Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Fact and Opinion

This started out as a comment on Mike's post about Bill O'Reilly having done something--sit down and brace yourself-- lame and sleazy. But it got bigger as I got madder, so now it's a post.

Mike's post is an analysis of O'Reilly's interview with Dolores Kesterson, a woman whose son died serving in Iraq. Kesterson is unconvinced that the war in Iraq was necessary and convinced that, even if justified, it should have taken a back seat to wholeheartedly going after al-Qaeda (which wasn't in Iraq until we opened the borders to them). This post started with a nitpick about Mike's terminology; Mike describes O'Reilly as trying to overwhelm Kesterson with facts about Iraq. But O'Reilly wasn't using facts. He was using "facts." This isn't just me being snotty. It's about about--see the kerfuffle about intelligent design below--the importance of preserving a clear sense of the difference between fact and opinion.

Let's start with one of O'Reilly's alleged facts. Lecturing in the tone of a smugly self-congratulatory semiliterate schoomaster straight out of Hard Times, O'Reilly told Kestersron, "Now, if you look at it logically, everyone knows, Hilary Clinton knows, I mean on and on, that if we cut and run from Iraq, if we pulled out of there, it would make the war on terror twice as dangerous as it is now. That's just a fact."

No, that's not a fact. If you look at it logically (oh, sweet and rare Logic), you know that it can't be a fact because it's a prediction. And it's a prediction of enormously complicated circumstances at that. Anybody who can tell you with factual certainity about the future has psychic powers, and doesn't need to to be a talking head for Fox News. And O'Reilly's alleged fact isn't even a prediction on the order of, "If I drop this book, it will fall." The book statement isn't a fact either, but it's a statement of probability where the odds of the book falling are so close to 100% that a pragmatist will treat it as fact and be right every time that the book isn't suspended from the ceiling by fishing line.

But O'Reilly's claim about the war on terrorism getting twice as hard, like so many of his claims, isn't a fact but rather an opinion. An opinion that's absolutely subject to debate--responsible people in this country and elsewhere who want to fight terrorism might disagree with that opinion. In fact, many do. A lot of people think that if the US were to pull out now, all the foreign jihadis wouldn't have anything to blow up anymore or have any remaining shred of anti-imperialist credibility with the Iraqi people. They might have to pack up and return to their less effective training camps elsewhere or, god forbid, get real jobs. (That's not my personal opinion, but I don't deny the possibility it could be right.)

It may be that O'Reilly is just too blinkered or dumb to know the difference between opinion and fact, but I doubt it. I think this is part of a conscious strategy on his part and on that of other subversive far-right elements. Propaganda of the counterfactual brainwashing bullshit variety depends on radically destabilizing the categories of fact and opinion, of constantly moving the goalposts until the markings on the field don't make any sense and all the players have to trust their loudmouthed daddy to tell them what's what.

Watch O'Reilly trying to do just that to Kesterson and to his viewers. In the copy of the the interview I saw, O'Reilly is trying to convince Kesterson that Cindy Sheehan (another anti-war mother of a dead soldier) is being used by cultish leftists and he says:
... all you have to do is go to the Michael Moore website. And all you have to do is go to the Fenton Group, which is a left-wing group in Washington which puts out press releases. And here I have an internet thing where she told this--I mean these people are off-the-chart left. Cindy Sheehan says Bill O'Reilly is an "obscenity to humanity," okay? I mean, if, Mrs. Kesterson, if you don't want to believe me, you don't have to believe me. All I can do is report what we know to be true, and if you don't accept it you don't accept it...
O'Reilly's ostensible point is to say that if Sheehan is showing up so much with all these liberals, she must be getting used by them. (Because, of course, if she didn't agree with them, she couldn't just tell them to go screw themselves, what with her being a girl and all.) His actual point seems to be to discredit Sheehan by saying "MichaelMooreMichaelMooreMichaelMoore" until his conservative viewers apply their dislike of Moore to Sheehan (and maybe Kesterson too). That's pretty obvious. But what's fascinating to me is the logic (I use the word loosely) of his claims.

He doesn't have any actual proof that Sheehan is Moore's puppet, so he falls back on saying that the people quoting her and jumping on her bandwagon aren't just left but really left, so far left that ("if you look at this logically") the innate promptings of their leftish evil would compel them to use a grieving mother, just like gravity compels the planets to revolve around the sun. How far left are they? Off-the-chart left. And how far left is that? So far left that they --Dolores, don't let the children hear this--say mean things about Mr. Bill O'Reilly. Gasp!

I mean, that's pretty funny, but the funniest (if you like sad humor) part of the quotation above is how he closes it. After giving innuendo and conjecture about Sheehan, O'Reilly pretends to be the dispassionate reporter and says that she doesn't have to believe him, but he can only report what he "knows to be true." The problem is, true and what he knows to be true have less contact with each other than ghosts in full-body condoms. The only thing O'Reilly knows to be true is that he's right right right, damnit, and if you disagree, you're wrong. And probably evil. And possibly Michael Moore in drag. He's trying to do to Kesterson what he tries to do to his viewers: call opinion fact, disregard actual fact, and foster a belief that people who challenge his wisdom aren't in disagreement but in error (and possibly in collusion with the enemies of America).

In fact--and this is the shit that makes my blood boil--having done his best to eliminate any distinction between facts and his opinions, O'Reilly then goes on to pretend that his opinions are the same thing as America, that his opinions are a country-sized fact wrapped up in the red, white, and blue. A little further on, O'Reilly says (and Kesterson promptly calls him on it) that Michael Moore and others on the left hate America, that they think it's "a bad evil country, that we [Americans] brought this war on ourselves."

That's not a fact, either. At best it's an opinion; more likely, it's a deliberate lie. As far as I know, Moore has never said he hates America. I have my problems with Moore, but he's never struck me as anything other than a guy with firm commitment to the highest American ideals (honesty, equality, decency, accountability) and a powerful sense of outrage when people betray them. Moore may hate Bush. Moore may even think Bush is evil. But, despite Bush's, and Rove's, and O'Reilly's best efforts, most people still undertand the fact that Bush isn't America and that you can love America without loving Bush.

O'Reilly's attempt to pretend otherwise is cheap and divisive. Moreover, as O'Reilly's own words tip you off, it functions as a distraction from the main point of Kesterson's outrage: that the President declared an offensive war for reasons that turned out to be dead wrong and thereby ordered the deaths of over 1,800 American soldiers and something like 25,000 Iraqi civilians. Look at O'Reilly's list again. Moore is one of those people, he says, who think "America is a bad country, an evil country, that we brought this war on ourselves."

No, damnit. Sheehan is angry and Kesterson is angry not because they think America is evil and brought this war on itself but because they think Bush was wrong and brought this war on their sons, young men who, I assume, showed great bravery dying in a cause they felt to be just. For Sheehan and Kesterson, their sons were and are a big part of their Americas. And they loved their sons, not hated them, and they don't think their sons brought their deaths on themselves. They think George W. Bush brought the death, and I'll bet you anything that they're tired of people like O'Reilly pretending that demanding accountability is anti-American. I know I am.


At 2:30 PM , Anonymous Degtyarev said...

Kesterson and Sheehan are heroes.


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