Every so often - and probably quite often - each of us encounters a story, an anecdote, video, post or tweet that sings resplendent of conservative virtues at the expense of liberal villainy. The juxtaposition is a simple yet effective tool of rhetoric: My team is good, even when it sucks. And your team sucks, especially when it's playing well.
Is this an effective paradigm for sorting out facts on the ground? Not in the least. You can't even get to a shared data set if the data itself is contested.
I'm here today to unpack how we've gotten into this situation where we can't even agree on facts. I think the answer lies in a fundamental postulate of our society: That competition, even adversarial competition, is a good thing.
Let's focus for now on the concept of inadmissible evidence in our adversarial court system. Both sides seek to limit admission of evidence contrary to their ends. The DA/plaintiff isn't particularly interested in making it easy for the defendant. The defendant understandably has no interest to facilitate his or her (or its) loss of freedom and/or payment of damages.
By this thought process, we all have our ends and are under no obligation to make losing our case, as it were, any easier. That's our justice system. It worked for the Framers and it still works today.
Or does it?
A system of adversarial jurisprudence is a complex, labor-intensive, time-intensive and information-intensive kind of social machine. It only works if it has the inputs - the judges, the attorneys, a well-trained constabulary and abundant technical expertise to secure evidence, evaluate it and ensure that all that is practically knowable about a given case is known and then made available to the court.
No such system is ever free of corruption errors and backdoors and outrageous outcomes, even with diligent pursuit of its putative end: the pursuit of justice.
Now, imagine what happens when such a system is...willfully understaffed and underfunded and even those insufficient resources are increasingly devoted to the pursuit of anything but unjust outcomes.
Such a dysfunctional justice system probably doesn't produce much justice.
Now, apply that heuristic to our entire society: Willfully understaffed and underfunded, with what limited resources are present diverted more and more to pursue outcomes unrepresentative of the will of the people - and sometimes even dangerous to them.
That's another kind of injustice. The kind of injustice that starts rebellions. People generally like good things in their lives. They like not having to worry about having funds to cover that nearly-inevitable stay in the hospital. They like not having to wonder if that bridge coming up on the turnpike will last at least until they finish crossing it.
We might never have actually lived in a world where the justice system actually worked as idealized. Where we don't keep having this perverse need to defend who 'deserves' universal moral rights such as franchise and health care and immunity from batons and waterboarding. (We say everyone, because universal. Our counterparts seek a distinction between those who have earned rights and those who have not at all times. And this meta debate will last.)
Perhaps the best we can get in a society that celebrates competitive pursuit of one's own ends is the banal goal of less obvious, less crass oppression. That might well be the facts on the ground in every civilization, even ours. But try to sell that as a goal worthy of revolution, you won't get many buyers.
On the other hand, the less tenable argument is that abuse is cool and people can and should know their place. Only the baton and the water board make that pitch, and only through turning the volume up to eleven.
Facts on the ground. The facts of the case define the universe of outcomes. Competing factions, those social organisms based on arguments and interests, persist so long as their arguments are tenable. The world does not exist in stasis; the facts on the ground change all the time, in every venue. How, then, to respond to the changing facts?
One choice is to adapt one's arguments, one's positions, to suit the new and presumably superior information. Another is to seek to declare the evidence politically or practically inadmissible.
Let's pick one of the least controversial issues of the age - anthropogenic climate change. The speed of light is among the few things less up for debate from a scientific vantage...yet even THIS fact of cosmic life is peppered with skeptics, not because of facts but despite them, because our society is based on the adversarial discursive model, on a postulate that people not only have a right to jealously defend their interests but that it is unconscionable that they be blocked in any fashion to do so...except, of course, when doing so helps out you and yours. That's competitive spirit, and stuff.
To restate: Even light speed has skeptics, even though there's not a lot of financial and political upside to second-guessing Einstein.
Now imagine what happens when a slightly LESS robust body of scientific work threatens a pool of unrealized fossil fuel assets worth, very roughly, something on the order of fifty trillion dollars.
Our entire society is based on the postulate that it is not only acceptable for stakeholders to jealously assert their ends, but imperative that they do so. Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, more or less.
Ok, let's unpack that for stakeholders in all that carbon wealth still undersea and underground.
In the ideal, the pursuit of life/the firm as a going concern, liberty/free enterprise and the pursuit of happiness/profits stays in bounds, the competition regulated by a robust set of arbiters, advocates and technical experts who referee the comments and actions of the various players on the discursive field.
In practice, the arbiters are often absent and, when present, deferential to the interests of those who appoint them. The advocacy tends to be heavily weighted toward wealth, which means power, which means media as much if not more than military might in our piece of history. The technical expertise is cut off from budgets, from access to data, unless it supports advocate how safe and awesome it is to not only continue burning carbon but to accelerate its consumption because doing so opens up heretofore inaccessible frozen wastelands...and ice-capped oceans... for drilling. Cheaper fossil energy for all. Yay...
And this is just one issue on the table, one example of how a factually uncontroversial body of evidence is turned into a source of chuckles over snifters of the best malt scotch in wood-paneled rooms lined with portraits of dead old men who share last names with the living old men laughing it up over how they stuck it to the hippies yet again.
Apply that heuristic to the less factually robust issues of justice and injustice in our lives. Anywhere there is skin in the game, take a look.
Take a good, long look.
The facts on the ground will be one thing.
What's treated as admissible evidence in the political discussions that dominate not only the airwaves and the cable news but the internet as well are likely to be very, very different things altogether.
And it's when the difference becomes self-evident that people write things like the Declaration of Independence.
On a final note: As much as I love to snicker at the Tea Wees, they do have this right: Something's very broken. The Beltway argument - that what we get from Washington is not only the best the people can get but the best they deserve so they better shut up if they don't want worse - is increasingly untenable.
And it speaks volumes that the Tea Party view of life is more 'admissible' in court - and by that I mean the court as in the seat of power - than anything liberals have to say or wish to do.
Because that means in a government of willfully reduced staff and resources, what staff and resources remain are increasingly under the control of a Tea Party movement that very much wants every little thing that liberals have to see ruled inadmissible. And not just liberals, because even other conservatives have offensive facts from time to time.
And just because this trend is demonstrably bad doesn't mean it won't spread. Pathology doesn't have to make sense to be contagious. Riots spread. Likewise, fire. Likewise, a riotous appetite to burn the Republic to the ground, one fire sale at a time.
We should probably do something to curb that type of enthusiasm.