When Myths Take Priority Over Facts

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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When Myths Take Priority Over Facts

by
Jay Bookman

By the time we become adults, we've all compiled a personal mythology. These are the stories that tell us how the world works, why things are the way they are and what roles various people and forces might play in that world.

Some of those stories come out of our own experience; others come secondhand, from parents, teachers, religious leaders and even the media. None of the stories offers a completely accurate representation of the world — we're a pitiful species, smart enough to comprehend the big questions but too stupid to grasp the full answers. But if our personal mythology matches up fairly closely with reality, and if we're willing to revise those stories as experience dictates, we can make our way in the world.

Nations, businesses and institutions also create and live by mythologies. To cite an example uncomfortably close to home, newspapers have long embraced the mythology — backed by some 500 years of history — that what we do is indispensable to an informed society. That mythology has now been exploded with the arrival of the Internet, pushing the industry into a desperate search for a narrative that better fits the world around us. We are coming to realize that if you ever let your mythology become too distant from how the world really works, you're in trouble.

The Bush administration is coming to a similar realization, or at least it ought to be. Like newspapers, it has become so devoted to its communal mythology, and so antagonistic to facts that might challenge that mythology, that it has lost its ability to function.

It's remarkable — everywhere you look, in almost every policy area, you see the same story playing itself out.

Philip Cooney, longtime chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, saw hundreds of scientific reports coming across his desk warning of global warming. That was a problem, because in Republican mythology, global warming is itself a myth.

So Cooney, a man with no scientific background, simply rewrote the reports. He recently told Congress that he saw his job as trying to make science conform to administration policy.

That's an amazing statement, because it completely reverses rational policy-making. A normal administration would try to make its policy conform to science, not the other way around. But this is not a normal administration.

The same dynamic was at work in the administration's dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys. At least two of the eight — in many ways the two most accomplished — were apparently put on the dismissal list because they weren't deemed aggressive enough in prosecuting voter fraud by Democrats.

It apparently didn't matter that no evidence of such fraud existed. Fraud exists because Republican mythology says it exists. After all, how else can you explain the fact that corrupt, weak-willed Democrats occasionally manage to win elections? (In the liberal version of that same story, Diebold voting machines play a key role.)

Then there's Iraq. It took years for the Bush administration to finally admit that an insurgency had taken hold in that country, because its mythology dictated that an insurgency couldn't happen. The Iraqis were supposed to greet us with flowers and chocolate, so any evidence to the contrary had to be wrong.

And as conservatives were confronted with stories detailing just how badly the war was going, they turned to the Swiss army knife of conservative narratives, the multipurpose tool used to explain away all facts that seem to contradict any of their cherished mythologies.

The liberal media, they said, just weren't reporting all the good things happening in Iraq.

When you see people on TV or in print trying to peddle such nonsense, you witnessing either fools and liars. There's an important distinction.

The fools actually believe what they're saying; the liars know better, but they also know they have a job to do. When inconvenient facts arise, their job is to spin new stories that somehow bring those facts into the existing mythology. The stories, as we've seen, don't even have to be that plausible.

You find fools and liars in both parties and in every administration. Politics would be impossible without them. The Bush administration is unique only because the liars smart enough to know better are so vastly outnumbered by the fools to whom the stories are not stories at all, but gospel.

They believe wholeheartedly in the nonsense they spout, and they govern by it.

Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.

© 2007 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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