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A Matter of Fact

August 12, 2012

To paraphrase Mark Twain, there are lies, damned lies, and facts.

A fact is generally thought of as something solid that any rational person can grab a hold of and examine. From this standpoint, political pundits–especially in center-left circles–often distinguish between evidence-based claims and mere propaganda. At the same time, our disagreements over “the facts” seem to be intractable. Accepting the basic assumptions of Chicago school economics, conservatives make one set of factual assertions as to the causes of the 2008 financial crisis and the effectiveness of Obama administration policies in restoring economic growth. Rejecting those assumptions in favor of a Keynesian model, liberals make another set of factual assertions. The rival theories are there in the background, but participants in policy debates generally seek to discredit their opponents through an appeal to the facts, rather than by engaging in theoretical disputes. (I assume this is because of the widespread assumption that theoretical positions–especially on matters of ethics and values–are merely a matter of opinion and therefore subjective.)

As I see it, facts do not exist independently of the narratives we construct about and with them. To be clear, I am not asserting that there is no such thing as a fact. The sky is blue. E=MC squared. Granted. What I am suggesting is that, while facts are often necessary as argumentative building blocks—such that it is always possible to discredit an argument simply be discrediting the facts from which that argument is constructed—they do not by themselves establish anything whatsoever. (Except, of course, in arguments that revolve around a fact, such as a person’s innocence or guilt in a legal case.)

One of the enduring dogmas of classical liberalism is that it is possible to obtain a neutral vantage point from which one can describe the world in an unbiased, objective manner. While most political commentators take this dogma for granted, some do more than others. Glen Greenwald, whose preferred rhetorical style is to list the transgressions of his political enemies ad nausem, is a prime example. In making the case that Paul Ryan’s “actual life is a testament to the precise opposite values” as those commonly ascribed to him, Greenwald reviews Ryan’s record in Congress. Ryan’s claim to fiscal conservatism is, according to Greenwald “laughable” due to the fact that he

voted FOR virtually every program that has piled up debt over the past decade, including the Iraq War (not just its commencement but its limitless continuation), the Wall Street bailout, Medicare Part D, Endless War in Afghanistan, and — in the midst of all of that — Bush tax cuts.

In reality, what Greenwald takes to be a damning list of Ryan’s breaches of conservative orthodoxy means nothing by itself–or, to be more precise, further explication would be needed for the list to prove what Greenwald thinks it proves. Greenwald gives no consideration to the context in which Ryan voted the way he did; he simply assumes that the votes discredit the claim to fiscal conservatism.

And yet it is not at all difficult to construct a narrative in which this is not the case. Ryan himself told New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza that his support for Bush policies that added to the deficit made him “miserable.” Presumably in these and other instances, Ryan was putting party loyalty before ideological conviction. Now of course Greenwald might cogently argue that Ryan’s decision to prioritize party loyalty—assuming that that was his motivation—is reprehensible and renders Ryan unfit for the office of Vice President. But he doesn’t do this. He simply ignores the context surrounding the Ryan votes and consequently misunderstands them.

While I ultimately I agree with Greenwald’s assessment of Paul Ryan, I find his method of persuasion here and elsewhere unconvincing. If such a method were limited to Greenwald it would hardly be worth commenting on; however, this assumption that all one needs to defend one’s position is “the facts” is all too widespread. Pundits on all sides have become accustomed to disputing facts; it’s time we took up the somewhat more vexing challenge of disputing ethics and values.

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