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Wednesday, July 23, 2003
Randy Barnett wants to know
Randy Barnett says that he "really want[s] to know" so, really quickly, let's find out:


The contention that George W. Bush lied in his State of the Union speech, now spreading through the media and into the base of the Democratic Party, has caused me (Randy Barnett) to think again about a phenomenon I have been noticing since the election of 2000.

If the White House knew that those now-infamous 16 words were incorrect, if the number #2 person at the National Security Counsel knew, then it is a lie. Attributing an assertion to someone else (in this case the British) when you know it's false doesn't make what you've said the truth.

As you probably know, the idea that truth is “socially constructed” has been in vogue in academia for some time. I never took it that seriously and only mention it in passing in The Structure of Liberty. I did not think very many people could possibly believe it, or at least believe that, if true, it had any practical implications. Hey, even if the world is socially constructed, if we cannot willfully reconstruct it as we prefer, then it’s pretty much as irrelevant as the old speculations that we are just a brain in a vat or that the universe exists in a drop on some cosmic chemist’s workbench.

Of course "socially constructed" has been in vogue in academia for some time. It's really nothing new and lots of people believe it. It's the entire foundation of the discipline of Sociology. It's simply the belief that we live in societies and these societies form networks, bonds, and beliefs that become ingrained within individuals. I have no idea what the last sentence means, though. Societies change all the time -- we can willfully reconstruct societies.

That 'truth' itself is socially constructed is a bit more complicated, but in this debate it really isn't. Barnett, I, and the rest of the left live in the same society. Our truths are the same. (Unlike, say, us and some hypothetical other society where, say, poor, overweight, short, clumsy men are the true emblem of beauty and attraction for most women, opposed to rich, fit, tall, athletic men.)

Since the 2000 election, however, I have begun to realize for the first time that the Left really and truly lives in a socially constructed world — a world where “truth” is their own construction. In their world:

Al Gore was elected president. Bush was selected. The Supreme Court “decided the election” (rather than reversed a rogue Southern state Supreme Court and restore the rulings of local, mainly democratic, election officials). Bush is in the pocket of the oil companies. Dick Cheney really runs the country. Bush’s energy plan would destroy the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

I'm squarely on the left, so let's look at these assertions:

Well, Al Gore did receive more votes than President Bush. If both the overcounts and undercounts had been counted in Florida, it would have been clear that Gore won Florida, as well.

I don't think President Bush is in the pocket of the oil companies. He sure listens to them, though. I don't think the Vice-President really runs the country. I don't know anything about the Artctic National Wildlife Refuge. Would the energy plan destroy it?

I could go on and on. These are not disagreements about “values” or ends, but disagreements about facts. Once you notice this phenomenon, you see it everywhere. Now the Left is lying about Bush to make him appear to be a liar because they cannot catch him in any actual lies. The question is whether they believe what they are saying. Some do, some may not, but millions certainly believe what they are hearing.

I don't see what he's talking about or what the lies are. Barnett is either: (1) willfully distorting what the "left" believes, or (2) taking extreme examples of the left and positing them as being normative. With both possibilities, he's shutting down the possibility of actual and real political debate.

I know that this is nothing new. Alger Hiss was innocent. Barry Goldwater was a neo-Nazi who was looking to start WWIII. J. Edgar Hoover wore women’s clothing. In the Second Amendment debate, the anti’s make up stories about what happened at the founding to fit enough of the facts just the way defense lawyers explain away the prosecution’s evidence. When the fit gets too hard to maintain, they switch stories to another made-up but more defensible version. Evidence is largely irrelevant, unless they are in a forum in which they are directly confronted.

Alger Hiss? Does anybody this side of Ann Coutler still care about Alger Hiss? For what it's worth, I think Hiss was guilty. I don't begrudge Barry Goldwater nor do I think he was a neo-Nazi. I wish Barnett would give examples for his Second Amendment claim (examples where the judges buy these "defense lawyer" claims -- I mean, defense lawyers argue all sorts of things, even in non 2nd Amdendment cases).

These “constructions” or fabrications are not just ideological disagreements. When the Left claimed, for example, that the Industrial Revolution immiserated the masses rather than greatly improving the standard of living of ordinary people, it was easy to dismiss this as a dispute about a past we could not directly experience.

I've read about the Homestead Strikes, the Haymarket Strike, and even read my Dickens. I've even read "leftist" labor historians such as Herbert Gutman and E.P. Thompson. And, I've gotta disagree. I don't think it's a fabrication to claim that a much of "the masses" had a bad time of it during the Industrial Revolution. (And, if wage labor originated during the Industrial Revolution, how does Barnett gauge that the "masses" had their standard of living "greatly improve." What variables are at issue here? An argument is necessary, not just a blithe assertion.)

But what I am now coming to appreciate is that increasing numbers of persons on the Left create in their minds a false world in which to live — a world that better suits their preconceptions. They are not content to disagree with the goals of their opposition or about predictions of future policy results. They must make up facts about the world that fit their theories — like the “homeless” crisis that immediately vanished when Clinton took office. Their world is really and truly socially constructed. In their world Cuba really is a better place, as was the USSR up until the moment it collapsed, at which point those on the Left retroactively became anti-communists who had long struggled to bring down what they formerly claimed was a better and more just society.

I don't think the homeless crisis vanished when President Clinton took office. I don't think Cuba really is a better place. Neither do I think the USSR was, either. Did the left really believe this once? Leftists like President Kennedy and President Johnson? Leftists who would take Barnett out to the woodshed if he claimed that somehow their anti-communism wasn't genuine.

I'm not making up facts. I'm just saying what being attributed to me, as a member of the left, just isn't true. It's easy to construct a scarecrow and then attack it. It's more difficult to actually engage in a real debate.

On legal historian e-mail lists to which I subscribe, the Left took forever to abandon Michael Bellesiles (of Arming America disrepute), perhaps because his story fit their world. Or perhaps it was because the worst possible thing is to admit the evil right-wingers are right about anything. I raise the Bellesiles affair not because I think he is typical of the Left, but because of the dogged refusal to admit his story was a fabrication when the evidence of fraud was visible for all to see.

But they did abandon him when it became clear that his work was faulty, right? Is Barnett's beef that the "left" didn't just jump away from Bellesiles at the first inkling of trouble or because it waited until the facts were out before making the correct judgement?

This socially constructed reality changes all the time to fit current ideological needs. One day, Bush is a moron; the next he is Machiavelli reborn; the next he is a moron again. Flip-flops don’t seem to faze them in the slightest. They just “move on.”

Nice little dig at moveon.org, however one can believe someone is both not intellectually bright and calculatingly vindictive. I'm not (I repeat NOT) saying that I do, but it isn't a flip-flop.

And, what does this have to do with "social construction"?

I could go on and on with more examples, but you get the point. I disagree with conservative Republicans about a lot, but I just have not noticed them making up stories wholesale to bolster their world view. The closest I have seen is some of what they say about judges “making up rights,” but this sort of rhetoric has a genuinely factual basis.

Actually, I don't get the point, yet. More examples are necessary.

Still, this “social construction” phenomenon, if it indeed does exist, leaves me both disturbed and genuinely perplexed:

(1) Has it always been this blatant or extreme? I do not think so but, if not, what has changed? The perception on the Left that they have lost their grip on power? The access of so many to open microphones? Anger over Ronald Reagan’s victory and popularity? Republicans’ taking control of the House and their impeaching Clinton? George W. Bush winning the legal challenge to the decisions of local election officials brought by Al Gore?

Has it always been this blatant or extreme? Damn, that's a loaded question.

I'll have a go at it:


Maybe, Yes.

Sometimes I think it is because the format of most news-talk shows now mandates that people take adversarial positions. Producers must therefore find someone to take the other side of every issue, and cognitive dissonance leads these advocates eventually to believe what they say. Viewers then see seemingly authoritative speakers repeatedly insisting on the same “facts,” which they simply prefer to believe because they reinforce their preconceptions. On the other hand the establishment media is not even that balanced and its consumers only get information that fits their world view.

(2) How can intelligent people sustain these false beliefs seemingly indefinitely? This must take some toll on them inside. But what exactly is the price they pay internally or emotionally for living in an artificially constructed reality? Perhaps it is actually easier, rather than more difficult, to live in a world of facts that reinforce one’s predilections.

I still don't know what these "false beliefs" are. A more complete discription of the "left" was in order.

And, does Barnett actually think that what I believe... the reasons I twice voted for Bill Clinton (actually three time if you include a primary vote) and the reason I voted for Al Gore should be taking a toll on me "inside" and that I should be paying an internal or emotional toll.

I believe what I believe, and until he can show me that they are factually incorrect (which he hasn't), I'm going to sleep well tonight, thank you. I'm betting, so will the people who voted for Clinton over Bush I, Clinton over Dole, and Gore over Bush II. The left side has more people than the right in all three of these elections. Does Barnett want me to believe otherwise, or should all of us be feeling emotional pain?

(3) If this phenomenon is indeed as pervasive as I now think it is, how do I know that I am not doing exactly the same thing in reverse — thus confirming the claim that reality is indeed socially constructed? I know that is what I will hear from readers.

No, I'm not going to make this claim. I'm not that arrogant.

Perhaps everyone does do this to a certain degree. I do believe that, to some degree, “facts” and even sensory perception are “theory”-laden. The brain is such that you rarely see the theory working in the background, but sometimes it can be glimpsed. Everyone has had the experience of seeing an object on the horizon, in one’s peripheral vision, or across the room that looks like just shapes and colors, or looks like an object you know it cannot possibly be. Then you get closer or view it from a slightly different angle and what it ”really” is suddenly snaps into place. This is your brain “recognizing” the shapes and colors and then defining or redefining it.

I have no idea what he's talking about here.

Assuming we all do it to some degree — that no one is totally and completely objectively realistic about the facts — is what I am now perceiving on the Left simply a more extreme version of the phenomena, both as measured against how I think the world really is and perhaps also against how even the Left was even a few years ago?

I am interested in hearing your thoughts. Have you noticed it too? Have you noticed it getting worse? How can you know that you are not yourself equally guilty of doing exactly the same thing? And how can we settle our political disagreements if a large number of the players are living in a world of their own making? I really want to know.

I'm not living in a world of my own making. I just want people like Barnett to engage in real debate instead of mocking his opponents, instead of telling them what they believe and then pointing out that what he's just told them they believe is not just wrong, it's made up and foolish.

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