The Fact-Free Future Arrives

This is a strange neighborhood. There’s the small shopping center down on the corner, with the Crate and Barrel and the multiplex and a trendy fitness gym and a Trader Joe’s – where Schwab’s Drug Store used to sit, where Lana Turner, in her tight sweater, wasn’t really discovered. Hollywood isn’t what it seems. And at the southwest corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights, at the foot of Laurel Canyon, there’s a bus stop, a little island of brutal concrete with no shade at all, where there was once a little ramshackle club, Pandora’s Box. Actually it was more of a coffee house, but on November 12, 1966, that’s where the somewhat famous riots on the Sunset Strip began.

Forget the movie Riot on Sunset Strip (1967) – that’s crap. It’s just that the local merchants wanted all the long-hair dope-smoking hippie types to just go away – they simply hung around too much, looking strange, driving the paying customers away. So the police obliged, and it didn’t go well. Perhaps they shouldn’t have started at Pandora’s Box. That somehow made it all about the new sixties music and the counterculture then developing, not about loitering laws at all. The rioting spread west and the whole Strip was in chaos. It took a few days for it all to settle down.

Probably no one else in the country heard about these riots – it was a local matter, really – but Buffalo Springfield got a new song out of it. That was For What It’s Worth – recorded a few weeks later, on December 5, 1966. Steven Stills and Neil Young lived just up the hill in Laurel Canyon at the time and had been there. And soon enough all the radio stations in the country were playing this:

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind
I think it’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down…
What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side…

That was a big hit, and even if no one knew what event Buffalo Springfield was singing about, specifically, they got the general idea. Something was wrong in the country, and saying hooray for our side just wasn’t cutting it, no matter how many times you said it. But the key line was the notion that nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong. Political discourse was becoming impossible. Both sides had dug in long ago. No one was listening to anyone. Years later, as Los Angeles erupted in far more serious riots, Rodney King said it again. Can’t we all just get along? Apparently not.

That’s all ancient history now. The Golden Age of Canyon Rock is long gone now, and Rodney King is dead now too – but the question remains. If everyone digs in and won’t admit the other side could be right about anything, how can we get anything done? When you spend all your time proving the other guy is dead wrong there’s no time for anything else – you spend all your time arguing over basic facts, saying they are the basic facts, or saying that they’re not facts at all. You argue over whether the problem really is a problem. If a solution is necessary that will have to wait a decade or too. The argument over global warming is like that, even if you try to play nice and call it climate change. Scientists trot out facts, tons of them, and the other guys say those aren’t facts at all – and some say it’s a fact God will fix it all, if there’s anything to fix, or we’ll soon have The Rapture and none of it will matter at all. And over time facts slowly disappear. Maybe they don’t exist. Maybe they never did. Hooray for our side.

We may have reached the fact-free future, although there is some resistance. Alex Pareene in this item notes that when Romney was in Israel and gave that speech praising Israeli “culture” and implicitly denigrating Palestinian “culture” of course, he said he had figured that out from Jared Diamond’s book, Guns, Germs and Steel – so it must be true. And then Diamond wrote a New York Times column explaining, point by point, all the things Romney got all wrong in his book – “I have to doubt whether Mr. Romney read it.” Ouch. Romney defended himself in a blog post at The Corner (the National Review Online), saying that by “culture” he meant “freedom” of course:

The Founding Fathers wrote that we are endowed by our Creator with the freedom to pursue happiness. In the America they designed, we would have economic freedom, just as we would have political and religious freedom. Here, we would not be limited by the circumstance of birth nor directed by the supposedly informed hand of government. We would be free to pursue happiness as we wish. Economic freedom is the only force that has consistently succeeded in lifting people out of poverty. It is the only principle that has ever created sustained prosperity. It is why our economy rose to rival those of the world’s leading powers – and has long since surpassed them all.

The linkage between freedom and economic development has a universal applicability. One only has to look at the contrast between East and West Germany, and between North and South Korea for the starkest demonstrations of the meaning of freedom and the absence of freedom.

That didn’t help. Now no one knows what he meant in the first place. And Pareene notes this:

This week, Romney’s economics brain trust – Glenn Hubbard, Greg Mankiw and a couple other economists who are oddly always much more intellectually honest when they’re not cashing checks from Republican politicians and elected officials – released a fancy paper attempting to prove that the stimulus made the recession worse and that Romney’s regressive “Economic Recovery” plan would do anything other than slash taxes on rich people.

Ezra Klein, bless him, emailed all the independent economists cited in the paper, and each one of them disputed the arguments their work was cited to support. “Most of the research is pretty positive on stimulus,” said one whose work was supposed to show that the stimulus failed.

The Klein item is here – what the Romney team said were verifiable facts, that had been verified by people who knew the facts, was just more hooray for our side stuff. The people who knew the facts were puzzled, and puzzled that they had been cited saying the opposite of what they had actually said. And there’s this:

Finally, Mitt Romney attempted to heroically defend the legacy of President Bill Clinton with an ad attacking the Obama campaign for supposedly trying to weaken the welfare reforms Clinton famously signed. This was foolish, because Clinton is still a member of the other party, and he quickly released a statement calling Romney’s ad “not true.” And it’s bigger news when Bill Clinton accuses you of dissembling than when some economist no one’s heard of does. Romney’s attempt to bring welfare back as a wedge issue led to more headlines about his campaign’s honesty problems, and another question for Romney that he’ll refuse to answer for the remainder of the campaign.

Pareene sees it this way:

This variety of campaign fact-checking is the sort of thing journalists and bloggers neck-deep in campaign coverage live for. It leads to good “smack down” headlines and, occasionally, some fun policy wonkery. … But… this stuff actually doesn’t matter that much in terms of winning or losing a presidential election. The small numbers of undecided voters in tossup states who’ll actually decide this thing really don’t care whether Mitt Romney misrepresented a popular scientist’s thesis. The voters committed to Romney won’t have their faith shaken by the revelation that (pointy-headed) economists think his tax plan is based on misreading of their work.

But they do illustrate what sort of politician Romney is, and they make up a part of the aggregate of media nuggets – both substantive and totally puffy – that define a candidate to voters.

It’s not a nice definition and Pareene cites an argument from Noam Sheiber’s profile of Romney campaign strategist Stuart Stevens:

Sheiber says Stevens, who helped craft George W. Bush’s media image in 2000, is still operating as if the political press hasn’t dramatically changed since 2000, when … well, when they were awful. The mainstream campaign press had a bad habit of swallowing any bullshit campaign spin, repeating untrue assertions, and happily pushing “narratives” put forth by the Bush campaign. Stevens’ job was to make Bush seem affable and regular and to make Gore seem like an aloof, lying, robotic girly-man elitist. The press followed his lead, and the liberal blogosphere was basically born as a response to the horribleness of 2000 campaign coverage (and it grew up in response to horrible Iraq war press coverage). The Internet has since made fact-checking both easier and more popular, and it’s gradually eroded the ability of a campaign to push a misleading attack without being challenged on its merits.

We have not met the fact-free future yet:

Mitt Romney seems to still think that he can simply use the press as a delivery mechanism for his campaign’s messages and expect them to be reported relatively uncritically. This explains a lot that at first blush seems odd about his strategy from why he thinks his refusal to release more tax returns should simply be the end of the issue, to why he doesn’t think he should be held accountable for previously stated political positions, to why he doesn’t expect backlash when his campaign produces blatantly dishonest attack ads. The press has evolved, thank God, since 2000.

Maybe that matters and maybe it doesn’t, as Paul Waldman argues that lies are the new truth:

Being a campaign surrogate isn’t easy. You have no say in what the candidate you favor or his campaign decides to say or do, yet you’re called upon to defend their words and actions. That can put you in an extremely uncomfortable position, unless you’re Newt Gingrich.

Yesterday, Newt went on Anderson Cooper 360 to talk about Mitt Romney’s new welfare attack ad, which falsely accuses Obama of ending work requirements in welfare, and what he said was truly remarkable, even for him.

Yes the claim was entirely false (fact-checked here and here) – the opposite may be true – and Waldman is amazed:

Now, let me be absolutely clear about something. I’ve been paying very, very close attention to political ads for a long time. In my former career as an academic I did a lot of research on political ads. I’ve watched literally every single presidential general election campaign ad ever aired since the first ones in 1952. I’ve seen ads that were more inflammatory than this one and ads that were in various ways more reprehensible than this one (not many, but some). But I cannot recall a single presidential campaign ad in the history of American politics that lied more blatantly than this one.

Waldman says this is something new:

Usually candidates deceive voters by taking something their opponent says out of context, or giving a tendentious reading to facts, or distorting the effects of policies. But in this case, Romney and his people looked at a policy of the Obama administration to allow states to pursue alternative means of placing welfare recipients in jobs, and said, “Well, how about if we just say that they’re eliminating all work requirements and just sending people checks?” I have no idea if someone in the room said, “We could say that, but it’s not even remotely true,” and then someone else said, “Who gives a crap?”, or if nobody ever suggested in the first place that this might be problematic. But either way, they decided that they don’t even have to pretend to be telling the truth anymore.

And then there was Newt Gingrich:

Newt’s argument is – and I’m not exaggerating here – that although the Romney ad makes false claims that’s okay, because Barack Obama and those who work for him are, in Newt’s opinion, the kind of people who would gut work requirements if they could, so therefore it’s okay to say that they are actually doing it, even though they aren’t.

We accept a lot of ridiculous spin in politics, but this is something entirely different. If you look closely, you can see the gaping hole where Newt’s soul used to be.

You can watch Newt here – he does say what he’s saying is not a fact at all, but it could be, maybe, so it really is a fact.

This is a step beyond Romney flatly claiming that Obama said something that, in fact, a John McCain aide said:

At issue is this soundbite that the Romney campaign used from Obama: “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.”

In fact, Obama that day was quoting an unnamed campaign advisor for Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee. The full quote: “Sen. McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, if we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.”

Romney’s campaign did provide the full context of the quote in a release announcing the new ad Monday night, he pointed out Wednesday. But for the viewers watching, there is no such disclaimer.

Still, Romney defended the spot.

“It was instead to point out what’s sauce for the goose is now sauce for the gander,” Romney told reporters. “He spoke about the economy being a huge burden for John McCain. This ad points out, guess what, it’s now your turn. The same lines you used on John McCain are now going to be used on you…”

And Romney snipped out sentences from an Obama speech and spliced the two halves back together so nobody could tell what he did – the “you didn’t build that” thing had the middle parts of what Obama said missing – and then did it again to a second Obama speech where words were dropped to make it look like Obama said the economy is just fine and that’s why he should be reelected. He didn’t say that. And now Romney and his surrogates are going around saying it’s a fact that Obama plans to drop work requirements for welfare, even though he’s done nothing like that at all.

Kevin Drum throws up his hands:

This really is a post-truth campaign. It’s different. It’s one thing to be nasty. All campaigns are nasty. It’s one thing to twist and distort and mock. Every campaign does that too. Even the attacks on Al Gore in 2000, as vicious as they were, were mostly media inventions. The Republican campaigns had the distortions handed to them on a platter.

But this is different. This is a presidential candidate just baldly making stuff up on the assumption that nobody will ever know. After all, they figure, who the hell reads Glenn Kessler aside from a bunch of Beltway nerds? And I guess they’re right.

But if it works, I wonder what 2016 will look like?

Ryan Cooper argues it’s all a matter of playing the refs:

On the one hand, the political media has been remarkably susceptible to bullying from the right. Ginned-up hysteria and a gullible, cowardly, lazy press have gotten enormous mileage from the right.

But… the Romney camp has been caught somewhat flatfooted already by the newly minted power of the left to influence the discourse. Watch Anderson Cooper pin down Newt Gingrich on this Romney ad. Gingrich does the usual squirming, subject changing, and putting forth a squid-ink fog of misdirection, but when Cooper just keeps bearing down on the fact that the ad is blatantly lying, even Newt is forced to say that the ad is okay because, as Paul says, “Barack Obama and those who work for him are, in Newt’s opinion, the kind of people who would gut work requirements if they could, so therefore it’s OK to say that they are actually doing it, even though they aren’t.” Gingrich ends up sounding like a snake.

You can’t play the refs forever:

In politics, moral arguments are powerful, and true moral arguments even more so. The left will be at their strongest handed this sort of red meat on a platter. And Romney’s straight-up bald-faced lying pushes the Republican ability to strong-arm mainstream journalists to the very limit. It’s a slap in the face whose arrogant contempt couldn’t be more obvious. Romney is saying to the press, “You’re stupid, and gullible, and I dare you to call a spade a spade.”

Now, someone betting on journalistic integrity in this country would lose a lot of money. But a lot of people watch Anderson Cooper. Even Brian Williams couldn’t stomach the ad which edited out the part where Obama was quoting a McCain staffer.

Seems to me that we have a decent shot of getting these lies covered for what they are. It’s worth a shot, anyway.

So we have a situation where folks like Newt Gingrich really do go on national television and say that even if what they say is wildly and entirely untrue, as they freely admit, they are now saying it is true and the press had damned well better report it as quite obviously true – to prove they’re fair and balanced and all that. That’s always worked before. Anderson Cooper just didn’t get the memo – each side says the other side is wrong and you report that, and nothing else.

Maybe that will change – some in the media could get fed up with having to report nonsense as fact. That hardly seems possible now, but Stephen Stills did write that song about how nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong, and we sensed what was coming – our fact-free future – with a thousand people in the street singing songs and carrying signs that mostly say hooray for our side. That’s the final legacy of the sixties.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to The Fact-Free Future Arrives

  1. Linda Stephenson says:

    From a time-management standpoint, Alan’s blog is worse than Youtube. I get sucked in, following the links, fact-checking the assertions, and then sitting and thinking. Just thinking. Today, I felt impelled to chase down some Stephen Stills songs to accompany my troubled thoughts, so I’m shot for the day. I’m a sucker for good writing about topics that matter, and it doesn’t help at all that the music takes me back to a more-hopeful time.

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