Wild assertions in public trump demonstrable facts

WASHINGTON — In a remarkable University of Michigan commencement speech that received less attention than it deserved, President Obama called for civility, criticized closed-mindedness and defended government as "the roads you drove in on and the speed limits that kept you safe." Speaking on May 1, the president invoked a wide range of historic figures, including Abraham Lincoln, who said, "The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but cannot do ... for themselves in their separate and individual capacities."

Given the events of the last week — with Southern Republicans eagerly embracing federal assistance in cleaning up the massive oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico — Obama has ample opportunity to show how a competent federal government contributes to the public welfare. His administration will be judged on its results, whether containing the petroleum catastrophe or protecting the country from car bombers.

That's true at least among those of us who still live in the reality-based universe. Those who hang their hats on facts, respect reason and avoid paranoid conspiracies will judge Obama rationally — whether they are liberals or conservatives, socialists or libertarians. Reasonable conservatives may disagree with many of the president's policies, but they won't be led astray by rumors, distortions or pseudo-facts.

Unfortunately, there is a loud and conspicuous group of actors on the public stage who have left reason and truth behind, taking up residence in a parallel universe where facts are interchangeable with accusations, suspicion and lies. In the Information Age, when knowledge and expertise are more readily available than ever before, a significant minority of Americans take comfort, instead, in loopy conspiracies and nonsense.

This has moved beyond the fringe of left and right — beyond the "truthers," who believe that George W. Bush had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks and allowed them to proceed, beyond the "birthers," who cannot be persuaded that President Obama was born in the 50th state. Nuttiness has now taken up residence among those formerly associated with the mainstream.

There was Dana Perino, a former press secretary for George W. Bush, speculating on Fox News recently that the devastating Deepwater Horizon explosion was caused by saboteurs. Former Bush FEMA director Mike Brown spewed similar nonsense, insisting that Obama allowed the spill to get "really bad" before attempting containment — all in an effort to discredit drilling.

(The sabotage angle was apparently introduced into the political debate by right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who has never been associated with the mainstream. If BP believed it might be able to use sabotage as an excuse, wouldn't the company hang on to that bit of driftwood?)

The careless and completely unfounded speculation about sabotage is just one example of a growing disregard for demonstrable facts. Another was in evidence recently from Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips, who participated in an online chat hosted by The Washington Post last week. Asked whether he "would admit that taxes have actually gone down for the vast majority of Americans under President Obama," Phillips replied, "No."

In fact, the stimulus bill included $282 billion in tax cuts that went into the pockets of the vast majority of Americans. No credible economist or political figure has disputed that. By denying a fact that is demonstrably true, Phillips makes his political arguments less plausible.

In a treatise called "Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics," Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler argue that some Americans have a high need for certainty and order and an aversion to ambiguity that leads them to "sacrifice unbiased access to information." For those Americans, these must be very difficult times, indeed. Change is charging at us from every direction.

Globalization is scary. So are recession, joblessness and Islamic jihadists. But resorting to ideological voodoo or magical thinking won't make any of them go away.

Obama urged his Michigan audience to read opinions with which they disagree, to treat differing views with respect and to value "hard evidence and not just assertion." That's something we should all be able to agree on — regardless of our politics.

Reach Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at cynthia@ajc.com; follow her blog at blogs.ajc.com/cynthia-tucker.

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