“Facts are stubborn things.” — John Adams.
“Ideologues are even more stubborn than facts.” — Bookworm
A few nights ago, Mr. Bookworm watched the movie Shattered Glass with the children. It’s a fairly good retelling of the way in which Stephen Glass, a young feature writer at The New Republic, wrote a series of fraudulent articles. I was a TNR subscriber at the time, and I vividly remember what might have been his most famous article, the one describing orgies of sex, drink and drugs at a young conservative convention. The article was a perfect fraud because it so deftly fed into liberal prejudice about conservatives: there was no way, we liberals thought, that conservatives could actually live up to the standards they sought to impose upon ordinary Americans. Because we didn’t believe in those lifestyle values, we assumed that young conservatives were hypocrites — and Thank God for true journalists like Stephen Glass who were out there exposing this hypocrisy to the world. Except, of course, for the fact that every word Glass wrote was a lie.
At the end of Shattered Glass, the movie informs the viewer that Glass went to law school and is working as a paralegal. (I won’t even try to figure out why a highly respectable law school such as Georgetown would allot one of the valuable spaces in its freshman class to a conscienceless con man.)
My children were perplexed. “A lawyer? Why a lawyer?” Mr. Bookworm knew the answer: “Because lawyers lie. That’s their job. The better the liar, the more money they make.”
As a lawyer whose lies have never gone beyond social white lies (“That dress is lovely!” “I’m so sorry, but I’m already booked that night.”), I took umbrage at that statement. “Good lawyers never lie! They simply advocate. I take the facts and put them together in a coherent, honest narrative that ties in with applicable law. If my client has no case, I say so. My integrity, and the integrity of my friends and colleagues, demands no less. I’ve known lying lawyers, but they’re bottom feeders and viewed with disdain by decent practitioners.”
The fine line between advocacy and lying was a struggle for the children. Imagine a car accident, I said. A car traveling in excess of the speed limit passed through an intersection, and shortly thereafter struck a pedestrian. If there was a subsequent lawsuit, there would be two ways to describe that car’s journey through the intersection. If I represented the car’s driver at trial, I would never say anything other than that he “drove” through the intersection. This would be a completely correct statement. I would be implying, of course, that the defendant’s speed wasn’t so excessive that it could lead to an accident. In the same trial, the attorney for the pedestrian would invariably say that the defendant “sped” or “raced” through the intersection, implying that he was out of control by the time he hit the pedestrian. Again, since I’ve posited a speed above the speed limit (although I haven’t said by how much, whether two miles above or twenty miles above), that too is a truthful statement. Both lawyers are being completely truthful, but both approaches are spin aimed at persuading an audience (the jury) to reach one of two antithetical conclusions.
I think the kids understand me. Mr. Bookworm — well, I’m not so sure. He is, after all, a man of the Left, and if there’s one thing a lifetime on the Left has taught me, it that my blog’s motto is accurate: “Conservatives deal with facts and reach conclusions; liberals have conclusions and sell them as facts.” To the Left, fact and spin are indistinguishable. Truth isn’t a construct based upon irrefutable and stubborn facts. Instead, truth is an ideological conclusion, sustained by whatever means necessary.
Interestingly, the day after I had this instructive conversation with the kids, the blogosphere was suddenly saturated with stories of stubborn ideologues, relentlessly intertwining conclusions and facts. Unfortunately for public discourse, these ideologues are journalists.
The most well-known post is Mark Hemingway’s Lies, Damned Lies, and “Fact Checking. In it, Hemingway takes aim at the proliferation of “fact checking” articles from major media outlets.
Fact checking can be useful, of course. Going back to my car example above, the speed at which the driver traveled is a fact. If he was going twenty miles above the limit, but his advocate claims he was only going two miles above the limit, that claim is a lie and a fact checker should call him on it. In the world of liberal fact checking, however, the fact checkers confuse their spin (i.e., the advocacy of their ideology) for objective facts. They would be challenging the lawyer they’re hostile to over his honest, albeit emotionally loaded, word choice (e.g., “drove” versus “sped”).
Here’s Hemingway’s conclusion, one he reaches after offering several egregious examples of the way Leftists confuse ideological “truth” with facts:
While it was always difficult in practice, once upon a time journalists at least paid obeisance to the idea of reporting the facts, as opposed to commenting on “narratives”—let alone being responsible for creating and debunking them.
But today’s fact checkers are largely uninterested in emphasizing the primacy of information. Accordingly, this is what happens when the media talk about fact checking: The Washington Post pats the AP on the back for questioning the veracity of a media-created narrative ex post facto, then cites a brazenly partisan blogger as proof that the effort to smack it down was successful.
What’s going on here should be obvious enough. With the rise of cable news and the Internet, traditional media institutions are increasingly unable to control what political rhetoric and which narratives catch fire with the public. Media fact-checking operations aren’t about checking facts so much as they are about a rearguard action to keep inconvenient truths out of the conversation.
Hemingway deservedly got attention for this brilliant deconstruction of ideological advancement dressed up as fact-checking, but he wasn’t the only one. At the same time, James Taranto caught the AP “fact checking” Newt’s debate promise that he will move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The AP says that this “fact” — one that most of us would see as a promise of future action — is “false” because other presidential candidates have made the same promise to no effect. Taranto understands what’s going on, and it’s not that Newt was lying:
To be sure, some things about the future are known with sufficient certainty that they are indistinguishable from facts. If Gingrich claimed to be immortal, the AP would be justified in running a “fact check” refutation even if it was not also an obituary. Likewise if he said tomorrow’s sunrise would occur at 3 p.m. on the East Coast, we could be sure he was wrong.
But the idea that Gingrich’s pledge is contrary to fact because other politicians have failed to keep the same promise is beyond ludicrous. Did the AP in 2008 run a “fact check” rebutting Barack Obama’s promise to enact “heath-care reform” because so many previous presidents have futilely attempted to do so?
It would not have been hard to recast this story to make it journalistically sound, though it would have entailed a bit more work. Gearan could have begun by reporting the Gingrich promise, then put it in historical context by noting the record of other presidents. The arguments for why such a move is a bad idea could have been aired, too–not in Gearan’s own voice, but by interviewing diplomats or scholars who think it’s a bad idea. It might also have been worthwhile to seek a follow-up interview with Gingrich or a spokesman to ask why voters should expect him to keep this promise when past presidents haven’t.
Instead, the AP published what is essentially an opinion piece, and a rather lazy one at that. If we may borrow Gingrich’s favorite word, to label that a “fact check”–as if it had some greater authority than actual reporting–is fundamentally dishonest.
Taranto is correct that, if one actually cares about objective, verifiable facts, AP’s conduct was “fundamentally dishonest.” I wonder, though, if he makes the mistakes of thinking that liberals actually care. (I suspect that Taranto is to savvy to make this thinking error.) To liberals, the only truth is ideology, and if one cares about ideological truth, “facts” are merely tools to be manipulated.
I am not about to call the AP or American journalists Nazis, because they’re not, but I can’t help but be struck by the way the parallelism between their belief that ultimate, ideological truth trumps verifiable fact, on the one hand, and Goebbels’ understanding of the propaganda necessary to bring German citizens to Naziism, on the other hand:
That propaganda is good which leads to success, and that is bad which fails to achieve the desired result. It is not propaganda’s task to be intelligent, its task is to lead to success.
If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.
Given that too many American journalists (both as individuals and as institutions) seem comfortably wedded to a Goebbel-esque view of truth, is it any surprise that they rate so low in the public’s estimation when it comes to assessing their ethics and honesty? While poll results show that they still rank above lawyers, lobbyists, politicians and used car salesmen, the margin is awfully small.
(As an aside, looking at that “ethics by profession” chart to which I just linked, is it any surprise that the military ranks so high? It isn’t to me. For years, we’ve watched our military put itself on the front line to defend America, both her people and her ethos. We know that when our troops take that oath — a serious oath that America’s First Sergeant analyzes beautifully here — they mean it. They say it, they mean it, they do it.)
As I mentioned above, journalists do manage to cling to an honesty position slightly above that held by politicians. That’s not a surprise either. After all, Eric Holder, who is both a lawyer and a politician, managed to state perfectly the Leftist (and, incidentally, the narcissist) approach to truth and lying:
Still unsatisfied, Sensenbrenner followed up again. “Tell me what the difference is between lying and misleading Congress in this context?,” he asked Holder.
Holder responded that whether a statement is a lie or misleading comment depends on what the person making it is thinking at the time.
“If you want to have this legal conversation, it all has to do with your state of mind, and whether or not you had the requisite intent to come up with something that can be considered perjury or a lie,” Holder said.
I know that what Holder meant to say is that ones ability to tell the truth is necessarily going to be limited by the universe of factual information available. If my boss has kept me sequestered from his side job as a drug dealer, I am telling the truth when I testify that he doesn’t deal drugs. However, Holder’s phrasing, which focuses on the speaker’s intent, rather than his fund of knowledge, manages to be the perfect Leftist/narcissist paradigm: truth is what you need to say at the moment.
Holder’s not the only lying politician. I’ve repeatedly document at this blog Obama’s Leftist/narcissist approach to the truth. (See here, here, here, here and here, for example.) Three years into Obama’s presidency, more and more people are catching on to Obama’s distant relationship to stubborn facts. Indeed, an audience member at a well-attended military briefing (upwards of 200 people), told me that a civilian who attended the briefing interrupted the speaker to say, “C’mon, don’t give me the Barack Obama answer, give me the real answer.” The room’s response was telling: silence, followed by titters. No anger, no hissing, no booing. Admittedly, given Obama’s approach to the military, it’s not surprising that a military venue wouldn’t take umbrage at this statement, but it is nevertheless impressive that Obama’s very name is becoming synonymous with lies.
Obama, of course, didn’t help his case with his recent Osawatomie speech, which was a truly magnificent example of ignorance, ideological spin, and blatant factual dishonesty. Needless to say, the media didn’t fact-check the speech, since it advanced their ideology. The fact that it was ideologically true satisfied the media, despite the egregiously wrong objective facts.
I’ll wrap this post up with two more points, one about a really big lie and one about a surprising truth.
The big lie: climate change. I’m not sure I need to say more. We now know from a huge onrush of facts — actual, objective facts, such as the Climategate emails — that those advancing AGW have been systematically fudging data, omitting data, asserting falsehoods, substituting beliefs for facts, and stifling dissenting voices. (Only today, Charlie Martin notes that our own DOJ is doing things that might be construed as stifling dissent, but he hastens to add — with a rigid adherence to truth — that the facts are currently too unclear to make that conclusion.) Indeed, the whole environmental movement, not just the AGW side of it, has abandoned itself to an orgy of ideology, one that sees scientists, who should have a rigid adherence to scientific truth based upon verifiable data, happily abandoning data in favor of ideology. (This post offers a two-fer, with both a corrupt scientist and a corrupt attorney.)
And here’s the surprising truth: Newt’s courageous willingness to state that the Palestinians are an “invented” people.
Discussing the origin of the state of Israel in the 1940s, Mr. Gingrich said: “Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. And I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs and were historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places.”
On objective facts, Newt is completely, absolutely right. That the Palestinians have since coalesced into a coherent group identity separate from other Arabs is true too, but it doesn’t erase the truth of Newt’s statement. Newt’s statement matters because understanding the truth behind Palestinian identity makes it clear that it is Goebbel-esque propaganda about the Palestinian’s imaginary past that places the Israelis in an unflattering, and dishonest, light, as apartheid colonialist land-grabbers:
One might ask why this should matter: Regardless of when either Jews or Palestinians arrived, millions of both live east of the Jordan River today, and that’s the reality policymakers must deal with. But in truth, it matters greatly – because Western support for Palestinian negotiating positions stems largely from the widespread view that Palestinians are an indigenous people whose land was stolen by Western (Jewish) interlopers.
Current demographic realities would probably suffice to convince most Westerners that a Palestinian state should exist. But the same can’t be said of Western insistence that its border must be the 1967 lines, with adjustments possible only via one-to-one territorial swaps and only if the Palestinians consent. Indeed, just 44 years ago, UN Resolution 242 was carefully crafted to reflect a Western consensus that the 1967 lines shouldn’t be the permanent border. So what changed?
The answer lies in the phrase routinely used to describe the West Bank and Gaza today, but which almost nobody used back in 1967, when Israel captured these areas from Jordan and Egypt, respectively: “occupied Palestinian territory.” This phrase implies that the land belongs to the Palestinians and always has. And if so, why shouldn’t Israel be required to give back every last inch?
But if the land hasn’t belonged to the Palestinians “from time immemorial” – if instead, both Palestinians and Jews comprise small indigenous populations augmented by massive immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the West Bank and Gaza becoming fully Judenrein only after Jordan and Egypt occupied them in 1948 – then there’s no inherent reason why the border must necessarily be in one place rather than another. To create two states, a border must be drawn somewhere, but that “somewhere” should depend only on the parties’ current needs – just as the drafters of Resolution 242 envisioned.
Newt’s willingness to state truths is one of the more attractive things about his candidacy. He can be unfiltered, which is worrisome, but that unfiltered quality is what allows him to trample over established Leftist political orthodoxies, and make statements that cut through the cognitive dissonance that affects anybody who lives in a world dominated by a statist media. I hope that, whether Newt makes it to the White House or not, he sticks with this honesty.
Right now, Newt’s refreshing factual honesty makes me think of the first half of the I Love Lucy episode in which Lucy, in inveterate liar, makes a bet that she can tell the truth for 24 hours. One of the funniest scenes in TV history has Lucy sitting down for a bridge game with three of her friends and abandoning all her social lies in favor of the truth, as she sees it, about their clothes, their children, their decor, and their personalities. (Sadly, I can’t find a clip of that on the internet.) In a lesson Newt would do well to heed, when Lucy gets the chance to achieve her heart’s desire — a show business gig — truth goes out the window, landing her in a hair-raising, but naturally quite funny, situation.
There’s nothing new about lying. It comes with our lizard brains and can serve a very useful purpose, whether one is a spy, a prisoner of war, or a husband whose wife asks “Does this dress make me look fat?” However, in the world of politics and journalism, lies have vast and significant consequences for nations. When those who need to tell the truth routinely lie, not just to save face, but to advance underlying, and often disguised, ideological goals, we as a nation are in great danger. Thankfully, we have an alternative media now that helps suss out the truth, but it only benefits those who willingly pay attention.