Matters Of Opinion: The Triumph of Passionate, Ignorant and Irrational Conviction in America

Buckley and Vidal

Back in 1968, ABC News did something really revolutionary. It made opinionated commentary the centerpiece of its evening newscast.  Because, as its anchors explained in announcing the stunning innovation, opinion was something that had been sorely missing from news coverage. (We’ll pause while you catch your breath.) It wasn’t the first time commentary had been used on newscasts, of course; but ABC’s bold move in programming at this particular time proved to be groundbreaking, the opening of what many consider a Pandora’s box of domination by opinion.

It was perhaps an ideal time to try such an experiment, an explosive year at the height of the Vietnam conflict and the civil rights movement, with vociferous student protests and other civil unrest, a presidential election, violent clashes between police and civilians in Chicago, and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

As part of its fare, ABC  made an honest attempt at being fair and balanced by featuring frequent debates between the preeminent voices of “conservatism” and “liberalism” : William Buckley and Gore Vidal. At one point the affectedly suave, urbane and unflappable Mr. Buckley became so flustered that he threatened to “sock you right in the goddamn mouth”  — not the only time he threatened to punch out a debating opponent — and suggested that the “queer”  stick with his “pornography”, a reference to Vidal’s racy novel Myra Breckenridge. (And it’s an illuminating comment on American culture, such as it is, to note that when Buckley’s tirade aired, the network censors bleeped out only the word “God”.)

ABC’s revolutionary new format was short-lived, but it left a lasting impression; commentary remained a standard feature of its newscasts, and other networks followed suit. While network officials may have been rather uneasy about the way Buckley and Vidal clawed at each other like rival faction leaders in a schoolyard, the public ate it up. One might argue that 1968 helped pave the way for George Putnam and Wally George and Morton Downey Jr. and Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck etc., etc., etc., etc,, planting the seeds for the “infotainment” establishment so prevalent today in media coverage of current events.

Today, opinion is the coin of the realm in the public forum. People believe  not only that it’s important for them to have an opinion about everything, but that it’s urgent to express it, and that the world has an obligation to deem it of great importance.  Everybody has a blog, and everybody comments on everyone else’s blog, and Facebooks and Tweets every little reaction they have to every little thing. In theory, there’s something healthy about this unprecedented level of exchange; but read the discussions on many of these blogs and you’ll almost always see them degenerate into catty, juvenile bickering that benefits no one. (I have to remain vigilant to prevent that from happening even here.)

It’s also a great irony that when we have such a phenomenally unprecedented source of knowledge as the Internet, it’s so often used to promote and reinforce pre-existing beliefs.  If you have concerns about the safety of vaccines, you can pull up all the legitimate research you’d ever want in a matter of minutes; instead, people often just Google-channel Jenny McCarthy.

I recently saw an online poll about whether people think Michelle Obama’s attire aboard Air Force One was disgraceful. Seriously, people? This is how you choose to spend the precious hours of your life that will never come again? Yet however frivolous such a discussion may be, it is at least a genuine matter of opinion, as there are no absolute standards about what a first lady should wear while traveling.  All too often, there’s a public avalanche of opinion about topics that aren’t matters of opinion, such as evolution. Evolution is a scientific fact, and none of your opinions (yes, including your opinions about the meaning and significance of biblical passages) will alter the reality one whit. It can be interesting and illuminating to discuss the facts; but trying to discredit them with opinion is like trying to conceal the Grand Canyon under a napkin.

We’re awash with opinion, drowning in opinion. Americans have become intoxicated with the notion  that opinion is inherently interesting. But opinions are only as interesting as the facts or ideas they’re attached to; and all too often, both are sorely absent.

Case in point: game show host Pat Sajak recently generated a great deal of free publicity that his career desperately needed when he Tweeted the following:

I now believe global warming alarmists are unpatriotic racists knowingly misleading for their own ends. Good night.

He later insisted he was just joking, but the purpose of the “joke” was to ruffle the feathers of the “alarmists” (i.e. scientists and those who support their work). No explanation of how he acquired greater knowledge of science than scientists — apparently from years of watching Vanna White play with the alphabet — but anyone who challenges him is, if not an “unpatriotic racist”, at least an “alarmist” and a “liberal”. Opinion is supreme, and fact mustn’t dare infringe upon it.

That selfsame Bill Buckley who yearned to settle differences of opinion pugilistically also once commented that

“Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.”

This remark is touted by his disciples as a clever putdown of “liberals”, but it actually betrays a common problem among “conservatives”. No, I don’t mean that it often seems their greatest joy in life is attacking them librulz, though that’s certainly a consideration. I’m referring to a common fallacy they exhibit or pretend to: the premise that respecting other people’s beliefs would entail presuming that all beliefs are created equal. Just because I respect your right to believe that AIDS is caused by peanut butter doesn’t mean that I’m going to take such a belief seriously. And it sure as hell doesn’t mean that I’m going to stand by idly while you try to make such a belief the cornerstone of public policy.

“Conservatives” have a habit of pushing for policy based on passionate beliefs that are unfounded at best, and often ill-informed, irrational and sometimes squarely in collision with solid fact and even their own convictions. These include the following: that capital punishment deters crime; that aggressive warmongering discourages aggressive warmongering; that having more guns makes us safer and an armed society is a polite society and citizens use guns to prevent millions of crimes a year ; that homosexuality  is both an illness and a voluntary “lifestyle”; that creationism is a substitute for science; that outlawing abortion will reduce its incidence, and doing so makes a person “pro-life”; that “Obamacare” is “socialized medicine”; that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War; that government assistance to the needy encourages indolence, while government assistance to the wealthy encourages industriousness; that the U.S. was intended to be a Christian nation and God is on our side and Christian morality is more moral than everyone else’s  morality.

Their only “evidence” for such beliefs is that somebody else said that somebody else said so.  Yet they want these tenets not only to be treated as the equals of fact-based beliefs, but given unquestioned supremacy — if you dare request some substantiation, they are likely to play the “liberal intolerance” card just as Buckley did. (Technically, there’s a distinction between belief and opinion, but the two are so closely allied, and so often used interchangeably, that we’ll let it slide for the moment.)

And oh yes, there’s the matter of global warming. Having an opinion about global warming is like having an opinion about the boiling point of water or  the number of days in a week. You either know the facts or you don’t. You either accept them or you don’t. Opinion is superfluous and irrelevant.  But that doesn’t prevent Pat Sajak from drawing his brilliant conclusions. Or Sean Hannity from saying “global warming is a myth, in my opinion.” At least these two had the decency  to acknowledge, in these particular instances, that they were merely expressing an opinion. Not so with James Inhofe, perennial senator from Oklahoma, who called climate change

the second-largest hoax ever played on the American people, after the separation of church and state

And this, mind you, is a person who is in a position to shape legislation, a person whom the citizens of Oklahoma have voted into office repeatedly. Again, there’s no hint as to why Hannity’s or Inhofe’s opinions on such a topic should matter. We just know that they should somehow — apparently to a very great degree.

There are many subjects that I’m not an expert on; so when discussing such subjects, I’ll gladly defer to people who know more about them than I do. Which is why you’ll never hear me join the Sajak/ Hannity/ Inhofe chorale in proclaiming global warming a “myth” or “hoax”.  Am I suggesting that you never should question authority? Not at all. But quite often there’s a difference between authority and expert. George W. Bush was the ultimate authority on this planet for 8 long years. But he never exhibited expertise in anything except lies and deception, mangling the English language, destroying international goodwill, and magically transforming black ink to red. And he also. by the way, behaved, like many other “conservatives”, as if he considered scientific truth negotiable, heavily subjugating it to political ideology.

By all means, question authority if you feel so inclined. But if that also entails challenging the experts in their own fields, you’d better be armed with a lot more than opinion. You’d better have a level of knowledge at least equal to theirs. That is, if you don’t want to make a Sajak of yourself.

Do you really care if I believe that Bogota is the capital of Peru, or that the Baltimore Orioles won the American League pennant in 1944? Then why should you care what Pat Sajak or Sean Hannity or James Inhofe thinks about global warming? Or Pat Robertson thinks about evolution? Or Alex Jones thinks about government policy? Or Sarah Palin thinks about… well, anything?

The correct answers are (a) Lima — Bogota is in Columbia; (b) the St. Louis Browns, who did not become the Baltimore Orioles until a few years later; (c) it’s very real; (d) likewise; (e) he’s long overdue to be fitted for a new white jacket, and (f) she has achieved an extraordinary level of ignorance on a wide range of topics.

Those are the verifiable facts. Any contradictory opinions are probably — in my opinion, at least — a big waste of your time.

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