Sunday, September 20, 2020
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4 + 0 = 5, & other famed ‘alternative facts’

A riddle often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States who was born in Kentucky, raised in Indiana, and lived in Illinois, appeared in a Wisconsin newspaper years before it was ever attributed to him.

A little boy, some 4 or 5 years of age, once asked his father how many legs a calf would have, provided they called the tail a leg. The father, reasoning upon principles usually considered sound in those days, very naturally replied, “Why, five, my son.” “No,” said the boy; “calling the tail a leg does not make it one.”

The above was from The Watertown (Wis.) Chronicle, October 30, 1850 (cited by, but other papers as early as the 1830s also ran alternative versions of this riddle. Lincoln may have used it at one point, Snopes says, but it doesn’t appear in his collected writings.

The point, of course, is that just because we call a calf’s tail a leg doesn’t make it so. Likewise, just because the White House press secretary calls the crowd in Washington for President Trump’s inauguration ceremony the largest inauguration crowd in history doesn’t make it so.

Fortunately for us Americans, the size of the crowd, gathered in a public place, can be verified, thanks to lots of photographic evidence. It’s like saying, we wouldn’t be fooled if Sean Spicer, the press secretary, told us 4 + 0 = 5. That’s something we can easily check.

So, this misinformation about the crowd size, which the president’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway, amazingly called an “alternative fact,” can be forgiven, even though nobody thinks very hard about such trivial matters when we’ve got a country to run.

But what about information we the public, we Americans, can’t verify, such as the presence of weapons of mass destruction? For that type of information, we’re going to have to take the White House and President Trump at their word.

I suppose we could have predicted this behavior from Mr Trump. He’s a business executive, after all, and corporate leaders are accustomed to being able to craft their own message for potential customers. Only a leak would reveal how much, if any, information is being kept out of public view, so that the company can sell its products or services at the greatest profit.

Another way to look at it comes to us from Jones College Prep High School, one of Chicago’s finest high schools, located on State Street just south of the Loop.

The school’s Drama Club, under the direction of Brad Lyons, held auditions for their spring musical, Fame, last week, writes Semira Garrett in The Blueprint, the student newspaper.

In a musical like Fame, it’s totally OK for greenhorn actors and singers to audition and even land key roles, since the show is about high school students in New York City during the 80s who aren’t supposed to be good yet at what they’re doing.

“It’s funny, and it’s dramatic, and I think students will relate to it a lot because it’s not just like the fun stuff; it’s the bad stuff we have to go through so it makes people feel not so alone,” the paper quoted Mr Lyons as saying, as he told the paper he would especially welcome auditions by students who had never been in a theater production at school.

“I was reading the script and at the beginning there is this one kid who can’t dance at all,” the paper quotes one junior who auditioned as saying, describing the appropriateness of casting a dancer who has limited dancing talent in one of the roles.

But when “alternative facts” are spoken from the White House, the president undermines democracy, not just the profit margin of some company or the quality of musical productions at a lone high school in a big city. In our new president, we have seen behavior—especially in attempting to control the media—that is more common in a corporate executive than the leader of a democratic republic.

As I said, if you’re a student trying to get into a performing arts high school in a play, that’s one thing. “He still does what he can do, and everybody laughs, but everybody is not laughing at him; they’re laughing for him because he’s entertaining everybody,” the student actor continues, referring to the dancer who can’t really dance all that well.

But if we’re talking about our government leaders doing what they did this weekend, speaking from the microphone of the free world, those attitudes make me sweat, but maybe I can write it off as being nothing more than the work of a novice who will eventually grow into the role, like students at the fictional high school in Jones Prep’s production this spring.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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