Truth is stranger than fact: “What’s Left?” March 2013, MRR #358

We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know how to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies. If he only shows in his work that he has searched, and re-searched, for the way to put over lies, he would never accomplish anything.

Pablo Picasso

Charles Drew was an American physician, surgeon and medical researcher who lived in the first half of the twentieth century. He perfected methods of preparing and preserving blood plasma that allowed for the centralized testing, collecting and storing of blood. The American Red Cross blood bank was created out of his work.

Charles Drew was also black. He regularly attended the annual free clinic at the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama. Drew and three other black doctors drove to the 1950 Tuskegee clinic instead of flying. Exhausted from operating the night before, as well as driving all day and night with his fellow physicians, Drew lost control of the car around 8 a.m. on April 1. The three other doctors suffered only minor injuries despite the car careening into a field before somersaulting three times. Drew, his foot wedged beneath the brake pedal, sustained serious wounds, including mortal leg injuries, and was in shock and barely alive when ambulance attendants arrived. He was taken to Alamance General Hospital in Burlington, North Carolina where he was pronounced dead.

According to the story, Charles Drew bled to death because he was refused treatment, specifically a life-saving blood transfusion, at the southern hospital because he was black. And while this story might have expressed the truth of race relations in the United States in 1950, this was not the fact. Drew received “the very best of care” according to his fellow doctors, and was refused no medical attention according to his race. The story has become an urban legend, but it reveals the important distinction between truth and fact.

But that’s outrageous! How can truth be distinct, even contrary, to fact? How can lies be used to tell the truth?

Funny thing is, we experience the reverse all the time.

We are handed bullshit facts to justify outright lies masquerading as “truth.” The fact that black people commit more crimes than white people is used to bolster the “truth” that blacks are inherently criminal. The fact that black people have higher unemployment rates and greater dependence on welfare programs than white people is used to support the “truth” that blacks are inherently lazy. The fact that black people routinely register lower scores on IQ tests is used to confirm the “truth” that blacks are inherently stupid. The lie that black people are subhuman has been transformed into “truth” with a heavily skewed interpretation of certain facts; crime rates, unemployment statistics, welfare enrollment, IQ results, etc. So why not separate real truth entirely from mere facts, even use lies to tell the truth?

Facts and truth are not the same thing. Facts are not obvious; they are subject to interpretation. Truth is not self-evident; it needs to be experienced. Facts can be used to underpin lies, and lies can be used to reveal the truth.