There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but will we find truth there?

The Washington Post/Pool

There was a soulful implosion in the inaugural night performance of “Better Days” by Ant Clemons and Justin Timberlake. Better days, of course. But their use of the magical lyric, “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” an aspiration of sorts from yesteryear, makes one wonder.

To what did they refer at this moment in time? Was it deep-seated racism that still haunts America? That the song was performed at the Stax Museum should not be lost on us. Was it the destructive political partisanship that unendingly divides Americans? Was it that we still must persevere in the dark, dank and seemingly unending tunnel of COVID-19?

Perhaps, in music, a song’s message lies in the ear of the beholder — not that of the song’s writer or performer, or the producer who chose it to be performed at a particular moment in America. So, for those who heard the performance and decided the song’s meaning for themselves, what will the end-of-tunnel light illuminate? What might the listener hope to find at the tunnel’s end?

The great Israeli thinker, Yuval Noah Harari, tells us that “[t]he point of studying history is not just to learn about the past; it’s to liberate ourselves from it.” The history of the recent past, of course, has been uncommonly divisive.

Still, is it truly valuable to perpetually revisit this past when “truth,” for so many who seek the light, has existed at such a premium? Does it help when traveling toward the New Day’s sunlight to contrast it with what many see as the past’s darkness? Do we liberate ourselves — or, for that matter, society — by constantly hoisting upon ourselves the wrath of those who, rightly or wrongly, cling to the past, those who see its purveyor as having purveyed “the truth,” not lies?

Infectious diseases guru Dr. Anthony Fauci, a hero to many Americans, told a news conference last week, one day after the inauguration, that he felt “liberated” — no longer constrained by the Trump administration’s apparent unwillingness to allow science alone to address the pandemic and its cure. 

Perhaps that’s true. It seems that Fauci indeed was undercut. But is there real value in looking backward into the tunnel — a tunnel that many still, surprisingly, see as having been well-lit — rather than simply reporting on the oncoming sunlight, without editorializing? Does extensive editorial comment — from either the left or right — add true value to the discourse? Does commentary journalism, rather than facts and results, yield truth — worthwhile truth?

The news, some say, is the first draft of history. It tells a truth of sorts, but it’s only today’s truth. And given the emotion inherent in editorial commentary that often infects it, it may not actually be the truth. With that in mind, and to help limit the partisanship of commentary often actuated by comments at the rostrum of officialdom, the new administration should simply tell us precisely what it is doing or intending — how it plans to defeat racism, partisanship and COVID-19 and how it is actually doing it. That is, without cursing the darkness, without harping on the past’s failures, even if those failures indeed may have come into being because of truly questionable leadership. Commentary journalism on both sides will continue no matter what new leaders may say, but a new administration bent on unifying the nation will best accomplish that goal by forward-looking commentary. 

If the light at the end of the tunnel is ever to bring us to truth and help repair society’s failures, focusing unendingly on the past and its failures will add little value and actually may prove dangerous. Indeed, continuously looking back into the tunnel through the rearview mirror of time typically won’t allow the driver to safely see the deep, dangerous potholes that lie along the road just ahead. 

And that, indeed, is the truth.

Joel Cohen practices white-collar criminal defense law as senior counsel at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. He is an adjunct professor of law at both Fordham and Cardozo Law Schools, and the author of “Broken Scales: Reflections On Injustice.”

Tags Biden inauguration Joe Biden News media political divisions Presidency of Donald Trump

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