This article contains spoilers for American Vandal, Wormwood, and Casting Jon Benet.
Once upon a time, while attending Ithaca College, friend-of-the-blog Jason and I drove down to Binghamton to visit a friend who was throwing her first house party that night. When we got there she told us she had totally forgotten an event she had to sing at, but we could hang out, start the party, and she’d be back in a few hours. Being the odd-men-out we did the only natural thing: we stood by the keg and got into a big fight with some random guy about moral universalism. This kid claimed he believed, truly, that good and evil existed outside of the human conception of them, and when Jason and I grilled him he dug in, because that’s what you do when you’re at a college party.
Us: Do you believe that trees, if they could conceive it, would have the same standards of good and evil as humans? And that we should hold trees to the same moral codes?
Us: What if there were no living things? Do you still believe good and evil would just sort of exist out there, floating around in the nether?
And, because we’re asses, we absolutely laughed in his face and continued to do so until the cops broke up the party.
I bring this story up because there are things we all hold as inherently valuable: while I don’t believe good and evil “just exist out in the ether”, I obviously believe discussing what morals we want to follow is worthwhile, and in discussing those morals we have to place value on something. I, along with a good chunk of America and probably the world, put a lot of value on truth. Before you can weigh something, you have to get down to the truth of it. But truth is in-and-of-itself a bit of a thorny issue. What is truth? And even if we get to the truth, is it really the be-all end-all we imagine it is?
First off, a disclaimer: it’s a bit of a dangerous time to be writing an article disparaging “truth”. So, you know: shouting fake news doesn’t make something fake news. Our climate is empirically changing and there is overwhelming evidence to suggest humans are responsible. Statistics and facts are useful. Scientists aren’t liars. There are physical rules that govern our universe (though our understanding of them keeps changing).
Those are all examples of times when truth is genuinely useful and helpful in determining our course of action. Science says climate change will kill us and all the beautiful life on this planet unless we change our ways, so we should change our ways. But that’s truth with utility. What value does truth have unto itself?
Apparently Netflix is interested in that question, because in the last year they’ve released three pretty great programs investigating both truth and our relationship with it. Let’s start with the satirical American Vandal. “True crime” has always been a difficult genre for me to swallow because I feel like the person behind the camera is trying to sell me their version of the truth. American Vandal tears into this idea. Following a high school prank for which senior Dylan Maxwell is accused, sophomore Peter Maldonado decides to take it upon himself to clear Dylan’s name. Why? In the first episode Peter admits he doesn’t particularly like Dylan and instead holds up “truth” as his motivation. Is “truth” alone a good enough motivation? Peter chases it obsessively, and in his search he uncovers all sorts of truths: his best friend Sam has a crush on his childhood friend Gabi. Popular girl Sara Paulson keeps a hook-up list Peter makes public. Dylan’s girlfriend Mac is having an affair over Twitch. Peter publishes all of his findings relentlessly, because they’re all the truth and that’s what he’s after, but he soon discovers these truths, mostly harmless had they been left unspoken, are actively hurtful when brought to light.
At the after-prom Sara Paulson pulls Peter aside and berates him, asking why he published her list when it had nearly nothing to do with Dylan’s guilt or innocence. Peter doesn’t have an answer. “You know my dad saw that,” she says before she walks away. It’s a truth that served no utility, and it’s pointlessness is made worse because Peter’s quest proves to be a failure. He is able to exonerate Dylan, but when Dylan confronts a teacher who was particularly accusatory of him she tells him “I was wrong about that [the vandalism], but I don’t believe I was wrong about you.” Truth is essential to our justice system: we want to free those who are truly innocent, and punish those who are truly guilty. American Vandal allows for that without ever reducing truth to such simple terms. By clearing Dylan, Peter created his own version of the truth, but he is never able to conclusively catch the actual perpetrator, afraid that accusing someone new will ruin their life. And Dylan, having heard the lie he was a criminal and a screw up so widely accepted, ends up committing a similar crime anyway, this time caught directly on camera. Truth proves destructive and useless, and Dylan is overpowered by a well-believed lie.
American Vandal is fiction, but Wormwood, which has an equally ambivalent approach to truth, is not. In 1953 government scientist Frank Olson fell to his death. That is a fact. But the circumstances around his fall kept changing. Originally ruled an accident Frank’s son, Eric Olson, doesn’t buy the government’s original report and he’s right to, as more and more revelations continue to build a totally different backstory for what happened. The actual shifting timeline doesn’t matter, so much. What really matters is the quest itself. Director Errol Morris focuses the story on the government cover up, but the drama that plays out in the margins is the real drama: Frank’s death and the mysterious circumstances surrounding it consume Eric’s entire life. His quest is nearly quixote and the worst part is he knows it. Repeatedly throughout the documentary he reminds us of the life he’s given up: a family, a promising career, a future, as well as reminding us how aware he is of the futility of his quest. If he is successful… what then? He doesn’t get his father back, and he doesn’t get his life back, and even if the government actively killed his father there is no legal recourse – you can only sue the government for negligence, not for active murder. Wormwood infects everything, and in this scenario wormwood is both the lies the government told and the quest to find the truth.
There is a real answer in Wormwood. Unlike American Vandal, which is fictional, the “truth” of Frank’s death does exist somewhere, and in fact Eric is able to find it eventually, though he is unable to share it with anyone. His quest is successful. Truth is delivered. But again we’re asked to weigh it’s value. Was the cost worth paying? Is the payment of Eric’s life worth the truth he discovers? Or, would it have been better to simply move on and leave the truth buried?
The truth is slippery like that. Casting JonBenet examines the way conviction clouds truth. As opposed to American Vandal and Wormwood, the documentarians in JonBenet make no claims one way or another about the actual murder, instead leaving the speculation up to the actors they cast in the roles. Though the case has never been solved, and perhaps never will be (one is reminded of Eric Olson’s reinforcement of his impossible quest in Wormwood: “most of the major players are dead” – not strictly true in this case, but of a similar sentiment) the actors all have their own personal theories on who did it, based on their own experiences and biases. Discussing their own varied relationships to their children, parents, spouses, and fake santas they all feel that they alone are privy to the truth. And without any actual official “truth” of what happened, at least not one widely publicized, what should we do with these convictions? That truth might be lost forever, might be buried with one person, whoever they might be, when they die, and that’s that. Then all we’ll have is our own convictions.
How can you lose a truth? Does it, like “good and evil” continue to exist somewhere out in the ether after it’s been lost? There must have been a series of events leading up to both Frank Olson and JonBenet’s deaths, but if those series of events are never uncovered what happens to that “truth”. Does it make a sound if no one is around to hear it? If it’s just floating in the ether, can it have value? If it’s captured and released without discrimination, is that value inherently good? At the end of the day (like whenever I end up with these long ponderous articles) I don’t know. Placing any sort of value on truth would be just the same as insisting that good and evil exist somewhere outside of humanity’s perception of them, which I already laughed in the face of some kid for. So, in the end I suggest you go watch American Vandal because it’s got a bunch of dicks drawn on cars which is, as any high schooler with a name like Dylan Maxwell will tell you, objectively hilarious.