Saturday, May 1, 2010

Where have you gone, Joe Friday?

The Holocaust was the topic in my western civ class yesterday. Due to the prevalence of Holocaust deniers on the internet, I always feel obliged to address their existence and warn students against being drawn into their fantasy world. One student asked how anyone could believe such nonsense, and a good discussion about the difference between historical interpretation and historical fact followed. We can have a serious and substantial debate, I told them, about why the Holocaust happened, or how complicit the German public was in what the Nazis did. But there is no debate over whether it happened. That would be like debating not whether FDR was a great president but whether he ever existed.

The discussion has had me thinking about what makes so many people susceptible to denialism. It seems to be everywhere these days. Despite categorical statements from responsible public officials, millions of Americans continue to express doubts that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. (You can see a complete debunking of the birther nonsense here.) According to a recent New York Times poll, 20% of Americans do not believe Obama was born in the U.S. and another 23% say they don't know. More than 40% of Americans either deny or express doubts about an empirically verifiable fact. (Among Republicans, 32% deny Obama's citizenship, and the number is 40% among those describing themselves as "very conservative.")

Writing in Forbes, Bruce Barlett points out that Tea Party supporters think that taxes are three times higher than they actually are. A CBS poll showed that only 2% of Tea Party supporters knew that taxes had gone down under Obama, while 46% mistakenly thought taxes had stayed the same and 44% thought that taxes had gone up--the exact opposite of the truth.

It is tempting to dismiss such denialism as pure ignorance, and in some cases, that may be true. But according to the New York Times poll on the Tea Partiers, they are more educated than the general public. Yet, in the CBS poll, they were far more likely than the general public to get the facts wrong about taxes, which is supposedly their main concern. They are also more likely to doubt that Obama was born in the U.S.

Something else is going on, when large numbers of otherwise intelligent people deny the truth of demonstrable facts. Ideology is trumping reality.

The answer may lie in the New York Times poll which shows that nearly two-thirds of Tea Party supporters get most of their news from Fox News, and a majority of them believe that shows like Glenn Beck's and Sean Hannity's are "news," not opinion or entertainment. More than any other media organization, Fox News has blurred (if not obliterated) the line between fact and opinion. Truth is determined not by reasoned analysis based on facts, but on who speaks the loudest, and which "facts" are repeated most frequently.

Though the term "spin" is relatively new, the phenomenon certainly is not. Politics has always involved a degree of selectivity and interpretation and always will. But what we're seeing here is not spin but outright distortion and lies. We've become so accustomed to spin that we dismiss whatever comes out of the mouths of our political adversaries as false, with little regard to reality.

Our distrust of spin has devolved into a nihilistic fear that in politics there are no facts, only spin. Our desire to escape the spin is the appeal behind Bill O'Reilly's self-proclaimed "no-spin zone." We all want a straight shooter, a political Joe Friday who will give us "just the facts." And that's what O'Reilly (and Fox in general, with its "We report, you decide" slogan) disingenuously promises.

A couple of years ago, I watched a segment on O'Reilly's show, as I occasionally do. I forget the issue being discussed, but in the typical "fair and balanced" style of Fox, there were two guests on opposing sides of the issue. O'Reilly, not surprisingly, came down on the side of his conservative guest. When the liberal guest tried to make a factual point, O'Reilly cut him off, saying it's two to one, you lose. That, it seems, is how you determine truth in the "no-spin zone"--you stack the deck for one side and then vote.

Too often, that is what our political discourse has become. Rarely are pundits and commentators held to any factual standard. Back in May 2008, Chris Matthews dismantled talk radio blowhard Kevin James by simply asking him a factual question over and over again when James charged that Obama's foreign policy was "appeasement." Matthews relentlessly repeated: "What did Neville Chamberlain do?" It soon became painfully apparent that James had no idea what appeasement was, just that it was "bad thing" and it would harm Obama by flinging the charge at him. Whether there was any factual basis for the comparison was irrelevant to him.

One of the most common retorts in our political shouting contests has become "you're entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts." Sadly, often that seems not to be the case. We need a renewed commitment to facts. Obama's critics are entitled to disapprove of his policies, but they are not entitled to believe he has raised taxes when he has cut them. There are empirically verifiable facts. We can disagree about what they mean, but not what they are. To abandon the common ground of fact is to descend into the fantasy world of denialism.


  1. At this point, most people seem to have forgotten that true news used to be presented from a neutral and unbiased viewpoint. Now, people simply choose the angle from which they want their "news" spun.

  2. It will be a generation or two before we will begin to understand the damage done to this country by Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes. Walter Cronkite, Douglas Edwards, David Brinkley, Chet Huntley, et al must be spinning in their graves.