Maryland State Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced this week that second-degree murder was among the charges being brought against the six police officers involved in the arrest of Freddie Gray, who later died as a result of injuries sustained while in custody on April 12.
Legal experts say it will be extremely difficult for Mosby to get a guilty verdict on such steep charges, given that the currently known facts of the case don’t appear to bear the weight of such a heavy charge.
But if Mosby’s words are any indication of how the case will proceed, facts will likely take a back seat to political motivations and calls for racial justice. What has been, for the most part, a methodical and evidence-driven justice system may now be shifting to one driven by social unrest and political ambition—neither of which are beholden to concrete realities.
Facts are now irrelevant. They tend to get in the way of progress. Fiction, or what is more fashionably called “the narrative,” is the foundation for our great society—and what a more vibrant, tolerant, positive society it is! Or conversely, what a tragic, hellish, frightful world we inhabit. They are both equally valid perspectives, depending on our social and political goals.
I’ll tell the story, since we are so enamored of narratives of late, of how facts passed away into the dark void of historical insignificance.
It’s hard to settle on a starting point for when the pertinence of facts to the important issues of our lives began to degrade, but for the sake of brevity we will start in the more recent past, where our memories can corroborate.
Michael Brown: The Victim
Freddie Gray is only the latest in a string of police encounters colored along racial lines, the most recently infamous of which occurred in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014. Michael Brown was fatally shot by Officer Darren Wilson, but the specifics of the event beyond that brief description diverged quickly based on witness testimony and pre-existing narratives on race and police relations in the United States.
A chief cause of that divergence was the testimony from Brown’s companion at the time of the shooting, Dorian Johnson, who reported that Brown, with his hands up, had told Wilson, “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting.” But that never happened, nor did Brown utter any variation thereof, according to any credible witnesses of his shooting death.
Through social media and a sensationalizing press, that quote from Johnson quickly morphed into “hands up, don’t shoot.” Thousands of angry protesters took to the streets, from Ferguson to Los Angeles to Seattle, with #handsupdontshoot emblazoned on their chests and their cardboard signs. Protesters marched well into the holiday season, with an array of slogans ranging from “black lives matter” to “no racist police” to “justice for Trayvon,” but “hands up don’t shoot” has always been prominent among them.
The meme pervaded even the most scrutinized of institutions, as five National Football League players from the St. Louis Rams, knowing hundreds of reporters watch them for some juicy word or gesture to pick apart on the commentary circuit, walked onto the field in a November game against the Raiders in the symbolic pose of surrender, long after “hands up don’t shoot” was discredited.
Where they sheltered from the more accurate and credible reports that came out in the months after the shooting? Were they aware of them, but simply denied they were true? Or did they realize the meme was built on a false testimony, but used it to make a broader statement about police and race relations anyway? Put simply, did the facts matter, or were they overwhelmed by the narrative, perhaps even avoided?
The art and music industries, having an even greater affinity for catchy slogans based on current events, produced multiple works based off “hands up, don’t shoot.” Rapper Queen McElrath, inspired by the events in Ferguson, wrote the song “Hands up, Don’t Shoot,” creating a music video with high-school students in which the rapper proclaims, “I am Trayvon I am Mike Brown,” before peers launched into the chorus repetition of “hands up, don’t shoot.”
Similarly, an Oscars rap performance by Common and John Legend featured the lyrics, “Resistance is us…that’s why Rosa sat on the bus, that’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up.” This was in February, months after Johnson was thoroughly discredited.
This isn’t the first time the black community has shown intellectual resilience to evidence emerging after people have already formed and promulgated opinions on an issue. Despite all the evidence, a full 40 percent of blacks still believe O.J. Simpson isn’t guilty.
The University of Virginia ‘Rape Story’
The source of the narrative totally made this story up, but that’s not why it’s disturbing. It’s not even the trauma that supposedly unfolded one night in the Greek system. It’s how the story spun itself into such an irresistibly sensational publication that Rolling Stone just couldn’t wait to catapult into the national discourse on “campus rape culture.” They allowed that story to spin uninhibited by corroborating statements, or even verification that the man who allegedly orchestrated the whole gang rape was a real person.
What is more, the author of that story, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the instigator of tremendous conflict on the University of Virginia campus and the outright shaming of the Phi Kappa Psi, is still working at Rolling Stone after an entire narrative, which floated for months on the currents of liberal media, a flashing beacon bobbing on the waves of rape-culture dialogue, finally popped in a fantastic display of the fragility of modern journalistic narratives.
But the narrative continues to unfold, despite catching on a few snags of controversy. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York essentially waved off the Charlottesville police’s conclusions that they were “unable to verify the sexual assault,” saying that, “Victim blaming or shining the spotlight on her (the female that alleged the rape) for coming forward is not the right approach.”
“It’s not about any one case or any one investigation. It’s about a very serious problem that is taking place across campuses across the country,” she stated.
In other words, whether the accuser’s statements hold any truth at all is rather unimportant. Gillibrand, along with many others, is chiefly concerned with defending and promulgating the narrative, even when the narrative and the truth are at odds.
Bowe Bergdahl: The Hero
In the midst of a deep rooted scandal in the Veterans Affairs in May 2014, the Obama administration initiated the trade of five Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay for the return of U.S. Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was believed to have been held by the Taliban for five years. Bergdahl was warmly received home with a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, in which President Obama asserted that “the United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.”
National Security Advisor Susan Rice stated in an interview with CNN after the trade that Bergdahl had “served with honor and distinction.” The Obama portrayed Bergdahl, almost flawlessly, as a hero finally coming home after five years as a hapless victim, received by his country with celebration and open arms. Their opinion of the trade as a good and just action was unwavering. If you had isolated yourself from outside media and only observed the actions and language of the administration, you would think Bergdahl was a true American hero who had made great sacrifices for his country.
In March 2015, Bergdahl was charged with one count of desertion and another count of misbehavior, yet members of Bergdahl’s platoon had called him a deserter long before charges were brought. A 2010 Pentagon investigation report concluded that “incontrovertible evidence” had been found that Bergdahl had willfully abandoned his post, consequently landing himself in Taliban captivity.
He was “ashamed to be an american,” Bergdhal had written in correspondence to his parents, and, “The horror that is america is disgusting.”
Two very different narratives have run counter to each other with near equal velocity. One includes Bergdahl’s own actions, as supported by the evidence, as a factor in not only his circumstance as a captive, but his relative worth to other soldiers who had risked their lives to recover him, and the threat posed by the Taliban leaders we traded for him. The other narrative was characterized by a conspicuous lack of details, the vacuum in which grew a very different version of events.
Climate Change: The Deniers
As Greg Jones wrote for The Federalist, climate-change experts are grasping for an explanation for the “pause” in global warming. Man-made calamity looms greater than ever, they say, despite only one-third of 1 degree Celsius warming since 1979, and despite the upward trend in greenhouse-gas emissions that leaves the rate of global warming lagging far behind.
The Washington Post published an article titled “The global warming slowdown is real — but that’s no reason to question climate science.” In fact, according to Scientific American, experts say that once we get over the “speedbump,” the earth will warm even faster!
Jones frames the statements of the climate change through the five stages of grief. The entire process is a struggle against the evidence, but global warming enthusiasts are not mourning a death. Instead they mourn a crisis that was not birthed when expected, and anxiously anticipate its delivery. They are like cult members who watch a rapture date come and pass, yet hang on every word of their leader’s next prediction.
Why the anticipation? When evidence mounts against one’s theory, an analyst following the scientific method would be forced not only to concede his theory may not be as plausible as initially thought, but to purposely seek out more evidence to try to prove his initial theory wrong. That is science. The more data gathered in the attempt to disprove the theory that instead supports it strengthens that theory. Data that is repeatedly cherry-picked and framed to instead support your theory and flesh out a pre-existing narrative is not science at all.
But “science” isn’t a body of data painstakingly collected through rigorous scientific method; no longer do narratives simply piggyback off science. Now, science has been consumed by the narrative. It is the narrative. And the narrative, unlike science, must not be questioned.
No longer do we burden ourselves with investigating the basic premise on which an entire infrastructure of policy and technology has been built, with scant proof that a little warming isn’t in fact a good thing. We assume warming is bad, though a little less frostbite could do thousands of square miles of crops some good. No longer do we bother to demonstrate with strong evidence that carbon dioxide is the driving force behind global warming; instead, we take it for granted. Nearly every car and energy supplier commercial you’ve seen over the past several years has bragged about how much they’ve reduced their carbon footprint. The little green bumper stickers are all the convincing we need to believe in a climate crisis.
Fetuses: It’s Goo
Last year, Bill Maher interviewed Sarah Silverman, and she spoke about her pro-abortion activism. “It’s goo that they’re [pro-life protesters] so worried about,” she said, “and then they’re born, and it’s, ‘You’re on your own, slut.’” Silverman doesn’t specify which stage of pregnancy she refers to as goo. One can only conclude that the growth stages of a fetus are so insignificant they all can comfortably fit under that three-letter word, despite the fact that a fetus’ heart begins beating at around five weeks old. By week eight, the eyes are formed. By the twelfth week, a fetus has fingernails.
Silverman also voiced one of the pro-choice’ side’s most popular lines, saying she supports women being able to choose “what they do with their own bodies.” But this is not a mere matter of perception; literally speaking, she supports women’s right to choose what they do with someone else’s body. A fetus is not an extension of a woman’s body, but a separate life, with unique genetic material, half from the mother and half from the father.
The broad support on the Left for this “right,” and how enough people seem to buy into this right that FactCheck or Snopes have not debunked it, indicates one or both of two things: that a huge segment of the public cannot dwell on an idea long enough—a mere couple seconds—to realize its obvious logical flaw, or that our public education system has done so poorly as to graduate millions of citizens incapable of distinguishing separate organisms if one occupies space within another.
Yet “what women do with their own bodies” has become, despite the evidence, the go-to slogan for the pro-abortion Left.
The Dangerous Credulity of Anti-Vaxxers
Anti-vaccination is a sticky belief. It catches people from both the Left and the Right, entangling them in a sticky web of Internet memes and pseudo-science sites. It is not a belief from which they can easily extricate themselves, having tossed and turned until its sappy tendrils cover their eyes and ears. Despite all scientifically-grounded evidence and expertise supporting the immense benefits of vaccination and the danger of not vaccinating, anti-vaxxers cling to convictions that coalesced over obscure blog posts and frightening but unsubstantiated claims friends have forwarded them.
Some have rightly pointed out that celebrities have given a megaphone to what would otherwise have been steady, but merely annoying, murmurs in cyberspace. Jenny McCarthy, who has no medical education to speak of or any credible scientists backing her up, is leading the attack, with a little help from Oprah’s prominent media platform. Oprah said in 2007 that “she knows what she’s talking about.”
Where is the evidence that vaccines cause autism? Where are the medical studies that say “natural immunity” is more effective than vaccinations? Where are the facts?
There are none in the anti-vaxxer camp; in fact, there is virtually a consensus of the opposite. In the world of vaccine deniers, only unsubstantiated propaganda has captivated enough parents to further the spread of a measles outbreak at Disneyland to 127 cases through parents choices not to vaccinate. In some pockets of California, the vaccination rate is estimated to be as low as 50 percent.
Sadly, there is probably a thread at the bottom of this post decrying vaccines as a horrible irresponsible money-maker of Big Pharma. The callers on talk radio attack hosts for speaking out against the anti-vaxxer myths and irresponsibility. And that is truly disturbing, in a community of readers and listeners that on other issues appreciates the truth instead of collapsing into a popular narrative.
Organic: The Conscientious Consumer
Another popular idea, greatly surpassing anti-vaccination in magnitude, is superiority of organic food over non-organic or “genetically modified” foods. Whole Foods has capitalized on this idea with a vast selection of (pricey) organic items.
A recent poll conducted by Reuters found that 68 percent of people under age 35 prefer to buy organic food, and on the whole 55 percent prefer to buy organic. A full 48 percent of those who said they prefer organic gave either avoiding toxins or environmental health as their reason.
But it might very well surprise you to discover that 237 studies observe that, on average, organic foods are neither safer nor more nutritious than cheaper alternatives. Scientists from the University of California-Berkely concluded in another paper that the risks of pesticide residue from natural pesticides (permitted for “organic” agriculture) and synthetic pesticides are about equal. Moreover, they stated that, “low doses of most human exposures the comparative hazards of synthetic pesticide residues are insignificant.”
Perhaps the stickiest myth among the pro-organic crowd is about GMOs (genetically modified organisms). GMOs have been genetically adjusted to produce a better product, such as a redder apple or seedless watermelon. Some have gotten the idea, perhaps in association with anti-MonSanto memes, that GMOs are untested and therefore unsafe. In Washington State, an initiative came on the ballot in 2013 to require labeling all GMO foods sold in the state as such. The health risks GMOs posed were perceived great enough to warrant disclosure to consumers—although if a piece of produce does not have a sticker that says it’s organic, it’s a safe bet that it is a GMO anyway.
Despite the lack of evidence to support the superiority of organic foods, they are such a big deal that virtually every grocery store with a produce department has a section dedicated to organic fruits and vegetables.
It’s not easy to get Americans to part with their cash, but Big Organic (if you’re into that sort labeling) has done it on a massive scale, and to a significant degree—some consumers will pay more than a dollar more for a half gallon of organic milk over conventional milk. Whole Foods has built an empire largely on the idea that organic food (not just natural food) is better for you, but anyone who’s willing to take a few moments to investigate, the ones who truly care about the facts behind the narrative or the sales pitch, can discover that the “organic” brand is built on hollow assumptions and false premises.
Religious Freedom: The Bigots
In March 2014, the mayor of Seattle announced he would “impose an administration-wide ban on state-funded travel to Indiana.” His decision followed a move by the Indiana legislature to pass a law that Mayor Murray called “disturbing” because he said it would allow business owners to discriminate against members of the LGBT community.
If the news was breaking to you over Twitter or other social media, you might have gotten the impression that Indiana lawmakers had up and decided that gay people were no longer welcome in their state, and that Indiana had been overrun with religious bigots who were just waiting for the government to give them license to discriminate.
However, the text of the law, known as a RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) that the mayor was protesting doesn’t even mention discrimination by private parties, much less expressly grant it. Instead, the law provides that:
A governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability. (b) A governmental entity may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if the governmental entity demonstrates that application of the burden to the person: (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
Gabriel Malor described the law as a “balancing test for litigation,” putting “exercise of religion on one side of the scale and then government interest on the other.” Malor explains the furor over the law as being subject to “informed attributes,” or a “violation of show, don’t tell,” where people impose characteristics onto a subject simply through telling (“the Indiana law is anti-gay!”) without substantiating their claims with the behavior or nature of the subject.
Why the use of literary terms? Journalism has become more a work of fiction loosely based on reality, inspired by reality, rather than an attempt at reflecting it. The more fictional the journalistic work, the more literary tools of analysis, and not standards of accurate reporting, will apply. This is how far away facts have slipped from the supremacy they were once supposed to have held in reportorial sphere.
Malor says that in works of fiction, informed attributes “occur when the author gets lazy.” This may well be true for some journalists, but this phenomenon extends beyond laziness. It is not simply a matter of being too sluggish every once in a while to get off the couch and feed the dog, but rather of letting the dog outside one day and refusing to let it back in, until eventually it wanders off to find a new home or is eaten by the coyotes.
A Nice Story Feels Better than Truth, Right?
When the dog does abandon its former home, you’ve grown so used to not having it around that you won’t even miss it. That is the final stage in the death of facts. We are so comfortable in our fictional world that we lose the sense that something might be missing, that the story we are told doesn’t quite match up with what our eyes and ears observe. We lose first our suspicion, and then our curiosity.
That is how facts die. They languish under the pressures of a narrative that slowly envelops them in a web of modern intellectual diseases—of social justice and emotional reactionism, of incuriousness and gullibility.
Perhaps we are better off without them. Perhaps we will look back on the years of conflict between fact and fiction, and realize that we were right to cast off the burden of truth in exchange for the comfort of a story, to have a camera that captures all of society, that zooms in and out for us, selects the focus, and portrays the protagonists, the antagonists, and the plot for us all to watch together.
We cheer when the hero prevails, laugh with the laugh tracks, shriek at the horrors, and cry at the deaths. The only deaths we do not cry for are the ones we don’t recognize or remember. Facts are chief among the forgotten.