You never know. This (or any) moment could be the time you hear the snap of the umbilical cord connecting us to the notions of fact, empirical truth and the Enlightenment.
You remember the Enlightenment. It got rolling around 300 years ago. Up until then, the truth and utility of things depended on what the king said and what the church said (and they tended to take each other's sides, like Mom and Dad). Then a whole bunch of philosophers said: "Wait. What if we just used our brains? What if we're just naturally capable of apprehending the rightness of things."
It worked! But there may have been some unnoticed 300-year warranty on the Big E. You might have noticed the picture starting to flicker a little in 1988 when Ronald Reagan attempted to quote John Adams (total diehard Enlightenment guy). Adams said "Facts are stubborn things." From Reagan it emerged as "Facts are stupid things."
Blink. Blink. Check engine.
Then in 2004, journalist Ron Suskind recounted a conversation with an unnamed George W. Bush aide (Psst! It was Karl Rove!) who assigned Suskind and others to "the reality-based community … [people who] … believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." The guy went on to explain that empires create reality. (See comments about kings and church, above.)
The keenest observer has been Stephen Colbert. In 2006 he said the early episodes of his show were about a host whose disregard for information was so profound as to obliterate objective reality. "Of course at the time," he added dryly, "we thought we were being farcical."
I watched both Armstrong segments — roughly 45 minutes of content spread out across three hours. (This coincidentally describes most popular movies in 2013.) One big problem, of course, is that he had so viciously attacked as liars, in the past, people who were telling the truth about him. It's one thing to lie. It's another to punish other people for refusing to go along with your lie. And then announce you're never going to lie gain. I mean, the truth is not something you can suddenly switch to, like decaf.
Te'o is the Notre Dame linebacker who told an enthralling story of loving and losing (to leukemia) a girlfriend who in fact never existed. His position now is oddly Nixonian. He may not have known his girlfriend didn't exist, but what didn't he know and when didn't he know it?
Beyonce appeared to deliver a very stirring version of the national anthem at last week's inauguration, but as the week wore on there were reasons to suppose that she did not sing it live. The weird thing is: after several days of speculation, the truth still had not been pinned down. How could we explain this to John Adams? First we'd have to explain recorded music and whole bunch of other things, but gradually he'd become annoyed. "You can't establish whether music is coming from one person's mouth or from a different source? How are you ever going to figure out anything important?"
In trying to understand the Samoan football player Manti Te'o, I found the work of ethnologist Ilana Gershon, who studied Samoan communities and saw a lot of what she termed "strategic ignorance." I'm probably oversimplifying her work, but she says Samoan communities are heavily bound up in issues of status and ritual and that sometimes everything runs a lot more smoothly when everybody ignores some obvious truth. (It seems clear to me that the Irish and the Samoans must have had extensive intercourse in the distant past.)
Gershon said hoaxes of this kind are commonly perpetrated on young males like Te'o. Half-hearted attempts to learn the truth in dicey personal situations are also a common coping strategy.
You could make a long list of things we're all coping with through strategic ignorance. The debt ceiling, climate change, tax policy, banking reform, Nicholas Cage, nanotechnology, antibiotics … you want me to go on?
So maybe we're all just getting a little more Samoan. Is that so bad?