Itt’s the most famous sentence in the Declaration of Independence, and perhaps in all of American history: “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1776, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Governments exist to secure people’s rights, Jefferson continued. The people can elect to disband existing governments and create new ones if they cease doing so. “To prove this,” the document says, “let facts be submitted to a candid world.”
Truths. Self-evident. Facts. These words are also anachronistic on Independence Day 2022. In an era of social media, misinformation, disinformation, “fake news,” and extreme partisanship, what “truths” can be considered “self-evident”? Can “facts” simply be submitted to a candid world? What do such sentences mean for us in today’s political climate?
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Algorithms, platforms designs, crowdsourcing and disinformation campaigns are shaping the online information we find about our past. These bits of e are the key to their success.–The history of truths and facts often does not have much in common with the past. A world full of facts can easily be replaced by one of belief. With so much information available to each of us, we no longer require—and, indeed it may not be possible to have—a shared set of facts or self-evident truths. Every day we each create our own personal reality, which is curated from information found on the Internet and presented to us via recommendation engines. Every reality we create is ours, with many justifications.
Expert-centric areas of knowledge are at risk from such a world. Jill Lepore, historian wrote it in The New Yorker in 2016, so much of our modern world—from law and science to history and journalism—has been shaped and ordered by “the fact,” the notion that something could be definitively known. Jefferson stated that our independence is based on this premise. As Lepore wrote, “the origins of no other nation are… as answerable to evidence,” as the United States.
Perhaps the collapse of the world of facts is the reason why America’s experiment feels so unstable. The world is full of facts, and it’s obvious that our existence depends on them. A nation’s history, in essence, is an imaginary agreement about facts that has been shared by many people. When those agreements become unraveled, we must find new ones—and, indeed, we are in the midst of such a tumultuous process.
Every day, we debate in the public sphere which bits of information should be gathered in what order to reveal the self-evident truths which should form the foundation for our actions. Depending on what evidence you assemble in what order, conservatives and progressives can each demonstrate to each other a compelling belief system that is self-evident, supported by facts, and threatened by “repeated injuries,” “usurpations,” and “tyranny” of the other side—words that Jefferson used 246 years ago.
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Although social media and web have revolutionized our world in a major way, they don’t just play a role in bringing about the new post-truth/post-fact age. Lepore explained that the shifting sands below our feet have an extensive history. That includes postmodernism (relativism), fundamentalism, and even relativism. Now, we are in a new era where arguments and convictions have taken over from the age of obvious truths.
Though this may feel treacherous, it also offers us an opportunity to cast the old American story aside and forge a new one—not based on a static foundation of facts passed down to us from the founders, but on a new set of beliefs about human rights and human dignity that can propel us forward in the decades ahead.
Regardless of what America has been in the past—in all its glories and failures—the Fourth of July affords us a chance to articulate a new set of beliefs about why we exist and why we deserve to be an independent nation. Some of Jefferson’s words remain quite useful for that exercise: equality, inalienable rights, life, liberty. The government’s mandate is to protect the security and integrity of all those it gives legitimacy. Whether or not those beliefs are factual, true, or self-evident in today’s America is secondary to forging an agreement that they are, nevertheless, worth fighting for.
Jason SteinhauerWho is the author?History Disrupted: How Social Media & the World Wide Web have Changed the Past And theNewsletter from History Club
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