By David Henderson
One of my pet peeves is people latching on to alleged facts and then running with them even when there is doubt about whether they are true. These “facts” then get repeated so often that many people form an emotional attachment to them. As a result, it is difficult, even when you give them evidence, to get them to reexamine their “facts.” They seem to hold on even more tightly.
Although I am a partisan, my upset is not based on partisanship. It’s based more simply: on my respect for truth. Indeed, I think you will quickly see that. I despise the two Presidents whom I’m about to defend, and I think both of them, not just one of them, should have been impeached.
I’ll give two examples from the last 20 years and then a more-recent example that I think might turn into a “fact” even though there should be strong doubts. By the way, this post is motivated by my co-blogger Scott Sumner’s quote from George Soros. Soros presents a “fact” that might not be one: that’s the more-recent example I refer to in this paragraph.
1. Bill Clinton’s famous: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
I can’t count the number of people who say that and guffaw, as if Clinton was making something up. While I think Clinton was a congenital liar, this was not a lie. When I read it in context, it made perfect sense to me. Here’s the whole quote:
“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the–if he–if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not–that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement….Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.”
Timothy Noah, writing on Slate at the time, wrote:
Years from now, when we look back on Bill Clinton’s presidency, its defining moment may well be Clinton’s rationalization to the grand jury about why he wasn’t lying when he said to his top aides that with respect to Monica Lewinsky, “there’s nothing going on between us.”
Of course, it is possible that Clinton was lying because it’s possible that he was still having an affair with Monica Lewinsky. So then he’s just a straight liar. But if indeed, the affair was over, he was telling the truth and those aides, had they wanted to know the whole truth, should have asked him a more carefully worded question.
2. George W. Bush’s famous “Mission Accomplished” banner.
In early May 2003, George W. Bush landed on the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, and was greeted by a large banner that said “Mission Accomplished.” Many critics and opponents of the war on Iraq later jumped on that, arguing that Bush’s crowing about victory in Iraq was premature.
But the banner was not his or the White House’s idea. It was entirely the idea of the officers of the ship.
I teach military officers and the plurality, and typically the majority, of them are U.S. Navy officers. About a year after this event, I had a student who was a junior officer on the USS Abraham Lincoln at the time. What had happened, he said, was that the carrier had been on a 10-month deployment, which is a long time, and, according to Wikipedia, was the longest time such a ship had been deployed since the Vietnam war. So when the White House told them that they should suggest words for a banner when the President arrived, they met in the ward room and came up with these two words. Then the White House had the sign made. End of story.
3. The snipers in Ukraine.
In the recent post by Scott Sumner on George Soros, Scott quotes the following:
Contrary to all rational expectations, a group of citizens armed with not much more than sticks and shields made of cardboard boxes and metal garbage can lids overwhelmed a police force firing live ammunition.
My impression is that the group of citizens was armed with far more than “sticks and shields,” but put that aside. Maybe he’s right. Here’s the controversial one: “police firing live ammunition.” If Soros is referring to snipers, which I think he is, then he is completely accepting of one side’s statement on this. It turns out that there’s a lot of doubt, even by those who are not on the side of the previous government. Check out the conversation between European Union Foreign Affairs Chief Catherine Ashton and Estonian Foreign Affairs Minister Urmas Paet, reported on here.