On Sunday April 29 on its program All Things Considered, NPR had an interesting story based on a mock ‘obituary’ by Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke who wrote about the death of Facts. He said that Facts had been ailing for some time but the claim by congressman Allen West (R-FL) that around 80 House of Representatives members of the Democratic party belonged to the Communist party was the final blow that killed it off.
Huppke elaborates on how it happened that Facts died.
People unable to understand how science works began to question Facts. And at the same time there was a rise in political partisanship and a growth in the number of media outlets that would disseminate information, rarely relying on feedback from Facts.
“There was an erosion of any kind of collective sense of what’s true or how you would go about verifying any truth claims,” [professor of English at New York University Mary] Poovey said. “Opinion has become the new truth. And many people who already have opinions see in the ‘news’ an affirmation of the opinion they already had, and that confirms their opinion as fact.”
“American society has lost confidence that there’s a single alternative,” she said. “Anybody can express an opinion on a blog or any other outlet and there’s no system of verification or double-checking, you just say whatever you want to and it gets magnified. It’s just kind of a bizarre world in which one person’s opinion counts as much as anybody else’s.”
What is interesting is that this rampant fact-denying is occurring at the same time as the rise in our ability to check them. The internet has enabled people’s past words to be recalled almost immediately, making it ridiculously easy to catch them in contradictions. For example, conservative and media darling Paul Ryan, the chair of the House budget committee, has proposed budgets that (no surprise) hurt the poor and benefit the wealthy. He is a Catholic and has drawn criticism by the Catholic Church of all institutions (taking time off from its main pre-occupation with sexual matters) that his budget does not reflect Christian values.
Some Catholic scholars have said that he is inspired by the doctrine of greed and selfishness advocated by Ayn Rand rather than anything found in the Bible. Ryan denied this last week saying that his purported admiration for Rand is an ‘urban legend’ and that he rejects her philosophy. But Ryan’s own words exist that flatly contradict him. These were from less than four years ago, so they were not youthful exuberance that he might have forgotten in his maturity. He was simply lying about the past, assuming that no one would call him on it.
The Daily Show provides further examples of such contradictions.
(These clips appeared on May 1, 2012. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)
All these people simply assume that no one will call them on their lies and distortions and so far they have been justified in thinking so. It seems like the only time the media carefully examines people’s words is when it involves a sex scandal.
A much talked about recent book and op-ed by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein suggests that there might be an ever-so-slight shift from this indulgence of falsehoods by politicians. They say quite bluntly, “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”[My italics-MS]
What is noteworthy about this is not the sentiment itself, which has been obvious for some time to anyone with half a brain, but that it is being said by two pillars of the Washington insider conventional wisdom machine that has been the enabler of this descent into the fact-free domain, and that their op-ed was published in the editorial pages of the Washington Post whose editor Fred Hiatt has given free rein to his regular and occasional columnists to spout in his pages exactly the kind of fact-free and fact-denying opinions that are now being deplored.
Meanwhile NPR issued a statement in February that they have modified their ethics statements so as to require their reporters to be ‘fair to the truth’ rather than focus on ‘he said-she said’ reporting. I can’t say that I’ve noticed a big change yet but one hopes it will happen.
I have wondered how long fact-free, science-denying, and reality-distorting thinking can survive before it simply crashes under the weight of its own contradictions. Could these be signs that even the most obtuse of political observers are seeing that we are close to the breaking point?