Wednesday, March 17, 2010

One does not disagree about the empirical...

The 1976 election wasn’t my first, but it was the first for which my own political sensibility had developed enough that I felt confident voting for someone other than the candidate my parents liked. So it was that, in the contest for Senator from New York, I chose not to go with the incumbent, James Buckley, but rather with Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Buckley, like his better-known younger brother William, was an intelligent, principled conservative (they existed back then), and although I disagreed with him on many issues, I would have been perfectly content had he won re-election. Indeed, I would cheerfully have voted for him over either of the major-party presidential candidates that year: Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

But there was something very appealing to me about Moynihan. He was widely respected from across the political spectrum: there was no doubt that he was a Democrat, and a rather liberal one at that, but he had served in three significant positions in the Nixon administration, most notably as Ambassador to the United Nations. More to the point, there was a sort of swaggering intellectualism about the man, a character trait that was darned near intoxicating to this 21-year-old wannabe intellectual. Pat Moynihan was, more often than not, the smartest person in the room… and he wasn’t afraid to let everyone else know it. How cool is that?

I’ve been thinking about Pat Moynihan lately, not so much for his manifold accomplishments per se, or indeed for the fact that today is St. Patrick’s Day and Moynihan was a quintessential Irish-American politician, as for a particular quotation often attributed to him, although it is pretty clear that he wasn’t the first to say it. The preceding caveat is especially important, given the aphorism itself: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” That sentence, or a variant of it, was probably first used by the financier Bernie Baruch, who apparently argued that no man “has a right to be wrong in his facts.” Defense Secretary James Schlesinger supposedly introduced the concept of having one’s own facts. Either way, the saying came to be associated with Moynihan, for whom it became something of a motto. Facts do matter—including facts about the provenance of the quotation, which accounts for the nuanced (some might say “equivocating”) inclusion of such words as “attributed,” “probably,” “apparently,” and “supposedly” earlier in this paragraph.

Facts apparently don’t matter to today’s right wing. It used to be (you know, in that antediluvian era before the W administration) that there was a distinction between the facts themselves and our interpretation of them. As a recipient of a PhD in the humanities in the 1990s, I can assure you, gentle reader, that I am familiar with the critical theories (advanced, I note sardonically, almost exclusively by Marxists) that everything is an act of interpretation… to which I reply, because this essay may be read by those of tender sensibilities, “Bovine feces.” Empirical evidence is different from opinion, even from analysis. True, that line has been blurred a lot of late. To pick one of literally dozens of examples, take the Supreme Court’s assertion of the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution to justify federal interference in states’ medical marijuana laws for activity which is neither interstate nor commerce. But there’s a reason that Supreme Court rulings are called “opinions,” and most of us can wrap our respective heads around that concept.

We have long known, too, that there are those on the right who dispute evolution or climate change, or who recklessly toss around incendiary rhetoric about “death panels” and the like. But while such arguments may involve what an old grad school professor of mine called “active misreading,” the fact remains (if I may use such a phrase) that evolution, for example, is indeed a theory: a theory which answers far more questions than any competing explanation, but a theory all the same. And the lies about death panels are just that: lies. No one saner than Virginia Foxx or our own Louis Gohmert, and that’s about everybody but Glenn Beck (or, rather, the wingnut character played by Glenn Beck to the tune of millions of dollars), who has looked at the evidence believes any of that crap.

Ah, but that’s the key: looking at the evidence. The last week has provided us with a couple of stories which I find relevant to this discussion. One is this assertion by JD Hayworth, the talk-show host for whom John McCain is far too liberal: “the Massachusetts Supreme Court, when it started this… move toward same-sex marriage, actually defined marriage—now, get this—they defined marriage as simply, quote, ‘the establishment of intimacy.’ Now, how dangerous is that? …. I guess that would mean, if you really had affection for your horse, I guess you could marry your horse.” Let’s leave aside the offensiveness of his commentary, its equation of homosexuality and bestiality, and the implicit argument that in Hayworth’s world horses can enter into contracts and sign all the requisite papers. And let us grant that Mr. Hayworth is entitled to an opinion—one with which I passionately disagree, but one to which he has every right—that gay marriage is/would be an abomination. But now the Baruch/Schlesinger/Moynihan observation becomes relevant: he is not entitled to his own facts. Here’s Rachel Maddow having a very good day even by her standards, dismantling Hayworth the other night, after Hayworth repeated his claim on her program: “’The establishment of intimacy’ as the definition of marriage: it’s just not there, let alone the horse thing…”

Maddow explains that she has spent the afternoon word-searching the relevant documents and can’t find anything like the definition Hayworth uses as the cornerstone of his argument.

Then we get this:

Maddow: What you said about the establishment of intimacy being the definition of marriage in Massachusetts: I don’t think it’s true, sir.
Hayworth: Well, that’s fine. You and I can have a disagreement about that.
Maddow: Well, it either is true or it isn’t; it’s empirical.
Hayworth: OK. Well, I appreciate the fact that we have a disagreement on that…


A disagreement? If some student says on a theatre history test that Adolphe Appia was a German playwright when in fact he was a Swiss designer, are we “hav[ing] a disagreement on that”? Nope. That student is wrong. Period. End of discussion. And, Mr. Hayworth, you’re wrong. There are three possibilities: you’re sloppy, you’re insane, or you’re lying. Pick one (or more).

All of which brings us to the recent preliminary decisions by the Texas Board of Education regarding social studies curricula. There are serious repercussions here, spawned by the outsized national influence of decisions made by a collection of political hacks in Texas. Texas, you see, buys a lot of books, and authors and publishers more interested in making a buck than in accurate portrayal of events pander to the whims of whatever zealots happen to be in charge in Texas at a precise moment in time. So, textbooks written and distributed by these intellectual whores people get a massive order up front, bringing down per-copy production costs and thereby lowering the cost of the book everywhere, making it more likely to be adopted in districts outside Texas, and, of course, by evangelical home-schoolers. This example of capitalism (excuse me, the “free-enterprise system”) in action, by the way, does not seem to be highlighted in the new curricular guidelines.

Certainly, speaking as someone who will have to deal directly with the consequences of this initiative, I’m not pleased. Well over 90% of my students come from Texas public high schools, and there are already problems, especially in the general university population. Whether because of the reputation of our theatre program or because theatre students are by nature more curious and/or anti-authoritarian, I am actually (with notable exceptions) very pleased with the analytical skills of the majority of theatre students I see in our introductory (100-level, for majors and minors) Play Analysis class. And, to be sure, there are always good students in the (non-major) Theatre Appreciation class… but their numbers are small, and apparently dropping. I always begin my lecture on the modern theatre in that class, for example, by discussing the social, economic, and intellectual climate of the 19th century. I talk about the Industrial Revolution. Blank stares. I ask for examples of seminal thinkers. Deer-caught-in-the-headlights stares. I prompt them to talk about Freud or Nietzsche or Marx. Few students can utter a single intelligent comment about any of them. There’s always a sociology major who has never heard of Comte or a philosophy major who has never encountered the word “dialectic” or a biology major who can’t articulate the most basic principles of natural selection.

And now we’re getting a degrading of the importance of perhaps the single most significant (and influential) American political thinker ever, the man primarily responsible for writing the Declaration of Independence, because he was a Deist instead of a Christian per se and advocated the separation of church and state (a term he coined, by the way)? We’re placing Jefferson Davis’s inaugural speech alongside Abraham Lincoln’s? Phyllis Schlafly is now a significant historical figure? The Heritage Foundation is worthy of study in a high school history course? All this from a board which not only doesn’t include anyone with actual credentials in the social sciences, but which is so arrogant it can’t be bothered even to consult actual experts? Oy.

To be fair, some of the arguments from the left aren’t exactly intellectually rigorous, either. I don’t want history classes to “include more Latino figures as role models for the state’s large Hispanic population.” I want them to include discussions of such people because they did something significant. Nor do I object to the inclusion of the Black Panthers (for example) alongside the nonviolent philosophies of Martin Luther King, nor of Milton Friedman on the list of prominent economic theorists. And it is true, for example, that the release of the Venona papers does confirm the guilt of some people long regarded by the left as falsely accused. But context is all. To suggest that the excesses of Joseph McCarthy were in any way legitimized by the fact that there were indeed Soviet spies in America at the time (did anyone ever really doubt this?) is roughly equivalent to vilifying anyone who has ever been to a gun show or taken a handgun to a firing range on the grounds that gun-related murders take place every day. Sooner or later, you’ll probably catch an actual murderer. That doesn’t mean it’s worth the cost.

The trouble with the social sciences and humanities is that those disciplines don’t exist without analysis. We can state as fact that Shakespeare has long been regarded as the most important English-language playwright; we can’t say that he’s the best—or, rather, to say so would be to express an opinion, not a fact. Similarly, we can argue over the extent to which the Founding Fathers were or were not influenced by a specifically Christian theology: even the innocuous suggestion that some were more than others is probably a matter for debate. But we cannot argue that the concept of separation of church and state does not exist, that it was not propounded by the author of the Declaration of Independence, that it did not reverberate throughout the Western world, or indeed that generations of Supreme Court Justices haven’t continually re-affirmed that distinction. Any attempt to deny, suppress, or distort this simple truth by whatever means, direct or indirect, is inevitably an attempt to advance a religio-political agenda rather than to achieve a balanced pedagogy.

That last sentence is an opinion. You’re going to have to trust me on this one.

No comments: