Core Issues about Public Discourse

July 25, 2015

Core issues have been on my mind lately. They gelled when I saw No, It’s Not Your Opinion. You’re Just Wrong, written by Jef Rouner and shared on FB by Friend RL. More on opinions in a moment.

Public discourse is a disaster right now. Maybe we should blame the media, our leaders, or, just maybe, we should recall Pogo, channeling Walt Kelly, who told us “we have met the enemy, and he is us.” Argue the premise if you want to; I’m here not to debate that issue. Instead, I’m focused on two aspects of poor discourse, hoping increased awareness might provide opportunities for improvement. (Expect more postings on the same broad topic.)

Kudos to Mr. Rouner for taking on “it’s just my opinion.” Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously told us “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” There’s no basis for disagreeing with Senator Moynihan’s statement. Some facts are simply true, with no room for opinion.

Mr. Rouner notes, by way of examples, opinions on vaccines and autism. Lots of strong opinions on the subject. Frank Bruni on Robert Kennedy, Jr., and the response from Mr. Kennedy, encapsulate the issue. Now, it’s not likely that anyone other than the two men really knows what happened in the exchanges between them. What we do know, though, is that the study which brought to light the notion that vaccines can cause autism was a fraud. Dr. Andrew Wakefield used false information, the study was debunked, and the doctor lost his license. No other studies support a link. Thus, there’s no room for opinion on this subject. Only facts.

Next up on my list is failed memory. Guantánamo Bay is a place at the southern tip of Cuba. The United States has been in possession of the property adjacent to the water since the Spanish-American War in 1898. And it has used its military installation as a detention camp for people rounded up after 9-11.

When President Obama ran for election in 2008 he promised to close Guantánamo. He hasn’t, but not for want of effort. Instead, he has run into a buzz saw of Congressional opposition. Imagine? And what’s the basis for the opposition? Here’s Funds to Close Guantánamo Denied by David Herszenhorn for the New York Times back in May 2009. And, from the article, here’s what Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) had to say about the issue:

The American people don’t want these men walking the streets of America’s neighborhoods. The American people don’t want these detainees held at a military base or federal prison in their back yard, either.

True dat! On the other hand, the notion that these bad people might be walking our streets—really?—had almost nothing to do with the rationale for housing them at Guantánamo. So why did we put these people there? How Guantánamo Bay Became the Place the U.S. Keeps Detainees by Scott Packard for The Atlantic on September 4, 2013. Mr. Packard, a former Marine Corps officer and the head of the Marine Corps Security Force Company at Guantánamo in 2001 provides the answer (along with lots of history and great information.)

One of the principal advantages to placing the detainees in Guantanamo Bay or a similar location was the legal status that non-U.S. soil provided. If the detainees weren’t in the U.S., then they wouldn’t have the same rights under American laws, the argument went.

The argument failed, ultimately, in the Supreme Court. But, as we read Guantanamo Bay: Closure plan in ‘final stages’ reports in the coming days, along with what will surely by lots of noise from people like Senator Thune—and, probably, Senator Thune himself—it’s worthwhile to recall why we did what we did.

Summing up, in discourse knowing the difference between facts and opinions matters. And focusing on why we did what we did matters too, when we’re thinking about change. The “why” may not be dispositive, but it’s certainly worthy of consideration.

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