Both because his hijinks are relevant to current events, and because I serendipitously happened on a copy not long ago, I’ve lately been reading Senator Joe McCarthy, by the late New Yorker political columnist, Richard Rovere. The massive central chapter (112 pages!) contains a brief meditation on “fact-fetishism”—a phrase cribbed from culture critic Dwight Macdonald—that struck me as useful for navigating the pitfalls of public debate. In particular, there are two points worth carrying with us.
The first has to do the relation of facts to the truth. In the course of explaining McCarthy’s strange ability to manipulate the American press for his own ends, Rovere writes: “The fact has triumphed. Truths for most of us are only truths when they state conditions of demonstrable materiality.”
Rovere wasn’t suggesting that facts cannot point us to the truth. That would be a strange position to take in a book that marshals a great many facts in the service of truth-telling. Rather, his point was that facts are almost never the whole of the truth—at least, not the whole of the truths that give us the most trouble. It is almost always the context, or an extended argument, that gives the facts their relevance to any given issue.
There are, for example, would-be demagogues fond of throwing doubt on a position by demanding to see “evidence” or a “source.” They treat syllogistic argument as sophistry, and resist seeing the available facts in any context that might illuminate their significance. What they want is the tangibility of fact, something that can be fitted into an almost physical schema, like Wittgenstein’s “atomic fact.” Anything short of that earns their derision and dismissal.
That is, of course, unreasonably limiting. The problems that most vex us as a society are typically too complex to be settled by appeal to an unqualified statement of fact. To take an example made handy by the same debates that brought McCarthy to mind in the first place: there is no single fact—no academic citation or manageable piece of evidence—that could demonstrate for us the necessity of a right to freedom of expression. That principle is made sensible primarily by the context of historical experience, and is substantiated by appeal to rational arguments that are grounded as much in abstract thinking as they are concrete fact.
Yet, you will find many of the same demagogues voicing their opposition in the language of principles that cannot be vouchsafed on facts alone. Most of the higher orders of civil society depend upon complexities that make a narrow insistence on “conditions of demonstrable materiality” untenable. If the sort of facts that can be produced on demand rarely tell the whole truth, then so also are some of the truths we hold dearest beyond the scope of facts alone.
Rovere’s second point is, “that we will take the symbols of the ‘established fact’ for the fact itself.” He illustrates by recounting one of his own encounters with McCarthy:
Examining his photostats and his onion-skin carbons of official correspondence, I had taken their relevance for granted; relevance had seemed somehow a condition of their existence, and the ‘fact’ that they were ‘facts’—i.e., they existed, they could be seen with the naked eye, they could be held in the hand—had induced me to follow him quite a distance down his garden path. But of course they were not ‘facts,’ relevant or otherwise, but only symbols of factuality, and he knew it was characteristic of most Americans to make the mistake I had made.
Likewise, it was characteristic of McCarthy’s grandstanding that he grounded his accusations in the illusion of a factual basis. In transcripts of a television appearance in which he lambasted the Democratic Presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson, McCarthy’s emphasis on documents the audience can’t actually examine is almost hypnotic: “I hold in my hand the official record of the series of lectures… I hold in my hand a photostat of the Daily Worker of October 19, 1952… I want to show you a picture of a barn… I hold in my hand copies of the ADA World…” And so on. Probably very few of those documents proved what McCarthy claimed of them. It would be consistent with his approach if some of them weren’t even the documents he claimed they were.
So it goes. Sometimes, the sheer presence of a fact—any fact—is enough to settle matters in our minds. Last week, for example, a number of people took the existence of a study as evidence sufficient to clear videogames of any role in influencing sexist attitudes. Most of them had not actually read the study, which (as I explained last week, and the authors have since confirmed) said nothing of the sort. But the fact that a study had been attached to that claim easily stood in for the purported fact the paper was taken to have established, and that association continues to spread regardless of the truth.
To a demagogue, it’s all the same. It doesn’t matter that the facts don’t point to their conclusions, so long as people believe that the facts are on their side. That’s what it means to be mislead by the symbolic value of fact, rather than by the actual significance of the facts on hand. If we’re not careful, we can be convinced by the symbol of claims not supported by the fact underneath it.
I will be accused of advocating relativism here, but noting the shortcomings of fact-fetishism is not the same as denying that facts can have value. The point, rather, is that, if we don’t want to be mislead with the facts, we must be clearer with ourselves about how they relate to our claims and to the truths we hope to find. We need a better sense than we often have of what facts actually could stand in support of any given claim, as well as an understanding of when facts on their own are insufficient to establish the relevant truth.
If McCarthy saw all that, it was as a purely negative value, something that could be exploited to further his own career. To the extent that we ignore it, we leave ourselves open to be exploited.