Some day, no doubt, historians will ask how the most powerful country in the world could seriously debate whether the president of the United States was a Muslim, a socialist, or foreign-born, whether global warming was real, and whether discredited policies of austerity that failed to address the problems of the Great Depression should now be embraced to address the problems of the Great Recession. Historians will scratch their heads not over Americans having arguments but over the vehement hostility to reason and the shameful ignorance of fact, and they will be forced to conclude that a large swath of America in the early 21st century was, to be blunt, delusional.
Since so much of this comes from right-wing extremists, this group typically takes the brunt of the blame for denying reality. But right-wing know-nothingism could not have taken hold had it not been for another component of American life — one that that occasionally operates on the left as well as the right — the reverence for opinion above everything else. In America today, opinion is the new fact.
That this seems to be a particularly American phenomenon may be because it is deeply embedded in the nation’s democratic genes — in our ingrained sense of egalitarianism and our commendable notion that, in theoretical terms, no person is better than any other person. But here’s the problem. It is a very short step from “all men are created equal” to “all opinions are created equal.” In a society that extols the individual’s right to say or do whatever he or she wants, within the limits of the social contract, you can wind up democratizing solipsism: Every opinion, however puerile, uniformed, and ludicrous, is just as good as any other opinion.
But if opinion has always been enthroned in America, there was also a respect for expertise and fact that disciplined the worst excesses of opinion-mongering. As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his opinion, but everyone is not entitled to his own facts.” Facts circumscribed opinion so that the most idiotic opinions seldom got traction in the mainstream. They came and went.
Not any more. Whatever discipline facts might have exercised in the past has been eroded. And no instrument has done more to challenge expertise and aggrandize individual opinion than the Internet. With the blogosphere and comment chains, it is an opinion-generating machine, though it is one without gatekeepers to determine whether an opinion is informed or not, worthy of our attention or not. The Internet doesn’t prioritize; it simply delivers, and it delivers everything.
Pointing to the Internet, this has been called the Age of Information. In truth, it is the Age of Opinion, and while, as Moynihan observed, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, they are both competing for the same mental space. Just as facts can overwhelm ideas, opinions can overwhelm facts. When every opinion is deemed worth expressing so that each of us is inundated with thousands of them every day, opinions can replace facts, which is exactly what has happened in contemporary America. If you want to know why global warming, evolution, and Obama’s birth are subjects of debate, it is because they all considered a matter of opinion, not of fact. Rationality yields to declaration. Thinking it is good enough. Saying it often enough makes it true.
A person who denies reality and believes that whatever he or she thinks is true is certifiably ill and needs treatment. When enough individuals deny reality, the illness turns into social dementia. Unfortunately, in a society gone mad, a society where critical mass creates an alternative reality, the illness isn’t likely to be treated. Even people who know better than to privilege global warming deniers or birthers or advocates of Intelligent Design — for example, people in the media — aren’t willing to call these people what they are for fear of being accused of taking sides.
So we bump along in our collective madness, living in worlds of our own devising, and proving Moynihan wrong because facts, evidence, and reason now seem irrelevant. Everyone is entitled to his own facts. Or, to paraphrase Descartes, “I think it, therefore it is!”
Neal Gabler is author of “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.”