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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.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Yes, the will of the people is to be foiled. (6+ / 0-)

    Because, if the people govern, then our traditional rulers are out of luck. Public officials will see themselves demoted to public servants and that does not appeal -- especially not to people whose practical talents are virtually nil.
    We have allowed our public positions to be filled by people who talk a good game. They tell us what we want to hear, but they don't deliver. Because they can't. It turns out that all they have is the gift of gab. This is what distinguishes the grifter from the thief.
    Pretty Sarah, it turns out, was not an anomaly. She was an exemplar. McCain recognized a kindred spirit. They made up a dynamic duo. Unfortunately, Barack Obama was able to out-think them. This was actually quite easy since the talkers don't think. "Nobody could expect" for the simple reason that they can't think ahead.

    We organize governments to deliver services and prevent abuse.

    by hannah on Sat May 25, 2013 at 08:22:04 AM PDT

  •  was it Florida where the public defenders (3+ / 0-)

    were given permission to reject cases, when they could not do their clients justice, due to overwork?

    What we call god is merely a living creature with superior technology & understanding. If their fragile egos demand prayer, they lose that superiority.

    by agnostic on Sat May 25, 2013 at 08:22:04 AM PDT

  •  The role of money (4+ / 0-)

    Keep in mind that where court judges and prosecutors are concerned, in the majority of states, judges and DA are elected to those positions.  For the purpose of winning an election as judge or DA, a record of successful prosecutions is paramount: people get elected as judge or DA because they put lots of people in jail.  You always hear candidates for judge and DA saying "I'm tough on crime; I put criminals in jail".  You never hear candidates for judge or DA saying "I keep falsely accused people out of jail".  

    Judges and DA get paid for their work: election to office means a paycheck.  They literally have a financial incentive to put more people in prison.

    The situation is little different with our law-makers.  In order to get paid, they have to get in office.  In order to get in office, they have to run a successful campaign.  And running a successful campaign means asking for a receiving gifts of money from private donor.  Those people with enough money to give to office-seekers generally want something in return: drilling rights, an oil pipeline, protection for fraudulent banking practices, etc.

    So when you hear a law-maker saying something that is demonstrably false, that person is saying something demonstrably false because their wealthy sponser want them to say it: they are paid to say thing demonstrably false.

    Until we remove the role of money from the election of law-makers, those law-makers will have a financial incentive to say things that we know are false.  Until we have judges and DAs who do not have a financial incentive to convict people, evidence presented in court will favor the prosecution.

    "The fool doth think he is wise: the wise man knows himself to be a fool" - W. Shakespeare

    by Hugh Jim Bissell on Sat May 25, 2013 at 09:35:35 AM PDT

  •  I Think It's More the Formal Policy of the (5+ / 0-)

    conquerors than a feature of society.

    We didn't lose the country by it passively crumbling, it was taken over. Propagandizing and splitting the people were essential to make it happen.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sat May 25, 2013 at 09:41:08 AM PDT

    •  I've used the conquest heuristic in purple states (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RockyMtnLib, mike101

      where the Republicans have been particularly egregious.

      For example, Michigander GOPers have zero concern for tearing apart a state that, the moment this crop is booted, will never vote Republican again.

      Likewise all the other states that have particularly bad Tea Wee governors at the moment.

      Republicans don't shred Nebraska and Wyoming like this.

      They're conspicuously vicious in places like Maine, Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina....

      It wasn't always like this. Purple used to mean purple/moderate politics.

      Now it means "burn" as far as the Republicans are concerned.

  •  Excellent writing!! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cskendrick

    You deserve to feel pride in this piece.  It's one of the most eloquently written diaries I've ever read here.

    To stand in silence when they should be protesting makes cowards out of men. -Abraham Lincoln

    by Eyesbright on Sat May 25, 2013 at 11:00:37 AM PDT

  •  Epistemic closure is a key ingredient (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cskendrick, pvasileff

    Any facts that don't confirm my POV - well - by definition they aren't really facts. They're originate from a biased source (biased meaning the source doesn't confirm my POV) and are thus untrustworthy and to be summarily dismissed.

    liberal bias = failure to validate or sufficiently flatter the conservative narrative on any given subject

    by RockyMtnLib on Sat May 25, 2013 at 11:14:49 AM PDT

    •  From something I wrote last night on a comment (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pvasileff

      It's like biological competition - the identity is assumed, whatever it takes to conserve the survival of that identity is validated by its success in that endeavor.

      Identities that can survive facts embrace them.

      Those that can't, avoid them.

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