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Truth and Consequences

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My previous column about the James-Frey-Million-Little Pieces-Flog-It-to-Death literary scandal, still blazing in the media heavens as I write this, led to some interesting responses. Mainly these had to do with the nature of truth, memory and facts, which aren't the same things. Last I heard, truth was unknowable, memory unreliable, and facts -- well, facts are facts. Sort of.

For instance, a reader wrote in to say that, contrary to my report, A Million Little Pieces never sold "3.5 million copies in hardcover." And it didn't, as I discovered when I looked farther -- less than breathlessly, I admit, because Frey's fictitious "memoir" has been a huge commercial blockbuster, and other writers can be forgiven for getting their millions mixed up.

Sheepishly, I confessed to my correspondent that I'd taken the 3.5 million figure from Internet reports. That is, I blamed it on someone else -- an honorable tradition dating back at least to Adam and Eve. Three and a half million copies is still the going measure of Frey's success, but that's in "combined sales," not hardcover alone. Anyone who's bought a paperback book recently might consider this a small distinction, but I stand corrected.

See? It's not hard to do. To "stand corrected," I mean, to admit a mistake, plead ignorance and get off the hook. Last week, peace activist Cindy Sheehan was arrested in Washington for turning up at George W. Bush's State of the Union address wearing a T-shirt that read, "2245 Dead. How Many More?" This is a grave crime against the regime in power, which doesn't want you counting the dead in Iraq or anywhere else (let's say New Orleans, where some 3000 people are still officially "missing" in the wake of Hurricane Katrina). But in fact Sheehan had broken no law, and the charges against her were quickly dropped.

"The officers made a good faith but mistaken effort to enforce an old unwritten interpretation of the prohibitions about demonstrating in the Capitol," said Terrance W. Gainer, chief of U.S. Capitol police. "The policy and procedures were too vague. The failure to adequately prepare the officers is mine."

Sheehan called Gainer's explanation a "crock of horse manure," but I think she's too hard on him. How often, after all -- and in Washington -- do you hear the words, "The failure is mine"? It's the sort of simple, even startling confession of error you'd like to hear from . . . (but I swore I wouldn't write about Bush himself until Lent. When is Lent, everybody? When the hell is Lent?)

Sheehan, of course, wasn't the only one at the State of the Union address who ran afoul of the Capitol Gestapo. Beverly Young, the wife of Congressman Bill Young (R-Florida), was also asked to leave the Imperial Presence before its lips started moving, and also for wearing a shirt, but with a different message. "Support the Troops -- Defending Our Freedom," Mrs. Young's attire proclaimed. They were words that might have been balm for Bush's blinking eyes had they not been so, you know, political. By White House decree, the one thing we don't want in Washington is "partisan politics" -- or, for that matter, any politics -- so Mrs. Young, too, had to leave.

"Shame, shame," cried Congressman Young the next day on the floor of the House of Representatives -- "the People's House," as Sheehan calls it, in her unceasing effort to be an agitator. His wife had been "ordered to leave the gallery," Young complained, "because she was doing . . . what the President said we should all do. She had on this shirt. A very conservative shirt, long sleeves, high neck, but it says 'Support our troops.'"

Go figure: You can even wear the president's uniform and still get in trouble. You might call it equal-opportunity censorship, only it wasn't equal, because Mrs. Young wasn't arrested. By her own admission, she "got real colorful" as she swept through the august halls, calling at least one of Gainer's boys "an idiot" and telling them "what they should do with themselves." But Mrs. Young got home that night unmolested, un-handcuffed and uncharged. Unlike the relative expense of hardcover and paperback books, that is a big distinction.

Me, I've been reading Orwell, who knew a thing or two about the difference between fact and truth. The truth is that this country is run by a gang of suited hoodlums, warmongers, rip-off artists and yes-men, while the fact emblazoned on Sheehan's T-shirt -- the number of American dead in Iraq -- is an aspect of that truth.

Mrs. Young's sartorial statement, by contrast, isn't a fact but a sentiment, an uncritical slogan -- and a false one. "Supporting the troops" in no way "defends our freedom," because, in the cause of perpetual war, our freedoms are being taken away from us by our own government -- one by one, every day, with the goal of making their removal permanent.

In other words, to protect "freedom," our Republican government hopes to dispense with it altogether, at the same time reserving for itself the right to define what it is. "This kind of thing is frightening to me," Orwell wrote in 1942, reflecting on the lies of war, "because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world."

Could he have seen the world in 2006, Orwell might have died even younger than he did, knowing how prescient he was.

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