John Steinbeck, the recent “Travels With Charley” kerfuffle, and the recurring question of Truth

Let me share with you a little secret: some things in this great world actually do happen, or do exist. These are called “facts.” If you put together a story that is supported by facts, it is called a “true story,” a news story or non-fiction. This is what historians and journalists (most of them, anyway) specialize in. If you make something up, or pass along the unsubstantiated tales of others, it’s called fiction. If you tell people that your fiction is true when it’s not, that’s called a “lie.”

So simple, but so often people get these eternal verities wrong.

Like Rachel Dry in Sunday’s Washington Post. In an opinion piece in the Outlook section (where she is an assistant editor), she weighs in on the John Steinbeck/Travels With Charley in Search of America controversy. Basically, this “journalist” concludes that she is not much concerned about matters such as “the truth” when it comes to Steinbeck’s classic American travelogue, parts of which have been recently debunked. If truth doesn’t matter to this journalist, why not just switch professions? And if Steinbeck had such difficulty telling the truth, why didn’t he just label his book as fiction?

In fact, truth does matter. Our search for truth and our constant desire to expand our body of knowledge defines who we are, and is the only way we can survive on this great world. This search is what drives us forward in the natural sciences and social sciences, learning about ourselves, and the world we live in. From there, progress becomes possible, not to mention communication, cooperation and understanding among people from near and far.

And here’s an added benefit if you choose to respect the truth: intelligent people will then believe you, whether you are a journalist, novelist, politician or corporate CEO.

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