In Defense Of Scottie Nell Hughes
[The sum total of the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial is that] no one except four people—one duly executed by lethal injection, another in jail for the rest of his life, a third sentenced to 12 years and a fourth granted immunity—had anything to do with creating the political context of antigovernment rage that made the bombing possible.
This denial is how a childlike nation gets past trauma. It demonstrates how unprepared our nation is for the trauma about to be visited upon it. – Rick Perlstein, “The Rush To Normalize Trump”, In These Times, Dec. 2, 2016
“I’m sure you’ve heard James Fallows talk about lies that Donald Trump has put out there in tweets, in things he’s said. What do you think about that?” [NPR radio host Dianne] Rehm asked.
Hughes responded that the existence of truth itself was dubious, and that the veracity of Trump’s tweets depended upon whether the person assessing them liked Trump. – Matt Shuham, “Trump Surogate’s Jaw-Dropping Claim: ‘No Such Thing’ As Facts Anymore,” Talking Points Memo, Dec. 2, 2016
It was a story that passed among liberals, with the usual clueless commentary. For example, on the original TPM post, daveyjones64 wrote in part, “And we all better believe that this is indeed going to be their playbook for the entirety of his time in the White House.” How sad would this commenter be if I pointed out that every Presidential Administration uses this same “playbook”. Usually, we call it by other names like “spin” or “just politics”. What it really is, however, is placing more faith in how people perceive and understand the world than anything “real” like “facts”.
Then, of course, there’s the inevitable recollection of Karl Rove’s “Empire’s create their own reality” statement, dutifully recalled by commenter 26degrees rising. It’s almost as if Rove’s clear-eyed statement of Imperial Truth that’s as old as humanity were some horrible incantation of the devil.
I’ve avoided most news and commentary since the election for a variety of reasons both private and otherwise. There is so much noise out there and I had zero interest in adding to it. Seeing this story linked in a FB friend’s timeline (the above-quoted historian, Rick Perlstein, to be exact) that piqued my interest. It was the headline, with it’s “I’m heading for the fainting couch” business calling Hughes statement “jaw-dropping”. It is neither jaw-dropping nor even new. Of course facts are malleable things, visible only from where one chooses to see and hear. This entire election season was an object lesson in how two incompatible views of the world, when meeting, talk past one another, treating the one another both with contempt and disdain.
As a for instance, let us consider some of the “big” facts governing our national life on social, cultural, and political planes. White supremacy – is it true or false? There is no doubt it has been part of our founding and expanding creed; it’s even enshrined in the original language of the Constitution. Is it or is it not a fact? That a particular species of capitalism is not only a preferable socio-economic organizing principle, but superior in principle to any and all others. Gotta tell ya, folks, I’ve never bought this one, and I know lots of other people who don’t either. Yet at least since the decade or so after the Civil War up until today, this was unquestioned and unquestionable. Even the socialist and communist revolutions did nothing to sway America from its insistence on its own inherent superiority; to be a true-believing socialist or communist was to be incoherent. It still is, particularly since the Establishment has decreed the anti-Soviet counter-revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989 marked the end of communism as a viable socio-economic alternative.
Those are just two examples of “facts” that have been part of our national ethos for decades, even centuries. Is it at all possible to be shocked when someone says that “facts” really don’t exist? Much of this election season, people spent entirely too much time showing one another “facts” that fit their own ideological preferences, with no one quite realizing just how futile a practice it really was. Whether it was the “fact” that Hillary Clinton was personally responsible for the deaths of four diplomats and support staff in the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack on our consulate, or the “fact” that Donald Trump was a misogynist demonstrated by his many demeaning comments about women, we posted them on social media, demanding others respond to what the poster’s clearly believed was an unanswerable charge. Thus it is that we Americans became a people divided by a common language; while ostensibly sounding the same, it was clear there were many words that meant very different things depending upon where one chose to sit.
Way back in 1948, French sociologist Jacques Ellul wrote what is really quite an unbelievable little book. Entitled The Presence Of The Kingdom, it was a kind of radical Christian manifesto, marking off up and coming ideological and material threats to true freedom. Listing propaganda a the rise of “technics” (Ellul would go on to write two well-received books on both these topics), the rise and spread of Islam, and the creation of institutions titularly for social betterment but rather to be used for social control. Among the things he wrote was a marvelous musing on “the fact”:
Now, however, we have the right to ask: “What is the general motive which – at the present time – leads man to this blindness about the world in which he lives?” There is no doubt the most powerful motive – which weighs upon us like an interdict, the motive which prevents us from questioning the elements of this civilization, and from starting on the road leading to this necessary revolution – is our respect for facts. It is well known that in other civilizations men did not respect facts to the same extent, nor did they conceive facts in the same way. At the present time the fact – whatever it is – the established fact, is the final reason, the criterion of truth. All that is a fact is justified, because it is a fact. People think that they have no right to judge a fact – all they have to do is to accept it.
Thus from the moment that technics, the State, or production, are facts, we must worship the as facts, and we must try to adapt ourselves to them. This is the very heart of modern religion, the religion of the established fact, the religion on which depend the lesser religions of the dollar, race, or the proletariat which are only expressions of the great modern divinity, the Moloch of fact. (p.27, emphases in original)
As long as people knew they had the facts on their side – Hillary Clinton is a lying crook; Donald Trump is a lying pig – there was little else others should do except acquiesce in the face of the facts. That this didn’t happen isn’t because one group or another is stupid, uneducated, delusional, or otherwise impaired from judging the “correctness” of the facts presented, although far too often that’s how we tend to speak of these things. On the contrary, facts were and continue to be irrelevant for the same reasons facts have never been all that interesting: One person’s fact is another person’s statement of something so “jaw-dropping” it’s impossible to believe anyone could believe and act upon such a ludicrous statement. Except, of course, name for me a single social group in human history that didn’t act upon what we now consider the most “dubious” of “facts”.
One example that always comes to my mind is one described by T. S. Kuhn. After inventing the telescope and seeing, among other things, far more stars than were visible to the naked eye, the four large moons of Jupiter and their revolutions about it, and much else, he was challenged by ecclesiastical authority as to the truthfulness of his claims. First, Galileo’s theory of optics, upon which the workings of his telescope were based, were both relatively new and hardly accepted by most people for whom such things were known. For every claim of what Galileo said he saw through his telescope, there was a perfectly reasonable, coherent, and – this is most important – accepted set of facts that explained them without overthrowing the church-preferred earth-centered cosmos. We may insist that Galileo was right because he had facts on his side; the truth is, however, the Church had far more facts on its side, facts accepted within a time-worn and well-tested set of physical assumptions about the Universe God had created. Thus Galileo was not only “wrong”; he had no “real facts” to support his claims.
We are far too entranced by our own sense of ourselves as sensible people for whom facts determine what is and is not real to realize just how fragile is that “reality”, just how contingent and malleable are those facts upon which we confidently rest our minds, and that when distinct views of the world clash – clashes far more dangerous than between any religion or political ideology – we wind up with incommensurable realities living side by side.
Which one survives? That’s a question of power, now isn’t it. It certainly doesn’t depend upon any facts.