Friday, June 19, 2015

Telling it Like it Isn't

Theologians discuss a doctrine called creation ex nihilo according to which God created the cosmos literally out of nothing. Such a feat is incomprehensible to our finite minds, but perhaps we may resort to a mundane example of creation out of nothing which can help us get a mental handle on the concept. The example I have in mind is the ability of our president to conjure up facts ex nihilo. It's sort of the same thing, and just as one stands in awe of the power of God to create a universe from nothing, so, too, does one stand in awe at the skill of Mr. Obama to fabricate facts out of empty space.

For instance, as David Harsanyi at The Federalist notes, President Obama's statement in the wake of the Charleston church mass murder included, if taken literally, a fact created out of the thinnest of air. The president said:
Once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun....We as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.
That second sentence contains a claim that the president concocted out of an epistemic vacuum. Perhaps he didn't intend to be taken at face value and is merely guilty of sloppy rhetoric. Given his history this is not an implausible hypothesis, and charity might demand that we give him the benefit of the doubt, but if he really did mean to be taken literally then he simply has either a very short memory or an uncertain relationship with the virtue of truth-telling.

Harsanyi does some fact checking and reminds us of the Charlie Hebdo murders in France in January, the murders of 69 school children in Norway in 2011, the murders of nine people in the Czech Republic last February, the murders of 13 teachers, two students and a policeman in Germany, and similar episodes in Serbia, Russia, England, Brazil and China in the last few years. He also reminds us that it wasn't too very long ago that one of the most advanced nations in history was throwing people into ovens by the millions, and the enlightened Soviet Union was deliberately starving its citizens to death by the millions. But maybe the president doesn't regard any of these countries as "advanced." This, too, is not implausible since he was, during his candidacy for the White House, under the impression that there were 57 states in the country he sought to govern.

In any case, Harsanyi adds this:
The idea that violence is uniquely American is best left to fringe leftists on college campuses. Moreover, as The Associate Press reported in 2012, many experts contend that mass shootings are not growing in frequency at all. One has data that shows that mass shootings reached their peak in 1929 and have declined steadily since. Overall, gun violence has also been declining since 1993.
Nor is this the first time Mr. Obama has made such a disparaging claim about the United States (can anyone recall when he has ever praised this country for anything?). Last year he stated that:
My biggest frustration has been that this society has not been willing to take some basic steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who can do just unbelievable damage. We are the only developed country on earth where this happens. And that it happens now once a week. And it’s a one day story.
Each of Harsanyi's claims in his essay is linked to a source if you'd like to check his veracity.

Perhaps Mr. Obama only meant that these terrible atrocities happen more often in this country than elsewhere (Harsanyi considers that possibility), but that's not what he said, and if what he said is not what he meant then we're forced to conclude that this man, whom we were assured was one of the most brilliant thinkers ever to occupy the Oval Office, a man whose towering intellect was truly Olympian, is also very careless with his words, even on occasions on which we might expect him to be especially careful in communicating the message he wants to send.

On the other hand, perhaps the message he sends is precisely the message he wants to send.