The Recount Culture

The controversy about Florida isn't just about politics

By David Stolinsky and Dave Kopel. Dr. Stolinsky is retired from medical-school teaching. He writes on political and social topics from Los Angeles. Mr. Kopel is the research director of the Independence Institute

12/02/00 10:55 a.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on the 2000 election recount.

The current controversy regarding vote recounts in Florida can be viewed as a struggle for political power. But there is also something deeper at play, if we have the courage to look. The underlying problem is not merely a dispute about what the reality of the situation is, but a dispute about the nature of reality itself.

When you were growing up, if your mother read you a story, you waited to see how it came out. You may have discussed the outcome, but you did not alter it. When you learned to read, you also unconsciously learned to accept the story as written. The same was true when you listened to radio programs or watched movies. In the early days of television, the situation was similar to movies; there were few stations, and changing channels required getting up and going to the set, so one usually watched whatever the program to conclusion.

Things have changed. Remote controls make changing channels easy, and there are many channels, so now people "channel surf" whenever the program is the least bit tedious. The current generation grew up in this environment, so its attention span is even shorter. Now there are interactive video games galore, in which the player alters the outcome. And if the game gets boring, or if the player is losing, it's easy to switch to a new game. Meanwhile, reading continues to decline.

But there are deeper changes. Most people who grew up before the 1960s grew up in religious homes. As adults, while they may have fallen away from the practices and beliefs of their parents, they remember the truths they tried to impart. In contrast, religion often plays a smaller or nonexistent role in today's child rearing. Perhaps, not having been taught that there are great truths, the current generation also grew up without appreciating that there are lesser truths. With no authority higher than oneself, facts as well as conduct become subjective choices.

Consider: Various minorities were underrepresented among college entrants. Did we expend money and effort to ensure that they were prepared for college by improving their primary and secondary schools? No, we "adjusted" their SAT scores and other criteria, admitting them whether or not they were prepared for college.

And when SAT scores declined for a generation, did we improve the schools? No, we "renormed" the SAT to conceal the decline and transform it into an upturn.

Environmentalists won out over safety advocates, so Congress mandated smaller cars despite their higher fatality rate. But the truth was obscured by renaming large cars "very large," medium-sized cars "large," compact cars "family size," and subcompacts "compact."

This process cannot get far in the physical sciences, but in the social sciences it does wonders. Whole-language-only methods are inferior to phonics in teaching reading, but they persist because they fit the theories created in university education departments. Statistics show that kids raised by a mother and father are less likely to become criminals, but "experts" claim that fathers are unnecessary.

Suicide among people ages 15-24 is more common in Seattle than in Vancouver. Overall suicide rates are nearly identical for both cities, because suicide among people ages 35-44 is more common in Vancouver. Nevertheless, a leading scientific journal, the New England Journal of Medicine, publishes a "study" claiming that the data show that Vancouver's more repressive gun laws prevent suicide.

There are many examples, but the process is similar: alter our perceptions until we forget what is actually happening and accept the alteration as reality. This works some of the time on everyone, and even more often on younger people, who were raised on fleeting electronic images.

Everyone has watched judges "interpret" laws to mean the opposite of what the text plainly states. In the 1920s, many judges claimed that the Fourteenth Amendment's "equal protection" clause did not prevent government from discriminating against blacks. Now, judges claim that the same clause does not prevent the government from discriminating against whites and Asians.

Everyone watched as a six-year-old was seized at gunpoint and returned to a dictator, which the administration justified invoking "the rule of law" — even though the only law was the administration's unbridled discretion. No wonder, then, that so many people of all ages see nothing wrong with changing the rules after the election results are known, or with "correcting" the results to yield the "right" answer. No wonder they assume that truth can be altered as desired.

First we deconstructed law by disguising capricious decisions as "law." Then, Bill Clinton took Jacques Derrida to the logical conclusion, and deconstructed language by disputing the meaning of "is."

For several decades, deconstructionist English Departments have been denying that written texts have ascertainable meaning; now the notion that there is no fixed truth infects not only most universities, but much of society. The idea that nothing is true is especially convenient to people who find lying advantageous, or who want to live self-indulgent and unexamined lives.

Now we are deconstructing reality itself by counting "dimpled chads" and pretending to sense the intent of voters, while repeatedly changing the rules to obtain the desired result.

Constructing new realities can sometimes reveal the best of human nature-such as the many saints and prophets who pursued their unusual visions, or the dissidents in Eastern Europe in the 1980s who decided to live "as if" their countries were free, and thereby helped to free their countries.

But too often, reality construction is not a visionary search for higher truths, but merely a narcissistic fabrication of a universe with a childish individual at the center.

Bill Clinton lied under oath, and Al Gore fabricates achievements, but these lies are merely symptoms. Many of us do not merely disagree on what the truth is, but (consciously or not) doubt that truth itself exists. In this context, it is futile to argue about whether something is a fact or even to call someone a liar. The truth is whatever the individual, or whoever is in power, says it is today — as George Orwell prophesied in his novel 1984.

Elections are becoming like video games — if you're losing, just start over and keep at it till you "win." If reality isn't to your liking, reinvent it. Of course, eventually the outside world pushes aside our illusions and forces us to confront reality, but by then it may be too late. A long time ago, someone asked, "What is truth?" We had better consider our answer carefully.  

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