Like many of you, I’m approaching 2018 with an uneasy mix of hope, resolve and dread. It’s the 50th anniversary of 1968, and by all indications, we’re due for another year like that. There will be tumult and violence and wild swings of justice and injustice — a true social upheaval combined with various comeuppances (already begun) and a monumental election.
Our democracy is being tested. So we all need a plan. Part of my plan is to champion a concept, an idea, a word. It transcends party and ideology yet has meaning to the left and right alike. It’s central to the crisis we face. It deserves a revival.
The word is TESTIMONY.
What does the word mean to you? What flashes to mind?
For many, it will primarily imply statements made in an official capacity or under oath in a court of law. For others it means a personal statement of religious epiphany or belief. Both of these are in the dictionary, along with the definition that binds them together and that gives the word its heft and importance: “first-hand authentication of a fact.”
Testimony is a personal vow of truth and authenticity. It doesn’t mean the information is true. It means the testifier would swear it’s true and is prepared to back it up with evidence, or correct the record if necessary. Testimony can be high quality or low grade depending on its source and provenance, relevant or immaterial to a matter at hand. Testimony must be distinguished from hearsay, the repeating of unverified information. Testimony is the opposite of propaganda, the spreading of lies or contradictions in the guise of news or authority to overwhelm and degrade the very idea of truth.
In the time of Trump, standard identifiers like Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, are polarizing and paralyzing. Ideology has grown toxic and futile. Policy debates are on hold for another day. I feel like testimony is more solid ground on which to stand in 2018. The only “side” that matters in America right now is a coalition of the decent and the democratic — people of varied philosophies and creeds who will fight for evidence, good faith, integrity and the primacy of facts as the center of American government. Testimony is our common ground, because it’s based on evidence that’s external to us, not on our feelings or persuasions. It’s time for the great sorting, and the place to start is at the top with our central national crisis.
Testimony, not individuals, is what matters most in the investigations into President Trump. Robert Meuller’s team gathers testimony and vets it for credibility. They in turn create documents that lay out a sequence of established facts and a legal case, most of which has not been revealed yet. The charging documents and plea agreements released so far (and there will be many more) are their testimony — to the public and the courts. The assertions therein are vouched for and verified. A mistake or error would be regarded by the prosecutors themselves as a grave problem to be amended, because their case depends on making statements of fact that are provable beyond a doubt.
Instead, Trump and his loyalist White House have violated every precept of good testimony by routinely spreading false information and doubling down or changing the subject when caught in misstatements or lies. A president, being always under the oath and rooted in American norms, is supposed to vet any statement he makes or disseminates as true, because the credibility of the United States of America is on the line on the global stage. Here lies one of Trump’s most cataclysmic, ongoing violations of our trust.
Testimony is the operating system of good government. Official documents are vouched as factual and thus beyond the reach of ideology or whim. Birth certificates, marriage licenses and military discharge papers, for example, are sacrosanct and trust-worthy. Statements submitted to Congress are supposed to be accurate and must be amended if discovered not to be so. Reports on everything from the census to climate change are published with an implied oath. Trump is impulsively replacing this tradition of vetted, objective testimony with politically motivated expediencies and “alternative facts.” This is why he’s crashing the system and engendering mutinies among the civil service. This may have been the most pressing reason so many members of the intelligence community and FBI were alarmed at the prospect of Trump becoming president.
Another pillar of our democratic system, journalism and the free press, also rests on testimony. Legitimate news organizations gather testimony from a variety of sources, vet that information by cross-checking it against other sources and report their findings in a new form of testimony backed by the long term interest the news outlet has in its standards and reputation. Errors, inevitable as they are, are corrected in a standardized place and manner. Obviously, political beliefs can influence the facts sought and the context around the way they are presented, but this is fundamentally different from ad hominem accusations of “fake news,” which never attack specific accounts but smear the entire vital enterprise.
Not to be overlooked, testimony also includes our stories — first-hand accounts of our circumstances, our lives, our families and communities. The #MeToo movement is built on testimony. Black Lives Matter is asking that America listen to the testimony of African-Americans about law enforcement, employment and education. And yes, we DO want to hear the testimony of white people living in abandoned factory towns and rural areas. But what’s needed are first-hand, honest stories about lives and experience. Forgive us if we reject testimony as low quality if it’s based on talking points or hearsay derived from a self-selected news diet.
When we promote bad information in the public realm to salve ourselves, deceive our political adversaries or advance an agenda, we go beyond mere lying and into the terrain of bearing false witness. The Judeo-Christian tradition distinguishes between lying and perjury for good reasons. A lie is on you. Bearing false witness against another is a special kind of fraud that does a particular kind of harm. That’s why Donald Trump’s birther accusations against Barack Obama were instantly disqualifying for the job of president years ago. He has borne false witness countless times in his official capacity since then and deserves impeachment many times over for this alone.
As this year progresses toward its inflection points, especially the November elections, align yourselves with candidates and compatriots who cherish faithful testimony. Take the testimony of others around you. Hold up and amplify valid, credible testimony so that it might overshadow deception and blind loyalty to a man instead of American values or law. Testimony is toxic to Trumpism. It’s a frame of mind and value system that might soften the clashes to come and shift our national dialogue back to something worthy of our ideals.
Craig Havighurst is a music journalist, media producer and public speaker in Nashville.