Post-Fact World

The Facts About Ferguson Matter, Dammit

It’s the great irony of the Information Age: Awash in pseudo-facts, we are less and less likely to believe official sources.

“I don’t believe a word of it,” said Lesley McSpadden after watching the man who shot her son to death tell his side of the story to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

It’s hard to begrudge McSpadden her disbelief as a grieving mother. But what about the rest of us? Shouldn’t facts matter?

The death of Michael Brown has touched off rioting in Ferguson and angry protests across the nation, with hundreds arrested in Los Angles, Oakland, Dallas, and New York.

“Hands Up. Don’t Shoot!” has become a rallying cry against perceived systemic racial animus on the part of police departments everywhere. On Sunday, five members of the St. Louis Rams football team took to the field with their arms raised in “surrender” fashion as an expression of solidarity with the Brown family.

Taylor Gruenloh, a 32-year-old white protester from nearby Florissant, Missouri, told the Associated Press, “Even if you don’t find that it’s true”—“it” being Michael Brown’s hands up in surrender posture—“it’s a valid rallying cry. It’s just a metaphor.”

Perhaps, but Darren Wilson isn’t a metaphor. Wilson is an actual flesh and blood human being with a wife and baby on the way and parents who presumably love him as much as Michael Brown’s parents loved their son. Is it justice to indict a man for murder as a metaphor?

Photos: Fury at the Ferguson Decision

I wasn’t there when Brown had his fatal encounter with the now former Ferguson police officer. Chances are neither were you. I also wasn’t on the Sea of Tranquility when Neil Armstrong took “one giant leap for mankind,” but I believe mankind took a giant leap.

In other words, we’re all entitled to believe things about events for which we weren’t present. But the fact is that the testimony of multiple grand jury witnesses supports Wilson’s version of events, as does the forensic evidence. Still, there are many millions who have reached the same conclusion as Michael Brown’s mother; they don’t believe a word of it.

The unilateral rejection of facts may be the ultimate metaphor and irony of the Information Age; the more official the source the less likely it is to be believed.

Skepticism is as old as king and country. History itself has been aptly described as an argument un-ended. But there is a profound difference between revisionist history based on new evidence and evolving social mores and the rejection of facts.

In our digital world, all the accumulated knowledge of human history is available in the palm of our hands. But intermingled with hard-won truths are half-baked theories and outright lunacy—decorated with footnotes, graphs, pie charts, and citations from credentialed “experts”—proving that the Earth is warming, the Earth is cooling, or the Earth is flat.

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If you seek it, you’ll find it. That’s the problem.

We are overwhelmed with data from every quarter, and our capacity to filter fact from fraud is limited. But the web never rests. Men and women of good intent who simply seek “the truth” upon which to base their opinions find themselves awash in folderol.

No longer confident in any single source for simple truths, more and more of us today are choosing to believe what we are predisposed to believe, period. Contravening facts are dismissed as lies or propaganda.

In a more circumspect time Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” In the dotcom world we all have our own facts.

In our digital world falsehood flies first class via hyperlinks, Tweets, texts, and The View.

When Jenny McCarthy yapped about vaccines causing autism, millions of children were needlessly exposed to diseases nearly extinguished in the First World thanks to parents shunning childhood vaccinations.

Every time a snowflake falls climate change deniers take to Facebook to mock Al Gore and 9/11 Truthers never tire of Tower 7 conspiracies and the melting temperature of steel.

The dark hand of George Soros or the even darker hands of the Koch brothers are behind every swing of the political pendulum, as if 230 years of a fickle American electorate ping-ponging from one party to another had never happened.

Who could have conceived that the Information Super Highway would usher in a new Dark Age; a return to blind faith over science, cant over reason?

No matter how many investigations into Benghazi and Fast and Furious come up empty, conservatives still insist the President and Hillary are hiding something. And despite one preposterous Administration denial after another, loyal Democrats continue to believe that the Obama administration did not approve using the IRS as a club to beat the Tea Party to death.

At the height of the Soviet Union, the proletariat universally understood everything their government said was a work of fiction. Americans didn’t begin seriously doubting their government until the publication of the Warren Commission Report in 1964.

American naiveté died in Dallas along with JFK. For the record, I believe Oswald killed Kennedy. I also believe the administration is hiding something about Benghazi and Fast and Furious, but the key word is “believe.”

Each of us believes what we choose to believe, and facts have become bricks to shore up the fortress of our own biases.

We got here on a tsunami of lies. From the Gulf of Tonkin, to General Motors’ faulty ignition switches, to what’s in our food; government, corporate, media, and religious narratives have been shape-shifted to advance agendas and cover asses.

Added to the barrage of misinformation is political correctness, contemporary liberalism’s insistence on civility at the expense of accuracy, and conservatism’s maligning of scholarship as propaganda and leftist indoctrination.

Opinions can be wonderful things. They add interest and passion to life. They lead to art and love and literature and new ideas. But facts are foundational. Facts have weight and mass, and we ignore them or abuse them at our own peril. I’m not driving over a bridge built on an opinion.

It’s healthy to be skeptical of official sources, but at some point we have to agree on something or else consensus and civil society as we know it will shatter like the plate glass in a Ferguson Missouri storefront.