Thursday, August 4, 2011


So I recently came across this little video, posted on a Facebook friend's page.

Several other friends, in contrast, posted a graph on their pages: (Sorry, I can't seem to figure out how to embed the chart here, so you must click here to see it.)

Now I was an English major in college and my work as pastor means that I interpret texts on a regular basis. I'm fully aware of the fact that two people can read a poem, or the U.S. Constitution, or a text from Holy Scripture and that we literally bring ourselves to the text, and therefore the text will generate different readings, sometimes even readings that seem at odds with one another. But in such work at least both parties are trying to read the same text.

But here we have competing texts, or perhaps we should say competing ideologies that use one set of facts to make their "obvious" point. I fully realize that both of these FB posts may be factually accurate. But each "forces" such clear conclusions that it seems to me that if we could suspend our ideology, and we trusted that the "facts" from the Jack Daniels video were accurate, most reasonable people would conclude that a little "trimming" of the excess can't be so bad. Even "liberals" are led by the information to believe that what we are talking about here is "small potatoes."  In contrast, one would think that even the most staunch fiscal conservative would have to admit, if they accept the "facts" of the graph, that Democratic presidents have been more fiscally responsible than Republican ones over the past thirty years or so.

But how does the average person know which facts to trust? I consider myself to be a reasonably well-educated and informed person, but I don't know the answer to that question. But what happens, I think, is that we self-generate alternative narratives within alternative "bubbles." Maybe these two pictures aren't even the best examples of what I'm trying to say here, but they both came across on my Facebook page--literally bumping up against each other. And while some people love a good Facebook fight what I noticed is that the comments on each post were very positive, from like-minded folks who said, "see, of course...why can't other people be so reasonable as to see this? Thank you for clearing things up!"

I suspect, however, that depending on where we begin that most people reading this will have to find fault with one or the other of the images. Our preferences dictate which set of "facts" we choose to listen to, which set of "facts" form our beliefs.

I believe that taxes are necessary and in an economy that is generating tremendous wealth, the wealthiest OUGHT to be paying more. I am against government waste. I think the system is broken and corrupted by special interests but I'm aware that I only label it a "special interest" when it's on the other side from what I hope to see accomplished. If it's pro-union, pro-education, pro-healthcare...I tend to see that as "making our voices heard in Washington." I still really like President Obama. All of these predispositions make me assume, in my gut, that the graph is more "true" than the Jack Daniels video. But if I'm really honest about it, I have to confess that I don't know whether either source is trustworthy. That they may both be true, or neither may be true (or so small a part of the truth as to be insignificant) or that one may be true and the other false.

It's been said that we are all entitled to our opinions, but not to our own facts. The problem as I see it, though, when talking about complex issues like the American economy (not to mention the interconnected global economy) is that we cannot agree on the facts. So it all becomes spin. It all becomes ideology. And we lose the capacity when that happens to have informed, reasonable conversations where our minds might be changed, or our views might be stretched. The problem with "simple" charts to define complex issues seems obvious. The way forward, however, is not nearly as clear to me.

1 comment:

  1. What the Jack Daniels video does is treat each dollar in the budget as morally identical to every other dollar. But the people who choose the cuts don't do that. They like you, think that different things are better than others. When Harry read says that the budget cuts are "draconian" he was referring not to the amount of the cuts, but where the cuts were coming from. Just like the Republicans would have if we were talking about the same amount of tax increase or defense spending cuts.

    So, we've got a category error here. Reid is complaining about where the cuts are coming from but the video is thinking we're just taking a slice off the top of every bit of the budget.