I have a great fondness for experiences, ideas, certain people, many animals, places, even some things. And I assume you do, too. Among these sources of delight, respect, and appreciation, I would include regular old-fashioned facts, although with the full recognition that not all of them are equally verifiable, or even equally definable. Nor are they equally pleasant, although part of the pleasure comes from knowing that they have that traditional, pre-postmodernist virtue: being true. Nonetheless, I would like to think that it isn’t only practicing scientists who grant facticity a special place, and that we do so not only when it comes to comprehending and communicating about the natural world but also in our daily discourse, public as well as personal.
No less a luminary than Thomas Jefferson noted that “Truth is certainly a branch of morality and a very important one to society.” And as Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.”
This is all prelude to my need to note something that I fear has become endemic in our public discourse: A remarkable indifference to mere facts, manifested in a despicable tendency to ignore them altogether, and simply to make things up … that is, to lie.
To be sure, there is a long history of stretching the truth, or lying outright, not only in private life but in public, notably politics. Thus, Abraham Lincoln is said to have punctured one of his opponents with this witticism: “He must have a very high regard for the truth, since he uses it so sparingly.”
It was said of Richard Nixon that if he touched his nose, he was telling the truth, if he touched his ear, he was telling the truth, but if his lips were moving, he was lying.
In more recent times, Ronald Reagan probably was the first to make up “facts” willy-nilly, to fit his convenience, or at least, the most prolific fabricator of “facts.” Thus, according to the Gipper, the country was awash in “welfare queens” driving around in Cadillacs, trees caused air pollution, the Soviet Union was behind the nuclear-freeze movement, and Vietnam veterans were spat upon when they returned to the U.S. No wonder he once uttered this revealing verbal slip: “facts are stupid things” (aides claimed that he meant to say “stubborn”).
In any case, I was stunned this spring when Allen West, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, stated that “there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party that are members of the Communist Party.” After a long pause, Rep. West added, “No, they actually don’t hide it. It’s called the Congressional Progressive Caucus.” There is, in fact, a Congressional Progressive Caucus, but members of the Communist Party? This wasn’t simply a case of exaggeration, or intemperate rhetoric; rather, it was a clear statement of “fact” that is nothing but a simple—indeed, simple-minded—bold-faced, utter and complete lie. I don’t know which would be worse, if Rep. West knew that he was lying, or if he was so ignorant that he didn’t know it. I should add that despite pressure—some of it even from Republicans—he still hasn’t owned up to the facts.
Until the other day, I was under the impression—naïve, perhaps—that overt political lies were, if not exclusively, at least especially the province of the political far-right, what with climate-change denial, evolution denial, consequence-of-national-financial-default denial, etc., on top of the more run of the mill non-denials, i.e., assertion of things that are simply untrue: death panels, Obama a Muslim, a socialist, anti-America, not born in he US, shariah law is spreading across the U.S., black helicopters are about to swoop down and take away our freedoms not to mention our lives.
Nor are these right-wingnut lies unique to the alst four years: During the Dubya times, of course, we were subjected to the “Swiftboating” of John Kerry – unlike service-dodging W, a genuine war hero – as sell as some especially lethal whoppers, mostly involving Saddam Hussein’s acquisition of W’s of MD, ties to al Qaeda, etc.
(Then again, there was Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman,” but I’d venture that when it comes to outright lying, liberals have been greatly outpaced by conservatives, at least recently.)
Along these lines, Paul Krugman noted recently that “conservative goldbugs have been predicting vast inflation and soaring interest rates for three years, and have been wrong every step of the way. But this failure has done nothing to dent their influence on a party that is unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science.”
Into this swamp, I am sad to say, has stepped the Senate’s Democratic leader, Harry Reid, with his recent assertion to the Huffington Post that an unidentified former investor in Mr. Romney’s Bain Capital firm had told him, “Harry, he (Romney) didn’t pay any taxes for ten years!” Mr. Reid went on: “Now, how do I know that that’s true? Well, I’m not certain, but obviously he can’t release those tax returns. How would it look?”
Admittedly, Sen. Reid didn’t directly assert—as a fact—that Mr. Romney has been a tax cheat. But he came pretty close.
Don’t get me wrong. I think Romney should disclose his tax records, as should any candidate for president, and indeed, I’m in favor of generating political pressure to make that happen. I wonder what he’s hiding. But I’d like to see some respect for facts as distinct from opinion, expectation, snide suggestions or outright lies. And that’s a fact.