Don’t let the facts get in the way of (your) truth

A old friend of mine—a friend from way way back, I mean; I’m actually older—recently published a nice piece in which he argues for all of us to expand the sources of news and information we regularly sample and to rediscover the ability and the inclination to think critically.  You can read it here, and when you get past the cows and the sharks (you’ll see) he makes a good point about how in today’s world our experience and exposure tend to drive most people into a set of beliefs that become impermeable to facts and reason.  Unfortunately.

Today I was looking through articles I’d saved to write about some day, and found one that relates to Joe’s post: from almost three years ago, Rex Huppke’s Chicago Tribune obituary for Facts.

To the shock of most sentient beings, Facts died Wednesday, April 18, after a long battle for relevancy with the 24-hour news cycle, blogs and the Internet. Though few expected Facts to pull out of its years-long downward spiral, the official cause of death was from injuries suffered last week when Florida Republican Rep. Allen West steadfastly declared that as many as 81 of his fellow members of the U.S. House of Representatives are communists.

(snip)

“It’s very depressing,” said Mary Poovey, a professor of English at New York University and author of “A History of the Modern Fact.” “I think the thing Americans ought to miss most about facts is the lack of agreement that there are facts. This means we will never reach consensus about anything. Tax policies, presidential candidates. We’ll never agree on anything.”

(snip)

Through the 19th and 20th centuries, Facts reached adulthood as the world underwent a shift toward proving things true through the principles of physics and mathematical modeling. There was respect for scientists as arbiters of the truth, and Facts itself reached the peak of its power.

But those halcyon days would not last.

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.

(snip)

Though weakened, Facts managed to persevere through the last two decades, despite historic setbacks that included President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, the justification for President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and the debate over President Barack Obama’s American citizenship.

(snip)

“American society has lost confidence that there’s a single alternative,” [Poovey] 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.”

Facts is survived by two brothers, Rumor and Innuendo, and a sister, Emphatic Assertion…

…and a not-so-distant cousin, Bald-Faced Lie, all of whom now appear regularly in the political “reality show” that passes for journalism on the 24-hour news networks.

(Relive the debut of “truthiness” right here.)

This is harder on me than it is on you, even though you really wouldn’t think that’d be the case

If you’re employed somewhere you’ve probably seen the memo: the stilted and awkward announcement that one of your co-workers is about to become one of your former co-workers, thanks to the right-sizing of the organization.  It’s almost as if bosses get special training in how to transmogrify what should be a simple and direct conveyance of a bit of office news into a hideous and/or hilarious trip to Freaktown.

A couple of years ago Chicago newsman Steve Daley, who died on Sunday at 62, authored the essential takeoff of the genre.  Read the whole thing at the Columbia Journalism Review.

John came to us (four years ago; in 1981; last month) from (the Bugle; the London School of Economics; a think tank in Phoenix). He arrived here with a reputation as (a sociopath; a member of the team of twenty-seven reporters that won a 1991 Polk award for the Bugle series on alternate street parking; a friend of the former executive editor).

John’s contributions to this paper have not gone without notice. He’s a (deft writer; diligent copy editor; pain in the neck), a man who is passionate about (the First Amendment; gerunds; the Bass Ale at Costello’s Taproom) and a newsroom leader who has (become obsessed with Google maps; not generated a single sexual harassment complaint; inspired legions of young reporters to consider teaching American Studies out at the junior college).

(snip)

So it is with (mixed emotions; ill-disguised glee; a disturbing sense that I have now written about seventy-five of these tortured memos) that we bid farewell to our colleague. Moving forward, it is possible the number of voluntary buyout applications may be limited by (pure malice; Sarbanes-Oxley; the guy in the Crocs on 7). Only then will we know if the Involuntary Severance Program (“Opportunity 2009”) will be extended.

This is our time

To call for sacrifice, the president will have to be willing to make a sacrifice himself.  Obama can offer his own political career. He can put his reelection on the line. He can make the 2012 election a national referendum on doing the right thing.

Evan Thomas, Newsweek, Nov. 13, 2010

George Bernard Shaw suggested that “If all the economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.”  I prefer the rephrasing (source forgotten) that if you laid all the economists in the world end to end, they’d still point in every direction.  Like me, trying to figure out what to make of the budget compromise in Washington, D.C.

President Obama and the Senate Republican leadership agreed on a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts, including those for the highest-earning Americans, in exchange for a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits and a temporary reduction in payroll taxes.  Is that good or bad?  Sounds like it’s good for the highest-earning Americans and the people who’ve used up their state unemployment benefits, at least.

Do you go with the argument that Obama is too reasonable for his own good, and that although he gave in on something he wanted in order to get something else he thought was more important right now, he’ll eventually have to say no to his political opponents or he’ll never get what he needs to deliver on his promises?

How about the argument that Obama’s emulating President Clinton by siding with “the people” rather than with one party or against the other, hoping that in two years the people will hate both parties enough to vote for him?

There’s no guarantee Congress will sign off on the deal: do you wonder about the fact that the GOP leadership doesn’t have all its ducks in a row to support this compromise, precisely because it will increase the deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars, especially one leading quacker who supported Tea Party favorites over establishment Republicans in the last election and might have some sway over new members?  Is it at all concerning to you that the White House finds it necessary to “warn” Democrats that not supporting the compromise could revive the recession?

Are you persuaded by the argument that this compromise, in which neither side made a truly painful political concession, means that no one in Washington is really serious about doing anything about the deficit right now?

I’m persuaded by Clarence Page’s conclusion that both sides are putting off the bloody fight until spring, when they’ll have to make a decision on raising the national debt ceiling—nothing focuses the attention quite like impending doom.

Whether the big fight happens then, or sooner or maybe later, I think I’d like to see what Evan Thomas suggested: that Obama take a stand—and yes, stake his presidency—on a call for Americans to make the necessary sacrifices to save ourselves from catastrophe.

…being honest about the real choices is the only way Obama can break through the noise and chatter. It is also absolutely necessary to save the country from very hard times ahead, or at the very least a steadily declining standard of living. Obama needs to start by explaining the mess we’re in.

Presidents have an ability to go to the people and ask us for what we wouldn’t choose to give.  And Americans stand up for their country, and for each other, in the face of a common enemy, whether we voted for the guy in the White House or not.  This could be our time to find out who the real patriots are, if only our leaders are strong enough to ask us to stand up.

All hail the radical middle

I don’t write here every day because I promised myself I would try to think about things and then write rather than just explode all over the keyboard when something struck me as odd, inspiring, stupid or funny—Little League World Series developments, of course, being an exception.  And if that sets me apart from that part of the planet that’s always ready to respond to any development with the predigested talking points of some demagogue or another, I can live with that.

The more I think about this weekend’s TDS_RallyPosterRally to Restore Sanity/March to Keep Fear Alive, the more I think it will be a fun and educational way to remind everybody that we, the people who are not exactly pleased with everything that goes on in our government and our economy but haven’t thrown in with the extremist wingnuts du jour and want to talk about ways to make things better, are the center that holds this all together.  As the rally organizers say:

We’re looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles.

TCR_RallyPosterNow, I think that’s funny.  But I bet you, too, know people who wouldn’t laugh, who consider any deviation from the revealed truth to be treason and heresy, people unwilling to scrape the rust off of their imaginations for an honest discussion about possible alternatives to what they’ve told.  Leonard Pitts Jr. calls them “people who believe what they believe because they believe. Their ignorance is bellicose, determined, an act of sheer will, and there is not enough reason in all the world to budge them from it.”

Rex Huppke in the Chicago Tribune sees us as a sizeable block of Americans who are aware that the emperors on both sides of today’s partisan hissy fit are naked, and are occasionally amused by the spectacle.

…what about those folks who have remained largely on the sidelines during the campaign, chuckling at the often absurd rhetorical volleys of our feuding politicos? This could be their moment to stand up and say, “Hey. You all are acting like jerks. Cut it out.”

I’m sorry I can’t attend this weekend’s rally in Washington, D.C., but I plan to enjoy it from afar.  And I plan to keep thinking about and writing about issues that are important to our future, as Americans and as Earthlings.  A good place to start is among the ideas laid out by political consultant Mark McKinnon, who thinks we need more talk and good will in the political arena to get the radical middle into the game.

They don’t agree on every policy, but they are willing to debate on principles. And consider principled compromise. They recognize hard decisions are ahead. And neither party is stepping up to make the tough decisions.

We could use a little more sanity around here for a change.

UPDATE Oct. 20

This was published last evening about the same time as my post; Timothy Noah argues that what is likely to happen in the rallies next weekend could feed the animus that Tea Party types feel toward the “elites,” of which he believes Stewart and Colbert will be representative in their eyes, and actually influence the elections in favor of Republicans, which Stewart and Colbert would regret politically if not professionally.