sad as it feels, both facts are right. So how do we feel about Bill Cosby?

Setting aside President Trump, whose 11,000-plus documented lies since taking office have set a new record in dishonesty, for the rest of us politics and religion are two areas where we need to be humble and forgiving in our disagreements.

The argument over the southern border and immigrants, illegal and otherwise, is an example. It is a fact that our national security dictates the protection of our borders. But it is also a fact that we are a nation of immigrants whose culture and values have been shaped by the melting pot of America. It is also a fact that we are mistreating people, especially children, with intentionally cruel policies of the moment. And it is also a fact that cruelty, bigotry, racism and oppression of anyone can make us sick inside when we see it in life.

Life is full of mixed motives, contrasting facts, limited information and sometimes rank stupidity. When I was younger, I used to wonder why civilization hadn’t advanced any more than it has. As I celebrated another senior birthday last week, I wonder now how civilization managed to get as far as it did.

How do we square a circle and balance the conflicting facts? It isn’t easy, but we have to try — for the sake of our country and for our own souls. The fear and hate, confusion and cynicism, of our modern political life can kill our country if we indulge in them. Avoid rants and chants. Instead, remember the old ways.

Listen to each other. Learn from each other. Love each other — that, especially.

Ken Ripley, a resident of Spring Hope, is The Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.