Sometime in or around 1970 I encountered Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Daitch Shopwell supermarket around the corner from where I lived in New York. You couldn’t miss him—a big tall red-faced guy—someone who became important to me in my later political life. Mostly from his famous statement, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”
That sentiment has always stuck with me, its relevance never more obvious than right now. Moynihan wrote a paper in 1965 called ”The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” which talked about the social pathology and disintegration of Black families. He said, prophetically, ”The principal challenge of the next phase of the Negro revolution is to make certain that equality of results will now follow. If we do not, there will be no social peace in the United States for generations.”
Moynihan was a complex, sometimes fractious man who embodied the best traditions of American public life. His statement about opinions and facts comes home to me especially now when fully a third of Americans (according to Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland) believe in cockeyed conspiracy theories, unproven fantasies of all kinds, and distrust science and reason generally. Climate change is a hoax put forward by “a conspiracy of scientists, government and journalists.”
Paul Krugman recently talked about our partisan culture war in A Plague of Willful Ignorance. That war is expressed in the notion that wearing a mask has become a political symbol, an assault on individual liberty. Krugman finds that “there’s a longstanding anti-science, anti-expertise streak in American culture—the same streak that makes us uniquely unwilling to accept the reality of evolution or acknowledge the threat of climate change.” This used to be called anti-intellectualism.
The tradition goes back to the Know-Nothings of the 1850s and extends through H.L. Mencken’s prescient commentaries in the 1920s about the booboisie: “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
Thomas Patterson of Harvard’s Kennedy School pursues the tradition in a more sweeping vein with Flight from Reason: How America Lost Its Mind. The book explores the tribal politics of our time, tracking the unprecedented amount of false belief and misinformation that people continually embrace. From an excerpt:
Ironically, the misinformed think they’re highly informed. “Cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement” is how sociologist Todd Gitlin describes them. A study found, for example, that those who know the least about climate-change science are the ones who think they’re the best informed on the issue. Another study found that those who are the least knowledgeable about welfare benefits are the ones who claim to know the most about it.
The digital revolution in mass communications has made things worse. The need to cast blame outweighs the urge to discover the truth. There is so much misinformation abroad now that it has become institutionalized—and not just in the political parties. Patterson finds that TV hosts from Limbaugh to Maddow “traffic in outrage,” conveying the notion that they alone are the purveyors of truth.
Negotiation between the parties becomes fraught:
When Republican and Democratic lawmakers agree on the facts, they can negotiate their differences. It becomes harder when they can’t agree on the facts. As the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once complained when negotiation over a bill broke down, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.” Facts do not settle arguments, but they’re a necessary starting point. Recent debates on everything from foreign policy to climate change have fractured or sputtered because of factual disagreements.
But facts are facts, right? The kinds of disagreements about them that Patterson notes are usually bogus smokescreens for fixed opinions. Krugman had it right: “there’s a belligerent faction within our society that refuses to acknowledge inconvenient or uncomfortable facts, preferring to believe that experts are somehow conspiring against them.” The president is leading this parade.