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Archive for Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Seeking the comfort of ‘designer facts’

February 14, 2006

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So apparently, we didn't get the real story on Cindy Sheehan's arrest.

Some of you will recall that I wrote last week how Sheehan, the anti-war activist, showed up to President Bush's State of the Union address wearing a T-shirt that referenced the number of Americans killed in Iraq. Capitol police took her out of the gallery and placed her under arrest.

Meantime, Beverly Young, wife of a Florida representative, showed up in the same room wearing a sweatshirt that said "Support Our Troops." She was asked to leave, but was not arrested. I laid the disparity in treatment to the administration's thin skin toward criticism of its policies.

I've since been informed by a number of readers that the real reason Sheehan got hauled to the hoosegow while Young didn't is that Sheehan attempted to unfurl a protest banner in the chamber. Others report that instead of complying with police instructions, she resisted arrest.

Just one problem: There's no evidence any of that is true. Indeed, it's Young who has admitted to cursing police. Yet my readers relayed these "facts" about Sheehan with such righteous authority that you'd never know they weren't. Facts, that is.

Jack Nicholson was right: We can't handle the truth. Not the truth about Sheehan. The truth, period.

It's increasingly the case that there's no such thing as the truth. Rather, we have "truths," separate but equal. We choose the one we need, based on which best validates our preferred worldview. We get these truths from radio talk shows and Internet forums that manufacture them according to our political alliances and warn in dire tones against trusting truth that comes from ideologically impure sources.

So extreme conservatives shun the "liberal media" and extreme liberals shun the "mainstream media." And neither seems to get the joke that they're both shunning the same media for supposedly favoring the other side. Seems obvious to me that when opposing extremists each accuse you of supporting the other, you're probably hitting pretty close to the truth.

Which takes us back to Nicholson's line. And to this point: Once upon a time, we all drew upon a common pool of facts. You might interpret them differently than I, but we could have an honest disagreement because the facts themselves were not in contention.

Now we have designer facts, facts that aren't facts but that gain currency because somebody wanted to believe them. The thing is, facts that really "are" facts, truth that really "is" true, doesn't always validate your beliefs. Sometimes it challenges and confounds them. That's probably the problem.

Designer facts are easy because they are soothing, because they are predictable, because they never make you think, only react. But they also leave us talking past each other because we no longer operate from the same assumptions or speak the same language. You may feel the shirt looks better in black and I may think it looks better in white, but if we can't even agree on what black and white are, we can't have the argument. We have no basis for conversation.

Maybe that's the inevitable byproduct of the information revolution. We have gone from three networks to 500, one for every worldview, every bias, every demographic set or subset. We no longer have one Bringer of Truth. Paul Simon once famously asked, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" It might be more apropos to ask, "Where have you gone, Walter Cronkite?"

Wherever he went, he apparently took with him the concept that decent people could interpret the same objective, verifiable facts differently and have - that phrase again - an honest disagreement about them. Now we have facts created for us according to our politics. Now we have "truth" that belongs in quotation marks.

And the result is predictable, isn't it? We still have plenty of disagreement, but there's nothing honest about it.

- Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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