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When the Fiction Ends

by Roger Berkowitz

Beyond all the silliness attached to the Todd Akin case this week, the only meaningful comment came from Rachel Riederer. In an essay in Guernica, Riederer writes:

The content of [Akin’s] statements was, of course, ridiculous and offensive. But the comments struck me most as a rhetorical move, one that’s in wide usage but rarely gets this kind of attention. When asked to defend a difficult and extreme position—his opposition to abortion in all cases, even rape—Akin chose not to explain the values and thoughts behind his position, but to push aside the question with a bogus fact.

The Hannah Arendt Center has been highlighting the ever-increasing tendency of politicians—not to mention academics and others—to replace argument with an attack on the facts. At last Fall’s Conference on “Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts,” we began with the premise that:

We face today a crisis of fact. Facts, as Hannah Arendt saw, are all around us being reduced to opinions; and opinions masquerade as facts. As fact and opinion blur together, the very idea of factual truth falls away. And increasingly the belief in and aspiration for factual truth is being expunged from political argument.

In essays like “Truth and Politics” and “Lying and Politics,” as well as in many of her books, Arendt argued that the modern era is particularly vulnerable to attacks on the facts. This is because we live at a time when people have lost the traditions and customs that are the pillars and foundations of their lives. Adrift, people seek certainties that give sense to their world. In such a situation of spiritual homelessness and rootlessness, it is easy to latch onto an ideology that gives clear and simple expressions of a communal truth. And when facts counteract that truth, it is easier to simply deny the fact than to rethink one’s intellectual identity.

It is hard not to think about Arendt’s analysis of the desire for ideological coherence at the expense of facts as we suffer through the 2012 presidential campaign. The patent lies on both sides feed ideologically driven “bases” that watch the same television, listen to the same radio, read the same blogs, and live in the same fantasy worlds. Akin’s remarks speak to the power of those worlds, but also to their vulnerability. There are limits to fiction in the real world, and that is important to remember as well.

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  • JohnInMA

    It’s one thing to speak in rhetorical terms. It’s quite another to speak some gibberish as if it were a biological or physiological truth. We may have come to accept weak-minded elected class dolts being over the top in metaphor or simple distortion of truth – for example by using statistics in a favorable way. But to claim mind over uterus is in the league of little green men or the conspiracy of unseen thousands (e.g. 9/11 truthers). We’d rather see those people in a different institution – say for treatment – than one which the power to impact law and order.

  • Tom Gates

    Sort of like a member of Congress who said that building a new base on a Pacific island would cause the island to “flip over”.

  • Susan

    “For a moment, I want to get back to what was asked about the issue on the floor today that Mr. Hoyer addressed,” Pelosi said. “He made a point and I want to emphasize it. Under this bill, when the Republicans vote for this bill today, they will be voting to say that women can die on the floor and health care providers do not have to intervene if this bill is passed. It’s just appalling.”

    It is interesting that Nancy Pelosi can speak malicious lies such as this example yet-unlike Akin- she is not convicted for the Crime of Inappropriate Thought.

    The irony of Pelosi’s malicious lie is that in the land of the free and the home of the brave where everyone is demanding Akin’s head be thrusted onto a spike for all to see his hideous Crime of committing Inappropriate Thought, the current sitting President of the United States advocated on the Ill State Senate Floor-while as Ill State Senator-that a human being born alive by surviving an abortion must be left to die in dirty hospital linen closets simply because killing the human baby serves the original intent of exterminating the baby born alive.

  • daniel

    The problem, at its root, is the belief that truth is “relative” which means, fundamentally, that there is no truth at all. (“What’s true for me may not be true for you.”) If that were true (!), then all statements are mere opinions, and arguments are based on power only.

  • Boritz

    Facts and truth. The Left has undergone a notable change over the years. Once upon a time all values were relative and there were certainly no absolutes (something that is true all the time).
    Today the Left readily embraces absolutes such as global climate warming change has been proven and it is man-made and that’s settled. To deny this is to deny science and reason itself.
    To the casual observer this shift in, ah, perspective has to do with what the traffic will bear. When they believe it is time to profitably pounce with their dogma they do.
    Relative values and you-can’t-prove-anything-about-anything (therefore you shouldn’t make a rule I have to follow) were once so popular with the Left but appear now to have been just a stepping stone on the way to their own brand of absolutism.
    Anything resembling an objective truth based on facts has little place in either the old relativism or the new absolutism of the Left.

  • Cynical

    I disagree with Akin’s claimed “facts” — but ironically, this blog post itself quotes a misstatement of fact.

    It is not true that “Akin chose not to explain the values and thoughts behind his position.”

    Akin said he opposed abortion in rape cases, based not only on his claimed “facts,” but also based on a claimed “value”: that the fetus is a morally innocent party. Personally, I support abortion in rape cases, but I don’t doubt that Akin’s opposing position is based on “values” as well as “facts.”

    A blog that complains about the twisting of facts — while twisting the facts itself in order to attack a strawman — has no credibility.

  • thibaud

    What does the author have in mind when he harrumphs at “all the silliness” regarding the Akin/Ryan notion of what they call “forcible rape”?

    Is he trying to simultaneously attack Akin/Ryan’s critics while he attacks Akin’s clownish, yet sinister, notion of “non-forcible” and “forcible” rape?

    Nice redirect, that. Worthy of Ryan’s absurd claims that he is defending Medicare from Obama’s attacks on it. Shameless.

  • Tom

    I suspect that “forcible” rape means sex with explicit non-consent on the part of the victim,, whereas “non-forcible” rape is sex without consent–e.g., the victim is drugged. Both are traumatic to the victim and are horrific crimes, and I don’t think differentiating between the two is a good idea, but it is not a “sinister” notion.

  • ms

    Tom–statutory rape can be non-forcible but is nevertheless rape because one of the people involved is a minor.

  • Luke Lea

    You would think it would be one of the responsibilities of the mainstream press to keep the debate anchored in facts. Apparently now however. Maybe they think they can sell more papers this way.

    But then you could make the same criticism about press coverage of a lot of other controversial issues: climate, trade, immigration, education, race, diversity, . .” Sailing blind.

  • Len

    I agree that Akin’s comments beautifully exemplify Arendt’s diagnosis of the modern susceptibility to “attacks on the facts.” But Berkowitz implies that such attacks are equally likely to emanate from the left and the right: “The patent lies on both sides feed ideologically driven “bases” that watch the same television, listen to the same radio, read the same blogs, and live in the same fantasy worlds.” This is rank nonsense, itself ideology of the purest sort. The right is aggressively, knowingly wrong on almost every issue it touches, from climate change to Obamacare’s “death panels” to the costs of the welfare state to pushing “intelligent design” in primary school science education. Only one side’s living in a fantasy world here. Such critiques of partisanship from some putative center are not politics but their negation.

  • Corlyss

    “to replace argument with an attack on the facts.”

    Well, duh, that’s the essence of argument. The key is, the facts have to be real and falsehoods can be rebutted and trounced with superior facts. The attack that insults intelligence is when the speaker makes up stuff just to have a comeback. Honestly, Moynihan’s comment is spot on: Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.

  • Corlyss

    We rely on a robust press to ferret out falsehoods masquerading as facts. When the press is in one corner only, and freely turns a match into a half-tag-team exercise, democracy swoons. When the people are so incurious as to tolerate both lying politicians and a partisan press and they don’t do their own due diligence, democracy is short-lived.

  • Lorenz Gude

    Well as a student of the media I think it is sheer nonsense to say that both sides watch the same TV or read the same blogs or newspapers. Each side mostly lives in its own echo chamber where i some facts are emphasized and some ignored to maintain ideological purity and avoid cognitive dissonance. To think that one’s own view is based on facts and the other’s is not, is simply human. I think we all do it to some extent. In my own experience there are deeply painful facts on both sides of the abortion issue and that is why I am both pro life and pro choice. I am clear that abortion involves the taking of human life and know that it has serious consequences on women who have them from the testimony of women including my own mother as well as many other women and even Hilary on TV discussing negative consequences of abortion with a group of women. At the same time I don’t think either the church or the state have any right or duty to prohibit abortion and that the woman involved should have the final say. Germany’s policy which permits the woman the final say, but insists she undergo non-punitive counseling so that she understands the consequences is the best approach I have encountered.

    The demographic consequences of abortion policy also imply to me that some kind of middle road – however difficult for some on both sides to accept – may be the wisest course. This is a map showing, where statistics are available, the percentages of fetuses aborted by countries around the world: The generalization that leaps out at me is that it is quite possible to both over and under do it in terms of the demographic consequences. For example, India and China face very different demographic futures, neither of them ideal. Notice also that Germany has a rate about half that of most Western countries including the US and Australia.

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