THE END OF FACTS

Posted in Rants on April 3rd, 2008 by Ed

(note: I'm currently working on a book bearing this title, and while I don't intend to blog about every minute part of it along the way I am not above the occasional trial balloon to make sure that the premise is neither flawed nor irrelevant.)

Imagine, if you will, a committed Catholic arguing with an atheistic fratboy about pre-marital casual sex. Assuming that all practical arguments would be refuted (i.e., "You'll get an STD" is met with "No, I'll use a condom") the dispute, if given enough time to play out, would eventually boil down to morality. Catholics believe it is a sin. Fratboy, neither believing in God nor sharing the Catholics' values, would have no context for such an argument. It would be rejected out of hand. If these two people cannot agree on a fundamental premise – God exists – then the religion-based issue of something being a sin or immoral simply can't take place. The believer and the atheist simply have two entirely different sets of facts underlying their decision-making and judgment. They will talk directly past one another.

These disagreements are common in the political sphere when we have to deal with inherently subjective issues. We can't really debate social welfare policies if we can't agree on the fundamental premise that government should do something to assist the poor. But this isn't a problem. After all, things like social welfare, abortion, gay marriage, and so on are "should" questions. There are no objective answers. Neither you nor I can definitely "prove" that society should or should not help the poor. One faction will make a stronger argument than the other, but that doesn't prove anyone right or wrong. Politics exist to peacefully and productively hash out disagreements about these unanswerable questions.

So here's the problem. Prior to the advent of CNN in the mid-1980s, Americans got broadcast news from exactly three sources: ABC, NBC, and CBS (discounting local or public-access programming). One could argue, and right-wingers have made a multi-billion dollar industry out of doing so, that those three news behemoths were biased. They leaned to the left. I'll accept that premise. They may have had a bias, but everyone was seeing the same news and getting the same sets of facts. That is crucially important. When people disagreed, they disagreed by diverging from a common point. Some people wanted to stay in Vietnam and some wanted to leave, but they had the same basic set of facts about how the war was going and what was happening.

Now we have a bifurcated media and, predictably, a bifurcated public. People do not disagree about Iraq by diverging from a common understanding of the facts. They simply have different versions of reality – different facts about the same events. We do not have a simple disagreement about Staying vs Leaving in Iraq; there is a deep, fundamental, and unbridgeable gap in what different Americans "know" about the war and the run-up thereto. We cannot debate the rightness or wrongness of the invasion if, as surveys show, 30-40% of the public thinks we found WMD and that Sadaam was personally responsible for planning 9/11. A productive debate about right and wrong can only take place in the context of one set of facts. But Americans have self-selected (based on their existing biases) a source of information. There's the NPR/Blogosphere camp with one set of facts and the Fox News/Talk Radio camp with another. In between are the CNN/Big Three Networks camp with a confused porridge of correct and incorrect "facts."

And that's why we'll forever be talking past each other – we've abandoned the idea that there are such things as facts. We've introduced the kind of disagreement I mentioned in the Catholic vs Fratboy example into every area of politics. Everything is treated as subjective. Moral issues are subjective, but many other issues are not. Either Hussein did or did not plan 9/11. It is not possible to say "Well, we'll just have to disagree about that." It is either true or false. Period. Instead we've let lassiez-faire ideology and free-market worship redefine the way we are informed as a society. Each person is a demographic, and each demographic has a news source to tell them exactly what they want to hear and, in most cases, what they already believe to be true.

My lovely sister, who happens to be a Real Catholic, once told me that from a religious viewpoint, the biggest problem with our society is that it tells each individual "You are your own God." Therefore people no longer operate from a shared, common set of moral values. Each person defines his or her own. We can't say whether or not we "should" all be operating from a common set of Christian religious values because such issues are inherently subjective. But I do know that her logic applies very well to the way Americans consume the news today. The message is loud and clear – whatever you decide is true becomes the truth. There are no Facts, only Opinions. If someone proves you wrong, you don't have to admit it because it's all subjective. If the news won't agree with you, keep flipping the channel until you find the network that will.