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opinion | is that a fact?

Untruths in the liberal camp

CHRISTOPHER SERRA FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

It has become something of an axiom in liberal and centrist discourse that the modern American right is uniquely infested by extremism, intolerance, fear-mongering, and irrationality unparalleled on the left (except for the lunatic fringe). As someone whose views are a mix of “conservative” and “liberal,” I have no interest in defending the right from these charges. But mainstream liberalism is not as free of similar sins as its proponents imagine.

I can already hear accusations of faux evenhandedness — glib, unfounded assertions that “everyone does it equally.” But that’s not the issue. It is certainly true that some deeply problematic attitudes — hostility to science or conspiracy-theory paranoia — are far more mainstream on the right than on the left today. Yet, regardless of conservative bad thinking, liberals have their own blind spots that bear examining.

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Take the sacred cows of gender and race. A few years ago, then-Harvard President Lawrence Summers was pilloried for saying that innate sex differences might be one of the reasons women are underrepresented in scientific fields (a statement that often twisted into “women can’t do science”). In fact, while the evidence is complex and inconclusive, many researchers — including women — concur.

Earlier this year, MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow slammed Republicans as not only anti-woman but anti-reality for disputing claims that women are unfairly paid less than men. She was hailed for combating “right-wing myths.”

Yet, while some conservatives may be too extreme in denying discrimination, Maddow’s suggestion that women get 77 cents to a man’s dollar for the same work was not exactly “reality-based.” The figure refers to all full-time workers; when such factors as occupation, training, and experience are included, studies show, the gap shrinks to five cents on a dollar — arguably cause for concern, but a far cry from 23 cents.

At many elite universities, minority preferences in admissions and the performance gaps between different racial and ethnic groups have been surrounded by secrecy and distortion. State initiatives to ban race- or gender-based “reverse discrimination” have been targeted for vicious campaigns including inflammatory ads (comparing the proposed bans to terrorist acts or to sexual attacks on women) and false claims (for instance, that the initiatives would outlaw public funding of breast cancer screenings). Talk about irrationality and fear-mongering.

Those are not the only issues on which many liberals parrot shoddy pseudo-facts. Claims linking America’s high levels of violence to guns overlook the fact that some countries with high gun ownership have low crime — and that non-gun murder rates in America are also higher than in most European countries. Emotional reports on hunger in the United States wildly inflate the numbers by lumping people who sometimes go hungry with anyone who has worried about affording food or relied on federal food assistance.

A cavalier attitude toward facts can also be found in the left’s reaction to news stories that push its hot buttons. The rush to judgment in the 2006 case of three white Duke University athletes falsely accused of sexually assaulting an African-American woman was perhaps the most infamous case of such bias.

Nor is demonizing opponents a uniquely conservative vice. Because the right currently panders to populist passions, its opinion-makers are more given to crude invective, while more “elitist” liberals are inclined to use elegant condescension. But Maureen Dowd’s putdown of Justice Clarence Thomas as “barking mad” because of his anti-affirmative action stance is no more conducive to civil dialogue than Rush Limbaugh’s attack on pro-birth-control activist Sandra Fluke as a “slut.”

In some ways liberals may be less tolerant. In the recent book “The Righteous Mind,” University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt reports that when conservatives are asked to predict liberals’ replies to survey questions and vice versa, it’s liberals who are more likely to misjudge conservatives.

On the downside, conservatives are generally more likely to see themselves as part of a movement, and thus to circle the wagons around politically useful falsehoods; liberals tend to confuse their prejudices with objective truth, but at least in theory may be more willing to reconsider if presented with contrary facts. But to exercise this advantage, liberals should be alert to untruths, denial, and dogmatism in their own camp — and not be content with basking in their superiority over the right.

Cathy Young is a columnist at Newsday and RealClearPolitics.com.
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