Between being sick (I was down for a couple of weeks with the flu and pneumonia) and stress at work, I haven’t had much time for serious blogging in a while. (Life, and all that.) But I’ve had something on my mind for a while now that I want to put out there, and it has to do with the pursuit of truth.
Since Trump’s election it has become increasingly common for people to observe that we live in a “post-truth world.” Trump constantly Tweets about #fakenews. Alternative news organizations compete with the mainstream news about what the facts are. “Parody” and “satire” sites spread misinformation. Conway talks about “alternative facts” (which I suspect was just a dumb way of saying what she meant rather than a sinister Orwellian code phrase). And I defy anyone to tell me that they actually know one way or the other the truth about the Russia investigation. What most people believe about that business usually has more to do with their political party than with facts.
Now everyone is concerned about “truth.”
(I find this both saddening and amusing because many of the people I know who wring their hands about “facts” and “truth” under Trump were moral and intellectual relativists until recently––until the summer of 2016, as a matter of fact. Better late than never, I suppose.)
I think about all this in connection with Captain America’s famous speech from Amazing Spider-Man #537, where he admonishes Spidey to stand up for his principles even (or especially) when they contradict the majority opinion:
This speech is what made Cap my favorite superhero. I read it at a time in my life when I was struggling to deal with the fact that my political views were often attacked by people on both the left and the right, and I needed to hear from someone that it was worth it to weather that storm instead of falling in line with one side or the other. And Cap’s insistence that we have not only the right but also the duty to obey our consciences and the truth struck me as the supremely American value, the thing that actually makes America great.
Because I love the speech from ASM #537 so much, I was thrilled when the Russo brothers found a way to sneak it into Captain America: Civil War through Sharon Carter’s eulogy for Peggy Carter. And I loved that instead of having Cap give the speech, the Russos used Sharon to inspire Cap about what he should do in response to the Sokovia Accords.
But the movie leaves out six important words from the original speech, and in doing so, it makes a significant change to the speech’s meaning.
In the revised speech, Sharon says that “your job is to plant yourself like a tree and say, ‘No, you move.’” What she leaves out is that you should plant yourself “beside to the river of truth.” This might seem like a small omission, but it guts the original speech of its most important point: it isn’t enough to have convictions and to stick by them against all opposition. We have to constantly pursue truth and make sure that our consciences and principles conform to it.
Justice Antonin Scalia addressed this idea in a speech that he gave to Langley High School students in 1988. Scalia is certainly not a favorite of progressives, but his point here ought to appeal to people on both the left and the right:
Indeed, follow your star––if you want to head north and it’s the North Star. But if you want to had north and it’s Mars, you had better follow somebody else’s star. Indeed, never compromise your principles––unless, of course, your principles are Adolf Hitler’s, in which case, you would be well advised to compromise them as much as you can.
None of this is to say that it’s always easy to discover the truth. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the truth is often very hard to find––and this seems increasingly true in a world saturated with information and data. But that difficulty only makes it all the more important that we pursue the truth.
Truth is also limiting, and our age rejects the very idea of limitations. And yet the truth imposes definite boundaries on us. It says “no” and “back up” and “stop there” as often as it says “yes.” It disables and disempowers as often as it enables and empowers. But that’s all the more reason to pursue it, too. (For example, some leaders and politicians would do well to learn the limitations that the Constitution imposes on their power and the power of the government.)
So while I think that Captain America: Civil War is one of the finest superhero movies ever made––it has strong performances, wonderful action sequences, and most importantly something to say that is worth saying––I wish that it didn’t omit what I consider to be the most important line from an important speech.