Neil Macdonald: How to tell 'a slap on the ass from a rape'
Americans don't seem to want to pay attention to anything that can't be used to bludgeon their political opponents and facts have pretty much ceased to matter in political discourse, writes Neil Macdonald. They're ignoring the widespread military sex assault scandal while focusing on the IRS tax management story.

Neil Macdonald: How to tell 'a slap on the ass from a rape'

America ignores military sex assault scandals while focusing IRS spectacle

Posted:Jun 06, 2013 5:27 AM ET

Last Updated:Jun 06, 2013 9:38 AM ET

Has the IRS breathed new life into the Tea Party movement? The answer might depend on how you felt about the Tea Partiers in the first place.

Has the IRS breathed new life into the Tea Party movement? The answer might depend on how you felt about the Tea Partiers in the first place. Associated Press

Photo of Neil Macdonald
Neil Macdonald

A splendid example of a democracy at its finest happened here this week. Americans just weren't paying much attention.

The most senior military men in America spent most of Tuesday in the Capitol Hill woodshed, submitting meekly to angry lectures from elected representatives of the people. That's not something that happens in most of the world.

One after another, the commanders apologized for the epidemic of sexual assaults and rapes that has taken place on their watch.

Senators, led by the crusading New Yorker Kirsten Gillibrand, informed the generals that they have lost the trust of the men and women they command; that victims, with very good reason, tend to remain quiet for fear of retaliation by their superiors; and that commanding officers, in Gillibrand's words, can't tell "a slap on the ass from a rape."

It was a remarkable spectacle. And it landed with a thud. Some news outlets here did cover the hearing; most hardly bothered.

By noon Wednesday, it had just about disappeared from most of the important news websites.

That's because this is not a story Americans want to hear. Not only does it run counter to the generally accepted view here that the U.S. military is a force for moral good, every one of its members a "hero," but it contains nothing that can be used by partisans on the left or the right to bludgeon their political opponents.

By contrast, the Internal Revenue Service scandal is front-page news just about every day.

The extraordinarily stupid decision by a group of IRS bureaucrats to single out far-right political groups for special consideration may yet become the single most damaging story to hit the Obama administration.

Unlike the military story, the IRS scandal is most definitely a partisan bludgeon.

Even more compelling, millions of Americans seem to badly want to believe that Barack Obama, like Richard Nixon, illegally ordered one of the most powerful agencies in government to help destroy his enemies.

Four congressional committees are now energetically investigating the IRS scandal.

Republicans have already concluded that orders to "target" Tea Party groups originated in the White House and were carried out at the direction of IRS senior management.

"The enemies list out of the White House that IRS was engaged in shutting down or trying to shut down the conservative political viewpoint across the country — an enemies list that rivals that of another president some time ago," was the somewhat scattered declaration of Hal Rogers, one of the Republican committee chairmen leading the charge.

"Instructions on who to target and how to target were coming from Washington without any debate," said Florida Republican Ander Crenshaw.

Never mind the lack of proof. Never mind that the IRS inspector general, who conducted a thorough probe of his own, has stated he found no evidence that any White House staffer, or indeed any political appointee, was involved.

And never mind that the "targeting," while undeniably an abuse of process, ultimately involved not an audit or prosecution, but rather delays in conferring tax-free status.

The fact is that facts have pretty much ceased to matter in America's political discourse.

Believe what you want

That little reality, of course, shouldn't shock anyone at this point.

But a new study by the non-partisan National Bureau of Economic Research suggests the intellectual rot goes much further. As a starting point, the authors employed the truism about people believing what they want to believe.

"Republicans," it notes on the first page, "are more likely than Democrats to say that the deficit rose during the Clinton administration; Democrats are more likely to believe that inflation rose under Reagan." (Both assertions are untrue.)

The researchers, professors from Yale and the University of California, then offered panels of political partisans financial incentives to tell the truth.

Lo and behold, their answers became much more factual. And the gaps between their political worldviews narrowed considerably.

What that means is that contemporary political discourse is even worse than it appears; political partisans actually know when they're relying on falsehoods to buttress their beliefs — and will let go of them if there's personal profit in it.

Given that, writes Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab, the work of reporters trying to set the record straight is probably having the opposite of its intended effect.

Instead of accomplishing that, he writes, journalists may instead be "raising the stakes of a partisan battle and can engender a hardening of incorrect beliefs."

So, setting out facts in a neutral fashion in the belief you are helping democracy instead plays into the hands of self-aware partisans who treasure their own delusions.

Think about the implications of that.

Does the broad public here in fact believe the U.S. military has become a haven for sexual predators and just not care? Does the American far right secretly believe climate change really is caused by humans?

In Canada, do Stephen Harper and his most partisan supporters actually think, down deep, that Israel may actually bear some of the blame for its troubles with the Palestinians? Do New Democrats secretly think that the oil sands pipeline might be a sensible idea? (Better than, say, shipping the stuff by tanker?)

Such layers within layers are almost too depressing to contemplate.

If the Yale professors are right, this whole journalism racket may be pointless. Those of us who try to do our job properly are just dupes.

There's more money to be made working for Big Tobacco. At least in that game, people don't kid themselves about what they're accomplishing.

About The Author
Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.
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