I think it was Pat Moynihan who said that while you are entitled to your own opinions, you are not entitled to your own facts.
I appreciate the sentiment behind Moynihan’s observation. It accommodates freedom of expression while also standing up for that species of candor without which freedom of expression degenerates into empty attitudinizing.
But I wonder whether the Moynihan rule is as generous to the status of opinion as it at first may seem to be.
In our relativistic age, we often witness the transformation of facts into opinions. This process is not only destructive of facts—when facts are downgraded to opinions they no longer have the authority of facts—but, curiously, it is also destructive of opinion.
As the philosopher Hannah Arendt observed in an essay called “Truth and Politics,” opinion remains opinion only so long as it is grounded in, and can be corrected by, fact.
“Facts,” she wrote, “inform opinions, and opinions, inspired by different interests and passions, can differ widely and still be legitimate as long as they respect factual truth.”
Hence it is that “freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute.”
What is at stake, Arendt concluded, is nothing less than the common world of factual reality and historical truth.
So it turns out that, at the end of the day, you are entitled to your own opinion only so long as your opinion has a grounding in fact, in reality. Otherwise, you are wandering around in the realm of whim—if not, indeed, in the realm of deliberate misinformation—not opinion.
The poet Shelley ends “Ode to the West Wind” with the rhetorical question: “O Wind, if Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”
No one who has been paying attention will be surprised that when the subject is the degeneration of fact into opinion, the relevant question is “Can The New York Times be far behind?”
I admit that I rarely look at our former paper of record these days. Friends occasionally send me links to articles, and my own internet searches regularly pull up stories from that repository of politically correct narrative lubrication. It has been years, however, since I have subscribed or even held a printed copy in my hands.
So it was instructive to follow the lead provided by a friend and peruse the contents of a couple of recent issues.
It would take a long essay to unpack the many efforts at massaging The Narrative on view in a typical issue of the paper.
I won’t attempt that here. I won’t even dilate on the what is probably the most egregious example of the paper’s deliberate confusion of fact and opinion in recent weeks.
I mean its surreptitious rewriting of the bogus claims that fueled its “1619 Project” Narrative—the slanderous claims that the United States was founded as a “slavocracy” and that the Revolutionary War was fought primarily to preserve the institution of slavery.
Those claims instantly, and justly, were subjected to a barrage of criticism and contempt. But it was recently revealed that the Times has begun editing its original claims in secret.
As even Jonah Goldberg notes (I say “even” because Jonah is no fan of President Trump) “The Times owes the country a serious explanation for why it is bowdlerizing its own work. If it isn’t doing so out of a partisan desire to deny Donald Trump and his fans a talking point, it should make that clear. Because the silence doesn’t leave room for any other interpretation.”
There is more to be said about the Times’s handling of the mendacious 1619 Project, but I will leave that for another day. For now, let’s look at a couple of items from yesterday’s paper, the one dated Sept. 26, 2020.
One item that appears near the top bears this headline “At Pentagon, Fears Grow That Trump Will Pull Military Into Election Unrest.” At the Pentagon, eh? Sounds serious.
But a look at the article shows that it is all unnamed “senior officials” expressing such fears, or anyway saying things that can be ginned up by a reporter from The New York Times into “fears.”
The idea put forth is that “Mr. Trump refused this week to commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the November election.” But scratch that alarming assertion and you will discover that the president said no such thing.
The Democrats threaten to pack the Supreme Court, to throw the election into chaos with ballot harvesting and endless litigation, Hillary Clinton advises Joe Biden not to concede defeat no matter what.
That is all business as usual. But let president Trump express concern over such threatened disruptions and he is portrayed, falsely, as standing against the peaceful transfer of power.
Once again, we see the Democrats indulging in what Freud called “projection.”
They did everything they could to throw a wrench into the peaceful transfer of power in 2016. They begged electors pledged to Trump to break their trust. They fabricated a fantasy about the Trump campaign’s supposed “collusion” with Russia.
They even chattered about invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him from office.
Now the Times prints a story about “an intensifying debate in the military about its role should a disputed election lead to civil unrest.”
But there is no evidence of such “an intensifying debate.” It is a phenomenon confined to the imaginations of reporters for The New York Times and a handful of deep-state malcontents.
It is a species of disinformation similar to talk of a “B3 bomber” in the movie “Wag the Dog.” There was no B3 bomber. But that didn’t matter. Chatter about such a program was a welcome distraction.
Not In Fact
Another story yesterday, about the fate of efforts in Minneapolis to “defund the police,” takes a different tack.
A few months ago, in the wake of the death of George Floyd while in police custody, a majority of the city’s city council vowed to “end policing as we know it.”
What happened next? The Times describes it as “a case study in how idealistic calls for structural change can falter.”
And how. Once it became clear that the city was in earnest about defunding the police, law abiding citizens got nervous. Police officers were quitting in droves. Who would answer calls to 911? Could people have confidence that the police would protect them?
Once again, the facts impinged upon the narrative.
Andrew Johnson, one of council members who supported the effort to gut the police, did a little moonwalk back. Although he voted to “end policing as we know it ” in June, what happened on the ground led him to say that he meant it only “in spirit,” not, as the Times delicately put it, “by the letter.”
Not, that is to say, in fact.
Another member of the council sharpened his Number 2 hermeneutical pencil and explained that “ending policing as we know it” is “up for interpretation.” A third supporter of the resolution did a Joe Biden imitation. She “paused for 16 seconds when asked if the council’s statement had led to uncertainty at a pivotal moment for the city.”
Hall of Mirrors
Those are just a few examples of how the deliberate fusion or confusion of facts and opinion—a process fired by partisan animus—seeks to support a given narrative at the expense of the truth.
Perhaps I have been unfair to The New York Times. After all, narratives sleuths can have a field day ferreting out its obfuscations, misstatements, selective quotation, and bald distortion.
Connoisseurs may want to scrutinize the story in the Sept. 25 paper about the stunning revelations last week about web of lies and dissimulation that surrounded the Steele dossier and the effort to “get Trump.” It is a masterpiece of understatement, concealment, and quiet misrepresentation.
Then read Andrew McCarthy’s forthright exposition of the same set of facts.
The two columns are as night and day, the false and the true, the narrative and the real facts of the case.
The bottom line is this: If you’ve felt as if you have been caught in a hall of mirrors with respect to what is actually happening in the world today, The New York Times may well have something to do with it.
Roger Kimball is the editor and publisher of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is “The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.