Published on Monday, April 4, 2005 by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution / Georgia
When Facts Collide With Beliefs . . .
by Jay Bookman
|The autopsy of Terri Schiavo should confirm beyond scientific doubt that most of her cerebral cortex had turned to fluid, meaning it would have been impossible for her to recognize visitors, try to speak, make eye contact or perform any of the other basic human functions attributed to her.
If so, it raises an intriguing question: Once confronted with incontrovertible proof that they were wrong on a claim they stressed so hard, will House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and others rethink their position on Schiavo's fate? Will they entertain even the slightest of regrets for their angry, self-righteous rhetoric?
Not a chance.
In our post-factual world, something as straightforward as an autopsy report won't have any impact whatsoever. Conclusions have become immune to facts; for too many, the only facts that are valid are those that confirm what they already "know" to be true.
Examples of that mind-set are all too easy to find. Just last week, a presidential commission tried to explain how our intelligence agencies and top government officials could have gotten things so wrong about Iraq. By its account, once our leaders convinced each other that Iraq possessed WMD and was pursuing nuclear weapons, the only "facts" they were willing to consider were those confirming that cherished belief.
As the commission put it, our government was crippled by "a culture of enforced consensus."
That's a chilling phrase, not least because "culture of enforced consensus" describes so much of what goes on these days. For example, it describes perfectly what happened during the 2004 campaign, when only die-hard supporters of President Bush were allowed to attend his rallies.
More alarming still, that same tactic is being used in the president's "nonpartisan" appearances as he tries to build support for his faltering Social Security plan. In North Dakota, 40 local people were barred from the president's "town meeting" not for security reasons, but because they might have dared to disagree. In Denver, three citizens were escorted out of the president's audience because they had driven up to the event in a car bearing a "No Blood for Oil" bumper sticker. That was evidence enough to bar them from meeting with their president, at an event paid for with their tax dollars.
In a way, this is nothing new — not unique to our time and place. The Catholic Church was enforcing the consensus of the 17th century when it intimidated Galileo into recanting his finding that the Earth revolved around the sun. Today in India, Hindu nationalists are forcing the government to rewrite the nation's history books to falsely minimize the contributions of India's Muslim minority.
In both cases, historic and scientific fact were perceived as threats to what people wanted very much to believe, so the facts were repressed.
There are disturbing echoes of that phenomenon here in this country as well. It helps explain how 70 percent of Bush voters still clung to the belief on Election Day that WMD had been found in Iraq. It also explains the push to introduce "intelligent design" into classrooms as an alternative to evolution. Unable to win the debate within science, a field that requires evidence and logic, intelligent design proponents prefer to argue in less rigorous settings where political pressure can be brought to bear, such as local school boards. As in India, their motivation is less a search for truth than an effort to impose a comforting cultural consensus.
Within the Republican Party, that "culture of enforced consensus" has even been expanded to require unquestioning support for the embattled DeLay, who is facing a multitude of legal woes ranging from political money-laundering to taking expensive foreign junkets from lobbyists.
"Conservative leaders across the country are working now to make sure that any politician who hopes to have conservative support in the future had better be in the forefront as we attack those who attack Tom DeLay," according to Morton Blackwell, a member of the Republican National Committee.
Apparently, conservatives will not be free to consider the considerable evidence against DeLay; to even entertain doubt about his innocence will be considered betrayal.
It's a tactic that Galileo would recognize immediately.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor.
© 2005 Atlanta Journal-Constitution