January 19, 2006

A guest rant: "All we want are the facts"

Just as I was posting my little complaint about Technology Review, this fine rant was submitted by Paul Kay for publication in Language Log:

Is truth really under attack in American society?

Or does it just seem that way? Does the apparent decline of respect for veracity in public discourse amount to just another case of "the country going to the dogs" -- as people seem to have been repeatedly rediscovering from time immemorial? In a penetrating essay on the significance of the Million Little Pieces dust-up (N.Y. Times. Jan. 17, 2006,"Bending the Truth in a Million Little Ways"), Michiko Kakutani (MK) makes a pretty convincing case that this time there may be a real wolf at the door.

MK highlights the no-big-deal attitude of author James Frey, his publisher Doubleday and his major promoter Oprah Winfrey to the fact that Frey's self-styled memoir contains some undeniable, and for that matter undenied, fiction, which makes him out to have been a significantly bigger loser and thug than he really was and thus fulsomely inflates the drama of his supposed redemption. (Oprah used the phrase "much ado about nothing" to appraise Frey's lies in the context of his emotional message.) MK proposes that this is not an isolated incident, not even an isolated case of an inflated memoir. She points to staged reality shows, phony biographies of both the gilding and tarring varieties, slanted opinion-mongering that masquerades as news, ... and specifically to a Bush aide's dismissive characterization of reporters "who live in the reality-based community ... we're an empire now and when we act we create our own reality." That declaration would be laughable if it wasn't terrifying.

MK also mentions several unfortunate turns of phrase that have become part of our everyday language; for example "virtual reality", "creative non-fiction" and the word "survivor" applied to those who have overcome bad credit or obesity. She could have added "war on terror(ism)", "They hate us for our freedom", and countless others, including Fox News's self-identification as "fair and balanced." One of the most alarming of the recent truth-obliterating usages, it seems to me, is "deniability." The first time I heard this expression was when Admiral John Pointexter, the Reagan administration's uber-point man on Iran-Contra, explained some administrative skullduggery as justified because it provided President Reagan with deniability. What Poindexter meant was that his own dishonesty was admirable because it enabled his boss to claim unassailably, albeit untruthfully, that he didn't know what was going on.

Lest the reader conclude too quickly that the fault for the decline of truth in public discourse lies exclusively with the political right, MK points to the culpability of the overwhelmingly left-leaning post-modernists of our humanities and social science departments. In "deconstructing" all historical texts and arguing that they merely express the power of the interests their authors represent, postmodernists apotheosize the obstacles to objectivity rather than combating them. She cites in this connection an elegant line of Stanley Fish's: "the death of objectivity 'relieves me of the obligation to be right'; ... it 'demands only that I be interesting.'" And the most visible language-based strategist of the current left, George Lakoff, urges liberals not simply to tell the unvarnished truth, but to "frame" issues in ways that will combat the propaganda of conservatives and so aid the achievement of liberal goals. Lakoff makes forcefully the familiar point that the facts never speak for themselves; they have to be recounted in human languages, which are fraught with connotation and presupposition. Fair enough. But if the truth is seldom plain and never simple, it is nonetheless the only truth we've got. I'm all for the achievement of liberal goals, but I worry a little that even some of my best friends seem to care less about plain facts than they used to.

Sgt. Friday, where are you when we need you?

[posted by Mark Liberman 1/19/2006 on behalf of Paul Kay]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 19, 2006 06:14 PM