Donald Trump has a lot of people worrying about “alternative facts.” Rightfully so. But I also worry about progressives who seem to think their facts don’t come from a world of alternatives.
I am not a relativist. I am perfectly comfortable talking about absolute and objective reality. But we are subjective creatures. We navigate through reality like a submarine through the ocean. My ship has no windows. I study my charts. I sound out the world with my sensors. At best it’s a functionally factual method. But I would be a fool of a captain if I thought the “facts” on my charts and sensors were literally the same things as the facts outside my hull.
My charts and sensor readings are renderings, interpretations, approximations, full of assumptions. I didn’t make any given chart. Maybe I pencil in corrections here and there, but for the most part I received it. I trust it as far as it goes. But I know that the cartographers had an interest, made choices about which facts to render, how to render them, and which to omit. I know that the chart itself is not factual just because it has facts rendered on it. Likewise, I trust my own soundings as far as they go. But I understand that I’ve chosen when and where to make them, what to measure, and how often. I know that the lines between my data points are interpolations, not data points themselves, and certainly not the real world outside.
If I don’t vigorously differentiate between the narratives of bathymetric and barometric charts, or between fitted curves and the seafloor, then sailing on my boat should give you little comfort.
Many progressives are conflating soundings and charts with reality. It’s evident in the very term progressive. I’m a theologically conservative Catholic. I believe in the garden-to-city trajectory of God’s plan for creation, as well as in humankind’s responsibility to participate. I embrace the concept of objective progress. But, in concrete politics, “progress” is a value-laden term. Charts and soundings of progress may or may not accurately render the actual terrain of progress. In the conservative Catholic mind — and I would hope in anybody’s mind — the Right and Left have both mapped some things rightly and some things wrongly. But instead there is an idea that opposite conservative politics is progressive politics. It’s not just change; it’s progress. Liberals are straining facts through a sieve of values, but still convinced that the end product is objective.
But every fact has valid alternatives. How we sift, render, prioritize, exclude, and connect these alternatives is an act of judgment. The facts do not render this judgment upon themselves. “The whole truth” is a fine ideal for jurisprudence, but it is impossible. So while there may be a clear difference between a factual account and and purely fictional account, there is no such thing as a purely factual account that is not tinged by myth — a personal myth, a party myth, etc.
For example, Clinton suggested during the campaign that abortion is a matter of women’s health care. Trump went as far as to suggest that abortion should be a punishable crime. I would argue that both of these narrative accounts touch on fact, neither of them on all the facts.
According to a 2013 study in BMC Women's Health about why women seek abortions, about as many respondents cited “concern for [their] own health” (6 percent) as concern that a baby would “interfere with their … career plans” (7 percent).
Since I have never heard a convincing reason why life doesn’t begin at conception, I honestly don’t see why the latter reason should sound plausibly closer to health care than to a crime. But even dismissing the criminal possibility as extreme, the exchange of careers for human lives that would otherwise exist is certainly not an incontrovertible fact of progress.
Even outright lying from one’s opponent doesn’t mean that one’s narrative account of reality came down from the mountain written in stone by the finger of God. To the extent that liberals think they hold the holy tablets — and I fear many are increasingly emboldened by Mr. Trump’s falsehoods to think precisely that — then they have constructed a false dichotomy. But heed the prophets. The Israelites weren’t heroes just because Pharaoh was a villain. Nobody’s safe from the intellectual shoals just because an opposing sea captain is sailing blind.
We should be concerned about facts, not least because of Mr. Trump — but not only because of him. If we’re just now becoming concerned that politics perilously bends the fact-narrative continuum, I don’t think we’ve been looking hard enough in the mirror. We need to navigate with humility and conscience, not to call a preferred version of bad seamanship virtue.
Dan Brendel writes on faith-based issues for the Gazette Packet.