Thursday, July 14, 2005

Against Mendacity (part 2): Just The Facts

I'm gonna kick Part 2 off with another invocation, this time from the late noted senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY): "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." Yes, yes, of course, Senator Moynihan. We all live in the same world, acknowledge the same sources of authority, and proceed according to the same assumptions. Further, the evidence drives us all to the same conclusions, and that's why we all agree all the time.

The point of view Moynihan espouses above has largely fallen out of favor in Washington over the past decade or so, and in its place a fractious epistemological relativism has blossomed. What I mean is that politicians have abandoned the commonly held factual landscape that used to guide bipartisan efforts in favor of sectarian "information enclaves" that are mutually incommensurable. I'm a fairly young guy, so any reminiscing I do about "the good old days" should be taken with a grain of salt, but what I've read on the subject suggests that past political eras saw much greater agreement on the basic facts of the issues at hand. And regardless of how things worked in the 20th century, we need more common ground to move forward as a nation.

I'm not just criticizing spin. I'm talking about disputes over the fundamental assumptions that determine legislative exigencies. Examples include the debate over whether global warming exists and if so, whether human activity contributes to it; the dogged insistence against all available information that Iraq is going well; the idea that Social Security is "in crisis" and needs immediate remediation; and of course, Saddam's vast arsenal of WMDs. Well, okay, I've gotta grant that some of that is spin; statements that a situation is going "well" or that an action was "justified" aren't really subject to objective evaluation. And all politicians spin to greater or lesser degrees. But too many of the current administration's opinions fly in the face of the preponderance of the facts, which tells me that they're at best being very selective about how they choose to weight various breeds of evidence.

Underlying this epistemological discrimination is an oppressive political philosophy which holds that the party in power alone decides which facts are relevant and which aren't. Now dominant political parties have always set the agenda in democracies, but they usually feel some amount of responsibility to adapt to the facts as they exist. What I'm seeing more and more in the executive and legislative branches is not so much outright mendacity as a sort of insensitivity to emerging evidence and a disturbing overconfidence in the power of ideology to reshape reality.

But ideology is particular to perspective, and perspective is relative. Adherents of this philosophy, therefore, believe that we all are, actually, entitled to our own facts, and that the facts dear to those in power are the most relevant to current political exigencies. In other words, who's "right" in an absolute sense matters far less than who's in power. I believe that such a view has dire consequences for democracy, some of which I'll discuss in part 3.