A good example hit the news this week, when Trump said he had won the popular vote, except for the millions who voted illegally. He offered no evidence -- just quoted some tweet that had been circulated by a very dubious source. The fact and truth is that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote with well over 2 million more votes than Trump, and there is no credible evidence of significant voter fraud.
It's not just Trump. Today's political climate, including big name conservative TV hosts and radio talk show hosts are known for speaking falsehoods. And then the internet and Twitter amplify the falsehoods -- and vice versa.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Bill Torpy decided to take on this question: "Do facts matter anymore?" Torpy has three sons who are award-winning, high school debaters. So he called up a couple of debate coaches in local colleges to get some tips about facts and the current state of the acceptance of facts among today's young people.
He got answers like: Technology filled them with knowledge, but they're not well-read. They know how to study but not how to think. Torpy asked one whether truth still matters in public discussion and politics, and he got a quick 'no way.' People make up their minds without looking at facts. Everyone has his own version of truth.
Emory Professor Deborah Lipstadt, whose story of having to prove she did not libel a Holocaust denier in her book -- and did prove it in a British court, as portrayed in the recent film "Denial" -- was a little more definite about facts. She told Torpy: “There are some facts that are simply true,” Libstadt said. “The world is not flat. Slavery happened. World War II happened." . . . [But today] "We are seeing lies masked as opinion. Stephen Colbert called it truthiness — if I believe it, it must be true.”
As an example, Lipstadt cited an interview with Newt Gingrich on CNN, shortly after Trump's election. Wouldn't you think a former history professor like Newt would care about facts, even if he was shilling for Trump? Well, here's a partial transcript:
* * *"The CNN reporter suggested Trump was over-selling fear. 'Violent crime across the country is down. We’re not under siege.'
"Gingrich waved that off: 'The average American . . . does not think crime is down, does not think they are safer.'
"Reporter: 'But we are safer and it is down.'
"Gingrich: 'No, that’s your view.'
"Reporter: 'It’s a fact.'
"Gingrich: 'The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics which theoretically may be right, but it’s not where human beings are. People are frightened.'
"The reporter noted figures from the FBI . . . [that] say crime is down.
"Gingrich: 'No, but what I said is equally true. People feel it.'
"Reporter: 'They feel it, yes, but the facts don’t support it.'
"Gingrich: 'As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and I’ll let you go with the theoreticians.'”
* * *
That is a depressing state of contemporary discourse, political or otherwise. Of course, Newt Gingrich -- history professor and all -- is the one that political pundit Charles Pierce described as having " long ago departed this earthly realm on golden clouds of his own intellectual flatulence . . . . Despite being A Historian and a Leading Intellect, he also is a crazy person who hears Alex Jones through his fillings."
That's just the point. Newt Gingrich actually knows better, but he's supporting an argument for what I call "academic bullshit." In fact, since this interview and since Trump's latest lie -- about millions of people voting illegally -- Gingrich has acknowledged that Trump's "lie" about illegal voters is "probably the biggest mistake he has made yet." But I suspect that the "mistake" is not the factual error, but that Newt thinks it was a tactical error to say it, because now he's courting the finance and establishment people who would be put off by such irrationality. Trump slipped back into talking to his (abandoned) base.
Newt is confusing two things that can both be true. It's true that people feel unsafe. It is also true that statistics show that violent crime has actually decreased rather remarkably. Both are true -- and neither negates the other. They simply are both true in different realms. One is subjective feelings; the other is science and mathematics. Newt's mistake is thinking feelings can negate facts. Liberals' mistake is thinking facts can neutralize feelings.
What feelings can do is win elections despite the facts, which is what I think Newt was trying to say. And that is where we are -- and it's pretty awful. Because now it means we're going to have a president who does not respect science and logic -- and apparently does not really understand the difference between truth and truthiness.