My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 6, #9,
April 29, 2001


Truth is after all a moving target
Hairs to split
And pieces that don't fit
How can anybody be enlightened?
Truth is after all so poorly lit.

Rush. "Turn the Page."

I've been getting many concerned e-mails from friends who are aware that I live in Davenport, Iowa, a nice little town along the Mississippi River never mentioned by the media except in connection with pictures of sandbags. And it is true that down by the riverfront, things look bad. Our baseball stadium is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the Mississippi, a few houses are only visible from the second floor up, and River Drive is underwater. No wonder I have received offers of water wings and life preservers.

Which I don't need, thank you kindly. What the intrepid reporters in their hipwaders fail to mention is that 99% of the residents of Davenport live well uphill from the river. On Tuesday, the day the flood waters crested, the sun was shining and I was mowing my lawn, planting flowers, and watching the construction crew that's building a sunroom onto my house.

The primary way that most of us are affected by the flood is that it has screwed up traffic. River Drive, also known as Highway 61 and Highway 67, is one of the five busiest streets in Davenport, and provided an onramp, now closed, to one of the two available bridges . That traffic has been rerouted, and tie-ups on the alternative routes and bridges are pretty bad.

Relatively few of even the downtown businesses that are on the flood plain are underwater, or even in danger. Those of us who do business downtown are inconvenienced by the number of streets that have been barricaded -- we have to find indirect routes to the banks or expo center or the library, and there's less parking available. We don't complain about it, mind you, since when we might otherwise be grumbling about having to pick our way around the barriers, we have a clear view of the Dock restaurant, now an island, a reminder of what serious inconvenience looks like.

In short, life goes on comfortably for most residents of Davenport, but there's no way any of my far-flung friends would know that, based on the incomplete reports of the media, whose focus, naturally, is on great pictures and high drama.

Herein lies a cautionary tale about the nature of information. Every word the reporters said was true. It was merely incomplete. The cameras were steadily focused due south toward the river, which means they missed three fourths of the picture -- AS DO ANY OF US, even when we consciously strive for a panoramic view. Had they turned their cameras northward, the TV audience would have understood how unendangered most of us were, because they would have seen a city built almost entirely on hills that head upward at a forty degree gradient.

I suspect all our knowledge is similarly flawed and incomplete. Those who search for answers, will find them -- but only to questions observers and reporters of the past thought to ask and answer. History and science are only provisionally true, subject always to revision when different questions are asked, new documents discovered, previously unknown fossils and archaeological objects unearthed. Most people assumed the tales of Homer were legends, and enjoyed them solely as literature. Because Schliemann believed they were historical truth, he asked a different question: where was Troy located? Using the clues in Homer's work to calculate where it was, he found it, excavated it, and discovered its treasures.

Sources we rely on may be wrong because people were actively trying to distort the historical record with self-serving explanations of events. But even conscientious, truthful observers may have been incapable of seeing the events through any lens but that of their own beliefs and experience -- think how few accounts there are of southern history as told by slaves or by economically marginalized whites.

People who write accounts of events in letters or diaries or newspapers may be casual or limited observers, paying attention only to aspects of the situation that concern them directly -- a Humane Society volunteer rescuing stranded animals by boat sees a flood differently than the head of the water treatment plant who's concerned only with keeping the muddy river out, or the owner of the minor league baseball team who's trying to find another homefield for his team and figuring out how much it's going to cost him.

Even if we assemble a montage of all those different viewpoints, we have to assume our information is still incomplete. So, a little humility is called for when we use evidence to prove our point, a little awareness that the evidence may change, and our arguments with them. We need to remember that something can be true and nonetheless wrong. Truth is, after all, so dimly lit.

This is a modified version of an article I wrote for my e-zine, ExLibris

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