We're entering year five of opposite day in America.
You know the drill: More mercury emissions means cleaner water. More sulfur and carbon dioxide in the air means clearer
skies. Cutting old growth trees means creating healthier forests. Less money for expensive education programs means better
education for every child. Abolishing initiatives for equal pay and restricting reproductive freedom is pro-family. Waging pre-
emptive war is defending the "culture of life." Imprisoning suspects indefinitely without due process is protecting our
democracy. Being pro-war, pro-gun, and pro-death penalty is being not only Christian, but pro-life.
Millennium Jesus is a pumped-up warrior brandishing the Bible as a weapon with which to beat folks into submission, or more
succinctly, damn them to hell. (Not to be confused with the Historical Jesus, a pacifist who taught his followers to love their
neighbors as they loved themselves.)
Unlike their historical predecessors, the new conservatives are hyper-consumers who deplete the world's resources with
impunity, ravage the environment without concern, and wage war without either provocation or planning. The new morality
defines non-marital and homosexual sex as sin, uttering a four-letter word as a crime, and torture of "detainees" as a
necessary tactic. The Geneva Conventions are dismissed as quaint and civil liberties an indulgence we can ill-afford if we are
to defend our way of life.
Making the same assertions over and over again, regardless of empirical evidence, is praised as resolute leadership while
pointing out the facts is scorned and dismissed as "reality-based thinking."
Once upon a time, not so long ago, the opposite of reality-based thinking was considered delusional thinking, certainly not
something to take pride and comfort in when displayed by civic and military leaders. Magical thinking belonged in the realm
Children are masters at magical thinking; they can suspend disbelief and argue quite convincingly that it is nighttime in the
middle of the morning or that they are SpongeBob and you are Patrick or that their good friend Gwendolyn is living in the
closet, which is actually a portal to Shirt World. In fact, my son introduced the concept of "opposite day" to our household
when he was five. On opposite day, I would be him and he would be me and everything we said would be the opposite of what
we actually meant. It was magical thinking at its hilarious best.
My son is nine now. He pays attention to the news. He asks questions. Four years later, opposite day has a new and
uncomfortable resonance in our household. And I must say the hilarity is much diminished.
When my fourth grader, immersed in the very reality-based world of decimals and Harriet Tubman, long division and the
Space Station, starts noticing inconsistencies and asking questions, what do I say? Do I tell him that the President is just a
magical thinker, kind of like he himself was back when he was five? Do I answer his blank stare
with the reassurance that reality-based thinking is just out of style right now, but it's sure to come back in vogue eventually?
We've been "at war" for a third of his life, nearly all of his memory. Magical thinking isn't much of a consolation. Not when he
hears a radio report of another car bombing, or asks how many Iraqis have been killed. Nor does it answer the burning
questions, exploding like popcorn in his growing mind: Why? Why? Why?
In a bracing intersection of schoolwork and current events, my son was recently required to read "The Emperor's New Clothes"
as part of a Worldly Wise vocabulary lesson.
In the fable by Hans Christian Anderson the Emperor is duped by a tailor who appeals to his vanity, telling him that the suit of
clothes he will make will be the finest in all the world. The Emperor's desire to have the finest suit of clothes in all the world is
so great that he does not let reality stand in the way of fulfilling this desire. When the tailor presents him with invisible
clothes, he wears them proudly, demanding that his ministers admire their beauty and applaud their craftsmanship. For their
part, the ministers are afraid to disagree with the emperor not only because they want to keep their jobs, but also because to
deny the beauty of the emperor's invisible clothes would be tantamount to admitting they have bad taste. So they tell the
Emperor only what he wants to hear-that his clothes are the most exquisite they have ever seen.
Before the Emperor presents himself to the townspeople, officers of the palace go from house to house making sure everyone
will turn out to cheer the Emperor and applaud his new outfit. No mention must be made of the fact that the Emperor is
dressed only in his underwear. As the Emperor makes his way through the streets, the townspeople cheer and applaud as
instructed. All goes well until a small child not reached by the palace officers calls out the truth: "Look!" he cries. "The
Emperor has no clothes!"
And with that the spell is broken. The townspeople, able to sustain the lie no longer, take up the child's cry. Ultimately even
the Emperor is forced to look down at himself and acknowledge the reality of his condition.
My son reserved his harshest judgment for the ministers, who lied to the Emperor just to save their own necks. But he
considered the Emperor unbelievably stupid. He couldn't imagine a leader wanting his closest advisors to lie to him.
"At least the little kid was willing to speak up and tell the guy the truth." He giggled. To my fourth grader, the idea of walking
around town in your skivvies was over-the-top in its hilarious and terrifying particularities.
In 2005, let's not be content to take shelter in the coward's way. Let's resolve not to be tailors, or ministers, or palace officers,
or even townspeople. Let's follow the lead of the little kid. Let's honor reality-based thinking by speaking truth to power.
Whether we want to believe it or not, every moment the truth is silent, the lie grows stronger. And thus through our silence we
participate in our own undoing.
My nine-year-old deserves better. Don't we all?
Dawn Baldwin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a safety and environmental consultant and writer living in