Over the past few weeks I’ve written five posts making the following points:
- The acting Oscars are not really all that white.
- Flint is not a public health holocaust.
- The 1994 crime bill didn’t create mass incarceration.
- Photo ID laws probably don’t have massive turnout effects.
- Social welfare spending has gone up a lot over the past three decades, and welfare reform had very little impact on either this or the deep poverty rate.
I’m not really very excited about writing stuff like this. I generally prefer to use my emotional energy fighting conservatives and boosting liberal causes. On the other hand, facts and realism matter. I don’t want to see my side adopt the habits that we mock so mercilessly in conservatives.
One of the things that bothered me in all five cases is that these points could all be made perfectly well with the truth. The non-acting Oscars really have shut out minorities almost completely. Lead poisoning of children really is a serious problem. The 1994 crime bill may not have been responsible for mass incarceration, but it had plenty of other problems—though they turned out have a pretty modest effect in the end. Photo ID laws do have modest but pervasive effects on minority voting, and in a 50-50 country this can make a big difference. And social welfare spending may have gone up a lot, but it still hasn’t made much of a dent in poverty.
What to think of this? Maybe it’s just coincidence that I’ve noticed a bunch of items like this recently. After all, everyone in the political arena, friends and foes alike, has long used hyperbole as a way of marshaling action. Human nature being what it is, people just won’t pay much attention to measured and nuanced debate. You have to hit them over their heads to get their attention, and sometimes that means going overboard on the outrage if you want to make a difference in the world.
And in the end, what’s worse? Generating a lightly misleading meme about acting Oscars being white—because actors are the only part of the film industry that most people know or care about—or doing nothing and gaining no attention for the fact that behind the camera Hollywood remains lily white? That’s not always an easy question to answer.
Still, that’s me talking my book. When this kind of thing starts to define a movement, you end up with Fox News and the tea party. We should be loath to go too far down that road. Being reality-based matters, even if it’s not always entirely on your side.