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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Never Ending

What We Know That Just Ain’t So

Mark Twain is reported to have said, “It isn’t so astonishing the things that I can remember, as the number of things I can remember that aren’t so.”

This just may be the single biggest problem with civic life in the country today. We all tend to remember things that just aren’t so. Couple that with an astonishing inability to simply agree on a common set of “facts” around major issues and you have arrived at bedrock in the current unproductive state of politics in America.

An entire cottage industry in political journalism has grown up around the need to “fact check” everything candidates say. This is a welcome development in my book, but unfortunately too many of us simply will not take a fact, even one carefully checked by a pro, at face value.

Is Social Security about to go broke? Is Barack Obama a Muslim? Is the president’s birth certificate a fake? Did the stimulus save jobs or just cost money? Is Fox News fair and balanced? How about climate change, is it really happening? All questions that we have the ability to answer with what an old editor once called “the steady accumulation of facts.”

Scientists have done a lot of work on why people cling to beliefs that are clearly contradicted by evidence, by facts. I’m no behavioral scientist, but my read of the analysis is simple: we believe in things – political opinions included – that tend to reinforce our world view. Don’t like Obama: he must be a Muslim or not born in the U.S.A. Don’t like Romney: must be a heartless corporate raider or a hopelessly rich guy completely out of touch.

You can believe that Obama is a Muslim or Romney out of touch, but opinions are not facts. Facts should help shape opinions, facts should not be cherry picked to support a fully formed opinion, which explains much of our political discourse.

At the heart of this “my opinion is better than your opinion” approach to politics is the widespread inability to see the other side’s point of view and to even consider whether the guy across the aisle just might have a valid perspective. When the opposition is so easily written off as misguided and lacking in seriousness what is the motivation to listen, consider and compromise? There isn’t one. Perhaps the highest form of self awareness, a good thing in any leader, is the constant, nagging suspicion that, hey, I might be wrong.

Consider briefly the “birthers,” those folks who in the face of all evidence continue to insist that the duly elected president of the United States is unqualified for that position because he was not born in the country. Note to history buffs: Hawaii has been a state since August 21, 1959. Obama’s long-form birth certificate, affirmed by every responsible official in Hawaii and released by the White House to put a sock in Donald Trump, is dated August 4, 1961. Maintaining the fiction about the president’s birth in the face of such evidence is a little like arguing that the moon is a flat disc because, hey, it looks that way from my neighborhood!

To continue to believe the birther nonsense requires belief in a conspiracy so immense even I must be in on it. Don’t tell anyone.

Yet, as CNN political reporter Peter Hamby points out, people with seriously responsible positions – I’m not counting The Donald – continue to traffic is the “opinion” that the birth certificate is questionable. The Iowa GOP is including such opinion in its platform and the blowhard sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona is of the opinion that he needs to investigate.

Mark Twain would probably remind us – he can’t since the rumors of his death are no longer exaggerated – that people have always held fast to crazy beliefs. It is a bipartisan problem.

Some of Franklin Roosevelt’s enemies persisted in believing he was Jewish and part of a vast international Jewish conspiracy. You can find the “evidence” to support this opinion all over the Internet. And, of course, Sarah Palin didn’t give birth to her baby Trig and George W. Bush had the lowest IQ of any president. These “opinions” serve one really handy purpose – they delegitimize, they say you can’t take that person seriously because of some dark truth that, were it to come out, would show the world that – fill in the blank – is an imposter.

“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived, and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, pervasive, and unrealistic,” so said John F. Kennedy. Of course, JFK didn’t really die in Dallas in 1963, but is probably living in a retirement home in Florida or Lyndon Johnson killed him, even better the aliens got him.

Persistent, pervasive, and unrealistic. Kind of like our politics, all opinion and not many facts. Of course, we can chalk some of this up to simple old partisan mythmaking; the tried and true political strategy of telling an outrageous lie about your opponent and making them try to explain it away.

Little wonder we have such trouble addressing the country’s real problems, but that’s just an opinion.

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