Do bothersome facts matter anymore?
Not really. This is an age when Americans were assured that the “Affordable Care Act” lowered our premiums. It cut deductibles. Obamacare allowed us to keep our doctors and health plans, and lowered the deficit. Those fantasies were both demonstrably untrue and did not matter, given the supposedly noble aims of health care reform.
The Islamic State is at times dubbed “jayvee,” a manageable problem and a dangerous enemy — or anything the administration wishes it to be, depending on the political climate of any given week.
Some days Americans are told there is no reason to restrict connecting flights from Ebola-ravaged countries. Then, suddenly, entry from those countries is curtailed to five designated U.S. airports. Quarantines are both necessary and not so critical, as the administration weighs public concern versus politically correct worries over isolating Third World African countries.
Ebola is so hard to catch that there is no reason to worry about casual exposures to those without clear symptoms. However, then why do health authorities still try to hunt down anyone who had even a brief encounter with supposedly asymptomatic carriers?
The deaths of four Americans in Benghazi were caused by a video that sparked a riot, and then apparently not. Various narratives about corruption and incompetence at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Internal Revenue Service, National Security Agency, General Services Administration and Secret Service are raised and then dropped. The larger truth is that these scandals must be quarantined from infecting the president’s progressive agenda.
Laws used to be real, not abstract. Again, not now. The administration sort of enacts some elements of Obamacare, but ignores others. Enforcement of federal immigration law is negotiable, likewise depending on the campaign cycle.
The Tawana Brawley case, the Duke men’s lacrosse team accusations and the O.J. Simpson verdict were constructed fantasies. No one cared much about the inconvenient facts or the lies that destroyed people’s lives — given that myths were deemed useful facts for achieving larger racial justice.
It no longer really matters much what the grand jury will find in the Michael Brown fatal shooting case. Whether he had just robbed a store, was high on drugs, was walking down the middle of the road and prompted a violent confrontation with a police officer, or whether the officer was the aggressor in the confrontation, these have become mere competing narratives. The facts pale in comparison with the higher truth that Brown was black and unarmed, and police Officer Darren Wilson white and armed. The latter scenario is all that matters.
Language is useful for inventing new realities. “Illegal alien” is a time-tested noun denoting foreign citizens who crossed a national border contrary to law. “Undocumented immigrant” is now used to diminish the bothersome fact that millions have broken and continue to break the law.
To play down the dangers of radical Islam, an entire array of circumlocutions — “workplace violence” (in the case of the Fort Hood shooting), “overseas contingency operations” and “man-caused disasters” — were the euphemisms evoked by members of the Obama administration to construct an alternate reality in which radical jihadists are no more dangerous than disgruntled office workers or gale-force winds.
Many of the current campus poster icons are abject myths. Che Guevara, for all his hipster appearance, was no revolutionary hero, but a murderer who enjoyed personally executing his political opponents. Communist leader Angela Davis was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize by the totalitarian Soviet Union.
Plagiarism and making stuff up are no longer considered serious offenses against the truth. Lots of notable columnists or historians have had to confess to lifting the work of others and passing it off as their own — Maureen Dowd, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Fareed Zakaria and the now-deceased Stephen Ambrose, to name a few. Most faced slaps on the wrist.
Even Vice President Joe Biden once had to drop a presidential bid owing to accusations that he had plagiarized in law school and later had copied a speech from a British Labor politician. Barack Obama has had to acknowledge that in his autobiographical memoir, he used “composite characters” in some cases rather than actual people from his life. Sympathetic biographer David Remnick characterized Mr. Obama’s life story as “a mixture of verifiable fact, recollection, re-creation, invention, and artful shaping.”
Such disregard for truth and facts is no accident, but the fruit of postmodernism. So-called “after modern” thought was a trendy late-20th-century way to reduce facts to stories.
Progressives thought that because traditional protocols, language and standards were usually created by stuffy old establishment types, the rules no longer necessarily should apply. Instead, particular narratives and euphemisms that promoted perceived social justice became truthful. Bothersome facts were discarded.
So far, political mythmaking has become confined to popular culture and politics, and has not affected the ironclad facts and non-negotiable rules of jetliner maintenance, heart surgery or nuclear plant operation. Yet the Ebola scare has taught us that even the erroneous news releases and fluid policies of the Centers for Disease Control can be as likely based on politics as hard science.
If that is a vision of more relativist things to come, then we are doomed.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.