HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

September 1, 2008
From Liberty Street

Pretend Controversies

John Turner


I noticed that Rachel Maddow is getting her own news program on MSNBC, starting September 8th. I'm glad for her. She has impressed me as one of the brightest new personalities in TV news recently.

The most promising thing about the new program is Maddow's announcement that it will entertain no false controversies. She says -- and I believe -- that she is more than willing to present all opinions about an issue so long as there is any evidence to support them but that she will not waste air time giving attention to arguments about whether the earth is flat and other such phony debates.

When something has been established as the truth, she will simply report it and go on to questions that are actually open. If she could lead a movement in journalism to accept as factual that which is factual, and get away from the nonsensical "he says it's this way and she says it's that way," it could transform our political culture.

A bulwark of spurious religion over the past several decades has been journalism's willingness to accept the spewing of cranks as somehow based in science simply because the crank has proclaimed himself to be a person of faith. As that kind of supposed religion has infiltrated politics it has cankered debate about public policy. And it has placed in public office people who are so astoundingly unfit for carrying out the public's business that the entire nation has begun to slide into a pit.

The question, for example, as to whether "creation science" is valid has no place in either politics or science. It can be reasonably debated within systems of philosophy which challenge science as a proper avenue to ultimate truth. But since philosophical questions of that complexity are seldom discussed in public education -- and, probably, shouldn't be -- there is no reason why a person's stand on creation science should figure significantly in political campaigns.

Politics needs to be seen for what it is, not as the spiritual director of people's lives, but rather as an arena where practical questions arising from limited resources are resolved.  Whether to pave a road or build a new gymnasium at a school is a political question. The moral nature of the universe is not. Politicians, generally, are not worth listening to on matters of the latter sort. Most of them have scarcely ever given such questions a thought, and their duties as politicians have little to do with resolving them.

I realize that there are some overlaps between intelligent government action and issues of ultimate valuation. I know, too, that it is precisely in that overlap area that American thinking is particularly awkward. We need to pay attention to issues which fall in that region. But we don't help ourselves by dragging in questions that have no business being there. And those that are required to be there need to be addressed through open democratic debate and not by false notions of scientific analysis.

There's nothing scientific, for example, about how many innocent people your government should be willing to kill in order to destroy one person deemed to be an enemy of the state. Have you heard that number debated in the presidential campaign so far? Have you even heard the authority to set that number addressed? If you have, you've been consulting sources I haven't found.

The whole point of this spiel is a plea to let facts rule where facts are pertinent, and to decide questions of opinion by open debate, and, perhaps most important of all, to know the difference between the two kinds of decisions.

What to do about rising temperatures that are degrading the human environment is, primarily, a scientific question. What to do about using public resources to kill people is a democratic question. Surely, we ought to be able to get those simple truths clear in our minds. If journalism, by merely reporting fact rather than presenting it as controversy, could help the public focus its mind more efficiently, it would be faithful to its duty of freeing rather than harnessing the public mind. As long as journalism plops all questions in an overheated stew of assertion and counter-assertion, it assists unseen forces in controlling developments for their own advantage -- which is never to the advantage of a majority of the people.

I think we ought all to cheer Rachel Maddow on, and take pleasure when she tells some political hack that it's lie to say that Barack Obama wants to raise your taxes, unless you happen to be among the few people who already are receiving more than two hundred thousand dollars each year. If we could peremptorily sweep aside such fraudulent charges we might gain the time and energy to ask ourselves seriously what kind of country it is we wish to inhabit.


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