The Strange Case of Feelings Versus Facts

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Don’t tase me, bro, but I sometimes watch “Outnumbered” on Fox News. I do it mainly because I like the discussion leader, the always poised, always intelligent Harris Faulkner. She isn’t big on one-liners, but on December 13 she put a lot of truth into just five words. “Facts,” she said, “don’t care about feelings.”

That could provide a fitting introduction and conclusion to any discussion of political discourse in 2016, which consisted largely of lunatic ravings, followed by shrieks of joy or anguish that had virtually nothing to do with facts and almost everything to do with the writer’s or speaker’s mental condition. Particularly notable was a fleet (I was going to say “raft,” then promoted it to “ship,” then “battleship,” and so on up) of statements, based wholly on their authors’ authority, the content of which demolished that authority. These statements included Donald Trump’s continuous assurances that he would successfully perform various mostly impossible economic tricks, and Hillary Clinton’s continuous assurances that she had been vindicated by every investigation ever undertaken of her.

When libertarians go wrong we are more likely to go in the opposite direction: we are likely to have too much respect for truth and fact, or at least the truths and facts that interest us.

Blame is not confined to those two notorious offenders. Throughout my life I’ve been bored and irritated by elder statesmen, pollsters, media commentators, religious leaders, and yes, college professors like me retailing their opinions as if everyone else were bound to believe them, in obeisance to the source. This year, I was alternately nauseated and entertained as I watched such people asserting their intellectual authority by rushing onstage, tearing off their costumes, setting fire to their toupees, and making obscene gestures at the audience. These were the people who considered themselves entitled to laugh like maniacs at the idea that Trump could ever be elected, because they understood American politics, or they had taken the pulse of the American voter, or they had high ratings among Americans in the prime demographic, or they were in touch with the spiritual longings of the American people. These were the authorities who then screamed and tore their hair at the sudden discovery that America had been — all along, and unknown to them — a nation of xenophobes and white supremacists.

The facts, of course, didn’t care about these people’s feelings, any more than they cared about Jill Stein’s feeling that somehow the election had been “hacked,” or about Hillary Clinton’s feeling that it was “Comey” who had done her in, or about her later feeling that it was the Russkies that done it (by the simple act of revealing her servants’ private correspondence), or about Donald Trump’s feeling that he, like Shakespeare’s Bottom, knows how to perform every part in the play.

Fortunately, libertarians have so far avoided this bad behavior, even when sorely tempted by the example of Stein. When libertarians go wrong we are more likely to go in the opposite direction: we are likely to have too much respect for truth and fact, or at least the truths and facts that interest us. Years ago I attended a libertarian conference at which a resolution was presented. It said that such and such idea was contrary to reality, and that “reality always wins.” This might have been taken as a mere rhetorical flourish, but a lengthy debate followed among the many people who took that truth claim seriously. Some of them argued, passionately, that even false ideas are part of “reality,” while others retorted, with equal passion, that false ideas aren’t really real. After an hour or so of this, Bill Bradford and I walked out. We were laughing at the futility of the whole affair, which was simply a disagreement about two common understandings of a common word. But we were not laughing at the libertarian reverence for “reality,” and we certainly weren’t laughing at the egalitarian nature of the proceedings. If anybody had said, “I’m a college professor, and I know what ‘reality’ means,” or even, “I’m a libertarian, and this is how libertarians view ‘reality,’” the crowd would have gaped in wonder. What’s this guy talking about?

Someone might suggest that Trump’s choice of Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy was the sign of a resurgent egalitarianism in our national government. After all, Perry is as dumb as a rock, or as Chelsea Clinton. He’s the former presidential candidate who became former when he announced during a debate that there were three federal agencies he would eliminate, one of which was the Department of Uhhhh. He meant the Department of Energy, but he couldn’t remember the name. His appointment recalls the ancient Athenian democracy, in which public offices were filled by lot. You or I could just as easily have received a call from the president-elect: “Hullo Stephen, this is Donald Trump. Oh, I’m doing incredible today, thank you. Look, Stephen, I’ve got this unbelievable job for you . . .”

Someone might suggest that Trump’s choice of Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy was the sign of a resurgent egalitarianism in our national government. After all, Perry is as dumb as a rock.

Alas, I didn’t get the call. (If I had, I could have told Mr. Trump that there would, indeed, be one less federal agency.) Perry got it because he is a former governor. His appointment was an act of deference to the political class, which is known for its deep feeling and sensitivity, its tendency to brood over any apparent slight. By appointing Perry, Trump was undoubtedly trying to save him from a tailspin of grief about his apparent obsolescence, while relieving other senior politicians from similar fears.

Colin Powell may be one who needs reassurance. Like many of the rest, he feels that he deserves power, no matter what. A political general whose career was advanced by the Republican Party, he repaid the GOP by exposing its racism and disdaining its presidential candidate, not expecting him to be elected. Proven wrong about that, he still let it be known that he was “available for advice” to the winner. This is the way of the Elder Statesman, who deserves respect because . . . he’s an Elder Statesman.

You don’t have to be all that Elder to be accorded automatic hat-tips by the Establishment media. Any government employee — any employee likely to be a modern liberal — is an object of solicitous concern. Here are two Google News headlines from December 13: “Trump taps Exxon’s Tillerson as top US diplomat, lawmakers worried” (Reuters); “Energy Dept. rejects Trump’s request to name climate change workers, who remain worried” (Washington Post). Notice that in both instances the final emphasis falls on a status group (“lawmakers,” “climate change workers”), that the two groups enjoy their place in the sun because their members are paid by the government, and that their status is exalted enough to qualify them for euphemistic treatment. In place of the common yet arresting words one expects in a headline, Google hands us the very uncommon and unarresting “lawmakers” (a euphemism for “politicians” or at most “elected officials”) and “climate change workers” (a euphemism for “government bureaucrats concerned with, and probably advocating, the theory that the climate is changing, that human beings are responsible, that this is a bad thing, and that geniuses like themselves should be employed to stop it”). When prostitutes — literal prostitutes — start getting paid by the government, we will see headlines about “sex workers” being “worried” by requests to know their names.

This is the way of the Elder Statesman, who deserves respect because he’s an Elder Statesman.

The problem that supposedly justifies these solemn headlines is that the status group is worried. Well, as Scarlett O’Hara said to her worried sister: “Too bad about that!” If there’s a significant issue to be debated, sure, let’s debate it; but why should anyone worry about the mental condition of any particular group of people? Only in a status society are specific groups or individuals granted the right to sympathy.

As 2016 drew, slogged, dragged, or devolved to its end, one saw more clearly than ever that, in today’s America, this right is conferred by modern-liberal politicians and the media that serve them. Formerly, Democrats called attention to the frequent stupidity and chronic tyranny of the FBI and CIA; now they dwell upon the selfless heroism of the CIA, because a member of the Agency has whispered that Putin loves Trump and wants him to be president. About the FBI the “liberals” switch back and forth, like locomotives looking for a train, one moment extolling its “integrity,” because it allegedly exonerated Hillary Clinton, and the next moment excoriating it as “deeply broken,” because it allegedly caused her defeat.

The Electoral College has been on a sympathy rollercoaster all year long. Before the election, a lot of Democrats who couldn’t do arithmetic smugly assumed that their party had a lock on the electoral college, because it would deliver a large block of votes from such solidly Democratic states as California. The College was therefore a good thing — until, at 11 PM on election day, it became the despised relic of a former era, the members of which were mindless hacks, selected for a total lack of intelligence and responsibility. Then arose the movement to reverse the election by getting Electors to switch from Trump. Now the College was a great American institution and its members wise solons who needed only to be reminded of their power. When, thus reminded, they didn’t switch, they were again the objects of scorn. They were un-Americans who had no right to vote as they did. They were people who had “sold out the country,” people who “don’t deserve to be in America.” This was one of the things that protestors screamed at Electors; a protestor in Wisconsin added a monarchical “This is my America!”Not yours, you bastards.

She had a point. If facts really do respond to (my) feelings, then I really do own . . . everything. I am a divine-right monarch with the arbitrary power to say what shall be true. Monarchs themselves often start to believe the meaningless, self-serving things they feel. It is a symptom and a means of their fall. And that’s what we’re seeing now, in the spectacle of leading Democrats demanding sympathy for what they themselves did to their party, and doing so without a hint of embarrassment. On December 19, when William Jefferson Clinton was being quoted as blaming his wife’s defeat, not on her, but on angry white men, Tucker Carlson (whose new TV show is, unexpectedly, pretty amusing) asked the rhetorical question, “Does he include himself?” It was an obvious thought, but obviously not one that had occurred to Clinton.

The Electoral College was therefore a good thing — until, at 11 PM on election day, it became the despised relic of a former era.

Even more obtusely self-righteous was John Podesta, chairman of Clinton’s campaign. He was the person whose computer provided many of the emails that damaged her campaign. In strict terms, those emails were probably not hacked, as people insist on saying, but were phished in the stupidest, most obvious way. But on December 18, Podesta tried to unelect Trump by saying, “It’s very much unknown whether there was collusion” between the Trump campaign and the Russkies, in the matter of the emails. He called for the Electoral College to be informed about this very much unknown conspiracy.

I just can’t get my head around this. After everything Podesta did to lose the election, he wants some kind of do-over. Why? Because it’s unknown whether his opponent was involved in the revelation of his (Podesta’s) own stupidity. If you say things like that, you believe you have a natural right to boundless sympathy and respect, and even reparations, in the form of a delegitimized election.

In the December 22 Washington Post, Ruben Navarrette painted a suggestive portrait of Podesta and the org he managed:

Thanks to a combination of leaks and reporting, we now know just how poorly run the Clinton campaign was, how top campaign staffers dismissed the importance of working-class white voters, how Democratic leaders had contempt for their own supporters, and how the coziness between the news media and campaign officials turned to collusion and created a backlash.

And virtually all those storms have something in common: Podesta. In short, the campaign chairman was at the center of just about everything that went wrong with Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House.

I wonder whether you noticed what I did: every critical comment that Navarrette makes about the Democracy can also be made about the modern state: it’s stupid, unreflective, badly managed, and sovereignly contemptuous even of its clients and supporters (with one exception: the supporters known as the mainstream media). The Clinton org was a state within a state, with its own departments of revenue, foreign affairs, enforcement, propaganda, etc. It was no accident that Clinton’s campaign agents could function, or dysfunction, simultaneously as employees of the US government — it made no difference to them.

It was an obvious thought, but obviously not one that had occurred to William Jefferson Clinton.

In the Clinton machine one saw statism in a pure form. That’s why no one could figure out what Mrs. Clinton’s program was, or why, in the absence of any particular goals that she wanted to achieve as president, she kept running for the office. The state in its pure form is power; it desires no reason for its existence but the projection of its power. Hillary Clinton wanted that power and needed no other justification of her political life (which, horrible to say, is her whole life). Never once did she or her organization advocate an action that was not an extension of state power; never once did they propose or recognize the existence of any limitations on this power, or reflect on the fact that human knowledge would be limited even if human power were not. Identifying themselves so completely with an all-powerful, all-knowing state, she and her associates assumed that they had a right to be the state. They still do. If you think you have a natural right to unlimited power, and you somehow, in some way that you cannot understand, lose that power, your demand for sympathy will also be unlimited. It’s another rebellion of feelings against fact.

No one actually feels sorry for Hillary Clinton, but many people feel sorry for themselves, because their side lost, and they believe it had a right to win. So they try to see her as a sympathetic figure — a kind of Charles I, condemned and executed by a mob of cretins who could never grasp his greatness. In fact, Charles was an autocrat, and a stupid autocrat, and a deceitful autocrat to boot. As with Mrs. Clinton, if Charles said you had ten fingers, you would count your fingers to make sure. But when he was deposed and executed, the self-pity of the aristocrats who had despised him during his life was focused on him, and he became a Saint. I doubt that this process will go very far with the ludicrous Mrs. Clinton, but it is well underway with her former boss, President Obama. The funniest source is Fareed Zakaria of CNN, whose December 7 crockumentary about Obama suggested that America had failed its president: “It remains unclear if the country was ready for Barack Obama’s vision.”If you’re looking for a fact-free sentence, you have found it.

It was no accident that Clinton’s campaign agents could function, or dysfunction, simultaneously as employees of the US government — it made no difference to them.

In America, we have whiny, self-privileged classes, and whiny, self-privileged individuals. Now these have given us whiny, self-privileged issues, political positions that can get away with anything. Today, you are at least as likely to be fired for questioning inclusiveness, economic equality, public education, the environment, or the rights of undocumented workers — or even seeking definitions of these sacred concepts — as you used to be for taking the same approach to Americanism, our Judeo-Christian heritage, defeating the Reds, or the fight against illicit drugs; and before that, temperance, womanhood, our men in uniform, or purity of essence. (OK, I admit it: I took that last one from Dr. Strangelove.) One of the most privileged issues is, of course, common-sense gun control (i.e., elimination of the private ownership of firearms). So empty of fact and full of feeling is the anti-gun cause that The Federalist ran an absurd but accurate headline: “Progressives Demand Gun Control After Knife Attack at Ohio State University.” The article following the headline provided many examples of “progressives” who knew that any attack must be a gun attack, or caused by guns, or preventable by the prevention of guns, or something. Among millions of Americans, the very word “gun” (or even “knife”) is enough to cause hysteria. It makes them feel so insecure.

It has often been noted that the manners of the aristocracy are eventually transferred to the middle class and thence to the lower classes. It’s true; that often happens, and often it’s a good thing. I regret the fact that aristocratic reserve is no longer practiced in restaurants and airline terminals, or even museums and nature trails, where you can always depend on somebody showing up with a cellphone and a voice like Goebbels. But aristocracy is fully alive in another, quite unfortunate way. We are witnessing a transference of self-regard, self-privilege, and self-pity from the American political aristocracy to the issues they push and then to the pathetic voters who derive their own self-regard and their own demands for pity not from any fact but from their feelings about these mighty issues. That is how state power corrupts its holders, and how its holders corrupt everything.




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Comments

Fred Mora

Nice article, Stephen. Happy new year!

Stephen Cox

Thank you, Fred. The same wish to you, and to all our readers and commenters!

R R Schoettker

The political class, among others, would do well to take heed of some old advice:

"Not being able to govern events, I govern myself."
---- Michel Eyquem de Montaigne

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