Stubborn things

FI-EditorialThere’s a famous quote from John Adams, our nation’s most curmudgeonly founding father. “Facts are stubborn things,” he said. “And whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Mr. Adams did not say this when he was president or even when he was a citizen of the United States. He said it when the country was still under British rule and he was a lawyer defending the redcoats in what had already been declared to be the “Boston Massacre.” To defend soldiers imposing the will of a tyrant in a colony on the edge of revolution was certainly not a playbook for popularity. Yet Mr. Adams convinced a jury of fair-minded individuals to acquit and, thus, showed the power of facts even against passions.

The wisdom of Mr. Adams is needed more than ever today as more and more of us treat the facts like something to be ignored if they do not fit a predetermined world view. Much has been written about the seemingly intractable divide between Americans of different political stripes, but this goes beyond the red state/blue state split. It’s about who seeks and embraces facts, as opposed to who willingly lives inside an echo chamber where the unavoidable evidence can conveniently be avoided.

We’re all familiar with lies that just won’t die. The Obamacare death panels never existed. The U.S. government was never behind 9/11. And if Barack Obama is indeed a socialist, given the booming stock market and ever widening gap between the rich and the poor in this country, he must be the worst socialist ever. But these are only symptoms of the core issue. An immense market has arisen, making it very profitable to only tell people what they want to hear. We can go all day without hearing a dissenting voice — which not only leads to paralysis in our discourse but flat out self-delusion.

This week, Greenwich’s legislative delegation held a coffee hour to hear the concerns of constituents. It was a lively talk about important issues like tolls, state spending and transparency. But there were also moments where you simply had to wonder why anyone would run for political office anymore when facts about legislation don’t mean as much as rumor and innuendo.

At one point, the delegation was confronted by a particularly persistent constituent who could not be shaken in the belief that legislation existed to provide all residents in the state with a free college education financed by taxpayers. Leaving aside the potential merits of such a program, the fact is that no such bill exists. This was explained several times by the legislators but each time the skeptical response was, “Well, that’s not what I heard.”

This was not a partisan issue, by the way. Everyone in this discussion was a Republican. The divide, instead, was between the people with the facts and those who refused to believe them.

And this is not isolated to a diner in Greenwich. The facts are no longer getting through to people.

Too many are willing to routinely yield to what John Adams would call “the dictates of our passions” and some have concluded that there is no difference between a fact and an opinion. There’s a growing culture of paranoia and ignorance in America, and is something that should worry us all.

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