Friday, June 03, 2011

Uncomfortable Facts In A World Where Opinions Dominate

Let's begin with two very different views of the same event. First, we'll start with a view seen by a couple million people on a television "news" program on a network most people with a passing acquaintance with our current public discourse think of as "liberal".
MATTHEWS (6/1/11): Good evening. And what a news day! I’m Chris Matthews in Washington.

Leading off tonight: Bus stop! She makes more excitement riding a bus than the others do actually declaring for president of the United States. The Iowa caucuses are seven months away, and who’s dominating Republican presidential politics? Sarah Palin.

The splash—the splash she continues to make in cities across the Northeast is trumpeting not just her electrifying stagecraft but the dowdiness of the Republican field. Romney, Pawlenty, Huntsman, no one can match her, and yet she doesn’t really seem serious about running.

And that’s why Republicans are still pining for a new star. Christie, Giuliani, Perry. Can any Republican eclipse Sarah Palin? That’s our top story tonight.


MATTHEWS: This is a strange time. The heat in Washington is already becoming what it often does, and it’s only June 1st. The summer doldrums are in, but Sarah Palin could not be hotter as a candidate.


MATTHEWS: I don’t know. I don’t know what it is. She goes to Times Square. She’s hitting all the beauty spots in American patriotism. And I agree with all those spots. She’s even found New York and she’s making Times Square look exciting. And Melania, most beautiful person in the world probably, there, right next to Donald Trump.


MATTHEWS: What’s she doing? Is she—is this a book tour? Is this a Hollywood star? Is this a political person?


MATTHEWS: Look, Mitt Romney—I’m going to talk about him later in the show—is actually running for president. He actually was governor of a state and he finished his term and he’s a real public servant who may well be the strongest opponent against President Obama next year, and we’re not—we’re going to cover him tomorrow, but we’re not getting— These pictures are [incredible? impressive?]


MATTHEWS: By the way, there’s something about her. It’s primordial. When she walks and moves, there’s something electric about it that she doesn’t do on television with Roger Ailes sitting in that booth in Wasilla. Look at, there’s something—other candidates don’t do this. She’s constantly in motion. She looks obviously very attractive. She’s doing something that works. If Mitt Romney were doing the same exact thing, Michael, nothing would happen. This is what’s going on here.
As Somerby notes, the reason for Chris Matthews' overheated expostulations is simple enough - the woman has breasts, just out there for all the world to see!

The second view is a bit more focused, taking a gander at an interview Gov. Palin gave. While Glenn Kessler may be aware that Sarah Palin has breasts, he ignores them for other parts of her anatomy, specifically her mouth, and what comes out of it:
“We don’t have the $2 billion [to give to Egypt]. Where are we going to get it? From China? We are going to borrow from foreign countries to give to foreign countries. … We want to know to know where those dollars are going because we don’t have the money to be providing foreign countries, not in this day and age when we are going broke.”
Palin managed to get almost everything wrong in this comment. She clearly was not listening too closely to President Obama’s speech on the Middle East, because otherwise she would have realized that he was not talking about spending more taxpayer dollars.

Obama proposed to forgive up to $1 billion of Egypt’s $3.6 billion debt (money that was spent buying American farm products). The forgiveness, which would take several years, would take the form of a “debt swap,” in which the money saved will be invested in designated programs in Egypt.

The other $1 billion would consist of loan guarantees by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), which are structured at no cost to the U.S. taxpayer. So none of this would involve new debt issued by the Treasury.

Palin appears to assume that the United States simply hands out dollars with little idea about what happens to the money. This is a common misnomer. Actually, there are often strings attached.
A couple million people tune in each and every night to watch Chris Matthews. The other day they got served a great big huge helping of his libido operating his mouth. Lucky for him there is a desk.

Even with the internet providing opportunities to read him, how many will read Glenn Kessler's fact-checking column on the interview Sarah Palin gave to FOXNews' Greta Van Susteren? A few thousand, may a few tens of thousands? Which story is more important? That Sarah Palin is, by most measures, an attractive woman who makes some men act like fools? Or that Sarah Palin is obviously ignorant of American policy, and therefore trusting her with conducting American policy might just create all sorts of hazards and dangers for our country?

I chose this example to illustrate a far larger point. Facts matter. Certainly, it is beyond a doubt that Gov. Palin's popularity among a certain part of the American public extends far beyond her physical appeal. She gives voice to the concerns many people have, and I wouldn't deny that for a minute. Yet, as the fact-check article is at great pains to make clear, she has no idea what she's talking about. Rather than give voice to fears and troubles and worries that have no basis in fact, isn't it important that we have public figures who are conversant, on some level, with the reality of various aspects of how we as a country do business? Furthermore, isn't it important for public figures to inform people that while their fears may be real, they aren't based in factual information? It is one thing to give voice to the fears of people in the midst of social upheaval. As another former governor running for President, Tim Pawlenty said the other day, any idiot can do that. It takes a leader to say all that, give voice and coherence and some kind of fundamental reality to those fears that are out there, and then say the next sentence that should begin by insisting those fears and anxieties are misplaced. Which is not to say that we don't have problems with which to deal, or that our legislative and executive branch politicians just don't seem to be dealing with our problems. Rather, we need to direct people's attention to the very real issues that really matter.

Rather than calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme, as Gov. Palin did in her interview, why not talk about ways to insure the programs solvency after 2085 or so, when general revenues, combined with FICA taxes, will support 75%-benefits? There are modest proposals that most people understand will fix the problem of the trust fund thinning so that, in 2036, it will require general revenue funds to cover obligations; some of those include raising the income limit on taxable income under FICA. This might well be the simplest way to fix the problem. Calling it a Ponzi scheme that is going broke is not only not helpful. It isn't factually accurate.

One of the guiding principles of what I do is simple enough: I try, as little as possible, to confuse facts and opinions. One of my pet peeves is the assertion of factually inaccurate statements and opinions as facts, and claims that are opinions asserted as fact. Now, facts for me are simple things. They are things in this world. Nouns. They are events, people, places, or things, that, boiled down, can be plotted on a graph. No secret information, nothing esoteric or too difficult to discover on one's own. If I make a reference to a person, place, thing, or event, it should be easy enough to discover if I am getting my facts right.

Opinions, on the other hand - for the purposes of this blog, at any rate, what is usually called an "operating definition" because the word itself is so fuzzy - are views about people, places, things, or events. In the above example, it is a fact that Sarah Palin made many factual errors in statements to a FOXNews interviewer. It is the opinion of Chris Matthews that she is exciting, electrifying, yadda-yadda-yadda. It is also my opinion that Sarah Palin is a poor candidate for office not only because we have differing views on certain policy preferences, but also because she has demonstrated ignorance of some basic facts about American policy, which should disqualify her. That is my opinion, and I stand by it; others have different opinions, and that's OK, too.

What I have a problem with is simple enough - confusing the two.

This extends far beyond matters of the moment. I have a standing policy regarding Holocaust deniers, global warming deniers, people who insist that biological evolution is false, people who insist that Barack Obama is some odd communist-Muslim bent on destroying America: I refuse to engage them. Now, people believe these things, and many more besides, that are factually inaccurate. The first on the list is one most people not only consider a matter of factual inaccuracy, but revealing of a moral flaw as well. Others on my list many, including some law-makers and powerful lobbying groups, hold as factually accurate but are as erroneous as Holocaust deniers. Pretending they are possible alternatives does no one any good. Basing public policy, whether in local school districts when discussing biology curricula or in Congress when discussing energy policy, is a bit like attempting to create gold through alchemy. Simply because a segment of the population holds views that are easily shown to be contrary to fact does not mean anyone is required to indulge their error. While it may be true they can hold these views, express them, and be a part of our larger national conversation, any time they show up, it seems to me (OK, see, here comes an opinion!) the first order of business is making the point that the assertions they are making are false. Then, go on to discuss matters in a factual manner.

Clarity on this point - one I make often - is important as I am about to write a post on Rob Bell. He had a book published earlier this year, Love Wins, that has stirred quite a bit of controversy. Not least have been the various denunciations of Bell as a heretic, as unbiblical, as a universalist wolf in sheep's clothing. Now, I don't know about this last one, but the first two are, quite simply put, factually wrong. Bell may be in error, I don't know for sure because I am only 82 pages in to his book. What is not is heretical. Heresies are historical errors of the Christian faith, technical in detail, easily defined. So far, Bell fits in to no category of heresy that I can identify.

Calling Bell unbiblical is almost laughably ignorant. There is nothing but the Bible in Bell's presentation. While there are some doctrinal suppositions behind his reading, he rarely ventures far from the Biblical texts, asking searching, important questions about these texts, seeking a radical hermeneutic to move from a grounded understanding of the texts in their original context, and what those meanings may offer us today.

One can disagree with Bell. One can not like his message for a host of reasons, many of them that I can imagine being differences of doctrinal preference. I can see, easily enough, how a Reformed theologian might well take umbrage at some of what Bell has said, at least what I've read so far. What Bell most definitely is not, at least so far as I've read, is either heretical or unbiblical. This is not a matter of my opinion over and against the opinions of others. This is a matter of fact, discovered easily enough should anyone be interested in doing so.

As long as we're clear moving forward here on what I consider facts and what I consider opinions. . .

Virtual Tin Cup

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