Absolutely Factious

Last month's inaugural protesters, said by my sources to outnumber
celebrants, were mostly ignored by the mainstream press. The Weekly
Standard,
however, did find time to make fun of them, noting that at
one event--a teach-in on police brutality--the deceased victims of
police were "represented in unflattering prom pictures." You can imagine
the outrage that editors at the Standard would direct toward a
snide, elitist liberal magazine that mocked the low-rent fashion sense
of murder victims or their families. Yet as the confirmation of John
Ashcroft made clear, virtuecrats on the right do not feel bound to
practice what they preach.

Ashcroft's confirmation is old news, and his sins have been widely
chronicled. But I'm still shaking my head at the chutzpah of
Republicans. They were outraged when Democrats tried to hold Ashcroft
to the confirmation standards that he applied to Clinton's nominees--and
cavalier about Ashcroft's lies to the Senate regarding his opposition to
Luxembourg Ambassador James Hormel, Judge Ronnie White, and school
desegregation in Missouri. (The Weekly Standard said of
Ashcroft's dishonest attack on White what ardent Bill Clinton supporters
might have said of the Monica Lewinsky affair: "This wasn't [his] finest
hour.") Republicans once cared so much about character and truthful
testimony. Now they seem to define integrity as a willingness to abandon
deeply held beliefs (like abhorrence of abortion) in order to acquire
power. Ashcroft signaled his fitness to serve as AG by promising not to
act on his convictions. Of course, no one on either side believed him.

Political nihilism is nothing new, but to see it flourish among moral
absolutists is disorienting. We're used to the spectacle of preachers
falling prey to deadly sins; but from Jim Bakker to Jesse Jackson, they
usually profess repentance once they're caught. When moralists like John
Ashcroft or Antonin Scalia devolve into political hacks, they hold tight
to their exquisite sanctimony.

Conservatives may say the same of Hillary Clinton, in light of her
suspected role in the pardons of Marc Rich and four members of a key
Orthodox Jewish constituency in New York, not to mention the reported
$8-million book contract and the Embassy Row manse. And it's true that
like a born-again Republican relativist who suddenly decides that lying
under oath can serve a greater good, the former first lady reinvents
herself with postmodern élan. Soon she'll be acting less like
Lady Hillary and more like Senator Clinton.

It's as if they're all suffering (or benefiting) from multiple
personality disorder, a fashionable ailment of the early 1990s. Or maybe
they're multitasking. In any case, I'm confused. Combine the spectacle
of these political chameleons with the stridently oppositional
worldviews of idealists left and right, and you spark an explosion of
cognitive dissonance. It started, of course, with the disputed election.
Did Republicans steal it, or did they thwart an attempted larceny by
Democrats? The answer depended on whether you read The New Yorker
or National Review. The polarization was stunning: Each side
viewed the other as flat-earthers.

I'm not suggesting that we haven't been ideologically divided before.
Consider the abortion debate or the Clinton impeachment debacle. But
differences over abortion rights are primarily anchored in values and
ideals, as were differences over impeachment. There was little dispute
about what actually happened: Virtually everyone knew that Clinton had
engaged in extramarital sex and lied about it (except for his daughter,
perhaps, and a few deluded aides). We argued about the justification and
appropriate consequences for his lies, as well as the reasonableness of
Kenneth Starr's investigation. The fight over Ashcroft's confirmation,
however, was a fight about the basic facts: Did he slander White or show
contempt for the courts in litigation over school desegregation? Did he
oppose Hormel simply because he was gay or for some unspecified
character failing?

What shapes these unsettling factual divides? In part they reflect
biased or inadequate reporting. (Why weren't the inaugural protests
fully covered?) And in part, they reflect the ubiquitous
Crossfire model of debate, which offers us two simplistic, highly
polarized, propagandistic versions of truth and no nuanced attempt at
mediation. I don't believe that everyone involved in these "debates" is
consciously and cynically distorting the facts (although many are). But
almost everyone is encouraged to put ideology first; the quest for
objectivity, or some degree of it, is just an afterthought. Want to
drive yourself nuts? Read The Weekly Standard and The
Nation;
read fundraising letters from the Republican National
Committee as well as solicitations from the Alliance for Justice; read
the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times,
and The Boston Globe. One side describes the elephant's
trunk; the other describes a frog.

I don't believe, I won't believe, that everyone who fiercely
disagrees with me is acting in bad faith. And they can't all be
delusional. Still, one of us is wrong: The earth is round, not flat.
(All right, it's sort of oval.) I enjoy ideological debates but not
fights over fundamental empirical realities. Everyone has his or her
reality, postmodernists and denizens of the therapeutic culture say.
Yes, but--I've always thought--some versions of reality are grounded in
the facts much more than others. The pope and Galileo had conflicting
visions of the universe, and only one of them was true.

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