The bull market in fake facts

In this edition of The Week's editor's letter, Francis Wilkinson wonders whether it's Congress or America's voters who must learn to get along

Voters say they want Democrats and Republicans to compromise and work together. If it's so easy, perhaps voters themselves should give it a try. I'd like to hear the discussion between the liberal Democrats who think the 111th Congress accomplished nothing of import and the Republicans who believe it created death panels to condemn the old and infirm. One group believes the past two years consisted of establishment business as usual; the other thinks Josef Mengele was named surgeon general. And John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi are the ones who need to find common ground?

Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts. Yet a bull market in fake facts provides phony justifications for every false premise. At a memorial service recently, a man peppered me with questions about the sinister conspiracy called the Federal Reserve. I demurred, suggesting he consult the oracle at Wikipedia. But he persisted, first expressing suspicion about nefarious “elites,” then conjecturing something about the Fed being a “private business.” (Like WalMart, perhaps, but with better cash flow.) It dawned on me then that he was nobody’s fool. While the rest of us buy our political theories prepackaged on cable or the Internet, the loose ends neatly tied to suit our prejudices, this American original was determined to be the sole agent of his own confusion. He was seeking instead of asserting, asking questions instead of spouting dogma. If he ever does cobble together a homegrown conspiracy theory, I bet it'll be a doozy. And I wouldn’t expect him to compromise his hard-earned views with the lazy delusions of his compatriots.

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Francis Wilkinson is executive editor of The Week.