California Forum

Fact check the political windbags

Those of us who write professionally become used to having our work fact-checked. A couple weeks ago, I was sent online a message informing me that 72 ISIS supporters were presently working for Homeland Security, so I decided to fact check and asked for the source of that information. None was forthcoming.

A few days later, another note asserted that an ISIS headquarters had been blown up over the objections of President Barack Obama, a closet ISIS sympathizer. After searching available news sources, I requested verification from the sender, and I am still awaiting it.

Recently, a Facebook posting asserted that Obama doesn’t attend a Christian church but does kneel and chant to Allah “five or seven times a day.” Once more I asked for the source of the information, but it hasn’t arrived. (There is, of course, no legal requirement a president attend church or avoid prayer rugs.)

These seem to be stories of actions some people hope are true. When asked for proof, silence or occasional anger have often resulted. Obama seems particularly vulnerable to such hollow tales, since some still appear to view him as the “Other.”

Perhaps it’s time to remind ourselves of the wisdom not of the various contemporary political windbags or closet imams, but of a Republican, Sen. S.I. Hayakawa, who in the depths of World War II, with some of his cousins sealed away in concentration camps, wrote about the differences between reports, inferences and judgments.

Reports, Hayakawa pointed out, are objectively verifiable: “Candidate X urged that Muslims be interned and relocated.” We can run a tape or read a transcript to verify that Candidate X actually urged that.

“He is an Islamophobe,” is an inference – a statement about the unknown based on the known. It might be strongly supported by facts or not, but it isn’t a fact itself unless supported by evidence, such as provided by many reports.

Asserting that Candidate X “is an un-American bigot” is a judgment possibly based on facts but also possibly based on the speaker’s prejudice. When political polarization destroys trust, evaluations tend to become less necessarily anchored by facts.

Inflammatory language, of course, can be emotionally satisfying, especially when colored by what Hayakawa called “snarl words” (“Chris Christie is fat” or “Hillary Clinton is squat”) and “purr words” (“Chris Christie is husky” or “Hillary Clinton is petite”) – words suggesting built-in judgments. They can be subtle (“concentration camp”/“internment camp”), so it’s easy to confuse them with facts.

What do we do with such “information”? A Pakistani magazine, for instance, recently pointed out that in the United States white men have committed the majority of mass attacks since 9/11. If that’s verifiable, should we limit the gun ownership of white males? Are we using only Muslim violence to justify prejudices and limits? Suggestions in no way anchored to reality may proliferate.

Perhaps we should remember that we are much more likely to be fooled by our allies than by our enemies, because the former tend to offer us variations of what we want to believe. “This is a Christian nation, and we’re going to take it back.” Where in the Constitution does it declare the U.S. to be a Christian nation?

I’m an example of a Christian who is happy with our form of representative government. I’m exasperated with Congress right now, but I have no interest in a theocracy.

As for taking things back, that’s what elections are for. Quit bellyaching and get to work.

Gerald Haslam is an author who has been called the “quintessential California writer.”