A Matter of Fact

By now everyone but three people in the world (and you decide whom) have heard this expression:

“Assholes are like opinions, everybody’s got one.”

But are there differences between opinions and beliefs?   Or a belief system?  And what about facts?  Where do those pesky critters enter into it in today’s world?  Because there are any number of statements that I would have sworn were facts a mere 5-10 years ago that are now considered opinions, beliefs or feelings in opposition to a belief system.  Or something far  more blasphemous worse.   (We’ll get to the latter in a bit).

There was a time many decades ago, when movies were truly worth arguing about and not just lamenting. I would get into heated discussions with friends and colleagues about the merits and failings of the hot or cold film of the moment.  Sometimes these debates would actually escalate into shouting matches, personal insults and, in the case of one first date that I had who didn’t think Woody Allen was particularly funny, the end of what I’m sure would have been just another in a series of dysfunctional relationships I seemed to so enjoy at the time.  (Note: FYI, the Woody and dating life I’m talking about were many decades ago – just in case you were wondering).

You know nothing of my work.

Aspiring Missouri Senator Todd Akin thinks women have something in their biology that shuts down pregnancy and Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh, who is running for re-election, said just a few days ago that medical technology has evolved to such an extent that it is now physiologically impossible for any woman to die due to childbirth, thereby ostensibly ending any legal right on the part of said woman to end her pregnancy.

Of course, neither Mr. Akin nor Mr. Walsh’s facts are correct.  But one can’t argue.  Because each of these middle-aged white men (I can call them that because I AM a middle-aged white man) will somewhere, someplace, find a pseudo “expert” (and chances are the expert will be another middle-aged white man) to back them up.  This is much the same strategy my friends and I would use to defend our favorite movies – the corralling of mass “expert” opinions (or, perish the thought, box-office grosses) inside the industry in order to disprove anyone who would even consider voicing “facts” to the contrary.  It is also interesting to note that the data could be used to support the argument any way you wanted to.  For instance, the lack of box-office for a particular film could be used as evidence of its genius (I even tried this strategy as late as 1995 to support the merits of Claude LeLouche’s quite original take on “Les Miserables”) just as movies that set record-breaking numbers could be seen as either inferior mass pabulum (sorry “Forrest Gump” and “King’s Speech”) or confirmation of its value and true emotional depth (“E.T’’s success on all levels simply cannot be disputed).

Who… me?

The artistic merit of a film has implications for the creative community.  Those include who will get meetings and future work, as well as how movies, as a whole, are viewed by the public at large.  Also, how it will survive to either inspire or repel future generations of filmmakers who will choose to either build on ideas that came before them or use the perceived inferiority of said film to be bolder and more original than any one filmmaker of the past, particularly the one perceived to be inferior, could have ever imagined.

Certainly there is value to all of this.  But let’s face it – the fact that I wasn’t bowled over by “Argo” last week despite its “A” plus Cinemascore, rave reviews and box office numbers, doesn’t matter in the scheme of things.  Not only because I don’t exert much public influence except over my blog readers (and certainly that’s debatable), but because – as Alfred Hitchcock once reportedly told Ingrid Bergman when she was fretting over something while shooting one of his films:

“Ingrid, it’s only a movie.”

This, however, is not the case with, let’s say for argument’s sake, politicians, who have feelings or opinions that they all too frequently nowadays try to masquerade as facts.

For instance, perhaps scarier than potential Senator Akin or Congressman Walsh’s view of the female anatomy are several congressmen presently on the House of Representatives SCIENCE committee.  Case in point — Georgia Representative Paul Broun, who is also a medical DOCTOR, believes that evolution and the big bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” partly because he can’t fathom that his “lovely” wife was descended from an ape and partly due to the beauty of the world, which he believes could only have been created by a superior being in the space of a week.  I also don’t want to leave out my own state of California, one of whose representatives, Dana Rohrbacher, another sitting science committee member, eschews today’s overwhelming evidence on global warming, suggesting that having this thought is akin to believing that temperature fluctuations millions of years ago were due to dinosaur flatulence.  (Rachel Maddow explains it far better than I can, if you want more, click on her)

click for full video

Never mind that critical ice levels in the Arctic Ocean melted at record rates this summer (which will in turn affect global temperatures) and that another MSNBC’er, Chris Matthews, reports that many Alaskans at a recent science conference he attended say that ships will soon be able to pass easily over the North Pole.   Two very powerful members of the science committee seem to deny climate change and overwhelming evolutionary evidence based on the actual bones of animals from millions of years ago not on facts and physical evidence but on a belief system rooted in theology.  Which is fine for them but perhaps not so fine if you’re an agnostic, an atheist or a religious person who likes to keep God between you and your Goddess of choice.  Or a scientist seeking funds to save an overheating Earth from extinction or medical researcher hoping to fund a new drug protocol instead of the old tried and true method of bloodletting to cure cancer.  On that note, I suppose we can at least take solace in the fact that Congressman Broun is no longer a practicing physician and will not be prescribing the biblical remedy of leeches if you happened to come into his medical office seeking treatment for a 2012 heart condition.

’nuff said

The issue is not whether any of the white middle-aged men mentioned are right or wrong but how much their personal opinions and feelings affect public policy of a committee that is responsible for potentially billions of dollars in research grants and the general direction of medical and scientific exploration for the world’s greatest superpower.

I’m all for anyone believing anything they want as long as they don’t try to make me believe it or use those beliefs to further their own agenda and thwart mine.  For example, when several friends proclaimed the brilliance of Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” to me last year I was happy to accept that as their opinion because I was confident in the fact that their enjoyment couldn’t literally prevent me from waxing poetic over, say, “Bridesmaids.”  However, when they told me I HAD to at least admire “The Tree of Life” as a piece of cinema I felt a line had been crossed.  I mean, if I wanted to admire a purposely obtuse film that didn’t work I could have saved the $12 ticket price and just imagine what would have happened if the sloppily constructed, somewhat indecipherable second screenplay I had ever written had actually gotten filmed.

Speaking of dinosaurs… “Tree of Life” screenshot

Or I could have saved the admiration for my auteur du jour, Paul Thomas Anderson and his much-maligned (in some circles) “The Master.”  PTA’s even the type that might write 2012 bloodletting into a medical office scene, though at the very least I can rest assured that he is not going to require said medical “procedure” as part of the admission price to said film in the future.  (…or…might he?…)

As we approach the presidential election and the release of a slew of movies being touted for Oscar contention this year, it might be worth considering the differences between opinions, feelings, belief systems and facts.  One way to do this is to accept what is the official 2012 definition of one of these words.

Fact – –

  1. Knowledge or information based on real occurrences.
  2. a. Something demonstrated to exist or known to have existed: (Genetic engineering is now a fact). b. A real occurrence; an event.

Using these rules:

  1. How one feels about a movie is an opinion.   It is not fact.
  2. The precepts of one’s religion are part of a belief system.  They are not facts.
  3. The temperature of the earth at a given location, the workings of the female reproductive system and the evolution of man based on fossils, ruins and solid scientific research, according to our 2012 definitions, are facts – or at least the best facts we have at the time until, like the centuries old medical technique of bloodletting, they are proven wrong.

Anyone who chooses to deny or confuse these facts for the benefit of themselves or their belief system as a way to influence public policy, could quite fairly, by 2012 definitions, be considered an asshole.

And that is one last fact.

6 thoughts on “A Matter of Fact

  1. Steve, thank you for your wonderful words, as usual. But I have to say while some things I agree on, others I don’t.
    In the world of film criticism, I have to say I am very disappointed in this year’s critics. It seems that the world of blockbuster cinema has decreased so much in quality that now if a movie merely feels like it was even somewhat coherently made, it receives outstanding reviews. Compare the reviews of today with those of the 90s, and you see a much higher bar for what was respected artistic work. And while SOME of HOW you evaluate a movie is opinion, a great deal of that evaluation is based upon objective factual elements within the film itself. For instance, it is a fact that Tree of LIfe never coherently says why the brother died, never coherently ties this to the narrative story of the kid’s upbringing, and never coherently ties this to the present scenes where Sean Penn is doing nothing but working, or sitting around and meditating. Why is Sean Penn reflecting on the past? It doesn’t tell us. What does this have to do with his brother dying? Again no answers. For some people, this mattered, and for others, it didn’t. But these are Factual Issues. And even some of my friends who one second will tout Tree of Life as utterly brilliant and perfect will then admit “well, yeah, you’re right, it didn’t quite work in those moments” when I bring up these points. If you look at Terrence Malick’s own past, you will see that the movie is pretty much his own life story. His brother died because he killed himself, I think because he couldn’t play piano anymore, which was his gift. And this tied into how hard their father was on them as kids. So why didn’t we see that in the film? Again, similar storytelling issues exist in something like Dark Knight Rises (to a much greater degree), which again got rave reviews despite multiple inconsistencies and what could be called problems in its screenplay and editing. For some people that mattered, and for others it didn’t.

    As for politics, this issue of facts is not an issue of the right wing having no facts, and the left wing having all of them. I say this as a moderate who leans left, but all too often I have seen people on the left as well will twist the facts or outright ignore them so long as it helps to push the liberal agenda. This is a huge disservice to the cause, and only serves to give the right wing more firing power. For instance, while global warming certainly exists, it is also a fact that there were some studies that had slightly fudged numbers or inconsistencies that came out a few years ago. At the time, the right pounced on this. The left denied it, rather than addressing it.
    Then, while I don’t agree with defunding planned parenthood or outright outlawing abortion, the left has again taken Joe Walsh’s comments out of context and pounced for political gain. Is Joe Walsh the smartest guy in the room on women’s issues? No. But, it is indeed a fact that in terms of third trimester or partial birth abortions, there is NO situation in which they are medically necessary for the life of the mother. And in terms of common abortions, there is NO case where you have to choose between a mother’s and unborn’s life either. Instead the choice is either between letting them both die, or saving the mother. These are extremely rare cases where you have an ectopic pregnancy or uteran cancer, where again BOTH will die unless you perform a medical procedure and effectively terminate the pregnancy. But even Joe Walsh later clarified his statement and copped to those situations and said that of course he would support “abortion” in those cases. Yet the left has pounced on this, because rhetoric and a Senate seat, and growing the gender gap, matter more than actual facts. Even Lilly Ledbetter, the actual person, was on Rachel Maddow the other day and claimed that the majority of abortions are performed in order to save a mother’s life, which is just not true by any stretch.
    Situations like these only give the right further fuel for battling against planned parenthood, or against abortion rights, or even against climate change, or against evolution. All of a sudden, facts don’t matter on either side, and all that matters is rhetoric.

    We need to live in a society where facts matter, even if they undermine or complicate our personal political or religious views. For instance, if you agree with giving a bigger helping hand to the poor and with welfare and such, but start to see many people gaining the system, then perhaps you shouldn’t deny these complications and act as if welfare is a perfect system when it isn’t. Instead, it might be better if both sides come together to talk about how to reform welfare so it works best, rather than the right denouncing the left as freeloaders and the left denouncing the right as evil uncaring bastards. Of course the truth is somewhere in the middle. And if facts mattered more, maybe we could reach that truth faster.
    As for film criticism, it would be nice if we lived in a world where good screenwriting actually mattered again, and where film critics were honestly evaluating that, rather than cynically going easy on every film that comes out today, as if we no longer deserve or value great writing.

    • I just believe that words have consequences. When someone like Joe Walsh belittles his opponent, Tammy Duckworth, about talking about her military service – or espouses family values to the exclusion of anyone not in traditional families while he himself owed tens of thousands in child support – he’s an irresponsible hypocrite. He was forced to modify his statement on abortion but not before he was pounced on. The issue is — the extreme right throws these statements out there and assumes no one will call them on lies and exaggeration – and when they’re called on it they say something was taken out of context or they slightly modify their statement as an afterthought days later. Abortion is a sensitive issue but the issue is really about whether a woman has the right to decide what’s going on in her body. Period. End of story. He/they are retrying something that was decided decades ago in their herculean effort to bring up back to a 1950s sensibility. It’s sad, pathetic and dangerous.
      It’s not as if the left is perfect or don’t try to wiggle out of things. But there is a McCarthyistic tactic to the extreme right. Everyone is a socialist, hates America – blahblahblah – and a lack of irresponsibility to the truth. If someone wants to be extremely religious – or fundamentalistic in their thinking – it’s fine with me – I mean, I might vehemently disagree but I don’t care – unless they sit on the science committee and deny scientific facts because their “faith” tells them differently. It’s not about “faith,” it’s about science. And facts. “Under God” was ADDED to the pledge of allegiance. It wasn’t there originally. The founding principles of this country were that in our differences we could be one – not that there is a right or wrong religious principle to follow. An overwhelming group of the scientific community – like almost EVERYONE – agrees that there is global warming that is caused by man and the way we live our lives. It isn’t really debatable except perhaps about how much. It’s CLEAR our behavior is not doing the environment any good. And yet…..
      As for “Tree of Life” – I wish he had filled in just a few of the blanks. I loved “Days of Heaven.” He was less indulgent then.

      • Well Steve, I totally agree with everything you just said. I guess my point was that in the midst of that battle against the extreme right, I feel as though the left can at times be guilty of reducing themselves to the same tactics, rather than focusing on all of the facts and ramming them home. The result of which is just a bunch of people passionately screaming at each other without any understanding of the facts to back up either of their viewpoints. When I was at Ithaca, I remember when Dinesh D’Souza came to speak, at most everything he said was outrageous and way off base, yet not a single student in the Q&A could battle him with facts instead of broad anger.
        In the second debate, it really bothered me that everyone pounced on Romney’s use of the term “Binder’s of Women,” or that he said he was willing to offer flextime to a single parent woman who had two kids at home, taking it out of context and twisting it as if he said ALL women had to be home to cook dinner. It’s really no different than when the extreme right pounced on Obama for saying “whenever four people are killed, it’s not optimal,” and taking that completely out of context.
        The real factual issue was that Romney was not the one who went out searching for those binders. Instead, it was women’s groups who forced both Romney and his opponent in the governor race to sign a pledge to hire more women, not the other way around, and they were the ones who made the binders of resumes. Focusing on that fact I think has a lot more punch than twisting his words, just as focusing on the fact that cutting funding for PBS will in no way pay for Romney’s tax cuts or cut our deficit is a lot more effective than saying “Romney hates Big Bird.”

        But yes, there has been, especially lately, a huge push by the right in this country to make our country into some kind of Theocracy where science is somehow evil and questionable, and this is something that none of us should stand for.

  2. I also have to say the Binders of Women comment really bothered me. And that’s not only because he lied about ordering them (because names were already being assembled). It’s the boy’s club arrogance of the remark. The idea that, according to his statement, he didn’t KNOW of any women himself, having been in business for decades, who he would want for a position in his cabinet. the fact that there were NO females in power at Bain at all. but mostly because he thinks of everything impersonally – as a cost/benefit analysis. Planned Parenthood, PBS – he’s sees the only value in something to be financial, or if a position will help him win the presidency – which he will not win.

  3. I came here hunting something else, but this inspired me regardless. Interesting stuff!

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